I have an annual habit of setting goals, as many people do. I break my life up into components and I add a few items to each. For health and fitness, I usually include taking vitamins and a new personal best in running. Other categories include career, personal growth, financial and relationships.
It’s fascinating to read the goals I set fifteen year ago. I find it heart-warming to see how many items are achieved: around 80%. It’s also interesting to see the areas where I didn’t achieve my goals. They fall into two categories. Some of them were extrinsic goals, those that I thought I should be doing. I set goals like reading the financial news or understanding derivatives and I didn’t achieve them because they were of no interest to me. Goals need to be aligned to what we really want to do, activities done for their own sake and not connected to anyone else’s expectations. In other words, intrinsic goals.
The second area I neglected was writing. Each year I set goals such as ‘Attend a creative writing course’ or ‘Write an article’ and they were all glaringly unticked. I’ve realised that they were not actioned because of my thinking around them. I saw writing as a nice-to-have, one of those leisure pursuits that isn’t serious or important. I had a deep-seated yearning to write a book one day but I didn’t expect that to happen because in my mind these creative pursuits were not ‘real work.’
Fast forward to the end of 2014 and I’m a managing director and business owner, having taken over my father’s business. I’m an ultra-marathon runner, achieving wonderful goals and enjoying a fit, healthy body. I’m happily married to a kind man with two amazing little girls. We own a beautiful home and life couldn’t be better.
What I didn’t know was that I was in the midst of a dramatic burnout that would change my life forever. I was not predisposed to any illness, with healthy living parents. I followed a healthy diet with no junk food and fresh fruit and vegetables. I completely underestimated the impact that stress would have on my health. The work I was doing was the opposite of my strengths and it was in a stressful environment and industry. I was afraid to quit because everybody was counting on me to make it work.
My health collapsed to the point where I could no longer work. I experienced severe fatigue, along with a range of other nasty symptoms. I eventually developed an autoimmune disease that I will carry for life. It was a lot to deal with and it took me a long time to understand how it happened. I broke down my life into the categories I used for goal setting. I analysed each area to see where the stress was coming from.
Of course, it wasn’t just one thing that triggered burnout: it was multi-faceted. I filled my recovery period with reading. I read many books and articles on stress and the science of happiness. I discovered a range of happiness-inducing strategies that were based on research and I sampled each one. In this process, I restructured my life into a happy one.
It sounds so simple but it wasn’t an easy process, or something that is easily replicated. I changed or ended relationships that were not working for me. I altered my diet and lifestyle, incorporating things like meditation into my daily routine. And I scheduled things like gratitude into my calendar. I needed a new job since the most significant cause of my stress was my work. I needed to move forward towards a career that would bring me joy. Finally I realised that writing brought me a sense of flow. That feeling where you lose yourself in the moment – when you’re ‘in the zone.’
I went on a writing course, when I had enough energy. I wrote articles about what I had experienced and I started a blog. I wrote a book about my burnout and I can say that it is quite a feeling to fulfil a lifelong dream. Now, I spend my time writing and speaking about my experience. The freedom to do work that I love is invaluable to me. I only wish I’d actioned a few of those writing goals sooner as I might have avoided illness and gained a joyful life earlier.
Are there goals that you’ve consistently set and not achieved? Is it because they are not intrinsic? Or is it because you perceive them to be nice-to-haves? They may in fact be a necessity for living a life of joy.
Set goals that excite you, that give you butterflies.
Find flow in your day, even if it’s in leisure time.
Drop the ‘shoulds’ when it comes to goal-setting.