If you’re like most people, at the beginning of this year you set goals to exercise regularly, eat healthily, develop yourself, and serve your community.
But then life happened.
Deadlines to meet. Bills to pay. Assignments to complete. Obligations to fulfill. Responsibilities to carry out.
(My first child was born this year, so I know that life can happen in big ways that make you busier than you could’ve imagined.)
And that’s how your goals slipped down your list of priorities. This has happened to me before, and it’s probably happened to you, too.
Me, the former compulsive goal-setter
Up until a couple of years ago, I was a compulsive goal-setter who set a lot of goals—more than 50 a year. I set goals in the areas of sleep, exercise, academics, career, personal finance, personal development, spirituality, relationships, community service, and leisure.
Pretty crazy list, I know.
I even set a goal for spontaneity: Do at least one spontaneous thing a week. My friends all thought I was hilarious—“ridiculous” is the word they’d probably use—for turning spontaneity into a goal!
But I discovered that setting goals obsessively is counter-productive. I became stressed by trying to achieve and track all of those goals.
Why you need more rules and fewer goals
Nowadays, I set far fewer goals (I’ve set 13 goals for 2014). Instead of setting goals, I set rules for myself.
A goal is a target, something you hope to achieve, something you try to do. It’s something you aspire toward.
A rule, on the other hand, is a law to abide by and a standard to adhere to. It’s non-negotiable. It’s something you do, no matter what.
Some people might argue that it’s just a matter of semantics, but I think there’s more to it. Goals inspire hope, while rules mandate action. Goals focus on the desired outcome, while rules focus on the process that will lead to that outcome.
It’s far more likely that you’ll keep to a rule than a goal.
An example of a goal is “I lose 10 pounds of fat by the end of this year.” Reframed as rules, this becomes “I don’t eat processed food more than once a week” and “I go to the gym every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 8 to 8:45am.”
Rules are important in both sports and life
Don’t get me wrong; we shouldn’t flood our lives with rules either. In fact, we need to break many of the unhelpful “rules” we’ve been taught. Rules like “There’s always a right and a wrong answer,” “Avoid failure at all costs,” or “Succeed in school and you’ll succeed in life.”
But well-set rules play a vital role in life and in sports.
- In basketball, you must stand behind the line when you’re shooting free throws.
- In tennis, the ball must land within the box when you serve.
- In soccer, only the goalkeeper can use his or her hands.
Rules make these games orderly, fun and exciting. If not for these rules, there’d be too much chaos and confusion for the games to be enjoyable, both for the players and spectators. Similarly, setting rules for yourself will enable you to live more intentionally.
What you want now vs. what you want most
In thinking about rules, we also need to reflect on how we view freedom. We usually think of freedom as doing what you want to do now. But my definition of freedom is doing what you want to do most.
What do you want to do now? Probably watch TV, go on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and eat junk food.
But what do you want to do most, for the long-term? Probably read a book, exercise, build strong relationships, and do meaningful work.
What we want now is so alluring that it’s only by setting boundaries that we’ll be able to focus on what we want most.
Freedom means having the right kind of boundaries
Freedom, then, isn’t the absence of boundaries. Rather, it’s having the right kind of boundaries.
Imagine if this fish didn’t have the “boundary” of the fish bowl. If someone smashed the fish bowl and let all the water out, the fish wouldn’t survive for more than a few minutes.
Rules and boundaries keep us “alive” by helping us to do what we ought to and lead more abundant lives.
You need rules to lead a principles-centered life
We’ve already distinguished between goals and rules, but we also need to distinguish between rules and principles.
Principles are guidelines, but they don’t outline specific actions that you can or cannot take.
Going back to the basketball example, the main “principle” of basketball is that you want to score more points than your opponent. But this principle doesn’t specifically tell you what you’re allowed to do or should do in your quest to outscore your opponent.
Should you launch shots from half-court? Should you focus more on defense or offense? Should you dribble or pass more?
Similarly, you might decide to live by certain principles, but that’s not enough to ensure that your noble intentions lead to committed action and consistent results.
For instance, you might decide that you want your life to be focused on contribution rather than achievement.
That’s an admirable principle to live by, but what does it look like in your daily life? Especially when you need to write a 10-page report from scratch by the end of tomorrow, and your five-year-old daughter is sick, and you’re in the midst of moving house?
In theory, you only need principles. In practice, you need rules to live out those principles.
Another example: If you want to lead a life of kindness, generosity and courage, you won’t accomplish this simply by telling yourself every day, “Today, I’m going to be kind, generous and courageous.”
Instead, you’ll need to set specific rules that will enable you to live out these values day by day. After all, a great life isn’t built in a day. It’s built one day at a time, and one decision at a time.
Rules that will improve your life
By now, I’m sure you’d like to see some specific examples of rules you could set to make your life—and the lives of the people around you—better.
Here’s a list of possible rules you could adopt. They’re rules that I do my best to live by.
- Spend 10 minutes every day in quiet reflection.
- Exercise three times a week for at least 30 minutes each time.
- Read for 30 minutes a day. (I’m referring to books, not tweets or Facebook status updates.)
- Every day, write down one thing you’re thankful for.
- Compliment one person a day.
- Never play with your phone or look at your computer screen when someone is talking to you.
- Be home for dinner at least four times a week.
- Be five minutes early for every appointment.
- Never criticize someone over email. If you want to offer constructive criticism, do it in person.
- Spend the last 15 minutes of each work day planning for the next day.
- Don’t check your email more than three times a day.
- Whenever you make a phone call, out of courtesy ask the other party if it’s a good time for him or her to talk.
- Don’t talk bad behind anyone’s back.
- Once a month, ask your teacher, spouse or boss for feedback.
- Proofread every email before sending it.
How to make your rules work for you
These are just examples. I’m sure you can think of many more!
To incorporate rules in your life, start small. Think of one rule you’d like to set and write it down in a notebook. State specifically when and how you’ll put the rule into practice. Refer to the notebook every night before you go to bed. Spend one month focusing on that rule, and turn it into a habit.
Each subsequent month, add one new rule. Spend a couple of minutes every day reflecting on your progress.
Remember, it’s a rule, not a goal. Rules are about taking action, not about setting lofty targets.
If you establish the right kind of rules, it’s inevitable that you’ll realize your goals. And through the process, you’ll gain the freedom to do what you want most, instead of succumbing to the temptation of doing what you want now.
What rules are you going to set for yourself? And will you start today? 🙂