February is almost finished, and I’m still thinking about goals. Here are a few things I’ve learned after eight weeks of 2018.
The domino effect: intentionality in one area leads to change in other areas.
Some of the small steps I take in other goals have led to other changes in my life, changes I wasn’t even thinking about. Here was my one, real parenting goal for the year: Smile at my kids. It’s simple and actionable, and only I am responsible for it. But making myself smile more at my kids helped me spend more real, playing time with them. It meant we got outside more. I felt more naturally inclined toward encouraging them. I helped my attitude. I think I feel happier and more content. One tiny goal is doing so much more in my life and relationships than I could have imagined.
The easiest goals to accomplish are the ones most clearly broken down.
My big project in January was finishing the kids’ playroom. I wrote down a detailed task list, and systematically assigned those tasks to weeks and days and powered through them. It was concrete. It was clear. It was relatively easy to accomplish. Some goals (see the next point) are less concrete, which makes it harder to work through in the same way. I still think the key is turning those bigger goals into tiny, bite-sized pieces, actionable in a day.
Resistance is real.
It’s what comes after you’ve chipped away at parts of your goal, but you still aren’t “there” yet. I’ve felt resistance most acutely with some of the bigger picture goals for 2018. I broke them down into smaller chunks, I attacked the chunks, and then I heard the questions. Who do you think you are? Why do you think this is going to work? Why should anyone listen to you about this? Dealing with these resistance voices has been the hardest part of working toward my goals this year. For any of your goals that require months or years of work, learn to expect resistance. And develop your plan for how to deal with it. I’m still struggling with this one, but my simplest plan is this: Keep doing the work.
The 80-20 principle.
I’m not trying to “not do this” or “do this” every day, for the whole year. I’m aiming for 80% of the time, and the grace to not do anything all the time has made it easier for me to push for the things I want.
I can only do one thing at a time.
January was my playroom month. As much as I tried to work toward writing goals, most of my capacity went to the playroom. I still did a few writing things on the side, but I can see now that I am just a one-thing person. Not everyone is like this, but for me to get through my days in a good way, I need to remember this and not make myself focus on more than one thing. You get to decide what works for you in what way it works for you.
Now it’s your turn: How are your goals working in 2018? Are you finding it easy to follow through? What’s working for you?
Last year I misplaced a book in our house, at least that’s what I hoped. It is a copy of Thumbprint in the Clay by Luci Shaw, one that she signed and gave to me when I was at a writing retreat in 2016. It was my companion during Lent last year. I read through it slowly, savouring the words and ideas. I read it at home, I kept it in my bag, I read it in the car at school, and somewhere between getting in and out of cars and bags and bookshelves, I lost it.
This was June last year. I searched. I looked on our bookshelf, in drawers, in our bedroom and in the car. I couldn’t find it. I started praying about it and told God repeatedly how much this book meant to me, how devastating it was to not find it. I asked God to lead me to the book. Please, I begged.
Six months went by, and nothing happened. Every time I thought about it, I could feel a swell of anxiety and sadness welling up inside of me. I felt so silly for not taking better care of it. During one of the last few evenings of 2017, I went to bed with the book on my mind, asking God again for a miracle. Please, help me find this book.
I woke up on January 1 with a long list of things to do because for the first time in years I made many, clear goals for 2018. The list is a combination of matters I want to work toward, habits I want to change, writing goals and home developments. But I will tell you that there is a fear in me when I look at this beautiful spread of plans. Dreaming is not difficult for me, but almost every year in the past few years, we had something big come along toward the beginning of the year that hijacked my intentions. Some years it was the fragility of my own mind, other years it had to do with our source of income, sometimes it was particularly difficult seasons of parenting. In March 2017, we dealt with the possibility of a family health issue that jeopardized my husband’s Australian visa application.
I had to look at the possibility of moving back to Europe, and it terrified me. When I think about 2017, my memories are lost to fear. It undid, upended, shook. Yes, there was a recovery, a solid, strong recovery, but a wound that doesn’t bleed still needs time to heal.
Our bookshelves are too full, there are rows behind rows, books stacked on top of books and in front of books, but several stray books needed a spot on the shelves. When I straightened some spines that fell over to make room for a giant volume of Tolstoy, I noticed a few books tucked behind the row.
I moved the others aside, and there was my copy of Thumbprint in the Clay, its green cover catching light; God, winking at me. It was January 1, 2018.
I pulled it out, held it to my chest and cried. I couldn’t have asked for a better blessing for the start of a new year. It doesn’t take the fear away, but it anchors me in something bigger. God listens. He answers.
Ask for more.
There is no thing too small. There is no fear too trivial. There is no want too great. There is no miracle too big.
Before everything else in 2018, in all things that will come at us in 2018, when we face the world and all its pain, when we face our lives and the things we fear, in all these things, at all times: Ask for more. Ask Him for more.
How we spend our days, of course, is how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard writes in The Writing Life. I know this because of Google and because of guilt because I, maybe like you, know how to guilt myself at the start of the year. Here it comes, the new year with all its promise and potential, here comes the list of ways I’m going to change. Here comes the list of all the ways I failed in 2017.
These kinds of maxims give insight into the rhythm of life; I believe Annie Dillard. But I also know what it is like to face down February with its slow and steady defeat, the list untouched, your soul, unchanged. I know what it is like to wonder if the sum of my days will be a complete and utter waste in the end.
I write here regularly about small changes, and the power these little steps have in my life for growth. I believe in small changes deeply, the kind you can do any time, anywhere. So here are four small changes for how to think about 2018 and whatever goals and plans you are making right now. Maybe you don’t have them and feel like you should. Maybe you’ve got a huge list and are excited or maybe you’re overwhelmed with your list already. Start here, and see if changing your thinking about these four areas brings freedom.
January 1 is not the start of your life changing. Every day is an opportunity for change, which means you can start on April 14 if you notice something then that needs growth in your life. You aren’t limited by the beginning of a new calendar year, neither are you pressured by it. You are free to change when you want and how you want. For some of us, the pressure of making each year intentional is too much. Maybe you need to dispel the myth that there is something magical about January 1. Maybe you need to go past January, let your days speak to you, give your circumstances time to marinate into you before you decide where and how you want to shift.
Begin with identity. Who are you? If your answer to that has to do with your occupation (accountant, chef or student) or your relational role in someone’s life (husband, wife, mother), may I gently suggest: Go deeper. Our roles are not our identity, neither is our vocation. Identity is given by a Creator when we were made, and I want my goals to connect back to who I am. When it comes to habits I want to break, I want to break them because this isn’t who God created me to be. When it comes to the things I want to pick up or put on, it is because this is who God created me to be. This is better fuel than the shame and guilt that can drive us to “get better” or “be different.”
Differentiate between goals and desires. Goals can only be set for matters over which I have control. It is something actionable by you not by someone else. A goal like “Have obedient children,” while a wonderful desire, will be a frustrating goal because my kids have their own will. I don’t get to determine how their attitudes are shaped or what they will choose. Hopefully one day they will pick “Obey my parents” as a goal for their lives, but until then, my kids’ actions and attitudes remain something I deeply desire. (Of course we communicate and correct hourly with the hope of an obedient end in our sons’ lives. But it is not a goal I name or even work toward at any point in the year.) I do have goals for myself as a mother, this year one of the big ones is to be intentional about using encouraging words with my kids. I can do this because it is entirely within my control, it is not based on the actions of others.
(A digression here about your desires – they are so deeply important. They are not to be ignored. Please write them down, please acknowledge them. If you struggle with even acknowledging you have desires, and that your desires might possibly be wonderful things, perhaps start with your disappointments. Behind every disappointment is an unmet desire. Follow your disappointments and they will lead you to your desires. It’s a powerful thing to name our desires, and I always try to do this in the pages of my journal at any point in the year.)
Make space on your list for fun. This year my fun list includes bake pies, have a spontaneous picnic, and go on a mom road trip with my sons. Most people I know put fun at the end of the list of things to do, and I get it. The older we get, the more those grown up responsibilities seem in reach. Save up and buy a house. Work for a promotion. Find a spouse. Have kids. These are all great things, but there is something soul killing about a list that only requires you to work and work and work. Maybe one gift you can give yourself in 2018 is to let your desires speak to you. Make one goal a fun goal, something that will “accomplish” nothing except to have loads of fun.
Now it’s your turn: Do you make resolutions or intentions for the new year? What’s one small change you can make to make those things possible? What did you think of these four small changes? Relevant to your life or not? I would love to hear what you think.
Most of you may be thinking (or trying not to think) about a certain international event of importance. Me? I can’t help myself, I’m still looking back. History has always fascinated me, it was my favourite subject in school, I majored in it at university, and it continues to be something that keeps me grounded both in my daily life and also in the way I perceive the future.
2016. What was it like for you? As the world seemed to descend into chaos around me, our little world in Melbourne, Australia pieced itself together. I dropped one child off at kindergarten, played with the other one, cooked, started the slow work of getting to know people, reconnected with some of my dearest friends and family, traveled to Alaska, became my niece’s “Wevi.” A million ordinary moments and a few extraordinary ones, the making of a life in one place.
So here’s what I learned this year in no particular order.
Rest is the start I began the year by reading “Soulkeeping” by John Ortberg, and this quotation from the book served as a foundation for the year, undoubtedly for the rest of my life:
“The soul was not made for an easy life; the soul was made for an easy yoke.”
I think that year after year, maintaining a sabbath practice, both daily and weekly, is key to the rest of my life, the root system out of which everything else grows.
Grocery shopping stresses me out I go to the grocery store usually two times a week, sometimes more, but this year was the first time when I realized: This is causing unnatural stress. My kids are wonderful shoppers, which is why I didn’t allow myself to see it (I kept telling myself how blessed I am to shop with kids). We experimented with online shopping and Husband taking care of the groceries, and it has made a difference.
Hold the gifts inside There are two beautiful things that happened to me this year, and my instinct was to share it. Write about it on the blog, tell someone about it, put a photo on Instagram, but something about the the glory of these two gifts stopped me. Sometimes there is space to share about the beautiful things but not the way in which it most deeply touched my soul. I learned to enjoy the gift on the inside, to turn it over in my hand and watch the way it changed in the light, to enjoy watching its different facets and what the process of time did to it, and to let the gifts become part of a system of internal resources, something to rely on during the harder weeks and seasons of life.
My children know when my love for them comes with requirements I used to write a lot about parenting here, and I haven’t in a long time. There’s a reason for that. The past two years have just about done my head in as a mother, not just because of my children, but because of myself. Perhaps the most humbling thing about parenting is the way it will pull out every evil thing in your heart on display for the most easily influenced, innocent members of your family. Someone asked us in August if we weren’t perhaps expecting too much of our children, it was a turning point for us in so many ways. You cannot give your children something you cannot give yourself, and it has been six months of relearning or maybe learning for the first time, the nature of grace and love.
Trust takes time I’ve spent a lifetime rushing into deep relationships, and this was the year when I learned to slow it all down, to pay attention to my soul and to my circumstances, to honour the needs of my husband and kids and the way it impacts my ability to relate to others and connect with others. There are longer, deeper thoughts here, but for now here it is: It takes time to build relationships that are based on trust and connection, and that time has to be taken to sustain healthy, truly deep relationships that are characterized by freedom and love. 2016 was the year I decided that I will take the slow path to healthy relationships; it has been a painful but very worthwhile lession.
A hopeful vision for the future I read The Atlantic Monthly’s essay about Donald Trump in the middle of the year, and it was the source of one of my major “aha’ moments this year. The article helped me to see the powerful way with which fear can drive me, and in contrast I saw the way God leads, through hope. In the middle of my fears (and I have many of them), I sensed God saying to me, I have a hopeful vision for your life. It has served as an anchor and a reminder when I am afraid that God has a different narrative for my life.
Our brains can change I went to Dr. Caroline Leaf’s seminar in Melbourne about renewing the mind, based on her book “Switch On Your Brain,” and even though there are things I disagreed with, this basic truth was profound to me: God made our brains in a way that they can change. The connections in our brains can be rewired, and our thoughts directly impact the way our brain is formed. Something about this seemed like the truth that I know is found in God – he makes all things new, his mercies are new every morning, there are second chances for us when we fail again and again. Change is possible. He has literally wired it into our brains.
There is time Alaska. I spent a week there on a writing retreat in September, and it was probably one of the best weeks of my life. I went into it saddled with many writing fears: Can I sustain a writing life? Will I miss out if I don’t do anything now? Each one was answered not by any person but by the love of God in many tiny, intentional moments. I see you, I know you, and you have time. 2016 was the year when I decided to take the timetable stress off my life, my marriage, children, writing, passions and calling and to embrace instead a trust that God has all of these things in his hands, I can trust the process, and I can enjoy learning along the way. I don’t think I have ever received such an extraordinary gift as the week I spent in Alaska, I will probably spend the rest of my life unpacking the beauty of it all.
Thanks for journeying with me on the blog last year. It was a joy to get to know you and share in your highs and lows as well. I look forward to another year of walking and growing together. Now tell me, what did you learn in 2016?