Non-striving is one of the seven principles of mindfulness—a way to accept ourselves as we are. When we set goals, we’re not accepting ourselves as we are in the present moment; we’re hoping to create a new and improved version of ourselves.
Yet setting goals is one of the most effective ways to create the life we want to build both professionally and personally. It might seem that mindfulness or a yogic lifestyle aren’t in alignment with goal-setting or ambition, but there are ways to set goals yogically. Paradoxically, mindful goal-setting can help you set more realistic objectives that allow you to accept where you are in the moment while also taking into consideration the life you’d ultimately like to create for yourself.
In mindfulness, we aim to be fully present in each moment without judgment. So how can we plan for the future and work toward our goals?
When I work with students on mindful goals, the key principle I use is to set effort-based goals, not outcome-based goals. An outcome-based goal might be something like, “I want to fall asleep at 11:00 tonight.” Or, “I want to lose five pounds next month.” An effort-based goal might look like, “I will meditate for fifteen minutes each day.” Or, “I will practice yoga four times per week.” Or, “I will cut out caffeine after lunch.”
Effort-based goals focus on the process, not the outcome. This was something I struggled to wrap my head around for a while. After all, isn’t the whole point of setting goals to get a specific outcome? But what I’ve learned is that no matter how much we’d like it to be so, we cannot control the outcomes of our actions. We can only choose our actions.
Once I started setting goals this way, it helped me see that when we focus on nourishing activities such as meditation or daily walking, the process can be just as important as the outcome. For example, if one of your goals is to meditate before bed every night, you might hope this will help you sleep better. However, even if you don’t sleep better after your practice, the act of meditating comes with a host of benefits for your body and mind, even if it wasn’t the hoped-for outcome.
If you’re ready to set goals like a yogi, here are a few guidelines to help you get started!
Start by setting an intention that highlights the core of what you want to achieve. Intentions are purposely kept vague because there are usually many different paths to achieve them. An intention might be something like, “I want to nourish my body,” “I want to create a comfortable lifestyle for my family,” or “I want to see more of the world.” An intention doesn’t have a specific outcome or route to getting there—it’s a means of giving focus and attention to a specific area of your life.
As humans, especially in the Western world, we like to think we’re in control of our destiny. However, as living through a global pandemic has taught us, many things we thought were in our control are not. If you set an outcome-based goal—for example, wanting to travel to ten new countries this year—you might feel like a failure for not achieving this goal even though it was out of your control. However, if your goal is simply to make more time for exploration, there are lots of ways to meet that expectation, whether by finding a new local hiking trail, or trying a new type of yoga online, or taking up a new hobby. This helps you make space for what’s important to you without being attached to what the outcome will look like.
I always tell my yoga students that consistent practice is more important than the length of any single practice. If you only do yoga for ten minutes a day but do it consistently, that’s going to bring more benefit into your life than taking an hour class occasionally.
The same is true for goal-setting. When setting goals, I like to have a minimum threshold. For example, if my goal is to meditate for 20 minutes per day, I might give myself a minimum threshold of three minutes per day. That means that while I aim for 20 minutes, if I really don’t feel up to it, I’m happy to get three minutes in rather than skipping the practice altogether. When building goals, try to set a minimum threshold so you can maintain consistency.
Setbacks are part of the process. While we may think we move in a linear direction of constant improvement, the reality looks a lot more like waves in an ocean. I’m currently training for a triathlon. Some days, I can run ten kilometers, no problem. Other days, even getting in just five is a struggle.
However, it wouldn’t be helpful for me to throw all my training out just because of a bad day or a bad week. If we let go of our expectation of always moving forward, we can build space for variability in our goals.
Making space for setbacks is a good practice in self-compassion. Be kind to yourself while pursuing your goals by using another mindfulness principle—acceptance. If you’re feeling sick or have a migraine, take the day off. When you set your goals, you’ll be making decisions based on how you are feeling in that moment. That will change from day to day, so it’s important to be able to adapt and meet yourself where you are.
The main thing is to make sure your progress is generally moving in the right direction. If, after several months, you feel you’re not, it may be time to revise your strategy.
After a few months of following your mindful goals, it’s time to assess how it’s going. Do you feel your goals and commitments are helping you live in your intention? If yes, great! Keep going, perhaps adding in an extra effort-based goal. If things don’t seem to be moving toward your intention, that’s okay too!
Mindful goal-setting is about doing what works in each moment. If what you’re doing is not working, reassess and try a different approach. If meditating for 15 minutes every day didn’t work, maybe 10 minutes three days a week will. If sending out cold emails didn’t bring in any extra income, maybe reach out to friends for an introduction to potential clients.
Now that you know goal-setting isn’t linear, take time to reflect on how your actions are aligning you with your intentions. If they’re not, brainstorm new ways to reach your goals!
When setting goals, remember to keep yogic goal-setting in mind: Focus on the factors you can control and the actions you can take rather than on the outcomes you want, be consistent, and allow space to readjust your efforts if need be.