Reflecting back on a year without goals

Last December, burned out and exhausted, I decided to forgo setting goals for 2022. Quite the departure from normal for me, as I live and die by my goals list each year. While deep down I trusted my decision, I still had my doubts. How would I keep myself accountable? Would I completely slack off? Would I drift, rudderless, through the year?

Would I have an existential crisis if I learned that I don’t need constant achievement and striving to feel like a whole, worthwhile person?

So, how did it go? Rather well, as it turns out.

Now, to be fair, I didn’t completely throw all goal-setting and planning out the window. I did set goals (or, I guess more accurately, intentions), just on smaller time scales. I set intentions for each academic term and each longer break (summer and winter). I set goals each month and priorities each week. The goals and intentions definitely reflected larger themes, indicating that I did have larger arcs in mind and wasn’t completely going by the seat of my pants.

What I did find is that having smaller horizon goals / intentions helped me be more flexible in life overall. If I failed to meet a goal or complete an “important” task in a particular week or month, I reflected on why that happened and whether I should roll the goal / task over or let it go — and felt more comfortable doing that sort of accounting. If circumstances changed mid-month or mid-term, I felt ok redoing the goals for that cycle, or letting them go altogether. (Case in point: summer, when hiring our new STEM Program Manager crowded out most of the other things on my priorities list.) Did this mean that sometimes I chose not to push myself to meet a deadline where I probably could have pushed to make it (e.g. conference deadlines)? Yes. Do I feel bad about that? Kind of, but way less so than Past Me might have — perhaps because I realize there are other deadlines and other venues and rarely will I completely miss out on an opportunity because I passed on a deadline.

Does this mean I won’t be setting yearly goals this year? I’m not sure. I do miss the process of dreaming about the near-ish future, and the community aspect of setting and sharing goals lists. I think I’d benefit from some structure as I figure out what’s next (career wise and personally). And part of me really wants to make a “23 in 2023” list.

Right now I’m leaning towards this strategy:

  • Select a one word theme for the year. I’ve narrowed it down to 2 finalists for 2023. I find one word (or phrase) works well to center and focus me on what’s important — particularly this year’s phrase, “gentle serendipity”.
  • Make a 23 in 2023 list — focused on experiences instead of accomplishments. I’m still a bit afraid of creating any sort of written accountability record that the darker side of my brain can use to flagellate me in my low moments. But I did miss the parts of lists from previous years that pushed me to try new things and engage in new experiences. So I’m going to make an experience-focused 23 in 2023 list. I already have a few ideas (a couple for summer and one for winter) and may enlist my kids and partner for help on this one.
  • Set lightweight intentions for the year. Rather than focusing on “what do I want to accomplish this year?”, I’ll lead with “what kind of person do I want to be at this time next year?” I’ll set shorter-horizon intentions and priorities that move me closer to this vision.

I’ll share wherever I end up — a yearly theme, a 23 for 2023 list, and maybe a list of intentions — in early January, with the start of a new year, a new academic term, and a new phase in my career.

How are you approaching goal setting in 2023?