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A Recovering Perfectionist’s Guide to Goal Setting

On the blank slate of a new year, we often follow the ritual of setting resolutions and making goals about how things are going to be different. We feel permission to dream big, to start fresh with habits, actions, and ambitions to improve our lives.

And yet, statistics reveal that over three-fourths of us fail to stick to those resolutions past February. Which means as I’m writing this, in mid-January, I’m already slipping on my goals I had written down in my journal as I envisioned for 2020 Allie.

As an idealist, it’s second nature to create plans and visions for how my life could look. I’m great at making strategies for how to set myself up for success. I love the giddy anticipation for what seems like inevitable transformation.

But there’s a shadow side to my idealistic self-improvement plans. Perfectionism and her sidekick Dissatisfaction show up to the party uninvited. My life becomes a problem to be solved. I believe the lie that I’m not where I’m supposed to be. And the story playing on repeat in my head is “I’m not doing it right.”

Idealistic goal setting also leaves no margin for error. No room for bad days or unforeseen failures. Bumps in the road are evil and wrong and somehow my fault.

I’m not saying you or I should abandon all attempts at New Years Resolutions. It’s good to create goals and to build intentional strategies to help us grow. But I am becoming increasingly wary of the treadmill of idealism that denies the beauty of the process. The parts of me that think I can sidestep the messy middle.

This year, I want to live within the paradox of goals and grace. This requires a vigilant insistence to keep what’s good while dismissing what no longer serves. To continue pushing myself towards my goals without abandoning self-compassion.

So what does that look like in the middle of January, when the motivation for our goals is starting to diminish, but the projects and task-lists are piling up? Here are three paradoxes between goals and grace, with some practical ideas of how to sidestep the trap of perfectionism.

Efficiency vs. Play

As a leader, you strive to be a good steward of your time, resources, and energy. Time management and looking for ways to work smarter, not harder it essential. But alongside your meetings, tasks, and projects, do you have margins for rest, play, and creative thinking? You can’t have one without the other.

>>Try this: Use your calendar as your to-do and your to-play list. Block out time for working on projects and schedule in time for running errands, meetings, and every other task. It will train you to be more realistic about what you can accomplish in your day. But don’t stop there—also schedule when you’ll have a paint night, go on a walk, or even take a nap. For me, when opportunities to accomplish goals and pursue play have equal importance on my calendar, I’m more likely to follow through with my ambitions for “work-life balance.”

Excellence vs. Failure

You want to exceed expectations and to provide top-notch results as a leader. The thought of failure feels so daunting because you’re afraid to let others down. Yet failure is inevitable for anyone risking excellence. Again, you can’t have one without the other. It’s a necessary part of the process. How can you set an expectation of not getting things right the first time? Where can you build in margins of time and the guidance of others to help you grow through failure to reach higher levels of excellence?

>>Try this: Create a ritual to celebrate your failures. I know, that sounds preposterous, but hear me out. Failure can be a big shame trigger, and our emotions can either lead us to double down in hustling to prove our worth or cripple us in fear of future risk. The next time you feel yourself cringing from a mistake, get out a notecard. On one side, write down the mistake and what you hear your inner critic saying to you. Then flip the notecard over and write what you learned from making that mistake, and what you need if a similar situation comes up again. Be as kind to yourself as you would be to your best friend. Then, rip the card up and throw it away, or burn it to release those emotions.

Routine vs. Spontaneity

You want to build habits to help you live a vibrant life. Maybe for you, it’s exercising, sticking to a bedtime, or meditating—consistent daily actions that will make a big impact over time. But if you cling to rigid expectations of reaching your goals perfectly every day, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. What would it look like to allow room for spontaneity within your new habits and routines?

>>Try this: Switch your goals to percentages. I will get to bed on time 5 out of 7 nights this week. I will follow through with my workout plan 80% of the time. Creating the option to not follow through some of the time builds in grace for the reality of day-to-day life. Set up meetings with yourself to check in on your goals. For the days you opted out of your goal, look for clues as to why you weren’t feeling up to it that day. You don’t have to beat yourself up since you already gave yourself permission to skip, but notice the patterns that led to you deciding to take a day off. Can you reduce the friction or build in the support you need to decrease those triggers?

Illuminated Actions

  • Begin again. Feeling like you’re already stuck in a rut for 2020? Recreate your blank slate feeling by christening next Monday or February 1st for your “Do Over New Years.” Studies show that the beginning of a new week or month feels easier to start something new. Who says you only get to begin on January 1st?

  • Shift your definition of success. One of the biggest stumbling blocks I’ve found for my recovering perfectionist is to be unrealistically optimistic about what I can accomplish. Rather than expecting to cross off six or seven things on your to-do list, scale back to three. Rather than demanding that your work out be an hour-long, be satisfied with 20 minutes. The small successes build up the confidence to stick with your goals.

  • Read Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequist. I probably listen to this book on Audible three times a year. Shauna’s gentle reminders to choose to be fully present over chasing perfection.



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