Would you love a dedicated practice of proactively setting clear goals, priorities, and commitments to yourself? If so, I wrote this for you.

Most of my clients don’t have a practice like this when they first come to me. Many spend their days putting out fires and reacting to the next request/demand that comes their way. Others are in the habit of prioritizing other peoples’ needs while rarely checking in with themselves about their own.

And yet other clients come to me feeling called to make a big change in their lives—either in terms of contributing more to their communities or taking better care of themselves—but they have yet to set specific benchmarks for how they’ll make their callings a reality.

Without a regular practice of setting and keeping clear commitments to themselves, most people end up feeling like they’re letting themselves or other people down.

At the heart of radical discernment is the practice and skill of making choices—in other words, right-sized commitments—that honor our needs. And with that in mind, I want to offer you five principles today to help you set clear, right-sized goals and commitments to yourself.

To do that, I’ll share with you my version of the SMART goal acronym.

Here’s how I use it:

  1. Specific
  2. Monthly(ish)
  3. Actionable
  4. Realistic
  5. Trustworthy

Let’s explore each of these now.

One: Specific.

Here are some pointers for setting specific goals:

  1. Be as precise as possible. Instead of saying “Go to bed on time” or “Don’t stay up late,” a specific goal sounds like “Be in bed reading a book by 9:30pm every weeknight for the next two weeks and turn off the lights by 10pm.”
  2. Ask: Would this be clear to my future self? If your goal is specific, when your future self looks at it in the future, they should be able to know precisely and immediately what you meant when you set it.
  3. Catch yourself using tentative language like I guess I will… or I’ll try… or I’ll see…, ask, What am I actually able and willing to commit to?If you find yourself using language like this, edit your commitment until you can honestly say I will… or I commit to doing my best to… (fill in the blank).
  4. Decide when you aim to complete your goal, and write it down.
  5. If your goal is to engage in an ongoing practice, be realistic about how frequently you’ll practice and how long you commit to practicing for.

For example, rather than committing to practicing every single day, committing to practicing daily(ish) or five out of seven days of the week can make sticking with a practice more doable.

And rather than committing to doing the practice indefinitely, commit to a defined period of time like two weeks. Then, at the end of this time, check in and decide whether you’d like to continue the commitment.

Two: Monthly(ish).

Over the years, many clients who struggle with goal-setting have told me that they want to start a practice of choosing goals every morning. However, I’ve found that this practice often backfires. When clients set goals every morning, as opposed to goals that cover a longer time-span, they often experience decision fatigue and have a harder time discerning how to respond when interruptions inevitably arise mid-day.

Likewise, some clients come to me with a longer-term vision but no shorter-term goals to help them implement it. Without shorter-term benchmarks, people often struggle to create concrete change and feel frustrated with their lack of progress.

In contrast, I’ve found that monthly(ish) goals are the most helpful-sized stepping stones between what we can accomplish today and what we long to achieve in the long-term. The month(ish) is a forgiving, flexible, and yet practically useful-sized chunk of time for deciding what I can realistically say yes to and what I just do not have the capacity to get done.

The precise timeline for your monthly(ish) goals may change each month, depending on what you’re working on. For example, my current monthly(ish) goals are seven weeks-long, covering the timespan between the year-end holiday break and my son’s February vacation.

Three: Actionable.

Actionable means within your control.

For example, rather than committing to having a conversation with someone—which is not within your control because the other person could refuse to speak with you—it is actionable to commit to asking the other person to talk and reflecting on what you want to say beforehand.

Four: Realistic.

I’ll be honest and say that even after a decade-plus of teaching “time management” and even longer practicing what I preach, I still sometimes struggle to estimate how long things will take.

And yet, I’ve also learned that the key to setting realistic goals is learning to choose.

While it is true that time is bendy in ways that my mind can barely fathom, it is also true that there are twenty-four hours in each day and seven days in the week.

From this latter vantage point, the basic math of “time management” is simple:

The time our tasks require must be equal to or less than the time we are able to dedicate to them.

If our goals are bigger than the time we have, we risk burning out, discouraging ourselves, ruminating about what we have yet to accomplish, and feeling stressed out, stretched thin, and sped up.

Time management is grief work. If I commit to doing something every Sunday, that means I must let go of what I might have otherwise done during this time.

And yet, when we learn to consciously choose what we’ll say yes to and no to, we become more likely to set goals that match the time we have. It becomes easier to trust ourselves, experience a sense of flow, and get the most important stuff done.

One of my favorite quotes is love is 90% pacing (from my friend, Natan Cohen).

Loving ourselves means honoring the pace at which we have the capacity to move at any given moment and right-sizing our commitments accordingly.

Five: Trustworthy.

For many of us, the pattern of not making or honoring commitments to ourselves stems from childhood. If the people who we should have been able to rely on when we were little broke our trust or didn’t show up for us consistently, it can be hard to trust ourselves or consistently show up for ourselves now.

To finally cultivate self-trust, we must learn to take our commitments to ourselves just as seriously as our commitments to others.

So, from now on, I invite you to imagine that you’re committing to the little one within you who longs for a grown-up (you!) they can trust. And ask yourself—What commitment will I make to my little one?

Creating right-sized commitments to ourselves is a both-and move: We must not overcommit and set ourselves up for disappointment, and we must stretch ourselves and commit to showing up for ourselves well.

If you hesitate to commit to yourself out of fear of letting yourself down, please remember that we humans build trust through repair. If you discover that you’ve aimed too high and cannot follow through with a commitment to yourself, try to notice this as soon as possible. Then, acknowledge the part of yourself that feels disappointed and have a conversation with yourself and your calendar about where you’re at, what you need, and how you’ll recalibrate your commitments.

This ongoing conversation is the key to cultivating self-trust.

May you discover trust in yourself and excitement in your commitments.

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