Where to start when everything feels crazy.
Where do you start when everything feels like a mess?
It’s so easy to look at your life, see everything that’s not working well, and want to tackle it all at once. My most scattered/worst weeks usually happen when, under the influence of too much caffeine, I come up with a list of 60 things that I have to handle right now! Or everything is going to spin out of control! Which results in an overwhelming amount of to-dos that I avoid making eye contact with the rest of the week. By Friday, I feel defeated and guilty about all the things I didn’t do.
The problem isn’t the goals or the to-do list themselves: it’s the sheer number of them. Here are a few things that help me rein it in when I’m tempted to tackle too much.
1. Do a brain dump
Pull out some scratch paper and let the crazy loose. Write down ALL the things floating around in your brain. Get every ‘should,’ every unfinished project, every to-do on that paper. Just go ahead and get it out! Putting things on paper helps get it out of your brain so you can quiet that little voice nagging you about all the things you aren’t doing right.
Important note: This is not a list of goals. This is a landing zone for your anxiety. Leave it there and move on to the next steps.
2. What IS working?
Take a deep breath and a new sheet of paper. Write down a few things that are going well right now. It’s easy to focus only on the bad when you sit down to brainstorm goals. Reminding yourself that everything isn’t storm clouds and chaos can take some of the frantic pressure off the whole process.
3. Start with what is most foundational and work your way up
I’ve never met anyone who has said, “Oh yeah, I used to be messy, out of shape, and guzzle a gallon of soda every day, but I set some good goals last month and now my house is spotless, I’m svelte, and I only consume water and wheat grass.”
Real change takes time.
If looking around your house makes you feel overwhelmed, think about just one small foundational thing you could every day or every week that would make a big difference. For Joseph and me, the habit was cleaning our kitchen before we went to bed. We used a chalkboard to write how many days in a row we went to bed with the kitchen clean (if we missed a day we would have to start over; our goal was 40). By the time we made it to 60, we realized we didn’t have to keep track anymore; we just did it on autopilot.
Gretchen Rubin, author of Better than Before, says,
“Certain habits, too, seem to be particularly important; they serve as the Foundation for other habits. I always remind myself, ‘First things first.’ That is, pay attention to the obvious before worrying about more subtle concerns.
From what I’ve observed, people who get their Foundation habits under control find it easier to add additional good habits, even if those habits don’t seem relate.”
Our house still isn’t close to spotless (if a door is closed, enter at your own risk!), but we’re WAY better off now than we used to be. We’ve gotten in the habit of cleaning the whole downstairs before we relax for the night (we’ve got our eye on you, upstairs…).
Once you solidify a habit, that discipline is more likely to spread to other areas of your life as well. My old pastor Mark Vroegop once said that if he was exercising regularly then he was probably having good time in the Word as well. Discipline breeds discipline.
Foundational goals are the ones that get the ball rolling in the direction you want to go.
Start small: think about one change, not fifty million.
4. Only one habit, project and/or rhythm at a time.
I’ve talked a lot about how much I love seasonal goal-setting (for more gushing, click here!). One of my favorite things about it, is it helps me be more okay with focusing on at most one habit and one rhythm for three months, and one project at a time.
It sounds limiting; but by giving my full attention to this edited set of goals, I actually do my habit consistently - which is kind of a big deal when it comes to habit formation. In fact, every time I’ve tried to form more than one habit at once, I’ve failed at forming any of them.
Focusing on only one rhythm means my one rhythm really does get integrated into my week. And my project actually happens. Honestly, I’m most successful when I just choose one or two goals to give my full attention for three months. (Projects are a little different, since they usually have varied time-lines; with projects my rule is to just do one at a time.)
This rule works best for me (and most people I’ve talked to about goals). You may be more capable of keeping all of your plates spinning than I am; even if you suspect that’s the case, try doing just one of each for a season and see how it goes. Then if you want to push yourself, add one or two more next season and monitor your progress to find your sweet spot.
5. Let go of the idea of‘perfect’
Set some goals that make your life easier and make you happy, but don’t obsess about achieving some unattainable idea of perfection you have in your mind. If you give yourself grace and take comfort in the fact that things will never be perfect this side of eternity, this whole goal-setting adventure will be way more enjoyable.
If you’re interested in setting goals and just getting started, check out my series on Sustainable Goal-Setting!