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3 Reasons Not to Set Goals this New Year

It's a fitting time to consider new beginnings as we enter into January, a month named after Janus, the Roman god of transitions. The Romans believed that Janus held the key to the doorways separating past and future, endings and beginnings, one state of being and another.


Janus, the Roman god of transition

Janus is typically depicted with two faces: one facing the past, and the other looking toward the future. January 9th was his day of worship.


Although Janus used to be an important deity (referred to as the 'god's god'), I'd never heard of him before. He doesn't have a Greek counterpart; it seems like he was a one-historical-period wonder. (That being said, his name has recently been resurrected via the Society of Janus, an American BDSM organisation; talk about a ‘transition’!).


It turns out Janus’ name wasn't even part of the Roman calendar for over 500 years: until then the Roman year had 10 months, beginning in March and ending in December. The 61.25 days in between (that later became January and February) were left unnamed and month-less. For the Romans, those days were unproductive and therefore ignored. In 153 BCE, Julius Caesar decided it was more practical to have twelve months and named the first new month January, honouring Janus and the transition between years.


Who really likes January?

(Not the Americans: They voted it their least favourite month in a 2021 YouGov survey).


Whether or not we’re literal fans of January, what this month represents metaphorically – the stagnation associated with periods of transition – is viewed negatively by many societal standards.


During transitions, we move like hibernating animals, slowly and sluggishly. Nothing of note seems to happen; or at least, the changes are so gradual they’re barely detectable. Our fields lie dormant and bare. Frost gathers on our windowpanes and we look outside to the future, “seeing nothing, imagining nothing but greyness, understanding neither who [we are] nor what [we are] doing here, on earth” (wrote Andre Gide, one of my favourite pre-instagram influencers). In-between periods are full of uncomfortable uncertainty, and most of us do not want to remain there one minute longer than necessary.


In those grey periods, we’re not encouraged to wait it out. Many cultures advocate for a perpetual spring/summer world: eternally harvesting, creating or otherwise being ‘productive’ (thanks, capitalism). After all, we have to maintain a steady set of accomplishments to broadcast on social media!


So rather than wallow in the fallow, we often try to find shortcuts to expedite the transition process. We’re caterpillars who want to skip the pupa phase and become butterflies ASAP!



‘A Butterfly Speaks To A Caterpillar’ Art Print by Mort Gerberg
‘A Butterfly Speaks To A Caterpillar’ Art Print by Mort Gerberg

When we feel the discomfort of a major transition coming on – deep existential questions, contemplating the purpose of life, etc – we start searching for that elusive holy grail: the Easy Way Out. (If your transition doesn’t rock the boat of your identity – then what you’re experiencing is probably a Change, not a Transition. Read the distinction I make between them at the end of this blog).


One of the most appealing tools to circumvent the discomfort of transitions is goal-setting. After all, when we’re looking into the abyss of the unknown, wouldn’t it be nice to have a clear map and set of SMART targets for the path ahead?


Falling short of the goal-post: Fool’s Goal-ed!

(I couldn’t pick my favourite pun, so went with both).


I don't want to knock goals entirely, but do want to mention three potential pitfalls with setting them, particularly during the start of major life transitions.


Before I attract backlash from the life coaches (e.g. the majority of my friends), hear me out:


1. “I’m sick of following my dreams. I’m just going to ask them where they’re goin’, and hook up with them later.” – Mitch Hedberg


Goal-setting narrows our focus to the targeted destination, on 'doing', on motion. It takes us away from observing our ‘life journey’ through a wide-angle lens.

When we leave behind goals, we allow ourselves the freedom to explore whatever the new year presents to us, as it comes. It makes it a lot easier to balance ‘doing’ with ‘being’. (And it does not count if you put that down as a goal!)


2. “There is perhaps nothing worse than reaching the top of the ladder and discovering that you’re on the wrong wall.” – Joseph Campbell


Goal-setting may help when we have a clear vision for where we want to be; but it can work against us when we don't.

When we’re feeling lost, it’s tempting to pick a direction anyways (and there are plenty of attractive options suggested to us by friends, family and societal standards). Having goals might help us feel secure, confident, and in motion; but we might find ourselves even more lost as a result of pursuing them.


3. “My goal in 2020 is to accomplish the goals I set in 2019 which I should have done in 2018 because I made a promise in 2017 which I planned in 2016.” - Source unclear but probably said by most people


A strong attachment to the achievement of our goals sets us up for disappointment. Life sometimes has the audacity to get in the way of our plans. Unfortunately, we can’t control the world around us (although most of us give it a good shot anyway). So it’s important to allow space for flexibility, resizing, or even complete derailment of our goals.

We also run into problems when we link goal-achievement with self-worth. We are likely to receive praise when we advertise our accomplishments externally, and a solid dopamine hit when we finally tick an item off our ‘to-do’ list. The balancing act lies with our relationship to ego, and our attachment to external validation.


Waiting for Janus

During times of transition, although it’s tempting to remedy the uncertainty with a plan for the future, I advocate for dropping goal-setting entirely.


Transformational change - the kind of all-encompassing life transition that dismantles our identity and sense of self - isn't borne out of future intentions.


When we're looking to transport ourselves from one state of being to another, through the doorway of transition, then no quantity of reflective exercises, 'spiritual' experiences, or tarot readings will cut it.


The best way to move forwards is to stay present. To actively do nothing. To rest in the discomfort of not knowing what’s next; and perhaps, to learn to love it there. And patiently wait for Janus to unlock the door to what’s to come.


January matters too!

The calendar year, like life itself, is not all about output, efficiency, targets; or even purpose, direction and narrative meaning. Fallow phases like the metaphorical January don't simply serve to connect the 'productive' months of December through March. Moments of transition are their own spaces, innately important, and worthy of our focused attention.


We've got fewer than two months before the official start date of the old Roman year, before the seed planting season begins. If you're feeling unsure about your next steps, I encourage you to use this historically 'un-productive' time to hibernate, enjoy stillness, and observe the wisdom that awaits you in this liminal space. (Yet another historical fact: during the Renaissance, Wisdom is what the two-faced image of Janus came to represent).


I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Please share them with me.


Reflection

How do you approach your metaphorical winter months, the periods of stagnation in your life? Do you tend to focus on goal-setting and step into active movement to create change? Do you look for shortcuts to accelerate through? Do you stop and allow the process to take place at its natural pace?

Meditation

In your everyday life, try to notice the shifts in your life in between states; for example, from sitting to standing, or sleeping to waking. Pause as you pass through physical gateways, like at the threshold of a door or underneath an arch.


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FAQ: What are Major Life Transitions? How are they different than Changes?

Transitions are not Changes. Transitions are psychological. Change is contextual.

Major Life Transitions involve a period of being in-between identities, a dark void without clarity, a state of stillness within motion. They bring us into the liminal space: the boundary between what was, and what is to come.


We know we're in a Transition when we undergo a deep, raw, often excoriating process of losing our sense of self. We question our identities. Transitions include multiple changes - to our health, career, relationships, finances, geographies, etc - but they're not synonymous with Change.


Although caterpillars can grow up to 100 times their size, move locations, and even change colours, those are still changes. But when caterpillars enter into the pupa and turn into butterflies, they’re in a Transition: a complete metamorphoses of identity.

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