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January 3, 2012

New Year’s Anti-Resolution: Stop Setting Goals

Why I plan to live with less intention


My New Year’s resolution this year is unusual, really more of an anti-resolution. My hope is to become less intentional.

Less intentional, you ask? Why on earth would a person want that? I’ll explain.

I’m a strategist by nature. I process things rationally, assessing situations, coming up with recommendations, tinkering mentally with life issues and circumstances. I’m also fast-moving leader and productivity-oriented, a fit-it-all-in, get-it-done kind of girl.

Put these two together and you can see that intentionality isn’t a problem for me. Coming up with goals and moving toward them is pretty much how God made me.

There are many upsides to these character traits, and I thank God for how he wired me. Lately, though, I’ve been seeing the downsides that such attributes can bring if left to their own devices.

Last fall I was talking with a friend about her son’s preschool teacher. She described the middle-age woman, well-known and respected in their community, as “very intentional but lacking in freedom.” On paper, the woman is inspiring–a remarkable gardener and excellent cook; a restorer of furniture and exemplary homemaker; a person who’d cultivated many talents and utilized her resources well. ”But she comes across as kind of joyless,” my friend said, “and her relationships with her (now adult) children seem strained.”

The description gave me pause. At the time I was just beginning to observe a noticeable trend toward joylessness in my own life, especially in relation to mothering my three young children. I was so focused on trying to parent well—attending to character development, employing consistency—that I was losing the joy of daily life with my kids. My mind continually went to assessing scenarios and diagnosing methods for improvement—skills I employ in my work world. Rarely did I just sit back, relax, and enjoy the moments for what they held (or my children in them). Goals were trumping relationship.

Sometimes an intentional spirit can hamper freedom, and even love. This, I believe, is a big part of why Jesus rebuked Martha for her demeanor when visiting her household. She was so focused on what needed to be done that she couldn’t relax and be in the moment with him, putting first things first. Her task list and its priority in her mindset were endangering the freedom Jesus had for her. The joy found in engaging with the most important person in her life (as my own) was taking a backseat to lesser things.

Life in the modern world can exacerbate the tendency to prize intentionality and productivity over full, free living in the moment. The priority given to efficiency and multi-tasking are enormous in our culture. The rise of the cell phones alone is enough for many people to throw things out of balance. I can answer e-mails on my phone sitting in a parking lot, but do I know what my five-year-old just said in the backseat as we wait? For a person whose struggles are flightiness or disorganization, the tools an iPhone provides are a blessing; for a person with a bent toward over-productivity, they can be anathema.

Jesus calls us to careful stewardship, and too he calls us to a life of surrender. Stewardship means intentionality and setting goals; surrender means letting go of both to God’s greater purposes. These two things are in tension—opposing ends of a spectrum. The sweet spot is smack in the middle; too much of either one is trouble.

Since God revealed that I generally err overmuch on the stewardship side, high on intentionality and low on freedom and joy, surrender is in order. Letting go of some of my diagnostic and achievement tendencies with the help of Christ are merited. As I set aside my urges to assess and improve things around me, I’ll look to God to help me be present and joyful in the moments he gives. No doubt this will feel counter-intuitive in settings where I’m called to lead.

What about you? Do you need to get out of the goal-setting mindset for a while? What anti-resolutions have you made for the new year?

Susan Arico is active in her church and among local Christian women. She has worked with faith-based nonprofits, such as Prison Fellowship, The Salvation Army, Promise Keepers, and others, developing programs to benefit high-risk populations, such as ex-prisoners, street children, and traumatized youth. Currently, she runs her own consulting company, Pray Creek Consulting LLC.

Related Tags: freedom, joy, multitasking, peace, relaxing, restlessness


Personally, and as a life coach, it seems like very few goals we set come to be. I don't know why that is ... except maybe those goals weren't all that important anyway, and I find myself not wanting to be all that much inconvenienced!

I guess in order to be really motivated, what we say we want to do has to have really powerful implications for our lives.

I know again, for the millionth time, that I want to be more purposeful in pursuing time with God. Too much is grabbing at that one necessary thing ...

Your decision to not be goal-driven is a goal in itself. Being goal-driven and present/joyful are not at different ends of a spectrum.

My personal take on this is that we are called to find that balance, and this takes a lot of practice. Being mindful of the situations in which we often react in a way that will drive us to accomplish something is key. Slowing down and considering the implications of requests for our time and the resulting decisions is another.

A colleague once told me about the D-A-T-E method that she uses. Do I DESIRE to do this? Do I have the ABILITY? How much TIME will it take and how much do I have? How much ENERGY will it require? I have added another question to her list: When was the last time I had FUN or PLEASURE?

It is possible to be incredibly busy, yet full of joy!

Yep, there are to extremes to everything. I have an aunt like that. But you can't achieve much without setting goals.

Thanks for the comments. Diane, I agree that it's possible to be busy and full of joy, goal-driven and present. I daresay Jesus was likely both.

As I see it though, stewardship and surrender - while not exactly opposites - involve fundamentally different functions of the heart. The first is geared toward administrating, overseeing, and furthering; the second is simply letting go in trust. Where one's innate nature is to on the administration and "furthering" end, finding balance may come in more often scrapping the to-do list and being present to whatever the moment holds.

I resonate with what you are saying here and have been processing over 2011 how much of my doing may possibly have been a subconscious attempt to obscure the fact that I didn't know who God was inviting me first to be. As a result, I too have given up goal-setting for the time being in favour of letting God speak to my heart about who I am to become in him. My 'doing' will then, I am sure, follow very naturally from the 'being'.

More of my journey over 2011 in this area can be found in this post (and the others referred to within this post).


Many thanks for your comment and your excellent and relevant post on your The Art of Steering blog. I particularly liked this line: "Goals, after all, are a great way to get things done and make progress. The only slight problem is that they can take you a very long way in the wrong direction if you’re not careful!" That resonates with me, and calls out my frequent need to sit more with the Guy In Charge rather than charging off to accomplish things I feel I ought to do.
Blessings in 2012 as you seek Him.

I agree with what you said. About two years ago a had a few episodes of panic attack. I was so busy taking too much responsibility that I ended up in a psychiatric hospital for out patient treatment . Helping in Church work can be sometimes too much when you don't know how to say no? Thank God I am better than before, I learned and grew . Now this year I decided not to make any resolution and commit to only one ministry at church but I have to tell you is hard I feel so pressured by others . I pray God help both of us. Thank you

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