goal-setting for 2024: manifestation of a vision or detachment from outcomes?

In a world entranced by the promise of manifestation, how do we set goals to move towards what truly matters to us?

goal-setting for 2024: manifestation of a vision or detachment from outcomes?
Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

We're nearing that time of the year we all think will be the big 'reset'. The entire year changes on January 1st, and we naively believe that this particular movement of the clock's hands will change us too, irreversibly, painlessly, effortlessly.

It's impossible not to get swept up in the momentum, the fantasy of a wondrous magical change, the promise of a clean slate or a blank new notebook, when all around us people and businesses keep trying to convince us that this is the magic pill we've been waiting for all our lives.

I approach January 1 with plenty of enthusiasm but also a lot of caution; having written and published several books, I know all too well the beginning energy of something new. I also know all too well how that energy tends to dwindle with time, as we get to the messy middle, and wonder what in the first place had seemed alluring or attractive about this project/story/manuscript in the first place.

I no longer set goals for an entire new year — it's too long a period for me to fathom and plan for realistically.

Over these past few months, I've gotten into the habit of taking some time every Sunday afternoon in order to plan for the week ahead.

I've also become more realistic, accepting that on days when D is at home, I most likely won't get much fiction writing done unless I head to the library in the morning and get some writing sprints in. Writing makes me happy, and when I'm a happier, fulfilled person, I'm also a happier and more fun mother to hang out with.

I also incorporate plenty of rest days, so I'm not swinging between the two extremes of excellent productivity and long periods of no output at all.

But these pertain to my activities on a day-to-day basis.

What I wish to write about here today is the long-term vision that experts tell us ought to underpin our daily activities or pursuit of a goal(s).

My trouble with planning for the long term

Have you heard the catchphrase: Everything begins with a vision?

Businesses and individuals are encouraged to cultivate a long-term vision for their lives/careers and motivate themselves to take daily action in the pursuit of that vision.

In this context, 'manifestation' and 'visualization' are terms that have been bandied about a lot in recent years.

For as long as I can remember, since my early 20s at least, I've loved the idea that we can create our own realities with adequate vision for the long run, daily action and persistence through short-term obstacles.

The idea that we simply need to be focused on our long-term goals and not let short-term setbacks distract us from our path was both liberating and empowering to me.

But off late, I've been questioning this line of thought. Far from feeling empowered, this attitude feels akin to wearing blinkers and ignoring reality in the pursuit of our goals or vision.

An empty vision board

One tactic that experts constantly talk about is about having a vision board and filling it up with images of whatever you wish to 'manifest' in the future: your dream car, your dream home, etc. They ask you to be very specific about what it looks like, down to the finest detail.

I've never had a vision board. I don't have particularly strong preferences for material things.

If you were to ask me to describe my dream home, I'd probably only say something that's bright and has lots of natural sunlight coming in through many windows with a view of something peaceful, like a lake or a mountain or an ocean ...

I can't even choose from among these many options. In fact, I'd prefer a kaleidoscope of these views, if I could. Monday, facing the ocean. Tuesday, turn the house so it looks at the snow-capped mountain peaks. Wednesday, elevate it so I have a view of the valley below.

My vision board is doomed before I've begun to even set it up, haha.

Conversely, a cousin of mine knew exactly what her dream home should look like when she was in her 20s. White walls with a red roof. That was her specification.

I mean ... I love white walls with a red roof ... but I also love red brick walls with a black roof that KrA seems to love.

So you see, vision boards have never really been my thing.

An abstract vision board of feelings, perhaps?

But experts take it one step ahead and suggest that what we hanker after is not the thing itself but how having it would make us feel. Perhaps we believe that possessing that material thing would bring us feelings of freedom, of independence, of power, of generosity, of abundance.

So the trick, apparently, is to feel that way already, and the energy of feeling that way is bound to attract that object into our material existence.

And I think this is also where I stumble. Because I don't really want a house by the beach or a mansion with a well-manicured front lawn that looks impressive in photos. I mean ... sure it'd be nice to have those things, but it's not what I wish to spend my life working for.

What about the uncertain future ...

Not to mention that after years of working hard to be able to buy a house in a much sought after zip code, perhaps one day you may be forced to evacuate it because of a crazy wildfire tearing through the mountains your window looks out at.

... versus the more real present moment?

So what is it I really wish to do with my life?

How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. ~ Annie Dillard

If I were to honestly answer that question, I can only answer it in terms of how I wish to spend my days: writing, and enjoying the ordinary moments with KrA and D.

Literally, that is all I wish for in my days. It's something my days are already full of.

Yet, having what I want, knowing that I already have what I want doesn't seem to make me feel content or relaxed or 'having arrived' if you will.

When the merit of process is hitched to the outcome

It's as if I've got to turn this into something bigger, something better, something more 'successful' perhaps in terms of number of books sold, revenues earned, or some such thing before I can truly feel content and at ease with my life.

It's as if writing and enjoying writing everyday does not matter unless (or may matter more only if) I wrote a bestseller.

It's as if spending time with my child every day does not matter unless (or may matter more only if) we were doing something special, something extraordinary, like skiing down the Alps instead of spending this afternoon, watching Pokémon on Netflix, because he's unwell and resting at home.

I had unknowingly hitched the significance or utility of the process to the outcome.
If the outcome was 'grand' enough or 'spectacular' enough, then the process was justified.
Without the promise of a spectacular outcome, the process alone was not sufficient reason to engage in it.
Or at least, that's how I had come to view life and its ordinary, everyday moments.

It's rather a sad way of looking at life, really. Because life is, at the end of the day, made up of largely ordinary, everyday moments no matter how much media and culture may try to convince us otherwise.

Pondering over the wisdom of the Gita

I've been reflecting how my focus on the outcomes have come at the expense of finding joy and fulfilment in the process.

  • Writing fiction had become a chore in the past few months when I kept checking the sales I was (not) making. The anxiety of not making a full-time living from my writing (yet) kept me from engaging in it wholeheartedly. It led to me waking up several mornings at 2 a.m., my heart thudding with anxiety at not earning an income and indulging in what feels like a hobby at best.
  • Days when D was at home away from school had also started to feel like an imposition. Instead of being able to enjoy the time I was given to spend with D, I was silently resenting how much time ordinary, mundane parenting was taking away from writing, from other things in general, although if you were to ask me what 'other things' I'd rather be doing, I'd come up empty.

Off late, I've been considering that oft-quoted verse from the Bhagavad Gita.

There are many variations, depending on the source, but the one that I've come to resonate with the most is this one from Gita Daily:

You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your action.

In the past, well-meaning elders often rephrased this and quoted this verse as:
Do your duty with utmost sincerity and God will take care of the rest.

The implication being that as long as you worked hard, the Universe will conspire to get you to your favoured outcome.

I used to find a certain charm to this way of thinking; it used to imbue in me an optimism that I otherwise struggled to find when encountering setbacks or obstacles or when 'success' seemed to have eluded me for far too long.

But off late, I've struggled to hold on to this kind of faith too.

In a world full of uncertainties, it seems more prudent and practical to come to terms with the fact that while we'd like to treat our lives as a chess game — the player with the best strategy and the best moves wins — it's more often like a game of poker, i.e., you could play your best game and still not win because of factors wildly beyond your control, as Rachel Friedman says in her book And Then We Grew Up.

I think it's simply frightening to accept and admit that much of life and what happens to us are quite simply not in our control.

Such a thought is utterly depressing, to say the least. It makes us wonder why then should we put in any effort if it's all going to be like a game of crapshoot anyway?

This reminds me of a dialogue I once heard in a Bollywood movie.

The guy and the girl are in an appliances store where they have the opportunity to enter into a lucky draw to win a refrigerator. The girl says, "What's the point? I never win anyway."

To which the guy responds, "Well, if you don't enter the lucky draw, you are guaranteed to not win. But if you do enter your name, there's always a chance, no matter how small, for you to win."

And this being a movie, she does win the refrigerator at the end.

This is not me encouraging you to spend the rest of your life buying a lottery ticket every day in the hope of winning it someday.

But there is wisdom in putting in the effort towards doing what you love even though the results are never guaranteed.

Short-term focus in service of the long term

When the future is utterly unknown, we can feel very disempowered and discouraged. Which is why the wisdom of the Gita to forego any claim on results, or the fruits of our labour, seems to speak to me a lot these days.

Yet, the Gita does not dissuade us from taking action. On the contrary, the Gita urges us to be involved in action and not shun it.

In the face of all these questions, I find that the best way ahead for me is to focus on the practice for its own sake. Be it the practice of writing, or the practice of parenting.

It's definitely easier said than done. I can spend days writing but that constant worry, that not knowing whether this will amount to anything or not, continues to eat away at my spirit.

And I think this is what I'm doing wrong. Instead of focusing on the practice for its own sake, I let anxious thoughts about the future derail me.

Sure, I could envision a great future and keep working towards it, but after a few months or years of working and not seeing the kind of results I'd like to see as fast as I'd like to see them (because outcomes depend on countless other factors in addition to the work we put in), it can feel very difficult to hold on to that vision of something promising in the future.

Just as surely having anxious thoughts about the future is doomed to leave me paralyzed and reluctant to take any steps in the present moment.

Of course, I don't wish to squander the present moment either because that is a guaranteed way of not effecting any change in the long run.

It is when I focus on a daily practice, for its own sake, that I find the greatest joy and fulfilment.

This is not to say that I don't have daily or weekly planners. I sure do. These help me keep my tasks organized, prioritize which story to write and which book to publish in time for an upcoming promotion and so on.

But that is pretty much the extent of my planning. A long-term planner helps guide the tasks I need to focus on today, this week, or this month. And what I hope to achieve in the long run is, in turn, guided by how I choose to spend my days.

To adapt a passage from the Gita Daily,

What role does detachment from results play in all this?

Results often depend on factors beyond our control.

Attachment to results will make us worried about things beyond our control and thus distract us from the thing in our control: the work at hand.

Moreover, elation on getting results and dejection on not getting them both will distract us ... from the joy and fulfilment of undertaking the task on hand for its own sake in this present moment, in the here and now.

What about when doubt derails us?

This is the other piece of the equation that tends to derail me. Even if I know that I wish to focus on writing, there's always a lot of distractions, things to try out to see if we can achieve our parameters of success faster.

It's like this: I tend to drive at the speed limit or at the most 10km/h above it. But when I see others speeding past, it makes me feel that I should be speeding too, that my time is precious too and I shouldn't be wasting it driving slowly when I could in fact be driving faster.

Or perhaps I should switch to the other lane because, look, that one's going faster!

Author coach, Becca Syme, recently posted a note on 'The Small Things' over on her Patreon.

We need to practice what we know to be true, more often, instead of trying to learn more new things.
~ Becca Syme

This was a timely reminder because I had gone down the path of mulling what I should be doing differently in 2024, whereas in fact the answer is that I don't need to be doing things differently.

I just need to reaffirm my commitment to the path I've set out on and commit to staying on that path or coming back to it when I drift away.

And so, here is my goal for 2024!

To write and parent in the here and now, because both are tasks I enjoy and love to fill my days with,
and to not give in to anxious thoughts about the future, which is unknown anyway,
but to lean in to the present moment and respond to life in the here and now, while keeping my focus on the two practices that matter to me the most.