The Ritual of Mindful Goals

Sanaz Mazinani, May You Make Your Dreams Longer Than The Night 1968-2018, detail, 2017, Photographic print on habotai silk, 60 x 60 in.

Whenever you enter the field of play, it’s usually with some semblance of a goal in mind.

Unless you’re hopelessly enthusiastic or a small child, the conceit of being happy just to be there rings a little hollow. Even the most starry-eyed rookie has something in mind when they approach the field for the first time.

Getting into the game, let alone the right one, can be hard enough; your industry may be oversaturated with talent and not enough places to put it, or perhaps you’re a big fish in a small pond, whose appetites are grander than your colleagues.

However you enter the game, it’s with the intent, or at least the vague notion, to win. Losing is as easy as not suiting up, and you’re already all dressed up, ready to play.

If getting into the game is difficult at times, winning can sometimes seem like an insurmountable feat. In the rush to get on the field, it’s not uncommon to see young athletes forget equipment. The same is true for professionals, whether it’s the line cook who left their knife roll at home, or the photographer who forgot to bring a back-up battery.

If the goal of the game is to win, and you’ve already stepped onto the field, how does one avoid these rookie mistakes? Ritual, habit and goals are the refrain of the experts, from TED Talks to your grandmother’s wisdom, and all three matter, but only one of those three brings winning the game within reach.

Establishing goals provides the framework for for how you approach the game. While winning might not be an immediate goal, improvement, in the meantime, can be boiled down to a series of benchmarks. Just like leveling up in a video game, clearing every new benchmark puts you further down the line for the showdown with the final boss, the big win.

Having lofty goals isn’t a bad thing, and it’s something that should be encouraged, but it’s important to be realistic. You can’t just roll up on NASA and demand to hop the next shuttle for the ISS anymore than you can demand a corner office and extensive stock options on your first day in the mail room.

The real way to win the game is to break down your big goals into smaller benchmarks. This makes the pursuit seem that much more approachable. Think of success as a Rube Goldberg device; it’s a simple concept broken down into many steps. All of these smaller goals are what sets a clear path towards the big goal. They create a chain reaction. After you’ve slayed the dragon, it’s onto the next challenge, and all of the smaller challenges you’ll knock over like dominos on your way to your ultimate goal.

Habits are a big part of how you set your goals, and they can make or break your success. Even if you draw up a fantastic outline, not being in the habit of finishing tasks will sink you before you start. If you’re in the habit of being too hard on yourself, you may not feel energized by the little victories you rack up along the way.

The best habit to be in is using positive and active language. Using the phrase “I do not” is altogether more empowering and positive than “I can’t”. If being published in a major publication is your big goal, being in the habit of writing every day is an amazing way to get there. It can be hard some days, but saying “I do not miss my daily writing” establishes control. You begin to define your character by what you’re in the habit of doing.

Solid habits like regular and healthy food, a dependable sleep cycle and meditation become things that will strengthen your framework of goals. If you’re well-rested every day, a minor mishap or challenge is a walk in the park. If you’re running on caffeine fumes, an untied shoelace can be a tragedy that can burn the entire day down. A long journey is just an enormous amount of steps added together. Having a steady rhythm makes for both a more pleasant voyage and a quicker one.

Ritual is the third tier, the artful plating, the flourish that brings it all together. Ritual is incredibly similar to habits, but there’s one large difference. While habits can be something that becomes instinctual and thoughtless, rituals bring a presence of mind and intention to the process.

NBA players have higher free throw averages when they engage in a pre-throw ritual. The process helps put them in an active headspace, and the physical act triggers muscle memory. A chef setting their mis-en-place isn’t just preparing for a busy service; they’re meditating on the logistics of their station and mentally preparing for service to start.

Adding mindfulness to your habits will yield greater gains. Studies show that mentally focusing on specific muscle groups while exercising those same groups will yield stronger results. The same can be said for adding specific music to your pursuits, either to soothe and aid in creativity, or help lend focus to a rigorous workout regimen.

The idea that a certain amount of hours or time invested in a given field will magically turn you into an expert isn’t as simple as numbly logging hours. The time spent focused and present on your habits or actions will produce greater results. While some have been punching clock, you’ll have been squeezing every last drop of value out of your time. Not all experts are created equal.

Goals are both the framework or skeleton to winning any given objective, but they also act as the glue, the sinew that binds all of it together. When your habits are in need of tweaking, it is the manipulation of your goals that will improve the situation, not the other way around.

Life can be incredibly demanding, and the realities of your situation will undoubtedly necessitate shifts in priorities as you slowly discover the best way to reach the winner’s circle. It’s by being present that the need for these changes will quickly appear. All of the advice and motivational seminars in the world can only provide a blueprint, one which you will absolutely have to alter and tailor to your own needs. You must become an expert on how best to get results from yourself in order to attain your goals.

Sun Tzu is best known for the phrase “Know your enemy.” In pursuit of your goals, the biggest enemy is sometimes no further than the mirror, but by being honest and mindful and truly studying yourself and your own motivations, you can avoid an untenable position and having a stranger in the mirror.

A game is a set of objectives, and without preparation in meeting those requirements beforehand, you’ll never be able to win. By outlining a plan of attack that addresses the goals of the game, you fortfity yourself against uncertainty. Pick your target and go after it with all the intensity of an Olympian. There’s a reason they hand those medals out.

Be honest, be aggressive, be empathetic. If you set out to win, find the way to the finish line, but avoid trampling those around you. Realizing your goals means you might shed some social dead weight or some unhealthy relationships along with some bad habits, but winning without friends cheering you on is sadder than throwing yourself a surprise party. Even if you don’t reach your goal on the first try, it’ll be your friends and support network that helps you dust off and get back in the race, with a whole new set of objectives.

Life is trial and error, and no one ever learned the rules of a game without losing a few times. Both victory and defeat are incredible gifts, and all a part of the smaller lessons and challenges we face as our we place our goals progressively higher.

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