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  • Melissa Westemeier


When I feel lost or overwhelmed, sometimes I sit still, refuse to move, and get really depressed. Sometimes I pour all my energy into running in the nearest and most convenient direction, which can, at times, be the wrong move to make and end up a mess and a colossal waste of time. Sometimes I half-ass my efforts to maintain too many irons in the fire, doing many things but not doing any of them particularly well. Sometimes I pick the easy exit, avoid doing the hard work of moving forward and park my butt on the couch and lose myself in streaming shows on Netflix and mindless scrolling on my phone. I'm motivated by a to-do list. Having a goal helps me avoid these unproductive behaviors. It's really about a sense of purpose, when you get down to it.

A long, long time ago during a particularly low point in my history, a friend offered me a nugget of free advice. He said I needed to set bigger, broader goals for myself. He suggested I come up with a list of goals for my 20s, consider each decade a fresh opportunity to achieve great things and write new goals for each milestone birthday. Looking back, he might've told me this to get me out of my funk, mired as I was in immediate problems (needing a job after graduating from college, rent coming due, freshly heartbroken after a breakup, wisdom teeth extracted hours ago...) He might've been sincere, believing in my ability and talent. In hindsight, I know Dan was an idealist and a dreamer, he probably adhered to this advice himself. Whatever his intention, I did take him seriously and I sat down that night and wrote my goals for my 20s in a notebook. With my vision cast, I set to work.

DISCLAIMER: Even though I'd written my list of goals, my mouth still hurt, I still needed a job, etc. but the distraction of this exercise got me out of my own way, elevated me from wallowing in my personal Swamp of Despair, and provided me a road map to get moving in a direction. Coming up with this list didn't fix all of my problems in that moment, but it did help me galvanize my resources and focus on where to point my ship, so to speak.

Also, all the metaphors in this post got tossed in a blender.

I kept those goals in mind as I turned 23, then 24 and so forth. On the eve of my 30th birthday I looked at that notebook entry with a sense of satisfaction. I'd earned my Masters, traveled to Europe, planted a garden in my own back yard, had a full-time job, and owned a cashmere sweater. I turned the page and composed a fresh list. Then I turned 40 and did it again.

Notes + research from a book I started and finished

This experience taught me the power in setting big goals. Life is full of distractions and activities that'll waste my time if I let them take over. I don't want to fritter away my opportunities and regret not taking chances. Making my list every ten years establishes a direction to push toward. These goals reflect my values and give me clarity on what to reject and what to embrace as I forge ahead. If I want to travel more, for example, I shouldn't invest in anything that'll tether me too much to home. If I want to write a novel, I need to get selective with my free time and choose activities that complement my need for writing time and thinking time.

Me in Belize. Not good at taking a selfie, but glad to experience this adventure.

My youngest son plays college football at UWSP and his head coach has a similar philosophy. He tells his team their vision is like a scope (the type you use in shooting pictures or weapons). If your scope is clear, you can see where you're headed and your sight won't be distracted or foggy. A smudged scope affects your ability to go places and perform with confidence. Coach Venne tells the team their scope has 4 zones, physical, social, academic, and football (if I remember correctly). At the start of the season, he meets with each player and they set goals in these zones. G set a goal for workouts (something about gains and numbers that I didn't really pay attention to), meeting 5 people outside of the football team, a GPA, and improving his footwork. Mid-season, Coach Venne meets with each player and they review their progress and make necessary adjustments. G raised his GPA goal (so proud!) and reported he'd met 2 people outside of football (only 3 to go!), and was exceeding his target in the other areas (again, numbers/gains/reps, etc).

I admire Coach Venne for using this method of goal-setting and accountability. I believe it helps kids like my son from feeling too overwhelmed by all the moving parts of being a college athlete and gives them a way to focus on areas where they can exert control and experience success. I know from my own experience that being overwhelmed and not having focus leads to mental health problems, poor habits, and poor choices. IHaving an accountability partner in this practice adds to the effectiveness.

There's incredible value in casting a big vision and chipping away at reaching it over time. As a writer, I set a word count goal for myself week by week. I write the number on my weekly to-do list, then I write the bigger number on my monthly calendar. It doesn't take long for 5,000-7,000 words a week to multiply and before half the year is over, I've written a whole book. I know people who set fitness goals in a similar way, or objectives for home improvement projects, saving money, and learning.

Coach Venne's model gives good balance by challenging people to set goals in a variety of areas. My first list of goals in my 20's involved money, education achievements, and travel, so not terribly holistic. However a person goes about the process, I believe they benefit from setting big goals and focusing on important areas. It's not a new idea, the Transcendentalists called it "carpe diem," the crew of Star Trek said "Survival is insufficient." We achieve greater and better when we set our sights higher than simply achieving the bare minimum.

I still write my big goals for the decade in that old spiral notebook and looking at my old lists makes me feel accomplished. If an old spiral notebook isn't your jam, my friend Jen Anderson has this amazing app, Accomplist can get you started on any device. She also offers coaching and accountability. Maybe it's joining a gym with a workout buddy, maybe you pinky-promise with your best friend that next summer is your year to travel to Cambodia, or maybe you make a goal for hours spent outside in the woods or knitting a sweater or learning Italian.

Spill it, reader. What's a BIG goal you've achieved or a BIG goal you've set for yourself?

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Becky Calvert
Becky Calvert
Mar 01

Setting goals, holding myself accountable has been a theme that has popped up all over this week. Maybe I should pay attention and do it?


Mar 01

Loved hearing about your lists and accomplishments.

A goal I’ve set is to write an historical novel at some point. Right now I alternate two contemporary mystery series. I started research for this novel set in 1926 last year while working on the Trudy book that will be out next month, (fingers crossed). I had accumulated a bulging file of fashion, music, events that year, etc., to cement the era in my mind. And I had the beginnings of a plot.

Normally I would now start work on the next Nora Tierney mystery and hadn’t decided when or how to insert this historical. It was you, Melissa, who suggested I go for it and do it NOW!

With Trudy 3…

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