When I was eight years old, my mother brought me along to a lecture — well, dragged me along is probably a better way to describe it. I can’t remember exactly what the topic was — architecture or real estate or something similarly irrelevant to my eight-year-old brain — and I did not want to be there. When the lecturer stood up in front of the audience, the first question he asked the assembly of fifty-odd people was, “Why did you come here tonight?” I immediately shot my hand up. “My mom made me,” I said with a smirk. I got a smattering of laughs from the audience, which was what I had been hoping for, and then settled down to read my Nancy Drew book and tune out the rest of the evening.
For many years, this was my strategy: I cultivated habits that allowed me to retain some of my dignity even while I submitted to the activities that others had set in place for me. Witty comments, reading novels surreptitiously under my desk, or taking a quirky position on essays kept me sane while allowing me to play along with the system enough to get good grades and not make too much trouble.
I’m all grown up now, and nobody can make me do anything. I’m in charge of my own personal choices. But it has taken me many years to get out of the habit of surrendering to other people’s expectations and demands for my life. I sometimes wonder if this has been particularly challenging lesson for me to learn as a youngest child, or because I was a good student, or due to my people-pleasing tendencies. Whatever it is, I know that I need to be particularly vigilant about tuning in to my own goals and filtering out the noise of arbitrary expectations around me.
To be sure, I take on tasks that I don’t particularly love, but always for a greater purpose. I’m good enough at delayed gratification to know that it is usually worth waiting for 15 minutes in order to get two marshmallows, and this principle plays itself out frequently in my life. I may not enjoy taking time out of a beautiful Saturday afternoon to shop for groceries, but I do it because I value having fresh food on hand to nourish myself and my family throughout the week. I would much rather curl up with a novel instead of writing this article, but I’m committed to working on my writing skills and getting better at communicating important things this way. (How am I doing?) And, most importantly, I would dearly love to eat all the cookies that I regularly bake, but I restrain myself because I’d prefer to not need to buy new pants. It may not always be fun, but they are my choices.
What choices are you making?
Some of you may be at a crossroads in life. Maybe you are finishing graduate school and moving to a new location. Maybe you are starting a new job. Maybe, as you wrap up one stage of your life and move into the next — even if it is just finishing one school year and heading into the summer — you’d like to think about revisiting your own goals and habits.
Thinking about goals and habits is truly one of my favorite things to do. I confess, I probably like to think about them rather than actually making decisions about them, but I find the whole process fascinating. I have an insatiable hunger for books and tips about habit-formation and goal-setting. (Top three favorites as of this moment: Atomic Habits by James Clear, Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin, and Essentialism by Greg McKeown.)
Lately, I’ve been toying with a framework to help me think through my own goals — a simple, loose structure that reminds me about whole categories that are really important for my own personal flourishing. Bonus: it’s actually based in Scripture. Jesus is giving a summary of the Law — “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (and love your neighbor as yourself). To help my own sense of balance, it is helpful to me to reflect on these four categories as a way of taking an inventory on my life and its current direction. What follows are a few questions that help clarify my thinking and allow me to listen for God’s voice.
Am I remembering to take care of my physical body? (Strength)
We are embodied creatures. It’s really a bummer sometimes, because I could use an extra seven hours each night to make some serious progress on my goals. (In a quiet house! Just think!)
But I come packaged in this 44-year-old body and I’ve learned to embrace it. When I function best, I’m mindful of a few common-sense facts: I need regular sleep. I need to eat real food. I need some exercise every day. I need hugs.
My body connection also follows through to my environment. I work a lot better if I go outside once in awhile, and I also work better if my physical space is relatively tidy and pleasant.
When moments of overwhelming frustration arise, it’s always wise for me to check in with my body — just as if I was taking care of a toddler. Do I need a snack? Do I need a rest? Do I need a breath of fresh air? It’s astonishing how often these small actions can make a big difference.
Am I remembering to invest in relationships? (Heart)
Let’s be real — humans can be annoying sometimes.. But the fact is, Jesus gave us community to help us become more fully and completely human. It’s inefficient, but surprisingly effective.
We’ve heard time and time again that it is more difficult to make friendships in adult life than it is in our younger days. Whether you see your friends daily, annually, or only virtually, it’s good to continue to nourish these relationships. These are some of the people who, if you’re lucky, will cheer you on in success, hug you when you’re down, and tell you when you have spinach in your teeth — literally and figuratively.
Let’s talk about our families, too. By virtue of the amount of time we spend together, these people have a great impact on our ability to live out our God-given purposes. It’s also more difficult to identify problems in these relationships and habits that aren’t working well for any of you. This is why I thank God regularly for the counselor I’ve been seeing off and on for twenty years who has helped me think carefully my relationships with parents, siblings, husband, and children — and take action to develop patterns of relating that help us all to do just a little bit better in life.
Am I remembering to stimulate my brain? (Mind)
As a teenager, one of my favorite parts of summer break was the knowledge that I could read whatever I liked. With the shackles of English and history classes lifted for a few weeks, I dipped into everything from trashy romance novels to parenting books. I remember one particular winter break when I first read both the Narnia series and The Hobbit — what a joy.
There are certainly periods of time when it’s just not practical to think of picking up a novel. But there are also creative ways to think about nourishing our minds just for the joy of it. When I had infants, I read dozens of books while nursing my baby, propping up my book on the Boppy pillow and covering page after page with my lazy nurser. These days, I consume audiobooks while chopping vegetables and washing dishes (have you read Michelle Obama’s Becoming? It took me a couple nights of cooking to really get hooked, but now I’m loving it).
Besides reading, there are a variety of other ways to give your brain a workout that can be invigorating and relaxing at the same time — listening to music, working on a new skill, solving a puzzle, listening to a lecture. Engaging in activities that aren’t directly beneficial to my current work feel like an invitation from God to remember that my worth isn’t centered around what I achieve — and I need all the reminders I can get.
Am I remembering to cultivate my connection with God? (Soul)
As a college student, I was delighted to learn about the process of having a “quiet time.” I loved the daily discipline, the accompanying handbooks, and the sense of doing something right — in addition to the real, fledgling relationship with God that I was experiencing at that time.
But something happened as I grew older. The quiet time didn’t “work” in the same way. I wasn’t always connecting well with Scripture, my prayers felt forced, and it began to seem like a chore. I knew that I needed to revise my habits and find something that suited my unique way of connecting with God.
Growth means change, and even in one’s friendship with God this is true. My daily journaling habit has stayed consistent for twenty years — mostly because I’m so desperate for a place to sort out my emotions every day — but not much else has. I’m currently listening to an audiobook of the Bible five days a week, and that has been a good and strange experience for me. I go to church on Sundays, but there was a time when I was so mad at God that I could not bring myself to sing worship songs. I see a spiritual director a few times a year, but my spiritual director moved away so I’m now working with someone new.
Being deeply in tune with God requires a kind of responsiveness that I didn’t really understand when I was 19 years old. In order to be honest with God, I need practices that are robust enough to handle the griefs, doubts, and joys of my life — and that means allowing myself the freedom to adopt or release habits for spiritual formation as needed.
The best question
My husband and I have a habit of gently checking in with each other about how our habits in the moment are lining up with our goals. This can be a dangerous undertaking, and so we tread very carefully. But here is how we do it: when one of us walks into a room and sees the other one scrolling on the computer or typing on our phones, we might ask with a friendly tone, “Are you doing what you want to be doing?” Sometimes, the answer is a (hopefully not defensive), “Yes!” But sometimes, it is just the kind of nudge we need to close the lid on our laptops and check in with the greater world around us.
I hope that, in a small way, the words in this article could be a friendly question to you: “Are you doing what you want to be doing?” Maybe you are — and that’s fantastic. Or maybe you’d like to take a minute to think about that. Go ahead. You’re in charge.