It is possible to write down your goals and dreams for the next week (or the next decade) without stressing yourself out in the process. Try these list-making tricks and start tallying up more joyful moments today.
By Stephanie Dolgoff
1. Know the purpose of your list.
A grocery list specifies the foods you need to buy so you won't starve before the week's out, but a life list can be harder to categorize. It might contain the things you'd like to experience before you settle down with a partner; it might simply be a tally of 100 different beaches you're dying to go to, or it could contain ideas for having more fun at work. Whatever ends up on your list, whether pie-in-the-sky dreams or more mundane concerns, "being clear about its purpose will help prevent you from losing sight of why you're pursuing your goals in the first place," says Karen Reivich, Ph.D., coauthor of The Resilience Factor (Broadway Books). That's especially true if the steps you have to take to hit your targets aren't always enjoyable: Say that one item is to spend a year traveling and that entails earning extra money; it can help you stay motivated when you're working overtime on a weekend if you envision yourself on the beach in Fiji in six months. If the purpose of your list isn't immediately obvious to you, Ebner recommends reshaping it by asking yourself these questions: (1) What do I want to be known for? (2) What kind of person would I like to be? (3) How do I want to live my life? Then create a list--or even multiple lists--that represents those core values.
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2. Consider what already makes you happy.
"List making can stem from anxiety, but when you're able to consider what's already working for you, you'll have an easier time coming up with a focused, short list that reflects where you want to go next," Reivich says. She suggests I think about my strengths before I begin writing. I'd have to say that I'm a kick-ass mom who also feels lucky to be paid to do something I enjoy (writing). I still think I could lose 5 pounds, but I look pretty darn good, considering I have 5-year-old twin girls. Which means there's no need to address career or parenting on my list; I already have those covered. I can also nix "lose 5 pounds," although letting go of a 25-year-old goal is admittedly tough. "The self-help world is built on the deficit model--you're not good enough, so you need to improve," Reivich says. "But constantly giving yourself the 'better, faster, slimmer' message can be more toxic than helpful because you can always be better, faster, slimmer than you are at the current moment."
Instead, focus on who you are when you're at your absolute best, then build on that. I like to think I'm at the top of my game when people are laughing at my jokes. While I'm not planning on bumping Joy Behar from The View any time soon, I'd love to do more humor writing, which could mean starting a blog where I can let my quips fly. In fact, when I think about it, I've been itching to do that for the past few years. Time to make it a priority.
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3. Be sure your goals are things you're pursuing for yourself.
"When the items on your list are intrinsically motivated and mesh with your values, that can be truly liberating," says Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California at Riverside and author of The How of Happiness (Penguin). So if getting a Ph.D. is on your list, make sure it's your dream and not a dream of your mother's, who always wanted to be an academic but wasn't able to afford college.
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4. Concentrate on doing, not having.
Studies show, over and over again, that money and material objects are no guarantee of happiness. "When we look back on life, we tend to value experiences over things," says Timothy D. Wilson, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. That means it's smart to focus on strolling the winding streets and sipping the perfect cup of cappuccino in Rome, which will provide you with lasting memories, rather than spending all your time scoring a pricey Italian handbag. "Of course, if you want to be a writer and a windfall allows you to quit your dull job and write full-time, that money can make you happy," Lyubomirsky qualifies. "But a bigger car or TV--we tend to adapt to those once we have them. And then we inevitably want more or newer or bigger versions of them."
"It's simple," Reivich agrees. "Happiness is about the quality of the moments in your life. People matter more than things."
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5. Include enjoyable goals on your list when possible.
Let's say your aim is to exercise more so you can feel healthier and look toned. The StairMaster may get you fit faster than a round of golf, but if you despise cardiovascular machines and love to be on the greens, you'll be happier at the ninth hole than climbing to nowhere. You'll also be more successful if you pick goals that are ongoing and offer the chance for variety and social contact (join a book club; exercise with a partner), rather than tactics that call for you to change your habits all on your own (read more books; work out daily).
[photo credit: Getty Images]
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