Your Goals Create the Garden You Live In

Image of a beautiful garden panorama with a manicured lawn pathway weaving thru flowerbeds and shrub plantings

One of my friends has a beautiful flower garden behind her house. Every flower, plant, and object is there by design. The planning of a garden is a perfect analogy to setting your goals for the year. 

First, you don't make plans for a garden or set next year's goals in a vacuum. You start with where you are. 

With a garden, you can literally walk around and look at every square foot. Congratulate yourself on the flowers that are thriving and the projects that have been completed. Take note of the areas that are not flourishing so well. Last week I suggested a specific process for reviewing your past accomplishments before goal-setting. This process helps make sure you stay focused on the values, even in the cases where there are problems.

What's important is that you establish the positive context for goal-setting. Last year's goals created this year's flowers. The goals you set are a continuation of this process. You create next year's flowers in beds you dug this year. Seeing the many values you've gained puts you in the right mindset for setting goals to make your life even better. 

Second, for both you need an overall vision. A garden is beautiful not only because the parts are beautiful, but also because the parts are beautiful in relation to each other. You need to imagine how the colors and textures of particular plants will work together to envision the whole. It is the total experience that matters.

A vision for your life is similar. I  have sometimes gotten caught up in setting goals only for my work. But this invariably leads to a life off-kilter. You need to envision your total life — work, health, relationships, recreation. You need to see how they will all fit together. One of the most important goals I set last year was to get the business functioning such that I could work only two days a week for a period this summer, so that I could spend that time in Maine. My work goal supported my recreation goal. 

Third, your vision can be grand and ambitious. I think of another friend of mine, who had several acres for his garden, who had years-long projects to change the terrain. Your vision for the future can be long-range and thorough.

One vision course I know (LifeBook by Jon & Missy Butcher) recommends that you systematically set goals in twelve areas: physical, intellectual, emotional, character, spiritual, romantic, parenting, social, financial, career, quality of life, life vision. In each area, you identify the premises you have about success, and make sure they are positive. You come up with a vision for the area, and name your reason for this vision, i.e., what gives it meaning and will motivate it. And you identify perhaps half a dozen strategies that can get you there. 

This is a significant undertaking that can take weeks the first time you work through all twelve categories. But once you have it, you have a systematic vision for every area of your life.

Some people might find this scope daunting, because it seems that you then have upwards of a hundred new goals you are trying to achieve. But it's inspiring — if you treat this as a vision to keep in mind, not a new set of rules and binding commitments. The purpose of such a vision is to help you see how you want to grow every area of your life. It ensures that you spot opportunities for growth as such. With such a vision, you can easily make small changes that create big results over time. 

Think how routine trimming and pruning can dramatically reshape a bush or a tree over a period of time, once you have a vision of what you want it to look like. 

Fourth, for maximum value, undertake one major initiative at a time.  The main purpose of a garden is your enjoyment. If you were to plow the whole thing under at once, you would lose the value of the garden in your everyday life for at least a season. Plus, you would be at risk of not getting everything in at the best time to ensure the plants grow well. If you want to maximize the pleasure you get from your garden, including making major changes to it, it's much better to choose one initiative that is the highest priority for a particular season, then go on to the next in sequence. This way, you enjoy most of the garden, most of the time, and yet you also transform it into your vision.

The same is true in goal-setting. I wrote about the importance of undertaking one initiative at a time recently. An initiative is a goal that requires facing the unknown, gaining skill, and changing your premises in order to achieve it. These kinds of goals are transformational, and they deserve a lot of time and energy. The best way to achieve them is to work on one at a time. 

This doesn't mean that you have only one goal at a time. It means that the other goals can be achieved with your existing knowledge, skill, and motivation, so that they only require planning and execution, not personal transformation. 

Fifth, the work is the fundamental source of joy. My friend works in her garden as much as her time and body permit. She loves the work. Every weed pulled, every flower planted, every bush trimmed — is a source of joy. When she looks at her garden, a big part of the pleasure is, "I did this." 

The same is true — or should be true — with pursuing goals. The work, even the uncomfortable parts, should be meaningful. There is satisfaction in solving a problem. There is a pride in sticking with something until you complete it. There is a thrill when you have a breakthrough. Taken together, these add up to a joy in achieving a goal, which rival the pleasure from completing it. They give added meaning to your successes. You say, "I did this."

You live in a garden of your own making. You set the overall vision for what your life will look like. You choose the initiatives to undertake. Will you add a fountain? You make the call. You do the work, not just to add that fountain, but to maintain the entire garden day by day. Weeding and trimming and raking don't just make it all tidy. They are part of how you spend time in that beautiful space that you have created for yourself. Yes, sometimes a storm knocks down a tree. Or bunnies eat all of the vegetables. Or workmen dig up a section. But after handling the setback, you decide how to make that part of the garden beautiful again. Then you get a new satisfaction from having overcome the setback.

If your goal-setting and goal-achieving processes don't fill you with joy, maybe you need a different process, one that is more like growing a garden.

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