The New Year & Checkpointing

The new year.  Every time it happens I always feel compelled to write the standard “hopes and resolutions” piece.  Problem is I’ve released that album more times than the Beatles “Greatest Hits,” and, well, it’s just getting boring at this point.  Right?  How many times can you talk about resolutions and changes you want to make?  We put so much pressure on ourselves to reach unrealized goals, so this year, let’s not.  Let’s talk about the difference between goals and checkpoints.

Why do we feel our imagined lack of success so acutely at the turn of the year?  Well, the first reason is obvious – a new year reminds us that time is still passing.  Like Instagram posts from Justin Beiber, it never stops, and many of us count each day passing as one less day to get that thing.  No matter who you are or what it is that you do, we all have something.  Whatever that thing is – be it a job title, a certain number of kids, or driving a convertible Ferrari in Maui wearing a Patek Phillippe watch with a blonde supermodel in the passenger seat, we all have that goal that we think will mean we’ve finally made it.  The tonic that will cure all our ills.  The balm that will soothe our ego.  The French fry that will…   bah, you get it.   Here’s a news flash: most of us aren’t striving after goals, we’re droning towards checkpoints.

Goals and checkpoints – what’s the difference?

Put simply a goal is an achievement and it’s own reward and a checkpoint is a method of measuring and inherently leaves you wanting more.  It’s not an uncommon thing.  Trees do it, bees do it, and those of us who live with chronic illness do it.  Actually, most humans do it.  It’s the way society programs us to quantify our worth.  While it’s great to have goals, checkpointing sets us up for failure and stress.  “Oh, if I just get this done, if I just get past this operation, if I just make this much money, I’ll be happy and stress free.”  Sound familiar?  Well, I can more or less guarantee that not one human has ever reached a certain checkpoint in their life and then was joyous and carefree for the rest of time.  I read that one guy did it in the middle ages but only because he dropped dead five minutes later.  I’d bet that even in those five minutes someone gave him the plague.  Checkpoints are a recipe for disaster.  When you don’t reach whatever checkpoint in your life it is you’ve set for that week, month, year, you fall deeper into despair and self-worth dwindles.  As the years roll on and you continuously feel like you aren’t passing enough checkpoints, it starts to take on a life of its own, especially as you see others on Facebook and Instagram doing the things you wish you could (or so you think – that’s a discussion for another time).  What does this do?  Ultimately, like those people who talk back to the movie screen at the IMAX, it pulls your focus away from what’s literally right in front of you.  (Movie talkers: Do you think if you talk loud enough, the movie hears you?)

Chronic illness is a doubled edged sword in this regard.  It can consume your entire life so fast and without you even realizing it one day you are just living just to reach the next day, worrying about what may come.  If you can call that living.  You can’t.  So, many of us learn to put the horribleness in a box and forget about what may come so we can enjoy what’s right in front of us.  Granted it’s sort of a do or die scenario – if you don’t learn how to compartmentalize when you are chronically ill, then you will “enjoy” a miserable existence.  It takes a bit of time to develop the tools needed, but most of us find a way through.  Normal, healthy, people and those who have only recently been diagnosed will find it more difficult.  That’s why I will share some of the tools I use to help you enjoy what you have and not lament what you don’t.  How to stop living by the checkpoint.

First, you have to give up the notion of checkpoint = happiness.  Like getting rid of those pictures on Facebook of you and your really hot ex, it’s time to delete the “I’ll just be good if…” scenarios from your mental timeline.  It’s fine to have goals, but it’s not fine to assign irrational importance to them – that’s a checkpoint.  “I want to get promoted!”  Great!  “If I just get promoted then my wife and I won’t fight all the time and I’ll be less stressed so my illness won’t act up as much?”  Ehhhhh.  Not so great.  See the difference?  If your goal includes the words “If I just…” or any other addendum, then it’s not a goal it’s a checkpoint.  The achievement of reaching a goal is its own reward.  Sure, there might be real-world benefits, but if you want to reach a goal primarily for those benefits, then it’s more likely your striving for a checkpoint.  It’s a subtle difference, but the emotional impact is anything but.

The goals' rewards

Second, accept that life is a journey and getting to live in it is actually the reward.  I know, I know – I sound like your fifth-grade art teacher who told you to paint a picture of your soul and then showed up at the end of the period smelling like a skunky greenhouse but every day you spend on the sunny side of the dirt is a gift.  You know what, let’s forget about the philosophy 101 of it all and give it some real-world context.  Think of an everyday thing you enjoy – spending a few minutes with your kids, having a pain-free couple of hours, grinding and brewing your own coffee – anything will do.  Now answer this question: would you give up your happy everyday activity for reaching a checkpoint in your life?  The only caveat – you may reach it tomorrow or it make take twenty years, there’s no way to tell.  My guess is you said no, which means those everyday snippets of happy are important enough to not gamble away.  Long story short – those happy snippets are the important part of life, and you should never focus on an ethereal cure-all checkpoint that just ends up taking your focus and time from what’s right there every day.

The new year.  We will all inevitably think about what we haven’t accomplished.  What surgeries we might need, what bills are coming due, and what goals we haven’t reached.  When that happens, remember what I’ve said.  Goals are a bonus.  Checkpoints are a need.  “If I just...” never prefaces anything positive.  Focus on the happy in front of you and the more likely you will be to reach goals.  Coincidence?  Talk soon, oh, and Happy New Year!

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