Ever since my goal of completing a post-diagnosis 5K hit a wall in October 2019, I’ve been skittish about setting goals. That weekend when I missed the race—the one I’d registered and trained for, that friends and family were coming to—I plummeted into such a deep depression that I didn’t see the other side until nearly six months later. At which point Ajovy had another one-two punch in store for me a few months afterward.
So I’ve learned some things. For one, the roller coaster that is chronic illness (i.e., now I’m disabled, now I’m not, and now I’m disabled again) requires a lot of my mental health resources. There’s no “new normal” I can adjust to. There is just one constant flux. And to not curl up into a ball takes a lot out of me. So I can’t afford to set myself up for further failures and frustrations.
But I also can’t call it quits. I’m depressed if I set a goal where failure only reminds me of all the things I can no longer do. But I’m also depressed if I just sit on my bum and don’t try at all.
So this July, I practiced setting goals that are SMART goals without the “T” (time-based). So, SMAR goals, I guess? It has helped. SMAR goals are specific and measurable. And, most importantly, they’re achievable and realistic. And there is no “Do X by date Y.” There’s just “See how much X you can do by date Y.”
For example, in July, I decided that I was going to write at most three or four days a week as my health allowed. I would exercise a maximum of five days a week for 30 minutes when possible. And I would sit zazen at least once or twice a week if I could. In October, I celebrated my progress toward my goals and assessed what I’d achieved. None of it was anywhere near what I had once achieved, but I’d still made progress. I was proud of that. It was a win.
This year, 2020, will be the first year that I begin with this mindset. So here’s what I’ll be doing.
1. Take control of my income.
In 2019, my employer restructured. I didn’t lose my job, but it went from guaranteed full-time hours and a $38,000 salary to gig work that paid less than $1,500 some months and nothing at all other months. Don’t get me wrong. I’m thrilled that I still have contract work. A lot of people in my boat—my neighbors on Chronic Migraine Street—not only can’t find work in their field but are unable to work consistently enough to even hold down a part-time gig from home. So I’m lucky.
But my husband and I also have a lot of debt. And even though I applied to nearly a dozen positions I’m well qualified for, nothing panned out. Meanwhile, the stress of my on-again, off-again work situation wreaked havoc on us both. I can’t keep waiting for things to stabilize. So next week, I’ll be returning to my online teaching job with young Chinese students. I get to set my hours (only a few each week). And fingers crossed, I’ll be booked as solid as I was two years ago. And in the lean times between curriculum contract work, I’ll also take online transcription and captioning work.
The plan is to not overdo it, so I don’t end up unable to work for months at a time (which has happened four times before). I’m confident that I know how to balance health needs against work demands now. Hopefully, I can prevent a disastrous crash-and-burn while also setting my own work schedule, reconnecting with my vocation, and guaranteeing a more regular income.
2. Reconnect with my sangha.
One of the toughest parts of chronic illness is, for me, the loss of community. In my early thirties, I surrounded myself with communities. Work, writing, dance, public speaking, my Russian class—everywhere I went, I helped create community. I had been isolated by abuse and trauma and unhealthy communities for so long that I was hungry for connection.
Developing a chronic illness can keep me housebound for part of the year, but it hasn’t changed that hunger. It has, however, made it hard to follow through on. While I’m lucky to have numerous friends willing to Skype, reschedule, or visit me at home, my friendships tend to be one-on-one. I miss groups.
In 2019, I made progress at including more online groups in my life. I explored three online writing groups. I attended zazenkai several times at my online zendo. But just having a goal of “trying to join in when I can” is too nebulous. It doesn’t happen.
This year, I’m going to be more intentional. I’ve set one specific day and time each week for each community. If I’m unable to attend, then so it goes. I’ll try again next week. Just like a physical community. At the end of the year, I expect my attendance record will have improved.
3. Set aside two to three hours each weekend just for creativity.
If I can’t, then I can’t. But if I can, that’s sacred time. Nobody touches that. Our friend-and-family time tends to be between the hours of 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. on weekends, so it looks like 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Sundays will be best. If I’m doubled over on the couch in pain, afraid to move, and having trouble seeing or hearing, fine. Otherwise, I’m there. And while most Sundays I’ll be working on MFA homework or revising fiction, I want to be flexible. After all, those three hours are time for creativity. So if I need to do calligraphy with my dip pens and India ink or I just want to sketch with pencil or pastel, do that. No rules. It’s playtime.
4. Start my day on time, so I have the opportunity to write in the evenings.
This is that domino effect-thing about time management. I start work late because mornings are hard. The migraine brain hates transitions, and on a daily basis, there’s no more dramatic transition than that of sleep to waking. But the grinding gears of the migraine brain in the morning means that work runs late, so I end up exercising late on my (late) lunch break. And then I eat dinner late. And before I know it, it’s time to start winding down for bed. No writing.
Since evenings after dinner are the best time for me to write, it’s important that I start my day on time as often as possible. Maybe on the days I do write, it will be for only five or ten minutes. And there will be plenty of days when I can’t write at all. Most months it may be half the days. Some months, it will be most days. But if I can manage this only 10 days a month on average, it’s still a win. That’s 120 days of writing in 2020 that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
5. Design one top-notch writing residency for my MFA.
As outlined in my MFA program plan, I’ll take off a full week in March to attend a seven-day writing residency. Each day of that week when I’m able, I’ll attend one reading and one or two craft classes. Inked Voices offers an archive of previous lectures and classes to its members. Hugo House has posted video of most of their Word Works series. And I can search for just about any living author on YouTube and find video of their readings. Of course, I can also participate in my writing groups twice that week. And the rest of the time, I’ll spend writing.
During my last staycation, I spent four days barely conscious and unable to tolerate screens. So yes, that may happen again. If it does, well, so what? I’ll still get at least two or three days where I can do what I set out to do. And here’s another bonus of inventing my own MFA program: doing what I can do earns me an automatic A+.
So that’s it. Those are my big goals for 2020. We’ll see how it goes. Really, it’s an experiment. How does it feel to set goals without a definite end point? Can I derive satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment when it’s no longer about getting things done but rather doing what I can? I guess I’m about to find out.
And how about you? What are you setting out to achieve in 2020? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll cheer you on, too. Best of luck to us all!