Let’s get real for a quick minute. Teaching is hard. Being an expat is hard. These are worlds that challenge who you are, what you do, and why you do it. Teachers and expats are extraordinary people doing inspiring things. They are brave. They are smart. They are resourceful. They are high-achievers. They are goal-setters.
Here’s what I’ve learned in my years of teaching and expat-ing: setting goals can actually set you back, especially as a teacher or an expat.
There’s a better way. Setting intentions instead of goals has changed my mindset, attitude, and ultimately my level of satisfaction and joy both at work and in my personal life.
Here are three reasons I urge you to start setting intentions instead of goals.
When you set a goal like losing 15 pounds, you are immersing yourself in the “what”. Intentions necessitate a plunge into the “why” — they ask you to dig deeper. Why is that 15 pounds so important? Why do those 15 pounds matter?
Do they represent the first years of teaching as all your energy and time got channeled into your classroom and your health fell to a last priority? (Yes, I’ll cop to that one.)
Or is it the expat weight you gained as you dealt with the discomfort of transition and loneliness with food and alcohol and TV? (Yep, I’ll cop to that one too. Annnnd I’ll tack on another 10, if we’re being real.)
The goal of losing the 15 pounds skips over the fact that this is really about prioritizing your own health and well being again. It’s about changing your habits to be better to yourself, which in turn allows you to be better to those around you.
Converting a weight loss goal to an intention might look like:
- move every day
- prioritize connection over screen time
- eat mostly foods that energize me
- sleep 8 hours a night
Sure, the “why” is important, but goals have helped me achieve stuff before. Will intentions do that too?
I’ve had so many conversations with people who set goals for themselves to eat clean all week. It feels great on Monday. Tuesday, too.
But, let’s say on Wednesday, there’s a mound of chocolate on the tables during an after-school meeting. I’m tired, we think, I deserve a piece of chocolate to get me through this meeting.
So we eat a
piece lot of chocolate. Berate ourselves in our heads. Think, well, I already messed up. I may as well pick up a frozen pizza and some wine on the way home. Wednesday’s missteps lead to more on Thursday, during which we decide to restart on Monday. Oh yeah. We’ve all been there: the Monday-Trap.
Goals lead to an unending cycle of Monday restarts after weeks that are 50% clean and 50% crap. Not ideal. Those goals don’t get met. And, they are mentally and emotionally stressful — yet one more reason we are not measuring up.
Ok, ok. Yes that happens. But there are times when we meet goals, too. What’s so wrong with that?
Anyone who has ever met a goal can relate to the high that goes along with achieving it. They will probably also admit (maybe just to themselves), the emptiness of a “now, what?” feeling and, almost always, a binge of some sort on whatever was being restricted or controlled.
I remember doing (and winning) an 8 week nutrition challenge. It was so hard, but I did it and was pretty damn near perfect the whole time. I won the challenge, felt great about my fat loss and energy, and then felt OVERWHELMING FEAR about how to maintain after the challenge and accountability ended. The challenge was a great way for me to experience how drastically food changes my daily moods and energy. It was a great way to experiment with new ways of being. But it was not sustainable.
When you set an intention to “move every day”, you get to choose in what way you meet this. Some days you might want to take a long walk before school with your dogs. Other days, five minutes of stretching at lunch in your classroom might be it. And some days, you’ll effing kill it at the gym and feel like superwoman.
When you are simply doing your best to align your actions with your intentions, that are deeply grounded in a meaningful “why”, this breeds momentum. It is the epitome of sustainability.
Yeah, yeah…that sounds great and all. But what happens when you mess up?
Goals are tough. They imply perfection (or damn near close) in order to achieve them, often as quickly as possible.
The first year I felt successful as a teacher was my 7th year in the classroom. MY SEVENTH YEAR.
Why? I could quote the difficulties of teaching in the U.S. school systems, or the drain on time and energy, or the unreasonable expectations of districts and admin, but really, my discontent stemmed from my inability to ever meet the goals I set for myself. I defined “success” as getting all my students at or above grade level, being planned and prepped every day, never messing up and saying something that impacted a child in a negative way.
Goals fed my perfectionism and left me gasping for air, drowning in a sea “not enough”.
When I begin to explore the “why” of teaching, I discovered that, for me, it was about two things:
- inspiring joy and curiosity
The goals I had set had nothing to do with my “why”. So, I did an experiment. I wrote two intentions on a sticky note and put it on my computer so I would see it multiple times a day.
So every day, my intentions were to:
- get beside kids — get to know them, coach them on their writing, make eye contact, smile, ask questions, be present, listen
- share myself — tell stories in my mini-lessons; share my own ideas, successes, and failures as a writer and human; bring in videos, articles, and pieces that inspired me to hopefully inspire them
Some days were better than others. But each day, I aligned my actions with my intentions the best that I could. At the end of the day, I would reflect for a moment to see how well aligned I was. And, finally, no matter how “good” or “bad” the day was, I would tell myself it was enough, pat myself on the back, and go home, knowing tomorrow was a fresh start. NOT MONDAY. Tomorrow.
Because that’s the thing about intentions — they are all about PRACTICE, not perfection.
It is not about balls-to-the-wall hustle till you get that goal.
Intentions are about the consistent, meaning-driven, sustainable improvement of how we exist in the world—how we treat ourselves, how we treat others, and how we contribute.
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