I took a roughly two-week vacation this holiday season. It was my first real vacation since starting my job back in May, and the first time that I ran out of reasons to push off reflecting on how my life has changed since leaving college and, perhaps more significantly, leaving AIESEC.
While I have a number of reasons to be happy with my year, my self-evaluation was mixed, largely because of one reason: I found myself falling back into an old, familiar trap. I've been fighting it for much of my life and only started overcoming regularly in the last few years; it is a problem I share with a large swath of the world. It is, quite simply, that I am far too likely to take things as they come.
The pitfalls of going with the flow
The value of being able to adjust to whatever comes your way is critical and should not be underestimated. Many of the best experiences I had while traveling came about as a result of letting things happen spontaneously—from getting treated to an intense Russian sauna experience in Ust-Kamenogorsk to a bizarre trip from Munich to Barcelona via Barcellona, Italy (don't ask).
However, the same attitude that works well for day-to-day decisions can be disastrous for major life decisions. In these cases, going with the flow is the equivalent of taking the path of least resistance: the path that does not challenge you to develop yourself, or, worse, can lead you thoroughly astray. It can happen in any facet of life: the job you get, the college you go to, the hobbies you take up. And while for most people with a middle class upbringing this path leads to the inescapable gloom of mediocrity, for many people across the world the "path of least resistance" leads to poverty, drug addiction and crime.
Acting with intent
If going with the flow can become the antithesis of personal growth, acting with intent is the catalyst that makes it happen. When a person acts with intent, they are aligning their actions towards a specific purpose.
Actions with intent are generally goal-driven, but even more than that, they are deliberate: the critical element is in making a conscious decision—"I have decided to do this, for the following reasons." This type of action is the outcome of a process that—despite its simplicity—I have always found hard to put into practice.
Changing my approach
Driven by the desire to make improvements, I've spent much of the holiday reading about various frameworks for goal setting and methods for productivity improvements. To my chagrin I found that none of these felt quite right to me: I could not see myself following through on any of the more intense ones, and the more basic ones struck me as things I wouldn't think about often enough.
Instead, and partially inspired by a post by a good friend of mine, Justin Hsu, I've concluded that the way to keep myself accountable is to boil my goals down into a single question: Am I acting with intent?
This isn't a "theme" for the year; it's much too vague and too broad for that. Rather, it is an ongoing sanity test for me, as I make decisions and choose to do (or not do) certain things throughout the year.
I'm still working through applying the aforementioned process to setting my own goals, and I'll share it as I do. But the entire way, I'll be asking myself that same question.