In Five Years’ Time | Thoughts on Goal Setting

So, I haven’t written anything in just over a week, which doesn’t seem like a long time but I was on something of a roll back there and it was nice whilst it lasted, wasn’t it? You will have to indulge my self-centred nature for a post (or two) because the topic at hand is something that has been playing on my mind lately, mostly prompted by the fact I recently turned 25 (I know, just typing that makes me feel faintly sick) and partially prompted by Rosianna’s video about life plans, both of which have been urged onward by the fact that I now can’t for the life of me get this damn ‘5 Years Time’ song out of my head – thanks Noah and the Whale.

I’ve always been a little crap at self-reflection and goal-setting. Mostly because I am an indecisive person by nature, even when the choice is insignificant and arbitrary. If you ask me what film I want to watch tonight, it will probably take me hours to settle on one, and even then I’d only decide if you seemed to be leaning towards one film over another. Deciding for myself has never been my forte, I much prefer it when I’m forced down one path. Perhaps that’s simply innate indecisiveness or perhaps that’s just plain old flakiness – I’ll let you decide how charitable to be.

I’ve pinpointed the cause of this inability to choose; until the age of 21, by and large I didn’t make any decisions that weren’t at least, in part, already dictated for me by an external source. Let’s examine the evidence, shall we? From the age of 4 until 16, I was in obligatory education. Even then, once I’d finished secondary school, not going to college or sixth form wasn’t really an option, because I wanted to go to university and continue my studies, so the System (let’s call it that) said I needed to do A Levels, get good grades, and go study English. Ok, so I made some decisions about which universities to apply to – and then the four universities I’d applied to made my final decision for me when three of them rejected me and Lancaster accepted me. I was off to Lancaster, it seemed! I got the grades, I got in, I studied English Literature at Lancaster for 3 years and then I decided I probably wasn’t done with studying quite yet and, as the university kindly decided I was a First-class honours student, I got onto their MA Literature course without any trouble. Fast-forward to a year later and I was facing the abyss as I handed in my dissertation. I never had to attend a lecture, seminar, or workshop again. I never had to hand in another piece of work for assessment. I never had to sit another exam. I was free. And I’d never felt more terrified at being given freedom to choose – I wrote a blog post vaguely about it, about what Douglas Copeland dubbed ‘option paralysis’ that you experience when you have too many options and the freedom to choose between them is actually overwhelming rather than liberating. (It’s a real thing, honest!)

The truth is, not that much has changed since that point. I still don’t really know what I’m doing, or where I’m going, or even where I’d like to be doing or going. This post isn’t me rehashing that crisis of option paralysis. This post is me wondering how do you move from not knowing what you want to do to having a 5-year plan. As I’m getting older, people around me are making plans and (scarily) achieving their goals already. They’re striving for something, they have a destination in mind – they have decided, somewhere along the way, to pursue something, they have a focus, something to measure their success (or failure) by. They want to be at a certain stage in their career by age 30, they want to have saved X amount of money for a deposit on a house, they want to move to a different city in the next 2 years. Whatever it is, there’s something.

And then there’s me. Truthfully, I’ve never been one for setting goals that extend further than a few months – my yearly resolutions are about as far as I go, and, as we all know, New Year’s Resolutions are rarely achieved with complete success. (Or, perhaps, I shouldn’t speak for everyone here because you all could be much more self-disciplined than I and annually tick off last year’s resolution with satisfaction. That’s not my experience, though.) But that’s just a commitment for a year, to do something or to stop doing something for a year of your life, that’s it – resolutions are then usually abandoned or altered come the next 1st January, with the successful ones becoming habits that have stuck for (hopefully) the long term.

I understand that. What I don’t understand is the people who have nicely organised 5-year plans. You know the type – dedicated, shit-together people who have a 5-year plan all laid out for their personal and professional lives. It might be split into sections about self-improvement, health, culture, career goals; it could even be colour-coded. They will ‘check in’ with their plan every year and see how it’s going and if it’s behind schedule, they’ll reprioritise and adjust, so that everything happens within the 5-year goal. That’s not me. But should it be? At this point in my life, should I literally sit down and map out at least a vague path of where I want to be in the next 5 years/by the time I’m 30?

I don’t envisage the future. I can’t envisage the future. Where will I be in 5 years’ time? Excuse my French but fuck knows. I am utterly incapable of telling you where I will be or what I’m likely to be doing in 5 years. Worse still, I couldn’t even tell you where I want to be, or what I want to be doing, in five years’ time. I probably do need to do an audit of my life and figure out where I’m at and where I want to be. And not a token effort of assigning fairly arbitrary goals because it’s New Years’ and I need some resolutions to aim for, a proper audit and goal-setting. But how do you even start that kind of thing if you’re not naturally inclined to that way of thinking? I need advice and resources, clearly – to Google I go!

In the interests of being cyclical, let’s bring this back to where I started – the inability to get that bloody Noah and the Whale song out of my head.

In five years’ time, I might not know you
In five years’ time, we might not speak
In five years’ time, we might not get along
In five years’ time, you might just prove me wrong

Do you notice something about the tense? It’s not ‘we won’t be’, it’s ‘we might not be’ because, frankly, no one has foresight (despite what they say) and who knows where we’ll be in 1826 days. The future is never certain and there’s only so many decisions you have control over – sometimes you can actively choose to make certain choices that will help you move further along that path to whatever goal you have in mind but some of it is just plain luck, some of it is ‘the right place at the right time’, sometimes the stars just align, and sometimes the stars really don’t, and all your plans are scuppered. The best laid plans of mice and men, as they say…

Even so, I’m sure it doesn’t hurt to actually have a vague plan for where you want to be, if nothing else to work out what you value (and don’t value) in life, so that you can prioritise the things that make you happy and bin the things that don’t. The only thing that is certain is that in 5 years’ time (all being well) I will be 30 years old. You can rely on time, even if sometimes I wish it would slow down so I don’t feel like all I did was blink and here I am at age 25. 30 is widely considered a milestone, that’s significant, it’s the age at which you’re generally expected to have your proverbial shit together – or at least be really good at faking it. So I suppose I’d better get to it and make some of these plans that life will inevitably come and tear down – it all sounds rather grand, doesn’t it?

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