Planning with SPIRIT vs. Planning with Ego: How to Stay Centered

It is January 2021, just over half way through the month, and all around me I hear and read about people who have already given up on their good intentions. That is a pity – and unnecessary. Of course it is difficult, changes take a lot of time and mental energy, and the global pandemic does not help much either. Yet I would say that I’m well on my way, sometimes I struggle with my planning, but on the whole, I am happily crossing out items on my long list of 100 things I would like to do in 2021.

Not to brag, but some things go even better than planned. For example, I had put on my list that I wanted to start a nice cosy Facebook group for Japan Fans in the Utrecht area – to share links and articles about Japan – and now, two weeks in, we have a professional website http://www.japanfans.nl that is offering virtual workshops, demonstrations, concerts and more, thanks to our sponsors (six and counting).

“What is your secret?” – a dear friend humorously asked. Well, to be frank, I am autistic, so I don’t do secrets (planning a surprise party for my significant other was one of the most stressful events of recent years). But I do have many tricks. And I need them too, because with (my) autism comes chaos, anxiety, procrastination and a lack of self-confidence. Most of these tricks are about goal setting methods, for research has established links between setting goals and higher motivation, self-esteem, self-confidence, and autonomy (eg Locke and Lathan, 2006; Matthews, 2015).

So, what exactly is this “goal setting”? For me, it entails the development of action plans intended to encourage and guide myself towards an objective. Successful goal setting is therefore a method of motivating myself, by ensuring that I am more in control of results or outcomes. There are vastly different processes that play a crucial role in the realization of the outcomes. Importantly, having goals improves focus. Nonetheless, in setting goals that rely on a set of core values, you need to ensure that goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely – aka SMART (Rosswurm and Crabtree, 2018). Setting SMART goals will help in basing decision making and building focus.

There are, however, a few snags and catches in setting yourself SMART goals. They might lead to ego driven, materialistic, superficial behaviour, as the focus is completely on the outcome, instead of on the formation of new habits. A good example is my friend, whose SMART goal was to reach a certain amount of points on Duolingo on a certain day. When the exercises became difficult and she did not earn that many points, she switched languages and practised a language she already knew quite well, in order to achieve her goal of points. Which she did, but this behaviour only distracted her from the higher goal of learning a new language. In this case, a better “goal” for her would have been to practise X minutes of the new language for X times a week.
Research by scholars like Locke and Latham (2019) position that goal setting can be hard if people do not use sensible ways to help in realizing success and that the process of setting goals needs to be as significant as the result. So, if people do not reach their goals, they will think that they are failures. Overcoming that feeling of being failures will need goal targets that offer mental flexibility, so that an entity’s goals motivate them to achieve the things that they desire.
One of the newest tools in my mental collection is the SPIRIT method – a variant of SMART. It helps me to plan desirable goals if I remember that they should have SPIRIT: Specific, Prizes, Individual, Review, Inspiring, and Time-Bound. In this blog post, I would like to introduce you to this “trick” or “brain hack”. I like the method, for it allows me to focus on the small stepping stones, and I hope that SPIRIT goal setting will help you in saving time and limiting frustration, for life is not about surviving – it’s about thriving. Having said that, in my experience, it is so much easier to stay motivated when you know your purposes, the WHY behind your goals. Could you formulate some of those?

For me these are for example: helping people (especially people with autism) to make their dreams come true, spreading information about budo and self-growth, adding a new layer to scholarly research, bringing people around me together to increase our knowledge of Japanese art and culture, and sharing my love for the fipple flute via social media, ignited by a wish to inspire others to take up this accessible instrument.
Notably, in the SPIRIT method, it is important to be specific about what one desires to achieve, and reward oneself at different points of the process, particularly if the goal is long-term. Prizes or rewards will help in keeping yourself motivated. For example, it really helps me to join virtual challenges for my sports, which means that I will receive a beautiful medal when I reach my goal. Likewise, in SPIRIT, goal-setting must be something that focuses on self-betterment and needs constant reviewing to ensure that every process stays on course. It is also important to frame the goal positively so that it can be inspiring and ensure timeliness in the achievement of specific parts of the goal.
After all this information, it’s time to get to work! Let’s fill in the letters of this new mnemonic acronym, and give ourselves some criteria to guide us. I am about to start a new year at my apprenticeship for graphic design and today, I have a few sub-goals to plan for that as well. Shall we (re)start together? Nothing to be scared about, just make a little list with small things you could do that will take you a step closer to your goals. If you write it down, with a pen on a paper, your brain will take it more seriously. And even more if you add your reasons: next to the resolution, just write WHY you want to do it.

S → specific. According to my dictionary, that means defined, clear, unambiguous. It matters little what the rest of the world thinks, but you must have a very clear idea of what your goal is. For me, this would be: make three drafts of the illustration on grief and loss and discuss them with my supervisor. I want to achieve this goal because I want to improve my illustration on commission. This helps me to stay centered and on my own path.

P → prizes. The rewards when you made it! Mostly, these are the results of you achieving your goal. For example, one of my goals is to set up a home office and I shall purchase a new computer when the room is cleared out and ready. In my case for today, this is mostly the satisfaction of completing a first version (it’s always magical to make something that wasn’t there before, I think), but I also know that I’ll be cooking an extra delicious meal for myself, tonight, to celebrate this new step in my journey as a visual artist. The WHY behind that, is that I think that visual art can communicate and explore concepts or ideas in a more intuitive way, and as such, I think that my illustrations can help me to come closer to my purposes.
I → individual. Each goal is highly personal. You set your goals because they resonate with your deepest desires. Take a few moments to meditate and focus on your inner self, so that your path will not be distorted by others. Your purpose is unique and has nothing to do with the superficial ideas that society imposes on us. Moreover, your individual goal is a goal that is achievable for you, so do not compare yourself with others, we all have a different path, with different goals. Formulating your individual wishes can help you to stay centered.
R → review. How is it going, does this goal need any adjustments? Sometimes, when working on a first sketch, I get super inspired! Then I decide to hand in not three, but four, five or even six examples for the client to choose from. This is something to discuss with my supervisor, as I do not want to overwhelm clients with too many possibilities, so that would be my “review”. Remember that within the moments of review, it is important to compliment yourself. Even if – in your mind – the outcome could have been better, you did try your best and that is the most important aspect.
I → the second “i” is for inspiration. Frame the goal positively, so that it inspires you instead of scares you. Society is often too focused on money and fame as measurements of success, but that is superficial and all about the ego. Try to focus on being your own inspiration – imagine your future self looking back, and feeling proud and satisfied. An inspiring goal has inspiring sub goals as well, that are fun to accomplish. You could post about it on social media. Or make a picture of the end result, frame it, and post it on the wall, like my supervisor did with one of my designs.
T → time bound. Just like in SMART goal setting, this method includes an element of time management. But there is a difference in approach. Because SPIRIT is more about learning habits and systems, rather than getting to the finish line. In SMART, you impose deadlines on yourself, so that you start to feel the urgency of the tasks. That can help, but it can also cause stress. For me, it often works better if I choose a time frame. For example: today I’m going to learn Japanese for an hour. And in my concrete example: today I am going to hand in three designs. Whether they’re finished or not, whether it’s at 12 o’clock or 18 o’clock, I’m going to hand in three of them to my manager.
And that is that! If you struggle with filling in one of the letters, it might help to think of the five W-questions. Who – What – Where – When – Why. So for me, with some help from my supervisor, I wish to finish three sketches, today, at the office, by the end of the day, because I want to become a better designer. And you? Let’s try it, so that today, we will do many things to be grateful for, tomorrow. For every day is the first day of the rest of your life and a great day to start with the life that suits you best!

References
Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2019). The development of goal setting theory: A half century retrospective. Motivation Science, 5(2).
Rosswurm, K., & Crabtree, J. (2018). SMART Community Re-entry: Creating and Attaining Re-entry Goals for Incarcerated Individuals. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 72(4_Supplement_1), 7211520308p1-7211520308p1.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Martine Mussies is an autistic blogger from Utrecht, the Netherlands. On her personal website www.martinemussies.nl she shares her music and art, and she blogs about the many things that interest her, like cyborgs, Japan, languages, games, mermaids, music, martial arts, (neuro)psychology, and medieval studies. She is fond of fanfiction and all things geeky, which she describes as “random nerdiness”. Moreover, she hopes to inspire other people – both autistic and neurotypical – by blogging about personal growth and goal setting, such as in this blog, which was especially written for “The Jazzy Daze of Fashion“. 

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