Achieving goals requires determination and hard work, so we often push ourselves hard in the direction of what we want to achieve: from completing a work project to losing weight. But the more pressure we put on ourselves, the more we can end up sabotaging our efforts to make progress as stress distracts us. The safety valve we need to protect us from that danger is something simple, yet often overlooked: grace.
Gracefulness is a valuable gift we can give ourselves and others. It frees us from all sorts of unnecessary stress, clearing the way for us to pursue our goals without burdens like worry or insecurity. It gives us confidence that all will work out for the best if we simply do our best. It tells us that our best efforts are enough, and that even with our flaws and mistakes, we are enough — to be respected and loved unconditionally.
When I worked on a popular website I had created, I set high goals for how much and how soon I wanted to grow its page views. The pressure I placed on myself was intense. Day after day and night after night, I churned out a plethora of new articles and social media posts. The Internet traffic numbers grew steadily, but rather than be satisfied that my best work was seeing some good results, I constantly struggled with anxiety. How was my site ranking against competing sites? Was my site growing fast enough? Why didn’t I have as many social media “likes” as I would have liked — and how many would really satisfy me, anyway? For every question I tried to figure out, a new question would pop up in its place, sending me racing around another dizzying lap of work and worry.
Meanwhile, I started to pressure my kids about their homework. If they hadn’t started a project by the time I thought was wise (even though the due date was still in the future), I’d be pressuring them to begin right away. If they didn’t seem to be giving their best effort to a worksheet or book report, I was quick to admonish them. And if they ever forgot an assignment or turned one in late, I’d yell at them. Never mind that their grades were good and they were learning well. Blinded by my lack of grace, all I saw was they could do better somehow. I was working my hardest, I reasoned, so my son and daughter had better do the same, or else they’d know about it.
My failure to open the gift of grace in my own life was causing me to act disgracefully toward those I loved the most. And all the while, I thought I was doing the right thing.
One day, exhausted from yet another round of seemingly endless work, I found myself unable to concentrate and decided to take a break. I left my home office and simply started walking through my neighborhood. The more I walked, the more I realized that I didn’t need to rush back to work. All would be well no matter what happened when I returned, because grace would be enough to help me deal with it. I said a spontaneous prayer of thanks to God for grace, and felt peace settle on me like soft raindrops on parched ground. After about an hour, I returned to my desk empowered to be productive, but without the relentless drive to be productive that had stalked me before.
Soon I started to live a more graceful life. I took walking breaks from work on a regular basis. But beyond walking, I started dancing — in my mind. I imagined that I was a ballerina dancing through each day, expressing each move to the best of my ability, but staying in sync with the rhythm of life around me. Rather than stomping across the daily stage as hard as I could, I aimed to take graceful steps that flowed naturally.
That simple choice to be graceful didn’t hurt my efforts to achieve goals. Just the opposite happened, in fact. My website grew farther and faster. So did my relationships with my kids, who it turned out were more inspired to do their homework when I trusted them to do so than when I’d pressured them about it.
What goals are you trying to reach today? Some may be long-term goals, like getting out of debt, losing weight, earning a degree, or repairing a broken relationship. Others may be short-term goals, such as finishing a project at work, making a great dinner for your children, or going on a date with your spouse. No matter what goals you want to achieve, you stand a better chance of reaching them if you’re graceful in the process.
So sleep more and worry less. Laugh more and yell less. Choose to be kind even when it’s inconvenient to do so. Make time to listen to your own soul, and to other people’s stories. Work well and let that be enough. When pressure comes toward you, dance gracefully away from it, trusting that your best efforts are all you need to accomplish what’s best.
Whitney Hopler works as Communications Director at George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being (CWB) and has written for many media organizations, from About.com to the Washington Post. Connect with Whitney on Twitter and connect with CWB on Twitter and Facebook.