It’s easy to let this time of year become a time when we look back with regrets about what we didn’t accomplish this past year and in response, look toward the new year with unrealistic goals (that we then might regret in late December 2019). I want to talk about moving forward with more sense and realism, while also kicking ass and taking names with your goals. You can have both. I know I have in the past year and a half.

Perhaps the single most important activity I did while at Mayo Clinic’s Pain Rehabilitation Center was a values inventory assessment. The staff gave us each envelopes with about 80 common values that guide people’s lives – health, knowledge, power, friendship, service, and so on. They asked us to sort them into three categories: Very important to me, important to me, and not important to me. Let me tell you, almost all of them went in very important to me. (Surprise, surprise to anyone who knows me and the ridiculous amount of passion that’s stored within my soul.)

This was my “very important to me” category as of yesterday. It actually pained me somewhat to put some of the values in “important” or “not important,” even though some of them were clear.

Then, they said, “Pick five that will guide your actions, even on your worst pain days. These will be the values that you center your lives around, the values that make you say: ‘I may value not being in pain, but I value _______ more,’ keeping you participating fully in your life.”


I was dismayed and nervous, but it was a crucial exercise in being realistic, while also remaining optimistic and consistently focused on what matters to me – the things that get me out of bed, even when I would rather call it a day because of how bad my fatigue or pain is in that moment.

These were the things in summer 2016 that I decided to refuse to compromise because of my desire to not be in as much pain as I would be if I were out and about, doing things and living life: Family, friendship, growth, inner peace, and God’s will.

I decided in that moment to reopen the envelope every time a new year was approaching so that I could take those five values and create goals for the year with them. That way, my New Year’s resolutions were always going to be based on my values.

What’s really important to me?

I need to be aware of the limitations that my chronic pain and illnesses bring as I decide how to move forward into a new space. I can’t create 50 goals and expect to keep them. I can’t have 50 priorities in life and expect to be reliable and consistent. I need to pick five to start, and then I can work from there.

After a ton of soul-searching, these are my five for the year: Openness, health, intimacy, leisure, and hope. They encompass so much of what it is that I long for, and of course, I cheated a little bit because each one represents more than just its one word. The values that I picked in summer 2016 are all in here somehow!

These five words represent the core of the S.M.A.R.T.O. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timed and Owned) goals that I’ll be making for the year.

Rather than just saying “I want to exercise more,” I put reality into the picture and detail how I will actually go about them. It’s saying, “I want to do about 30 minutes on the elliptical four times a week. I worry that I won’t be able to do this because of my fatigue and busy schedule, but I want to do this because of how good it makes me feel.” It’s realistic because I’m already up to 25-30 minutes, specific and measurable because it says how many minutes and times a week I plan to exercise, relevant because it’s consistently recommended for my health conditions, and acknowledges an obstacle that I plan to overcome.

I also make sure to use the language of “could” rather than “should” when talking about my goals. “I could do the elliptical today” sounds much more promising than “I should do the elliptical today,” no? It sounds like a desirable option rather than a guilt-based decision that I’ll feel shame about if I don’t do it just right.

It’s also important to edit your goals as you go in order to match where you are. If I’m feeling like I can do 30 minutes easily in a month, I’ll bump my goal up to 35 minutes! If I’m having trouble with the frequency because I don’t feel I have time, I can lower the goal for the moment and bump it back up over time, or I can take time to identify more specific obstacles and decide how to face them.

Value-based actions can serve as a north star when you’re lost.

What are you hoping will guide you this coming year? Here’s the hands-on version of the values inventory, which involves printing and cutting out your own cards, (because no amazing staff member from Mayo Clinic is going to do it for you at home, unfortunately), and here’s a survey version of the values inventory if you don’t have the energy to print and cut. Why not take it and spend the time to discern what really matters to you?

I hope you find this thought exercise helpful, especially if you have limitations on your energy, body, or mind that prevent you from feeling like you’re living the life you wish you were living. These have helped me to feel both realistic and optimistic about where I’m heading and how I spend my time. They’ve been a north star to me over the last year and a half, and I hope that you will find some guidance in them, too.

May you be able to start the new year with joy and hope, without regrets in your heart about this past year. You are doing your best, and that’s what matters the most.

Emmie Arnold

Emmie Arnold (she/her/hers) is a hospital chaplain in New York; a Reverend in the PC(USA); avid cook; traveler (on hiatus); friend and family member to many; writer; and musician.


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