How to Set Goals You'll Actually Keep
Updated: Dec 26, 2021
Today, I wrote down three goals for the next 12 months. For someone who has struggled with codependency/passivity/hopelessness and helplessness/defeatism/negative self-talk, this is incredible progress. If you're a person who updates their SMART goals regularly as you tick them off the list, or have ever kept all your New Year's resolutions, you probably don't need to read any further. But if you struggle with depression, anxiety, procrastination, or a persistent feeling of overwhelm that keeps you frozen in place, this article on how to set and keep goals might help.
Whether your goals are big - like going back to school and getting a certification or a degree - or small, like overcoming fatigue and disorganization enough to pull out the holiday decorations - there are steps you can take to reach those targets. And no, we're not going to measure whether the goals are particularly attainable or not. It turns out, that doesn't really matter; it's okay to dream big. In fact, I highly recommend it. What matters is that you understand what may be holding you back, so you can get unstuck. Then you can work to achieve whatever is on your personal agenda, in full understanding that sometimes the results may be out of your hands, but at least you will have taken the needed steps to improve your situation.
What could be blocking you from accomplishing your goals
It's no secret that feeling like shit can get in the way of you doing what is important to you. But if this is an entrenched pattern, you may not even be aware of what is wrong, let alone how to fix it. Consider the following questions in your own life:
Is low energy, fatigue, body pain, and/or a general feeling of physical and mental unwellness, making it hard for you to get things done?
Do you feel like you aren't really enjoying your wins, even when you do manage to achieve goals? Do you feel numb when you should be feeling proud?
Are you having negative thoughts such as, "There's no way I can do that"?
Do you find yourself in a holding pattern, waiting for someone or something to come along and improve your situation instead of taking helpful action?
Have you reduced your regular activities because of external circumstances (like lockdowns) or internal ones (feelings of guilt, shame, grief, inadequacy and the like), that keep you from moving forward?
In particular, have you stopped or reduced activities that give you a sense of purpose, pleasure and satisfaction - or are not sure what those activities even are, anymore?
If you answered 'yes' to any or all of these, try to drill down and find the cause. It could be situational (such as feeling low because of outside circumstances, like losing your job or going through a rough divorce) or it could be a more pervasive form of low mood. It would be wise at this point to reach out to your health care provider to see what resources could be available to help you both discern the severity of your symptoms and suggest a treatment program to help you get back on your feet.
Not ready to seek professional help? I get it. Despite living in a country that purports to offer a comprehensive social safety net, I have come up against many internal and external barriers to getting quality mental health help. The good news is that you can still look at your own life and start making changes for yourself that can yield huge benefits. Yes, I know how hard it is. I know that not everybody can do it, or is ready to do it. But if you are reading this, give yourself credit: you CAN acknowledge that you may be trapped in a vicious cycle of negative feelings and inactivity, and you CAN get out of it.
How to rebuild your routine and move towards your goals
Feeling like crap can derail you not only from lofty goals but from daily life. When you can't stay on top of the basics, like grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, or laundry, it's obviously easy to push more demanding goals even farther out of reach. The first step toward achieving your true goals is to rebuild and improve your normal daily routine. Take a moment to think about and write down:
The things that give you pleasure, purpose, satisfaction, or a sense of accomplishment - however small - even if you have stopped doing them
The things that, if you don't do them, will actually make your life worse (like taking care of childcare responsibilities or bill payments) - things that already keep you up at night
Any ways your approach (such as all-or-nothing) your scheduling (putting things off to the last minute) or lack of routine (going with the flow) are sabotaging you from actually doing what you want to do
Now, you need to pick one thing to accomplish. Yes, just one thing. If you keep things too general, with statements like "I want to be happier", you are unlikely to gain the focused direction necessary to make the dream a reality. Goals do need to be broken down into smaller steps to increase your chance of success. But some of us are afraid to identify specifically what we would like to accomplish and how exactly we plan to do it, because all we can see is the potential for failure at every turn. The point of getting specific is NOT to hold your butt to the fire and force you into a rigid success/failure mode where you are punished for anything less than perfection. Remember, you are in charge of this; no one is monitoring how well you do or holding you to some impossible standard you remember from childhood. The point of being specific is to make things easier for yourself. If you don't hold to the plan completely, that's okay; you can make a new plan.
How to plan and execute in the direction of your dreams
It's time to lay out the plan. Well, two plans, really: Plan A and Plan B. We'll start small: Say you want to pull out those holiday decorations from storage, and decorate the house for the holidays. Here are the specs:
Pick a day and time to do it, and schedule a suitable block of time for the activity in your calendar. If you will be getting the decorations at a different time than doing the actual decorating, schedule both days and times. They should be times when you can foresee no reasonable obstacle (i.e. do not attempt this too close to a mandatory activity such as a medical appointment).
Put some accountability in place. Few of us can achieve anything worthwhile without help, encouragement, or accountability; what might help you? If you post your goal or intent on social media, will that help you stick to it? What if you tell a friend about your plan and ask him or her to check in with you? Can you pray specifically for the strength and energy to get something done, or do a meditation to clear your mind before the action must be carried out?
Write down any potential barriers to achieving your plan, and what the solutions might be. For example, make sure you have the key to the storage space on your keyring if it isn't already. Make sure you bring a dolly so you can cart the boxes to your car or in the elevator. Enlist the help of a friend if the items are too heavy to carry. Whoops, I jumped straight to solutions on those ones, but you get the idea.
Write down how you will react if the mission is NOT accomplished. For example, something important might come up to prevent you from getting the mission accomplished; it could turn out that you stopped paying the storage fee a long time ago and your items are forfeit, or the items were not protected from the elements and some of them are unusable. These are absolute worst case scenarios. Far more likely is that you discover the landlord needs you to be home during that block of time to make repairs to your apartment, or your son forgot his equipment for the game and you have to make an emergency pit stop. It happens. But how will you react? Will you beat yourself up and leave it at that? What is your Plan B? If you just generally feel low or down - as usual - are you going to let that stop you, or is there a way to at least modify the plan that will get you closer to the goal?
Now, say your goal is more complex. You want to get out of debt in the next 24 months. You will see that the steps above still work in that scenario. There will be more mini-steps along the way, but the main principles still hold true: You need a timeline, you need support, you must anticipate what might get in the way, and you should have a backup plan.
Record your experience
Say you did or didn't achieve a particular goal. What we most often miss is the debrief: what went right? What went wrong? How are we feeling about all of it? What, if anything, can be done differently in the future? This is the real secret sauce that predicts future success: being able to look objectively at the facts, acknowledge the emotions, and move forward, rather than floundering in despair for 'failure', not acknowledging our own efforts, or failing to give ourselves credit for success. No corporation would completely ignore success or failure without examining what actually happened; so, too, must we all take a moment to reflect on our achievements and our progress.
Has this been helpful? Let me know in the comments. And, stay curious about what works and what doesn't work when you are motivating yourself to achieve a goal.