How familiar does this sound? It’s the beginning of the new year, and you’re psyched for all you’re going to accomplish. If you’re like me, you might even grab some markers and make adorable lists, charts, and timelines. But…a few weeks later you start to feel overwhelmed, and those lists don’t feel quite as adorable anymore. You took on too much, and suddenly you feel burnt out. The milestones that once made you feel excited and energized are now stressing you out, and feeling like a major chore, possibly leading you to give up altogether.
I do this to myself *repeatedly*. Being a very goal-oriented person, I am constantly making myself lists, whether it’s long-term, short-term, or even the mundane stuff I have to do. I love the sense of accomplishment that comes with scratching something off and calling it a success. I don’t just get the urge around January 1st. I feel compelled to make goals for myself around my birthday, with the change of the season, and keep a number of lists on my phone or in my day planner for daily/weekly intentions. On the one hand, it’s great to be organized, but it’s also a lot of pressure, rigidly trying to stick to a plan. When the stress starts to outweigh the benefit, I start to re-work my approach. And below you’ll find three of the tactics I’m currently using to create meaningful, achievable goals for myself.
1) I’m focusing on quality rather than quantity
Let’s say one of my goals was to spend more time reading. A typical goal with my “old” approach would likely be something like making myself read 2 books a month, or hitting a certain number by the end of the year. While this isn’t un-realistic or anything, I did find that it almost instantly sucked the fun out of it. If I have a rough week, and simply couldn’t set aside time for a book, I would quickly fall behind, and punishing myself to catch up wasn’t healthy. Did it make sense to stay up late and read, when I was exhausted? Would I even enjoy the book, or absorb what I was reading? Or was I mindlessly just looking to tick something off my precious list.
Instead, my new and improved goal might be something along the lines of: “I will dedicate Sunday afternoons to reading”. I find it’s a nice balance. If I did something too loose and vague, like “spend more time reading”, I would probably flounder, and not actually do it. But this way keeps me somewhat accountable, without having to be obsessed about how much I am reading, or how quickly I am reading. I am more likely to enjoy it, therefore more likely to continue with it, and will likely even engage with it on a deeper level (taking the time to pause and reflect on what I am reading, look up reviews, and critically analyze it, for example).
2) I’m making sure my goals are aligned with my values.
I’ve given a shout out to Savvy Psychologist Jade Wu before, and I’ll do it again (because I think she’s great!). I loved the podcast episode 295 titled “How To Live a Meaningful Life (Hint: It’s About Values)”.
While most of the episode is about distinguishing goals from values, the importance of determining your values, and how to actually tease them out, it was definitely still a “light bulb” moment for me. I realized how often I am forcing myself to do something that I simply don’t even care about.
Case in point. I have a friend who is an excellent cook and wonderful baker. When I listen to her gush about the amazing meals she prepares for her family I feel a small pang of guilt, and am embarrassed to admit that I possibly just ate a bowl of cereal for dinner last night. So, every so often I would make it my goal to dedicate more time to cooking. I would browse fancy-looking recipes, and be excited to share it with her afterwards, almost secretly wanting her praise and approval.
The thing is…after spending an afternoon making wild-mushroom risotto I certainly didn’t feel happy. To be blunt, I felt kinda pissed off. Even if the meal tasted good, it just didn’t seem worth it to me. It felt like a waste of time, I was grumpy at the thought of having two hours of dishes, and would have preferred to spend the afternoon on a hike. So, why on Earth was I forcing this?
For her, cooking was something she valued – she thought it was important to prepare satisfying and nutritious meals, she felt pride at the skills she was building, and likely even valued the activities surrounding cooking (spending time with friends, gathering family for a meal). Which is awesome. For her. It’s just not something that I got excited about. I can’t force it or fake it. As an aside, I could easily spend an equivalent amount of time working on this blog (which she might see as pointless), and get a way better amount of satisfaction, flexing my creative muscles.
It is really worth taking the time to pause, and ask yourself why you are striving for a goal. Are you doing it for you? Because it’s something you care about? Will it make you happy?
3) I’m allowing for some flexibility!
It’s kind of silly, but the thought of scrapping one of my goals seems almost unbearable. Even if it’s just something I’ve written down in a tiny little notebook, buried somewhere, or something I’ve mentally promised myself I would do, without even telling another soul about it.
Once I had set my mind on something, it seemed like cheating to try and get out of it. I would find myself forcing goals that clearly weren’t working anymore, and keeping items on my list for years, even when I knew it my heart there was no way I would actually accomplish it.
A recent example is as follows. I decided to counter-act the negative effects of my desk job and made a small fitness goal. I was going to walk a certain amount of kilometres a week, and set up a goal in my fitness tracking app (setting a distance kind of violates my move away from quantitative goals, but I’ll get to that).
I was excited, at first, and loved the visual of seeing my cute little progress bar tell me what percentage I was at every day. Until, week after week, I was barely cracking 50 percent. Then it became de-motivating. My legs were tired, I yet I felt obligated to force out yet another walk late in the evening, just so I wouldn’t fall too behind on this arbitrary goal I had set for myself.
Luckily, by now being a little more mindful of these things, I was quicker to realize that the weekly distance I had set for myself was simply not realistic. I was over-estimating how long it would take me to build up to it, asked myself what the real purpose was, and what the cost could be if I didn’t slow down. I would not only be miserable, but worse, might have injured myself and had to call it quits altogether.
So, I re-worked it. I lowered the mileage, and also decided I could count other activities like some mini yoga/stretch breaks throughout the day, or even housework. While some people (including my former self) might have seen this re-work as failing, I no longer do. Why? Because the ultimate goal was simply for me to get off my butt, and spend more time moving around. This isn’t the same as simply saying “Ugh, this is hard…forget it!”. It’s about accepting when something isn’t working, isn’t a good fit, and keeping the bigger picture in mind.
Maybe your goal was to pay off debt, but then you were suddenly laid off. Or maybe your goal was to lose a few pounds but then a health issue set you back. Be kind to yourself. I promise you this isn’t the same as slacking off, or going too “easy” on yourself. It will allow you to go much farther, in the long run.
And another bonus? All of this is ultimately going to lead to a more meaningful, fulfilling and authentic life – all pros, in my book 😊