I was once a person who avoided New Year’s resolutions like the plague! I disliked the feelings of guilt and shame that I inevitably experienced when I failed to meet my goals. I lacked serious motivation because of the dread of failure. As a result, I worked hard at the small things in front of me and in fact accomplished quite a bit. However, without specific goals, it was hard to give myself credit for the very real things I did accomplish. It was also difficult to know if I was pursuing the things that were most important to me.
Inevitably, it was the urgent and loudest tasks that got my full attention, yet these tasks were not always the ones I valued most. I realized that there are many good things to spend my time doing, but I could spend a lifetime doing good things and never actually move forward with my most important things. After a long road of wrestling with the idea of goal setting, my paradigm has drastically shifted. I no longer avoid setting goals but rather, I actually look forward to it!
I understand the stress and heaviness that goal setting can bring for many, which is why I wanted to write this blog. Here are a few paradigm shifts and a couple of tools that have helped decrease my own guilt, while increasing success and joy in the process. May you take the risk of setting a goal or two this year with greater success and less fear and shame.
Tool #1: SMART Goals
SMART is an acronym for constructing specific goals. It stands for: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time Sensitive. An example would be, “This month I will read the two new books I received for my birthday.” This goal is specific regarding what exactly my goal is. It is measurable, because by the end of the month it will be clear whether or not I accomplished it. For me it may be achievable because I’ve identified that it takes me roughly a week to read 100 pages and the books are 200 pages each.
A goal is also achievable when I have the skills, talent, or resources to accomplish it. The goal is realistic when, in light of all my other responsibilities and priorities, it seems realistic that I can accomplish the goal. In the case of this example, if I am also in school and working on final papers and exams this month, this goal may not be realistic. Lastly, a goal is time sensitive when there is a time frame indicated, such as today, this week, this year, etc.
A pitfall for those of us who avoid goal setting because of the fear of failure is to construct vague goals. The problem with vague goals is that it is difficult to know if you are actually moving towards your goal, if you accomplished your goal, if any adjustments need to be made to your goal, and what to prioritize. I have found that intentionally writing out a SMART goal acts as a litmus test for what I choose to say yes to and what I say no to.
In other words, specific goals help me prioritize and sort through the important versus the most important priorities in my day, week, or month. For instance, if I decided that I really valued visiting my family this year for Christmas, I might prioritize saving and spending money on expensive plane tickets instead of making some other expensive purchase. Or on a smaller scale, I might choose to finish an art project instead of cleaning the kitchen tonight.
Three Perspectives to Adopt
Reframe Your Definition of Success: Some Progress is Better than No Progress
Social pressure, high standards, and negative self talk gets in the way of moving forward with our goals. This might sound like, “What’s the point in starting if I can’t do it perfectly,” “That goal is too small; there is no point.” (writing realistic goals often has us downsize our original aspirations), or “I’m too undisciplined/ a loser/ a failure.” This way of thinking prevents many people from attempting a goal.
However, if your definition of success is to make some progress, even if it’s only a little, then these negative thoughts lose their power. “What’s the point if I can’t do it perfectly?” has a response, “I can do some of it now, and I’ll get better in the process.” “The goal is too small,” becomes, “I can meet this goal and I’ll set another one after.” Failure is to do nothing; success is to start moving towards your desired destination, even if it is imperfect, even if you are unsure of the outcome, even if it is a small step.
Not Meeting a Goal is Information Rather Than An Assessment of Your Character
Goals can feel personal and hold the power to proclaim one’s character or identity. When goals are not accomplished as planned, some hear messages such as, “I am weak”, “I am worthless”, or “I am hopeless.” If this is you, letting goals become information instead of identity is an important paradigm shift to make in order to get started with your goals. Do not let your goals hold more power than they should. If success is moving forward towards your goal, you can learn to better overcome the obstacles that get in the way. Not meeting a goal as anticipated provides information about what those obstacles are. If you treat unmet goals as containing helpful information to be used to fine tune and strategize a better approach, you will find yourself moving forward onto your next goal with greater ease and less shame.
Goals are Meant to be Adjusted
It is okay to make goal adjustments! Sometimes we start out with a goal only to discover that we thought it was realistic to accomplish within a certain time frame, but we overlooked an important dynamic that made it more difficult to complete. Or perhaps the goal required additional skills, time, or resources we had not anticipated at the start. Whatever the situation, adjusting the goal to better reflect a true SMART goal will help keep you moving forward, instead of holding to a goal which you’ve lost confidence you can even achieve. You could adopt the perspective that you failed and then just stop pursuing your goal. If you adopt the perspective that goals are meant to be adjusted, you will adjust your goal and keep moving forward. You will achieve more by adjusting your goal than giving up on it all together.
Tool #2: After Action Review
An AAR (After Action Review) answers these three questions:
- What did you hope to accomplish?
- What did you actually accomplish?
- What accounts for the difference (between what you expected and what actually happened)?
This is a helpful tool to assess your goals midway through completion or at the end. Assessing your goals midway through will help you make needed adjustments to the goal which can prevent discouragement and lack of movement. For example, making a small adjustment to a goal that is proving unrealistic, such as extending the time frame or making the goal slightly smaller, can refresh your commitment and hope for achievement. It is easier to press on and keep working at a goal when it seems achievable. An AAR is also a good tool to give you information about how you might approach a future goal differently or the same.
Goal setting can sometimes feel intimidating and overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be that way. It can be a rewarding process that generates a sense of pride and joy. These emotions promote good mental health and are valuable for all of us. Give our office a call today to schedule an appointment with one of our therapists who can help you pursue your goals afresh this year!
Written by therapist Amie Bilson
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