Whether it’s through self-help books, social media or the well-meaning advice of others, we are surrounded by the idea that we could be doing things better. There are so many things now that we are told we ‘should’ do for our health, for prosperity or for bettering ourselves in some way. We should eat well, sleep more, exercise, read more, save more, strive for that promotion or set out our 5-year-plan. At the same time, we should be going through life as mindfully as we can, ensure we keep our stress levels down, appreciate the small things in life, do more fun things and challenge ourselves to meet new people. How can we do it all? How can we live well, stay sane, work hard and ‘live in the moment’? If we’re not careful, we can find ourselves trying to do too much and striving on too many fronts. What started as an enthusiastic new plan becomes something we struggle to maintain, leaving us feeling as though we have failed. Alternatively, we do brilliantly in this specific area, but other parts of our life fall behind. So how can we be finding the right balance?
While simple, the answer to much of this lies in what is important to you; what aspects of you and your life mean most to you, what will bring you most satisfaction or happiness. The key to this is really knowing yourself well enough to know. It can be easy to be swayed by others, to think there are certain goals you ‘should’ want to achieve. Ultimately, if you are not intrinsically motivated yourself, they are unlikely to stick for long. It’s also helpful to have an idea as to what results you need to see and how quickly. For most of us, we are motivated by results; whether this is a notable improvement to health, well-being, income or accomplishment. Some of us are good at reminding ourselves of the longer-term goal to keep us on track. Others of us need shorter term goals and returns on our hard work. So before setting yourself any new goals, take the time to really think about whether this is the right goal for you; when you have one of those days where things are feeling hard work, is the prize at the end going to be enough to motivate you through? Be clear on what outcomes you’re hoping for. Does this seem realistic and sustainable?
It can be helpful to review your goals and the balance in your life regularly. While you might be making great strides towards a goal, always be sure to evaluate and review the greater impact on your life; the costs and benefits in full. Is this what you were hoping for? Are there any significant sacrifices you hadn’t considered?
While setting goals works brilliantly for some, it is not essential for making changes in your life, nor for being happy and content. As much as goals can be motivating and support the forming of new habits, they can also become preoccupying. They can lead to a constant feeling of striving and dissatisfaction with the ‘here-and-now’. Some may argue this is because your goals may not be set appropriately. Again though, it is about what works for you. Some people do well taking up new challenges and interests on a regular basis; doing things while they are fun and rewarding, and then moving on when they don’t grip your interest anymore. If this sounds like you, ask the question of whether this makes you feel content. If it does, perhaps there is something to be said for acceptance of this trait. As much as striving and self-accomplishment can be good for our self-esteem, acceptance of who we are and what we enjoy can be good for our well-being. What becomes important here then, is holding some balance to avoid constant ‘all-or-nothing’ cycles.
Notice your response to set backs or deviations from planned goals. Are you accepting of this or do you find yourself beating yourself up; criticising yourself in some way or blaming it on an inherent weakness? What do you do next? Give up entirely or go 360 degrees and tackle it again but in an entirely unsustainable way? Either end of the spectrum is not conducive to our happiness. We can be exceptionally good at self-criticism despite the fact it does very little for our well-being or productivity. It may be that your goals themselves are helpful, but your personal response to set-backs is not. This is something that can be challenged and worked on.
Taking a mindful approach to life can prove a more satisfying alternative or accompaniment to goal setting and has been shown to have significant benefits for our health and productivity. Mindfulness meditation has increased significantly within mainstream culture in recent years. Useful and easy to access apps can support short segments of mindful activity and practice day to day. More formal courses are often available locally. Alternatively, try making a pact with yourself to focus on ‘being in the moment’ a little more throughout the day; encourage yourself to notice things around you more; try to notice some of the sensations of day to day tasks rather than going through the motions. It may be that your ‘goal’ instead becomes about actively doing things which support your emotional well-being; aim to worry less about some of the more mundane day to day chores, and instead spend that time enjoying the company of friends and family. It could be that you decide to focus on prioritising yourself over work demands and looking after others for a change.
Ultimately, it is not about what the goal is or how quickly you achieve it; it is about recognising what is supportive to you as a fully rounded individual which includes your health and happiness. If goals work for you, then the key is to be mindful of the approach you take to them and the impact they have on you. If you are someone who tends to get unhelpfully preoccupied by them; if they tend to push you towards cycles of over-striving and dissatisfaction, then do not feel you must keep making them or pursuing them. Stop and re-evaluate what does work for you.
Limit your goals; make them specific and time limited, or alternatively make them long term but ensure they are rewarding and sustainable. Don’t overwhelm your life with the pressures of striving. We need areas of our life which we can just enjoy and lose ourselves in. Prioritise well-being and happiness as much as accomplishment and growth. Spend the time to appreciate the ‘here-and-now’; enjoying people’s company, the simple pleasures of cooking or having a cup of tea, a lunch time wander or guilt-free 15 minutes reading a good book. Creating the time for these moments in your life can ensure we ground our mind and body back in the here and now; it can disrupt any unhelpful ruminative processes, it can bring us back to being grateful for what we do have or what we have achieved. Aside from the mental health benefits these things can bring, they can also ensure we are at best for then tackling specific goals when we do want to challenge ourselves.
If you are someone who struggles to find the right approach to challenges, and struggles with the feelings of failure or unhappiness this can bring, it can be helpful to talk things through. If you find your mood being adversely effected by endless cycles of striving and giving-up, it might be that therapy could be helpful to you. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss things further or check out www.peterkinpsychology.com to see what we can offer.