It’s February 28th, which means we are 59 days into 2018 and for some (myself included) - the New Year's resolutions that looked promising and hopeful on January 1st may feel considerably less so. Whether or not you set yearly resolutions, we all have some practice of goal-setting, whether it is in career, school, relationships, or personal life. While reaching goals often feels rewarding, unmet goals can elicit frustration, self-doubt, or self-criticism. These thoughts and feelings can often be enough for us to call it quits. However, this does not need to be the case. If the adage “experience is the best teacher” is true (and I think it is!) goal-setting (and striving positively) can always be an instructive and productive process.
First of all, let’s acknowledge that goal-setting itself can activate a whole range of automatic thoughts and emotions. For some, identifying goals can be motivating and exciting, whereas for others it may feel overwhelming and induce anxiety. We may experience optimistic thoughts, like “I think this will be a great experience” or possess skepticism and think “Well, any progress isn’t going to last”. As cognitive-behavioral therapists, we believe that identifying how we are thinking about a situation is just as important as the thought itself. Observing how we think and feel about goal-setting is a first step towards honest self-reflection, challenging unfair expectations of ourselves, and recognizing inaccurate beliefs about our ability that get in the way of goal-setting. It may be helpful to ask yourself:
What thoughts or emotions did/do I have about setting this goal?
What information or experiences have I had already that supports that my thought is true? Is there any information that contradicts my thought as true?
Onto the act of goal-setting: While there are many ways to set goals, I have found the S.M.A.R.T. acronym a helpful guideline (Doran, 1981). Is your goal Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-based?
Let me provide a specific example from my own life: I’d like to be more environmentally conscious in 2018, and in my goal-setting process, I have broken down my goal into a bite-sized chunk. For example, I decided: S - I want to reduce my material footprint on a daily basis, M - I will take my daily coffee in a reusable thermos, A - Yes, I have multiple reusable options in my home/workplace, R - I can make coffee at home or request that a barista fill my thermos when purchasing it, T - I commit to this every morning. I will continue for 3 months and then reevaluate how things are going. Although it can be tempting to set goals that represent the ideal life we’d want, identifying reasonable and smaller goals goals that account for your present reality is essential. In fact, choosing goals that seem to be smaller than you think you should choose is a good first step. Why? Because being successful in smaller goals allows us to begin building a foundation to support more complex goals (e.g. if I can bring my thermos to work regularly, then I can add the goal next of always carrying reusable shopping bags with me, scaffolding on the same habit I’ve already created). Making our goals overly ambitious sets us up for quick setbacks that typically result in a barrage of self-criticism which pulls us off track of problem-solving and habit building.
Importantly, there are always setbacks in meeting goals. How we respond to the setback is critical. Do we shame ourselves or over-personalize the setback (e.g., I forgot my coffee thermos twice this week, so this week is a wash; How could I forget my thermos-am I just an irresponsible person?!). Instead, we can “take the shame out of the game” and get curious about what happened and do some fact-finding. Here at CTWPS, we are very invested in staying curious and supporting your problem-solving. Reach out to us if we can help!
Doran, G. T. (1981). There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write managements’ goals and objectives. Management Review, 70, 35–36. Dörnyei, Z. (2001). Motivational strategies in the language classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge Language Teaching Library.