Missed milestones and progress plateaus can leave us feeling low. To restore self-confidence and achieve your dream, pause, focus, and reset—however many times necessary.
Jonathan likes to dream big. His goal was to qualify for the Boston Marathon, the premier stage in the distance-running world. At the time, the Boston native felt fit and fast and believed he could earn a spot on the start line—even though it meant chopping 30 minutes off his marathon time in a mere six months.
“I was fixated on the idea that if I hit this goal time, I’ll be happy, fulfilled, and satisfied,” Jonathan says.
This line of thinking probably sounds familiar. So many of us, like Jonathan, equate success with achieving a goal. And we want to see results. Immediately.
Ultimately, Jonathan didn’t cross the finish line fast enough to earn a coveted entry to the annual Boston race.
Does that mean he failed? Should he give up?
In the midst of working hard to achieve a goal, a sudden setback, or, worse, a cycle of setbacks, might make us want to throw in the towel. After the first hiccup in our plan, it’s not uncommon to ditch an overenthusiastic goal to save money, work out, or adopt a brand-new lifestyle.
After dealing with a series of injuries, Jonathan took two years off from racing. “I always heard people say, ‘trust the process,’ but I just wanted to achieve stuff now,” he says, “and that’s a recipe for disaster.”
When our success and happiness are tied up in hitting a specific target, and we miss that target—whether by a mile or a millimeter—we have a choice in deciding what that means.
Calling it a “failure” or “giving up” is not the most effective option. That kind of all-or-nothing thinking can create unrealistic expectations and fuel negative thoughts and emotions. This is particularly important to be aware of when we are living with a mood disorder. As demonstrated in a study published in 2018 in Clinical Psychological Science, depression and anxiety disorders are correlated to seeing the world in absolutist terms—that is, having thoughts that are “independent of context and unqualified by nuance.”
A more useful choice is to reset the goal, redefine success, and rethink our motivations for setting the target in the first place.
“Not achieving your goal the first time around is completely normal,” says social worker Krystal Kavita Jagoo, MSW, of Ontario, Canada. Nor is it a sign of failure: “Part of achieving a goal is working through challenges that may arise,” she says.
A setback, then, might simply be an opportunity to recalibrate. And in that sense, the key to success is not in setting a goal; it’s in resetting that goal—as many times as necessary.
WHEN AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED
Setbacks can feel deflating, especially when we’re grappling with symptoms of depression or anxiety, says Pauline Wallin, PhD, a Pennsylvania-based licensed psychologist and the author of Taming Your Inner Brat.
Dealing with mood disorders, she says, “can distort your view of objective reality” and cause your self-esteem to fluctuate, which may make you more prone to giving up.
But setbacks happen, whether it’s one or 20 bumps in the road. As Jagoo says, “No one wants to fail to achieve their goals. It usually has to do with other factors in life that make that goal unrealistic at that time.”
When those “other factors” stop us short, Jagoo recommends narrowing our focus. “Ask yourself what can be done to work towards that outcome,” she says, “rather than getting stuck on a milestone that may be challenging.”
If your dream is to manage your office department by the time you turn 45, for example, you could plan to attend one networking event per month to make new connections that could lead to future leadership positions.
Amanda of Maryland, is familiar with this process of focused, incremental change. At 53 years old, Amanda “should” be on cruise control toward retirement. But a recent divorce has caused her to rethink everything, from her career to her day-to-day expenses. “When we split, that meant changing quite a bit—finding ways to increase my income, save toward retirement, help with college tuition, and overall savings,” she says.
Those goals could easily overwhelm someone, but Amanda broke them down into smaller steps. At home, she began to cut costs, getting rid of cable and eating out less often. With her career, Amanda focused on marketing efforts to find better-paying clients, which enabled her to recalibrate her career goals in a matter of months.
Importantly, she shifted her mind-set from “I work” to “I run a business,” which has made a difference in how she approaches her professional and financial goals. Understanding that this is a process, she plans to revisit her goals every quarter and make adjustments as needed.
“I’m not where I want to be yet, but I’m getting there,” she says.
PRESS PAUSE, THEN RESET
Many situations can compel us to reset our goals, perhaps more than once. A common hang-up? The dreaded plateau—when we stop making measurable progress. At this point, it’s common to judge ourselves harshly and fall into the habit of negative self-talk.
When we feel as if we’ve stalled, psychologist Wallin suggests that we remind ourselves that setting goals and building good habits takes sustained effort, and stumbles are common. With practice, we stumble less often. “It’s like when you move into a new house and reach for the wrong wall to turn on the light. It takes a while to retrain yourself,” she says.
We might feel compelled to immediately change our goal when we plateau or encounter a setback, but it’s more effective and restorative to take some time off. It’s important to “give yourself permission not to do anything for a little while,” says Wallin. “Sometimes, deciding what you’re not going to do can make you feel better.”
Jonathan, the distance runner, experienced a plateau in his journey and ultimately took a break when his injuries required him to step back from serious training for two years. Although it might have felt like a disappointment initially, the break gave him a valuable opportunity to readjust both his goal and his mind-set.
While he collaborated with his coach to adjust his workouts, Jonathan says he focused even more on his mental training by looking at each race and training run as a data point. He says, “This is a piece of feedback that allows me to modify and make decisions about how to better prepare for the future.”
When he was able to return to distance running, Jonathan ended up falling in love with the day-to-day consistency of it and seeing gradual improvement versus nailing that all-or-nothing finishing time.
Instead of six months, it took him four years to earn his goal marathon time. But he did it. And in the process, his approach, appreciation, and passion for his sport have evolved.
FINDING YOUR “WHY”
During the pause before a goal reset, taking an opportunity to look inside yourself and identify your true motivations can be life changing. Consider asking yourself questions like “Why am I setting this specific goal?” and “Am I making changes because I want to, because I need to—or because I feel obligated to?”
Jonathan realized the key to moving forward was figuring out why he cared about his goal in the first place. He discovered that he loved exploring the boundaries of his physical limits. From there, running transformed from a hobby to a daily practice—mentally and physically. Whereas he used to pick races based on their date or his potential to run a fast time, Jonathan now says yes only to events that excite him.
Homing in on the deeper reason behind a goal may be the secret to success, according to Gabriele Oettingen, professor of psychology at NYU and author of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.
“When you ask people for their goals, they might give you all-too-quick an answer,” she says. “When you ask them to search for a wish that is dear to their heart, that is, you ask them, ‘What is it that you really want?’ people will have the chance to feel out what they truly need.”
To help us recognize our true wishes, set priorities, and determine how to fulfill those dreams, Oettingen and her team have developed a technique called WOOP—Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. WOOP is different from the well-known SMART method—setting goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound—and research shows it works.
In one study, WOOP helped participants double their regular physical activity performed during a four-month period; another showed that WOOP enabled subjects to increase fruit and vegetable intake by more than 30 percent over two years. Even more encouraging, a study published in 2016 in the journal Cognitive Therapy and Research found that WOOP helped individuals with mild to moderate depression reach their goals.
“When you’re experiencing depression, it can feel like you’re looking at the world through smoke-colored glasses,” says Wallin. When everything seems to have lost its luster, it can magnify your feelings and drain your motivation. For that reason, it’s especially important to dig deep and uncover our true motivations and dreams.
“You need to know why you’re setting a goal,” says Wallin, even if it’s a seemingly small goal to help you get through the day. By identifying our “why,” perhaps with the WOOP method, we are laying ourselves a stronger foundation from which to start.
ANTICIPATE A STUMBLE
In learning to reset our goals and recalibrate our expectations, we’re assessing our current situation and trying to connect the dots from the present moment to the end goal. We cannot predict the future, but we can plan for setbacks.
“If we understand where challenges may arise ahead of time,” says social worker Jagoo, we “may be better able to navigate them, should they come up.”
Rebecca, a 38-year-old living with anxiety and depression, understands the need to plan for difficulties. She wanted to stick with a vegan diet but knew that trying to figure out what to eat would be an obstacle. The San Francisco resident decided to enlist a food coach to help create recipes and a meal plan to keep her on track.
“When we meet in person, he asks me about my successes for the week,” as well as what didn’t work, says Rebecca.
By discussing what didn’t work, Rebecca and her food coach have a built-in process for continuous goal reassessment. Those seeming setbacks are important because, just like with Jonathan’s runs, each can be looked at not as a “failure” but as a data point enabling her to better anticipate hurdles and plan ahead.
“If I’m going to be out late, I think about what I can do to have my dinner with me,” she says. “Maybe it’s getting it together the night before or putting it in my calendar to remind myself.”
Making use of setbacks instead of succumbing to them is something Jagoo explores with her clients, too. If they don’t meet a weekly goal, she says, “I want them to come back and talk about [the] process and barriers that we didn’t anticipate.”
From there, she works with her clients to determine the root of the difficulty and recalibrate the goal or modify their approach so that success is more attainable.
Sometimes the problem isn’t the goal itself. If the difficulty revolved around a particularly stressful week, Jagoo says, “Maybe the goal would not need to be adjusted, just tried again.”
SELF-TALK & SMALL ACTIONS
When we reset goals, it’s essential to pay attention to how we talk to ourselves. According to Wallin, we can reduce our internal resistance and feelings of overwhelm by avoiding phrases like “I should” or “I have to.” Notice the difference in how you feel after saying to yourself, “I have to start cooking dinner” versus “I’m going to cook dinner.” She explains,” Instead of negative self-talk like ‘It’s too hard’ or ‘What’s the point?’ you can say, ‘I won’t be sorry I did this’ or ‘It’s hard but not impossible.’”
Because depression and anxiety can cause us to think in all-or-nothing terms, it’s helpful to break large goals into smaller ones that are actionable and feel doable. “Focus on what you’re going to do rather than how you feel about it,” says Wallin, and your mind and your body will calm down.
“You may not solve all your problems today,” she continues, “but you can make an appointment with a therapist.”
Achieving that small goal of making an appointment, for example, “gives you control over one part of your life when everything can feel overwhelming,” Wallin says. “Every time you accomplish something, it builds your confidence.”
As we change, our goals and circumstances may change, too. When our situations, setbacks, and successes look different from how we had expected things to turn out, we need to be cautious of labeling the effort—or ourselves—as failures. As Jagoo warns, “It can be really easy to fall into some patterns of black-and-white thinking.”
Part of moving through life’s ups and downs is rethinking how we define success. “I would encourage one to strive towards progress rather than perfection,” says Jagoo, and “to focus on process goals as opposed to outcome ones.”
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WOOP: An Alternative to SMART Goals
Ready to WOOP? It only takes a few minutes to home in on your true wish.
- WISH: Sit in a quiet place and think of a deep-felt wish. What do you really want? Choose something that feels challenging but still feasible for you to realize.
- OUTCOME: Consider the best outcome and imagine it. How would you feel if you achieved your wish?
- OBSTACLE: Find your main inner obstacle—a factor within your control that is holding you back—and imagine it. It may be an emotion, a habit, or a belief.
- PLAN: Make a plan. Identify one thought or action that can help you overcome your obstacle. Create an “if, then” statement: “If my obstacle arises, then I will take this action or think this thought.”
According to Gabriele Oettingen, who developed the WOOP strategy, if we first identify and imagine the positive outcome of a deep wish, we will understand where to go. Then, by identifying, imagining, and planning for the inner obstacle of that wish, we obtain the energy to surmount it. She says that “since WOOP can support us in constructively managing our everyday lives and long-term development—regardless of whether we are in a high or a low mood—it would be helpful to do WOOP exercises regularly.”
Printed as “From Burnout to Balance,” Winter 2020
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