How I’m Recovering from Unhealthy Goal Setting — While Still Getting Ish Done

A woman in a sports bra and shorts sits at the edge of a milky pond, staring across the water | Unhealthy goal setting

Yep, there is such a thing as unhealthy goal setting. I’ve been in a semi-toxic, love-hate relationship with goals almost my whole life.

Goals have been my strategy of choice to fix, well, pretty much everything in life. Goal setting, after all, is held up as a cure-all, a panacea to all life’s challenges. If we set goals, work toward them, accomplish them. As a byproduct, we’ll be happy.

Only, that’s not how goals have ever worked for me. My unhealthy goal setting cycle would too often look like this: 

  1. Set a goal, usually one that’s unrealistic. 
  2. Work toward it in fits and starts
  3. Life gets in the way, or I inevitably fall short because it was too lofty in the first place
  4. Get frustrated at the failure, and point all that angst inward

See? Definitely unhealthy and kind of toxic. But where did this cycle even all begin, anyway?

Where my unhealthy goal setting started

I learned to set goals very young, often in the context of my spiritual life. Some of the first goals I ever set centered around my faith: to pray every night before bed and to be a better sister (like Jesus would want me to be). Growing up with a religious background (Mormon), l learned that the way to be good and happy was to constantly try harder to follow the commandments, the rules, better and more closely. 

This focus on self-improvement as a moral imperative carried over into my non-religious personal goals. I always needed a goal in every area of life, a target to stretch for, to feel that I was trying hard enough and doing my best. 

Religious upbringing or not, I think a lot of people can relate to the idea that accomplishing goals is a big part of how we measure our worth.

Goals and achievement are so often tied to our character: inner strength, willpower, discipline, persistence, and commitment.

Which imbues goal-setting with the power to prove (or disprove) our goodness and worth.

Just like I believed my ability to more perfectly obey the rules of my religion was the key to happiness, the prevailing mythos around goals also ties their achievement to our happiness. Complete your goals and you’ll be a strong, independent, powerful person with a happy life.

Except that the happiness doesn’t arrive. Even when I succeeded, I didn’t feel content or at peace — one goal was always followed by another. And if I failed, it triggered self-blaming and shaming.

“You can achieve anything you set your mind to,” we hear. So if I didn’t achieve it, it follows that I lacked mental strength. “If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way.” If I can’t find a way, then that must mean I’m not committed enough to my goals.

The dark side of setting goals: it creates an illusion of control

This myth of goal-setting, even the self-blame that so often comes with it, has a very motivating hidden benefit.

Goals give me an illusion of control. One powerful enough that I kept cycling through unhealthy goal setting and self-shaming.

If I can’t accomplish what I want because it isn’t possible, that means I simply can’t have it.

If I don’t achieve it because I wasn’t trying hard enough, however, that puts some control back in my hands. I have power over how much effort I put in — right? I can always want it more, sacrifice more, try harder, believe better. The promise at the center of goal-setting, that I had the control to make myself and my life into what I wanted, was something I desperately wanted to believe.

Setting and working toward goals became an almost-superstitious act. But instead of, “Can’t step on a crack of it might break my mother’s back,” it was about warding off negative emotions. The money shame can’t get me if I’m working on my goals to get better. The financial anxiety will be quieted if I set out a plan. 

I wanted to believe that my goal-setting rituals would protect me from my own weaknesses and the uncomfortable emotions I didn’t want to experience. This unhealthy goal setting was my way of throwing salt over my shoulder at the real demons that haunted me: the fear that I’m not good enough, not trying hard enough, not disciplined enough. It was a ritual that provided comfort, even though it was hollow.

Resetting and redefining my relationship with goals

But slowly, I grew more suspicious of the system of goal setting and my logic that was fueling it. What if I started questioning the worship of goals, instead of questioning myself? What if there was nothing wrong with me at all?

I’d think, “Ugh, failed another goal,” only to then wonder, “Wait… what if the goal failed me?” 

I became more aware of how I’d used goals as a crutch, a coping mechanism to prop up my self worth when I felt it was threatened, when my value was questioned.

But that hit of feeling accomplished or in control once in a while was offset by a lot more self-recriminating, guilt, and stress. 

 A big question I asked myself on repeat throughout 2019 was how I could push myself — try to improve, grow, do more — in a healthy, balanced way. 

But I’m not sure that healthy balance exists for me. I’ve relied on this act of pushing myself as a way to feel in control for so long, I’m not sure I know how to give myself a nudge without pushing myself over the edge.

Goal-setting had turned into my own never-ending treadmill that keeps validation and satisfaction always just out of reach. Maybe I need to stop fiddling with the settings on the treadmill, my approach to setting goals — and step off it to simply walk to what I want.

6 Ways I build focus and momentum — without traditional goals

Now that it’s February and many resolutions have been abandoned or sputtered out, I know I can’t be the only person rethinking my relationship to conventional goals. It’s not just me figuring out how the heck my good intentions unravel so quickly. Or thinking that there has to be a better way to work toward a happier life.

I don’t have it figured out yet. I’ve made progress, but giving up goals has been scary at times. The urge to push myself is still there, and my default reaction to stress is still to see where I could try harder to fix or prevent it.

But I have experimented with other methods to improve myself and still get shit done. To nudge my life toward an existence that feels more ok to wake up into. And maybe even, some days, feel fun or joyful or satisfying. 

I’ve managed to find some promising alternatives to traditional goal setting. These approaches are a better match for the way I’m wired and what I want to get out of life.

1. Aim at happiness and joy, rather than achievement

When I’m trying to step up my efforts, the word “should” is banned. Instead of worrying about what I should do, I get curious about what I want more of. 

I set intentions designed not to get more out of myself or eke out some extra productivity, but rather to help me get more out of life.

To do things that make me happy. And usually, the things I want are relatively attainable. For example: 

  • Spend more time engaged in creative hobbies, like reading, cooking, and drawing 
  • Make a point of reaching out to friends and loved ones more often
  • Prioritize physical activities because they make me feel good

2. Fix the systems, rather than myself

I’m more critical of systems (like conventional goal-setting) and more willing to try new things. I’ve given up trying to will myself into being a woman who has it all together — she was always a fantasy, anyway. And I instead work toward setting up external structures and systems that support me in the kind of life I want and person I wish to be. 

For my money, that means automating positive habits like transferring funds to savings or setting up alerts for spending categories like groceries. It also means making it harder to impulsively spend by unfollowing brand accounts and removing saved credit card info.

3. Prioritize flexible resiliency over rigid consistency

Traditional goal setting calls for specific, measurable aims: checking off a task each day or week, or maintaining a specific schedule. I have rigid expectations centered on consistency, doing something every day or week or month. 

But… this me in a pass/fail mindset that can be so discouraging. And daily life isn’t really pass-fail, right? Each day is a chance to practice and make progress. The aim of practice isn’t hitting every note or making every shot. Rather, I practice to turn something I’m not great out into something I can consistently do better. 

That’s what I mean by flexible resilience: worrying less about executing perfectly every time and more on getting back to it when needed. Restarting a lapsed habit, whether its exercise or planning out my week. Or looking at my tasks not as hard-and-set, must-dos, but rather as a way to strengthen my self-management or build a universal skill. I look at my to-dos as opportunities to build better time management, for example, or to practice taking on a task that feels scary or makes me anxious. 

4. Give yourself some extra support

When I’ve been feeling stress, overwhelmed, on the edge of panic in the past — I often have turned to goals as a way to help me regain control. Unfortunately, this often just gives me more to do and keep track of, adding to my to-do list and further depleting my energy to tackle any of this. 

I’ve found it more effective to respond to high stress levels by prioritizing my unmet needs. I get enough sleep, even if that means pushing things off a day because I’m not staying up late to finish a project. I try to eat well, take walks, and make time for regular breaks. And I also ask friends for some help or support.

And I remember that a lot of my health- or support-centered “goals” are about helping me. Thus, I don’t need to pressure myself to turn them into healthy habits that I have to constantly work on and maintain.

I view them instead as tools that I get to pull out of my toolbox as needed. To give myself these little boosts along the way wards off burnout and maintain enough fuel to keep things moving.

5. Choose an area of life to focus on and enrich

My therapist suggested that instead of setting goals each week, I ask a simple question: “Where do I want to put my energy this week?” That feels like a much more freeing question than, “What should I or do I need to get done this week?” First, it’s all about what I want — not what I feel pressure to accomplish. 

Second, it’s both clarifying and fairly open-ended. It helps me get clear on what needs my attention in the near future, whether it’s my family, my blog, my paid work or even myself. Then I can look for a small way to give that area of my life a little extra attention and love each day.

6. Build out the margins in my life

In all, my struggle with goals came down to the fact that I’m a bit of a messy person. I’m not on top of my stuff, day in and day out. I spent years trying to “fix” that by forcing myself to be a different, “better” version of myself who always remembered things, never wasted time, perfectly kept to her to-do list.

But it didn’t stick because, well, that’s simply not me. I’m not high-functioning in that way. I’m functional-ish. And I’ve had more success and less stress when I’ve planned my life accordingly.

In my finances, for example, I’ve saved a “Fuck Up Fund” to cover mistakes or messy moments. I’ve learned to leave more unstructured time in my schedule. I’ve worked out my limits for paid work. These wider margins in my life leave more space to stumble or simply slow down, without everything falling apart. 

In all, I’ve learned to accept my personal limits more gracefully. And instead of constantly pushing on them and exhausting myself in the process, I’ve learned to respect them. 

As I’ve questioned the belief that I always needed to be doing more, doing better — I’ve been able to more readily believe that I’m already doing enough. I’m still growing and improving, sure, but at my own pace and in directions that feel more meaningful. In the process, I’ve also offered myself so much more self-respect, self-acceptance, and even self-love.

Photos by Cristina Gottardi and Estee Janssens

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