Mary Walker is a psychologist with a special interest in depression, anxiety, OCD, trauma and disabilities.
Having something to aim for is important for mental health. A person needs both short term goals (e.g., “what are my plans for the week?”) and long term goals (“what do I want to be doing in 5 years time?”).
In fact, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V) identifies having goals as an important element in good mental health. The entry reads, in part, that a mentally healthy person “sets and aspires to reasonable goals based on a realistic assessment of personal capabilities.”
Goals and Depression
When we are stressed or depressed, motivation and willpower are among the first casualties. A loss of motivation makes it harder to plan or to be enthusiastic about activities. But in fact, these difficult times are when planning and structure are most important.
Choosing goals is not about feelings. You don’t have to feel like it. In fact, if it was easy you’d have already done it—there would be no need to set a goal.
Setting a goal is like a challenge. Your brain becomes alert to the new idea. The goal needs to be challenging but realistic. Often we talk about ‘baby steps’ to acknowledge the difficulty of making progress. Success is the sum of small efforts given consistently. This is especially true when recovering from a psychological difficulty.
Where do you start to set a goal? What would you want for yourself if you could be guaranteed success? One strategy is to ask yourself the Miracle Question. Suppose you had a magic wand, and all the thoughts and feelings you’ve been struggling with were not longer a problem. What would you do differently? Start doing? Do more of?
How would you behave differently?
You can further narrow down these goals by considering the different areas of your life (home, family, work, hobbies) and by identifying your guiding values. Values are different from goals. They are the basis of what we feel is important to our lives.
A lack of fit between values and what is happening in our lives can be a cause of stress. Wanting to have children is a goal, but building a loving, supportive family is more of a value. Values are about the sort of qualities you want to cultivate as a person in terms of relationships, community, employment, and so on. Values can be the basis of goals.
Whichever goals you choose should be specific. Imagine what it looks and feels like to achieve success. Identify the benefits of success and the obstacles you may face. Consider these questions:
- What has stopped me in the past?
- Who sabotages me?
- What steps will I take to get around this?
The next step is to make a commitment. Then, we recommend setting up a step-by-step plan, a system for recording progress, and some reward system to help push yourself forward.
Whatever goals you choose should follow the acronym “SMART.”
- S – Specific – Goals should not be fuzzy, vague, or poorly defined. For example, “I’ll be more loving” is a poor goal. “I’ll give the kids a big hug when they get home from school” is more specific and valuable.
- M – Measurable and meaningful.
- A – Attainable and acceptable.
- R – Realistic. Make sure this goal is realistic for the resources you have available, such as time, money, physical health, social support, knowledge, and skills. If these resources are necessary and unavailable, you will need to change your goal to a more realistic one. The new goal might actually be to find the missing resources needed to reach your initial goal.
- T – Time. Lay out a plan with specific steps to reach your outcome.
As a first step, we recommend brainstorming ideas for goals with yourself or with supportive friends. When planning, it may helpful to prioritize and break down goals. For example, consider which activities are:
- A Tasks: Essential
- B Tasks: Important but don’t have to be done immediately. May eventually become A Tasks, but can be put off to give other things priority.
- C Tasks: What can you delegate?
- D tasks: Unnecessary tasks.
We also recommend that you consider your most common excuses for not setting or sticking to goals, and create a plan for keeping with it. Habits, for example, are an essential part of reaching goals. Good habits are more reliable than one-time actions. They can also be used to help with long term goal setting.
Consider how you will recover from slips. One good method is to tell other people about you goal. Research shows that telling someone about your goal increases the likelihood of you following through. This is known as an accountability partner.
If you are struggling to set or strive for your goals, you may benefit from working with our professionals. To learn more about RWA Psychology or schedule an initial consultation, feel free to contact us at any time.