Stress-Free Tips for Setting and Reaching Your Goals
How to Make Peace with the Process Even When COVID-19 Stalls Your Goals Progress
George Lucas said, “Always remember, your focus determines your reality.”
One of the few blessings of COVID is that it has forced us to slow down and focus on our relationships and family in a way that seemed lost in the modern world. This slower life has sometimes resulted in less stress. The professional and personal goals we had at the beginning of the year may now seem irrelevant or unattainable. It might be tempting, therefore, to give up on goal setting, but we would urge you to use this time to think about your goals for the future.
For some, setting effective goals can almost be as tough and stressful as achieving those goals. But know that once you get a vision in your head, a strange thing can happen: the world around you may come to your aid and help your vision manifest. This is precisely why having goals – and living out your strategies to achieve them – can be the difference between finding happiness, fulfillment, and meaning in life or feeling like you never even made it to the starting line. Having goals matters, and people who choose to focus on them will find fulfillment that is lost to those that don’t.
COVID notwithstanding, creating goals can be a considerable source of stress. And the inability to achieve past goals – even something as simple as a failed New Year’s resolution – can make it feel daunting to put yourself back in the goal-setting game.
What if it is possible, though, to set goals and to go after them in a way that brings you less stress and more success? As it turns out, this is largely about mindset and our own perceptions, meaning it’s possible to flip the script on goal-setting and use it to our advantage in a less stressful way.
The Perception of Stress
Stress is created at the intersection of events in our lives and the thoughts and emotional reactions these events bring about for us. As Hamlet said, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
Understanding this tells us a lot about how we can limit the stressors we face in any given day. Simply by working proactively on our negative thoughts or emotional responses to things that happen can help us to decrease the stress we feel overall, as well as manage the stress we do still feel. It takes practice and forethought, but acquiring the habit of controlling your thoughts and emotions can significantly reduce your stress level.
Goals vs. Habits
Goals are where you want to go. Establishing good habits will help you get there. For instance, you might have a goal of pivoting your business. In service to this, a nightly habit could be to write down three things you must execute the next day to move your vision forward. Or maybe you have a goal to sleep better, so you create a habit of going to bed on time and not drinking alcohol.
But you can have a goal around habits, too. Make a goal of practicing a habit for 30 days straight. At this point, a habit really becomes a “habit” and much easier to sustain.
Goals and Personal Fulfillment
Our personal fulfillment and happiness in life are closely linked to our stressors and how we minimize and manage them. For some, the slower pace of life in COVID has led to less stress and, therefore, greater happiness. So, if we are getting back into goal setting, does it make sense to set goals related to stress management? Actually, psychologists have found the opposite to be the case – most people can manage their stress more successfully by setting goals that are not stress-focused, but that leads to the opposite of stress instead. So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by stress, it may serve you particularly well in a stressful moment to create the habit of taking four deep breaths, but if you want to create more lasting stress relief for yourself, you’re better served by setting a daily habit of, say, writing down five things you’re grateful for. The deep-breathing habit is completely focused on stress, while gratitude journaling is about putting a daily focus on the things you appreciate and find happiness in. If you set goals of practicing these habits for 30 days, you may find you reach your other goals of feeling not only happier but less stressed.
Goals Related to Resilience
COVID has also shown the importance of resilience. Resilient people are those who are able to recover quickly after getting knocked down in life, and though some people are born with more resilience than others, it’s possible for everyone to become more resilient with practice. One example of a resilience-building goal is to become more emotionally aware. When something upsets you, establish the habit of asking yourself why. Knowing why something upsets you can give you important information about what needs to change in your life. Also, learn to be aware of your body’s physiological reaction since these physical reactions tend to heighten your emotional reactions. The more you can become aware of and control your physical reaction, the more you can control your emotional reaction. Another example of a resilience goal is to practice positive self-talk every day. This may seem somewhat strange, but it has a long history and some of the world’s most accomplished people are devotees.
Personal Happiness and Fulfillment Goals
Psychology has shown that one of the best ways to find personal happiness and fulfillment in life is to cultivate a positive attitude. Positive people tend to be more successful. If you’d like to set happiness goals for yourself, you may find the book The Happiness Advantage of interest. The author also has an interesting TEDx Talk on the formula for creating happiness in your life.
These overarching goals we’ve discussed aren’t always easy to maintain. They are long-term and require focused work, yet they are also incredibly impactful and worth the effort. Here are a few tips to help you maintain them – or any other goals you may set, too:
- Set the right goals. You can’t choose a goal because someone else thinks it’s important. Successful goal-setting is about understanding what truly matters to you.
- Think in terms of small steps and establish good habits. No one can reach their goals overnight, and there are no short-cuts to achieving anything truly meaningful. Set yourself up for success with a series of small steps and constructive habits designed to move you closer to the finish line.
- Create SMART goals: Smart goals are Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-Bound.
- Celebrate the small wins. It’s important to reward yourself for the small steps you accomplish because each one creates momentum for the next step.
- Know that slip-ups are part of the process. No one is perfect when it comes to setting and achieving goals. Oftentimes, it’s a “one step forward, two steps back” scenario that will ultimately get you to the finish line over time. Know that this is inherent in the goal-setting process, and give yourself grace when you need to.
- Think long term. It is often said that we overestimate what we can achieve short term and underestimate what we can achieve long term.
If you’re worried that you’ll never see a goal through to completion, it may be because you’re setting the wrong goals, or unattainable ones, in the first place. Start with more overarching life goals, take small steps toward them, and get comfortable with the process. Once you feel less stressed out by goal-setting in general, you can begin setting more specific and focused goals on everything from relationships to money and your career.
Setting goals in a realistic way – even if it will take a bit longer to reach your desired end result – can be the difference between becoming stressed and overwhelmed and abandoning your goals, and achieving the successes you want in life. Nothing worthwhile ever comes easy, but remember that your focus will determine the reality you create for yourself.