Even if the majority of us don’t set New Year’s Resolutions or expect not to reach them, goal-setting is essential in life. Whether you’re working towards a new career milestone, want to raise your children, are fighting depression, or doing all of the above, goals matter. Without goals, we aren’t necessarily aimless, but it’s easy to get lost and not find the way forward. Goals give us something to strive for on a daily basis, and something to celebrate regularly.
More than anything else, goals are important in depression. Setting a goal and achieving it feels really, really good. Things that feel good are important when you’re feeling bad. To elaborate, setting goals also helps us cling to a more actionable and concrete vision for the future than simply rely on the vague promise of “getting better”. Achievable, traceable goals give us a better sense of progress, and remind us that no matter how bad things get, no matter how much your depression might flare up, you’re still moving forward and actively improving week after week.
But there’s an art to setting goals. Too far-fetched, and they become demotivating, and turn into a sense of anxiety and self-loathing. Too simple, and you don’t feel like you’ve achieved much of anything. But with the right frequency and plan, you can turn 2019 into a year marked by frequent successes.
Good Goals and Bad Goals
Yes, there are good goals and bad goals. We’ve touched on this to a degree in the earlier section – bad goals are unachievable, very difficult to achieve, or simply take very little effort to achieve. Good goals should force you to change your priorities a little and evaluate how you spend your time, without forcing you to completely optimize your life, turn it upside down, or leave no breathing room for errors and miscalculations.
An example of a bad goal is planning to become a professional athlete in any given sport that you have only recently become interested in. There are extraordinary success stories of incredible tenacity and willpower, allowing a newcomer or amateur to rise to the ranks of the pros within a year of arduous practice, depending on the sport and other factors such as age, luck, and local resources. But goals dependent on luck with a minimal or nonexistent window for missteps simply aren’t realistic.
Another bad goal is going from never having consistently written anything before to starting and completing a novel. Novels are typically about 90,000-100,000 words, and require a large amount of planning, drafting, deleting and rewriting to complete. An end product of 100,000 words may very well have been up to twice or thrice that long at some point.
Good goals take the same goal, but parse it down into something achievable, albeit challenging. Instead of planning to become a pro athlete, measure your current abilities and statistics and seek to reach a certain goal by the midpoint of 2019. If, for example, you want to become a short-distance runner and use sports to improve your depression, you’ll have to improve your times in the 60m, 100m and 200m events. Figure out how fast you run now and set goals for June 2019.
Instead of completing a novel, aim to finish a shorter story every month. It may only be 3,000 or 5,000 words, but this is much more achievable than dedicating yourself to long-form storytelling with no actual experience in writing shorter forms of fiction. You don’t have to “save your story” for a big book – start by writing your story out in a shorter form, seek feedback and criticism, and keep working on it until it evolves into something you can turn into a larger story.
The difference between realistic and unrealistic goals is a measure of effort, decreasing enthusiasm, and impact. A goal that requires you to dedicate several hours each day to something you’ve never done before is likely not going to be realistic.
A goal that allows you to take a day off here or there, while still demanding some form of a regular schedule involving an hour or so per day is much more achievable, and just as likely to push you to overcome limitations, improve significantly, and experience a genuine sense of achievement at the end of a long road.
While you may be filled with excitement and enthusiasm now, think on how you’ll feel about your goal once it starts to become routine, and once the enthusiasm begins to wear off. One of the hardest parts of depression is the lack of motivation to do anything. Some days, you may only be able to dedicate a few minutes to your writing or training, while other days you’ll want to do nothing at all. Leaving room for those days while still acknowledging that you’ll have to push a little bit to achieve your goals is the right balance between a realistic goal, and something you likely won’t achieve.
Just because you won’t write a novel this year doesn’t mean it won’t ever happen, of course. Starting with short stories and dedicating some time to improving your abilities as a storyteller and a writer can eventually put you on the path towards creating your first novel. Or it may push you to realize that you’re meant to do other things, such as writing poems or screenplays, or doing something entirely different.
Focus on the Short-Term
Both of the aforementioned goals are short-term, in the sense that they take less than a year to achieve. It’s easier and much more feasible to set smaller goals with the goal of achieving something significant over the course of a year, rather than setting one big goal for which you may lose enthusiasm or interest. Trying to hit a good time in six months means you can re-evaluate your progress after those first six months and see where you should go from there.
Long-term goals are important as well, but if this is your first year setting concrete goals, it’s best to stick to goals you can achieve within shorter time-frames and then evaluating how your progress over the last few months dictates your potential progress for the next twelve months.
Be Flexible with Your Goals
Life can get in the way of your plans and put a wrench in your goals, and it’s important to be conscious of these issues and not let them hamper your enthusiasm for your goals. If you want to reach a certain athletic goal within six months but catch a serious flu or strain a muscle in the process, take time off to recuperate fully, recover properly, and reconsider what your goal should be. Be flexible, and understand that it isn’t about the goal itself, but it’s about committing to long-term change.
If you’re planning to lift a set amount of weight within six months but have to postpone that same goal to hit it towards the end of the year, understand that that’s still a success if you manage to reach the second goal, because you will have spent that much more time dedicating yourself to a feasibly, tangible change you can be proud of – and that’s what truly helps you in the process of treating depression.