If you’ve been diagnosed with a mental health disorder and received treatment for it, you know how important it is to make long-term lifestyle changes that keep you healthy. Even so, it can start to feel like everything you do is focused on avoiding relapse rather than on truly thriving.
Routines are great–but they can get boring. Exercise is great–but it can start to feel like a chore. Engaging in a hobby is great–but even that can get monotonous if it stays the same. Because boredom is a trigger for mental health relapse, it’s important to reinvigorate yourself from time to time, to add a spark to your routine to keep it fresh.
One way to do that is to set goals.
Blech, goals! You might think. It sounds like so much work! And how can you feel “fresh” when you’re always working toward the same thing? And don’t goals just set you up for failure?
If you have these kinds of reactions to goal-setting, it’s time to reevaluate. We tend to associate goals with the New Year–those resolutions we make and eventually (or quickly) abandon. But setting goals for yourself can (and probably should) be much less dramatic, with less fireworks and fanfare. Instead of resolving to discover and conquer the New World, be realistic. What do you value day to day? What makes you feel happy about yourself? What gives you a feeling of fulfillment?
How to Set Goals That You Have a Chance of Meeting
Once you have a sense of what makes you feel good about yourself and what you enjoy, look at where you are now. How far away are you from how you want to feel and what you want to accomplish? You might realize that you’re not that far off–maybe changing things just 10% or so would make a really big difference. Or, maybe you feel overwhelmed, like you’d have to change 90% of everything in order to get and be what you want.
But since the key to setting goals is to start small, let’s focus on the 10%. What has to happen for you to make about 10% progress?
You may know about SMART, the goal-setting acronym that reminds us to set goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.
Maybe you start out with big ideas about what you want for yourself:
Stop eating sugar!
Get a new job!
Learn to play guitar!
Wit goals like these, you may find yourself quickly discouraged. SMART goals help you break down your hopes and dreams into bite-sized chunks.
Let’s take Stop eating sugar! as an example. How can you make this a SMART goal?
- Specificity – while “sugar” may sound specific, it’s really not. Do you mean white, refined sugar, or are you including sugars like maple syrup and fructose? What about artificial sweeteners? What about the sugars in non-sweet items, like pasta sauce and bread?
- Measurability – how will you determine how much sugar you’re eating (or not eating)? By the “total sugars” number on the label?
- Achievability – How many foods would you need to cut out to avoid sugar altogether? (Answer: A lot of them.) Is it realistic to think you can resist all sugar cravings, especially if you regularly enjoy sugary treats now?
- Relevancy – why do you want to stop eating sugar? Because it might help you lose weight? Because it’s a health trend right now? Because you have specific health issues that you think will improve without sugar? What is your evidence for that?
- Time-bound-ness – how long do you plan to stop eating sugar? A month? A year? The rest of your life?
Perhaps after answering these questions, you revise your goal:
Because I’ve read that sugar intake is linked to mood disorders, I want to evaluate whether sugar affects my mood. To do that, I will cut out all candy, drinks, and sweets made with white sugar or cane syrup for 40 days. At that point, I’ll reassess.
Perhaps a revised “get a new job” goal would read:
Because the stress of my current job is threatening my mental health, I will begin to look for a new job. Over the next month, I will apply to 10 jobs that I think I would enjoy. I will also set up an appointment with a career counselor.
Perhaps a revised “learn to play guitar” goal would read:
Because I believe a creative outlet will improve my mood and help me focus, and because I want to be able to accompany myself when I sing “Hotel California” at the family talent show three months from now, I will do the following:
- Within the next week: find a guitar teacher; sign up for weekly lessons; and print out guitar chords for “Hotel California”
- For the next three months: attend lessons, practice for 15 minutes a day, rehearse the song in front of a practice audience at least twice before the talent show
Appreciating Yourself Just as You Are, Right Now
While setting and meeting goals can boost your motivation, improve your self-esteem, and spark new achievements, it’s important to take a moment to appreciate where you are now. When you struggle with a mental health disorder, it can feel like a big achievement to get out of bed and accomplish anything at all in a day. So when you set goals, be gentle with yourself. Remember that you have intrinsic value and worth that has nothing to do with what you accomplish. Don’t look at goals as your only chance to be better. Look at them as a story you’re writing, with yourself as the hero. Remember that sometimes making your bed is heroic.