Staying on course: Navigating Your Goals

Staying on course: Navigating Your Goals

Many of us set new goals at the start of the year, hoping to achieve something we value. Among these goals could be pursuing a degree, starting a business, learning a foreign language, or getting in shape. In order to make progress, we need to carve out time in our day for them.

While our intentions are good, it can be challenging to maintain consistent efforts when other commitments take precedence. We may have difficulty making space for our goals within a busy schedule, or setting boundaries to protect the time necessary to pursue them.

As long as the activity is interesting, it motivates us and seems manageable. Eventually, our time and energy are taken over by other commitments. As a result, we delay practicing the language, developing our business, or studying because family matters or work take priority.

What prevents us from persevering with our goals?

How we define our goals affects our motivation to pursue them. Applying for a job, for example, involves filling out applications, which can be time-consuming and demotivating. In contrast, if we say we are seeking a rewarding job or exploring career opportunities, it has a much greater meaning and therefore is more motivating.1Fishbach, A. (2022) Forget quit undone. Surprising Sessions from the science of motivation. New York: Little Brown, Spark.

At times, there may be unforeseen events that take priority, or we have setbacks that can take us off course. Events such as financial concerns, unexpected events, or ill health, preventing us from dedicating time to our goals.

While external factors may hinder our progress, focusing on what we can control empowers us to overcome obstacles.

We take on a new project because we believe we can do it. So, it puzzles us when we are not making progress on what we set out to do, increasing frustration and lowering motivation.

When we focus on what we cannot control it can increase our level of stress. While focusing on what we can control will enable us to solve problems to cope with the stressors and make progress. By focusing on the benefits of what we want to achieve we can maintain our motivation.2Maier, S.F., Amat, J., Baratta, M.V., Paul, E., Watkins, L.K.R. (2006) Behavioural control, the medial prefrontal cortex, and resilience. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 8(4), 397-406.

And sometimes, a lurking feeling of unease can manifest itself as an underlying fear of failure. Deciding to pursue a goal that matters to us requires a significant commitment of time, effort and finances for a long period.

As a result, we may procrastinate, delaying getting started to avoid uncomfortable feelings when working on something difficult. It is even more challenging to prioritise our projects, when we have too much to do and no clarity on how to proceed. Procrastinating on difficult tasks can be a mood management strategy to deal with uncomfortable feelings such as frustration, self-doubt, or not wanting to make mistakes.3Steel, P. (2011) The procrastination equation. How to stop putting things off and start getting things done.  Harlow: Prentice Hall Life
(Pearson)

Acknowledging mistakes as part of the learning process enables us to improve our work. And learning to deal with the uncertainty of how things will develop allows us to follow through with our goals.

As human beings, we like certainty – knowing that our hard work will give us the results we want. However, as we know it is uncertain how things will turn out, we may have doubts which can affect our resolve to continue.

The physical and mental demands required to achieve a long-term goal mean that we need to establish a routine, including reminders to remember our priorities, that will help us maintain our energy levels so that our efforts are sustainable.

And it is not just getting things done, we want to do them well. We worry about not meeting our expectations, disappointing others and ourselves. It is understandable when we wonder whether we can dedicate months or years to achieving our goals.

Learning to manage our thoughts and feelings, and focusing on what will help us make progress can boost our determination to follow through with our goals.

What can we do to manage challenges and keep on track?

Focus on what matters: Remembering what we value and find meaningful will boost our motivation when under pressure. We can use “Why?” questions to connect with our purpose and align with our values.4Grant Halvorson, H. (2012) Succeed. How we can read our goals. New York: Plume For example, “Why am I dedicating time and effort to this goal?”

A long-term goal can seem daunting at first, but if we break it down into smaller chunks it becomes more manageable. As we complete tasks and acknowledge our progress, our motivation and determination to persevere will be reinforced. Keeping track of our priorities helps us focus on what really matters. When distractions arise, they guide our choices about how we spend our time.

To manage the uncertainty of how things may turn out, we can explore and identify possible obstacles and ways to deal with them. For example, we can ask ourselves “What difficulties do we anticipate? Are there alternative ways of viewing the situation?” Keeping an open mind allows us to identify possible ways forward.

To succeed in our projects, it is essential to set realistic goals. To increase the likelihood that we will take action, we can ask “What?” questions to identify specific actions we need to take. This will boost our motivation and keep us on track.5Grant Halvorson, H. (2012) Succeed. How we can read our goals. New York: Plume

Develop self-awareness:  Being aware of our values, and understanding our thoughts and feelings, enables us to maintain confidence in our ability and in the possibility of a positive outcome.

Accepting our emotions and learning to manage them helps us develop our self-efficacy, allowing us to trust our ability to learn and develop new skills.6Bandura, A. (1997) Self-Efficacy. The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Having a flexible attitude is also beneficial, as it helps us manage our emotions and adapt to change. When we feel tension and frustration, our attention is on the things we cannot control. Reflecting allows us to acknowledge them and direct our attention to the things we can control and prepare to do something constructive.7David, S. (2016) Emotional agility. Get unstuck, embrace change and thrive in work and life. London: Penguin Books.

Be curious: It’s human nature to be curious about new and interesting things. We pay attention to what is different. However, once they become familiar we pay less attention to them. Our motivation to follow through with our goals is high at the beginning, but it tends to wane as novelty wears off.

Being curious about the present moment can help us renew our motivation by adding meaning to our tasks.8Kashdan, T. (2010) Curious? Discover the missing ingredient to a fulfilling life. New York: HarperCollins When we notice we have not done the work, rather than being self-critical, we can be curious and ask “What obstacle prevented me from working on this task?”

The question directs our attention to move past the frustration and focus instead on what we can do next to make a positive change.9Eurich, T. (2017) Insight. How to succeed by seeing yourself clearly. London: Pan Macmillan.

When we pay attention to how we are doing things, noticing what we are thinking and feeling allows us to stay in the present. It breaks the cycle of negative thoughts and restores our motivation to keep striving.10Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. New York, NY: William Morrow.

Look after yourself: When we are tired, it is harder to persevere with our efforts. Our brain monitors our energy level and calculates how much energy we can spend and when we need to replenish.

Sitting down for too long looking at screens is tiring. We can restore energy by taking time away from screens and looking out the window. It is beneficial to include time to move in our schedule, as it releases tension from our muscles and helps to boost our energy. If possible, go outdoors and spend time in green spaces.

In addition to managing our emotions, these activities help us to restore balance.11Gilbert, P. & Choden, (2013) Mindful compassion. Using the power of mindfulness and compassion to transform our lives. Great Britain: Robinson. Once we restore our energy level, we can allocate it to energy-intensive tasks.12Feldman Barrett, L. (2020) Seven and a half lessons about the brain. London: Pan Macmillan.

We know how to be kind and supportive of our best friends, so in the same way, we can treat ourselves with kindness as we navigate through a challenging time.13Gilbert, P. & Choden, (2013) Mindful compassion. Using the power of mindfulness and compassion to transform our lives. Great Britain: Robinson. It is essential for our health and wellbeing to look after ourselves and nurture our relationships with others.

Create a support network: We know we are responsible for our decision to engage in a long-term project. It is an individual choice and commitment. However, we do not exist in a vacuum. We all need social connections with people who understand our purpose and share our values.

Some people find it helpful to agree with a friend to meet regularly to check in on how their work is progressing. It helps keep us accountable, discuss ideas, and gain perspective on our work. Having a safe space to explore our ideas can be an effective strategy to manage pressure and keep track of our progress.

As you reflect on your goals consider what small steps you can take today to move closer to your goals. In addition, how might you deal with obstacles on your path?

 

 

Footnotes
  • 1
    Fishbach, A. (2022) Forget quit undone. Surprising Sessions from the science of motivation. New York: Little Brown, Spark.
  • 2
    Maier, S.F., Amat, J., Baratta, M.V., Paul, E., Watkins, L.K.R. (2006) Behavioural control, the medial prefrontal cortex, and resilience. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 8(4), 397-406.
  • 3
    Steel, P. (2011) The procrastination equation. How to stop putting things off and start getting things done.  Harlow: Prentice Hall Life
(Pearson)
  • 4
    Grant Halvorson, H. (2012) Succeed. How we can read our goals. New York: Plume
  • 5
    Grant Halvorson, H. (2012) Succeed. How we can read our goals. New York: Plume
  • 6
    Bandura, A. (1997) Self-Efficacy. The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.
  • 7
    David, S. (2016) Emotional agility. Get unstuck, embrace change and thrive in work and life. London: Penguin Books.
  • 8
    Kashdan, T. (2010) Curious? Discover the missing ingredient to a fulfilling life. New York: HarperCollins
  • 9
    Eurich, T. (2017) Insight. How to succeed by seeing yourself clearly. London: Pan Macmillan.
  • 10
    Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. New York, NY: William Morrow.
  • 11
    Gilbert, P. & Choden, (2013) Mindful compassion. Using the power of mindfulness and compassion to transform our lives. Great Britain: Robinson.
  • 12
    Feldman Barrett, L. (2020) Seven and a half lessons about the brain. London: Pan Macmillan.
  • 13
    Gilbert, P. & Choden, (2013) Mindful compassion. Using the power of mindfulness and compassion to transform our lives. Great Britain: Robinson.

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