Why Setting Goals Is Good for You (Even if You Don't Always Meet Them)
It's not just something we do to feel productive on New Year's Eve.
Every January, people get inspired to make a change in one (or several) aspects of their life, whether it’s their health, habits, home, career, or relationships. While a new year is often synonymous with goal-setting, creating aspirations for your future is beneficial to your mental health and well-being anytime of year. In fact, the act of setting goals—whether professional, personal, or both—improves our productivity, satisfaction, and perspective. What’s more, this is true whether or not we’re successful at reaching these goals. Here, wellness experts explain why we should set goals, how they help us holistically, and how to find the silver lining when we don't accomplish what we'd hoped.
Why should we set goals, anyway?
From a psychological perspective, creating goals engages the reticular activating system within our brain, according to life coach and mental health expert Emily Rivera. This part of our mind organically promotes the engagement and attention necessary to recognize the steps and opportunities that help us reach our goals. When we don’t make blueprints for how we want our life to change or improve, we miss out on the benefits of this part of our brain. “When we fail to direct our attention and focus through goal setting, we can more easily get distracted and lose the motivation needed to create the life we desire and deserve,” she explains.
Another psychological perk of goal-setting is that it challenges us to tune in to our intuition when we think about our resolutions. How come? We all know what we want or what we hope for; it’s just a matter of taking the time and energy to put those hopes into practice to arrive at the result, explains Jessie Reibman, the executive director of The Space for Good, a nonprofit training and talent development organization. Just by writing down the specific, nitty-gritty goals we’re thinking about puts them into action.
“We generally set goals to achieve an outcome, which can only be achieved by changing our behaviors,” she continues. “The more specific and granular we can get about what we want to achieve and how we will achieve it, the more likely we are to be successful.”
When we set goals, we establish a system of accountability that also helps measure progress over time, too. Goals are used in the mental health field as a way to show progress, says Hanna Stensby, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “When you can measure where you are in the beginning, and how you change based on set markers, you can show change,” Stensby says. “Without identifying what it is that you want to change, it’s difficult to capture that progression.”
So, you didn’t achieve that goal—what can you learn?
Of course, we can’t (and don’t) meet every goal we make. Not only is that OK, but it actually provides an opportunity to learn and move forward, stronger than before. It’s never ideal, but there is value in “failing” to meet a goal or stick to that resolution.
“We can discern between what has worked and what hasn't so that a better focus, mindset, and actions can be cultivated,” Rivera says. “We can reevaluate and identify the habits and patterns in place that are working against us; we can more deliberately weed them out and replace them with patterns and habits that promote our ability to succeed and create the life we desire.”
In fact, the process of trying, failing, and learning from failing may actually provide more value than continually achieving. Jenny Black, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the founder of Media Trauma Care, explains that sometimes we set one goal for ourselves, but life has something different in mind. Instead, it gives us what we need, rather than what we initially wanted. This is an essential lesson in acceptance.
Make the process of setting goals attainable.
Rather than looking at your goals as audacious and unreachable, or something you only consider in late December or early January, shift your perspective to a more fluid approach. The idea is to make gradual progress, and you can only do that by developing routines that encourage ongoing motivation. Here are a few good tricks to get you started.
Make your goal a game.
Fun and games are the ultimate motivators when we’re young—and they still are when we’re adults, just maybe in different forms. Include fun, or even healthy competition, in your goal-setting. Choose a dance class that doesn’t feel like a typical workout. Reward yourself with something you love if you meditate for five minutes every day for one week. Or see who can get the most steps in per day between you and a friend. “The older we get, the more we have to manufacture the play that came naturally when we were children,” Black explains.
Ensure the goal inspires you.
Setting a goal that inspires you is the key to actually achieving it, according to Niseema Dyan Diemer, a licensed marriage therapist, trauma specialist, and the cohost of "The Positive Mind Radio Show" podcast. When you imagine reaching your resolution or think about the work required to make it a reality, it should make you excited and encouraged—not frazzled or fearful.
Try ‘being’ instead of ‘doing.’
Rather than asking yourself where you want to be in five years, ask yourself who you want to be. This simple word change can be a powerful way to set authentic goals. Don’t set goals around doing more, having more, or becoming more; instead, build aspirations around how you can be the best version of yourself.
One day, you’ll reach the mountaintop, with the sprawling view and beautiful sunrise, but for now, take a moment to admire the rock you’re climbing over. When we start taking small yet meaningful steps, Reibman says, we’re more likely to keep trekking. So if one goal you’ve set for yourself is to have a healthier diet, begin by committing to adding one vegetable to every meal. This isn’t overwhelming, and you can add to it as you get more comfortable with your colorful plate.