In an age of hustle culture with a major emphasis on constant productivity, it’s no wonder that burnout and mental health crises plague people everywhere. When we’re told our worth is directly related to our output, it creates feelings of defeat and frustration alongside the never-ending task lists that cannot be completed. Similarly, when overwhelm is the norm, it can make goal setting in professional and personal life feel daunting.
Aside from productivity culture muddying the goal setting waters, creating objectives and goals can be generally confusing. Some people are able to easily identify their goals and take steps to accomplish them. Others might be able to recognize areas they wish to improve upon, but identifying and implementing the steps to get there can be complicated. Then, there are people who simply don’t have any goals in mind. While it’s important to make sure there are no underlying reasons for this, such as depression and other factors, it’s also perfectly okay and normal to struggle in this area.
Whether you’re searching for new goals, trying to accomplish pre-identified objectives, or simply looking for goal-setting inspiration, starting small and breaking down everything is an effective place to begin.
First and foremost, beating yourself up for a lack of direction or goals is simply not productive. Self-talk matters, and while it’s easier said than done, try being kinder to your mind. According to Psychology Today, “This [inner] voice is useful when it is positive, talking down fears and bolstering confidence. Human nature is prone to negative self-talk, however, and this negativity can be unrealistic and even harmful, paralyzing people into inaction and self-absorption to the point of being unaware of the world around them.”
Expecting yourself to accomplish anything while simultaneously feeding yourself negative messages is counterproductive. Often, our minds are trained to repeat certain thought loops. Try to act as the observer of your thoughts. Simple practices of mindfulness, such as sitting in silence for even a few minutes a day can help you observe the thoughts that pass through your mind. The more we practice being the observer, the easier it becomes to identify negative messages.
Countering these negative feedback loops with constructive rebuttals can be one method in changing destructive patterns. For instance, Sheila, a makeup artist, started observing her thoughts when she made mistakes on clients. “Even though my mistakes were definitely repairable, I noticed that I was calling myself an idiot and questioning why I was even in this field of work.” These passing thoughts happen quickly, and once Sheila started recognizing them, she began countering. “I started mentally replying to the negativity. I would tell those thoughts: ’It’s a mistake that I can easily fix,’ or ‘I am always learning and improving.’”
This can feel strange at first, but it has the power to heal our minds and help us believe we are allowed to be human, mistakes and all. When the negative thoughts and added self-pressure is minimized or combatted, the space for mental clarity arrives and paves the way for focusing on the things we really want.
Aside from altering inner-dialogue, remember that small, daily goals matter. Goals don’t need to be major to be important. Like any other skill, new habits require practice, not perfection. “When I wanted to start exercising,” Brian remembers, “The thought of even walking half a mile felt impossible and boring to me.” Instead of letting his thoughts control the narrative, Brian started small. “I set my walking shoes next to my bed every morning. The only requirement for my day was to put them on and walk to my front door.”
On most days, the act of getting started propelled Brian to leave his home and go for a walk, but some days, he simply put on his shoes and walked to the door without going outside. “I’ve learned that expecting myself to be perfect every day was not working; however, because I set myself up for success and removed the pressure from my mind, walking has become a nice ritual on most days.”
Whether it’s washing your face every day, hitting the gym, or working on a new project, setting a small goal that you know you can accomplish helps the mind realize possibilities. Moreover, removing the pressure to perfectly accomplish small goals allows us to persist without feelings of failure. When babies learn to walk, falling down is inevitable. This can be disappointing and scary, and as adults, we don’t expect babies to figure it out in one day. Similarly, give yourself the space to fall, recover and eventually try again.
Finally, if all else fails, try making the world a little better. We are here for a limited time, and improving the world around us is often free. Being a little kinder to ourselves and others is a goal we can all aim to accomplish. When feelings of purposelessness overcome the mind, remember that each day can bring about an opportunity to enhance the world around us.
Psychology Today describes how acts of goodness and service offer positive benefits to all involved. “Research has found many examples of how doing good, in ways big or small, not only feels good, but also does us good. For instance, the well-being-boosting and depression-lowering benefits of volunteering have been repeatedly documented. As has the sense of meaning and purpose that often accompanies altruistic behavior.”
In a culture fixated on output and constant productivity, creating and maintaining goals can feel like one more task on the to-do list. However, goals aren’t meant to weigh us down and add more stress to life. At their core, goals help us become better versions of ourselves, which in turn assists in creating positive change in the world. Whether you’re actively working towards set goals or feeling aimless, the way you speak to yourself matters. Observe your thoughts, allow your feelings, but ultimately remember that putting yourself down will not likely provide the motivation to continue.
Remember, going back to the basics, breaking down tasks and starting small makes goals more manageable and therefore achievable. Finally, look outside yourself. Everyone is fighting their own battle, and being a little kinder to ourselves and the world around us is a daily goal that offers a sense of goodness and healing.