4 ways to change your approach to goal setting

How can we go about taking control of some changes in our lives? We often do this by setting goals.


SAN ANTONIOEditor’s note: Read more tips like this in KSAT’s Mental Wellness section.

Greek philosopher Heraclitus stated that “Change is the only constant in life.”

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When life seems to be going great, we may not want change to come. Conversely, when life is hard, we can take solace in knowing that this challenge too shall pass. We’ve all gone through change, especially in this last year.

How can we go about taking control of some changes in our lives? We often do this by setting goals.

At the beginning of the pandemic and at the beginning of the New Year, you probably noticed a lot of people on social media sharing goals they were going to accomplish – exercise more, learn to cook, organize the house, start a new hobby.

While many of us may have been able to make a short-term change, it probably didn’t last. The positive changes were eventually overtaken by negative habits… at least that is how it was for me.

Just like so many others, I made a list of goals in March 2020 to subdue that need for control during a time that felt so out of control. My goal-setting process (spoiler alert: It didn’t work out well for me) included writing a list of huge goals, looking at the list every day, getting overwhelmed, not doing anything on the list and getting frustrated. This led to more anxiety and stress for me.

How can we make lasting change? And more importantly, how can we do it while making our mental health a priority?

About eight months ago I had a breakthrough about my goal-setting dilemma. That breakthrough is that I changed the way I went about making positive changes in my life.

Not only did I change the goals I set for myself, I also made sure that my mental health was a priority throughout the process.

For the first time I was not looking for a “quick fix,” but for a goal that really stuck. I wanted to truly understand my own motivation for change, which is something I had never looked at in the past. Now, almost eight months later, this new process is working in a way that I never anticipated.

As someone who has lived with an anxiety disorder most of my life, the truth is that it has been months and years of working through trauma and wellness to get me to where I am today. But there are still some steps you can take now to get you on your way to reaching whatever goal you have in mind.

I’d like to share the four ways I changed my approach to making positive changes in my life.

1. Set realistic goals

My goals at the beginning of the pandemic were lofty and unrealistic. For example, I’d originally stated that I wanted to work out every day for at least an hour. Had I ever done that before? No! But that’s what I put on the list. I also wrote that I wanted to start eating healthy and vegan. Had I ever been a vegan before? No!

I realized that setting goals too big or ambitious can set you up for failure. This can lead to procrastination, which ultimately leads to negative thinking and negative self-talk.

Setting realistic goals will allow you to build momentum for bigger goals in the future. Starting small has never been my thing. It is hard for me to begin a project without thinking of a major outcome. But what I realized after eight months on this journey is that the small steps have helped me to, not only succeed in my goals but also, to be kinder to myself in the process.

2. Find the why

Because we live in a society of instant gratification, we rarely ask ourselves why we want to reach a goal we set for ourselves. We live in a world of “I want it and have to have it NOW.” We also rarely ask who we are setting the goal for. Ultimately, that answer should be for YOU.

Once you find your “why” keep that in the forefront of your mind when you make decisions related to this goal. And if your “why” doesn’t line up with your goal, then go back to Step 1 and set a new, achievable goal.

For me, once I dissected my original goals to find the “why,” I discovered that I wanted to feel better mentally and physically. This became my new goal and helped me to plan out the actions that I would need to get there.

3. Break goals down into manageable tasks

Why do we make big goals and not look at small tasks to help with sustainable change? Use short-term goals as steps in positive change that build up to your ultimate goal. Small increments of time (week-by-week) add up to a large amount of time (eight months and counting for me).

I started by improving my relationship with food. I worked on seeing food as nourishment instead of a crutch to get me through my anxiety and stress. I also worked on avoiding negative self-talk if I ate something I wasn’t “supposed” to eat. In this process I have been changing the negative narrative I had associated with food and started to really enjoy what I ate.

Along the way, I learned that exercise helps me through my anxiety and stress. Instead of timed exercise goals, I decided to reframe my goal by making sure I got my body moving in some way.

4. Check in with yourself often

You can avoid giving up or regressing by checking in with yourself. Ask questions such as: Is there anything you need to adjust in your current step? Are you ready to move on to the next small goal? Are you practicing self-compassion and positive self-talk? Is your “why” still in the forefront of your current goals?

My check-ins gave me permission to be, dare I say... human. The first few months weren’t easy as I worked through my emotions, but then I started to feel alive and build momentum that kept me moving forward. I also used my check-ins as an opportunity to remind myself that I was making these changes for me and no one else.

One thing to keep in mind is that you don’t need to have all of your steps figured out to get started. Start small and see where it takes you. Like with many things in life, the more you practice, the better you’ll get at working on your goals.

When you get overwhelmed by not knowing the outcome, thoughtfully focus on becoming comfortable with not having the answers to the future. If you can wrap your brain around that, it could be the key to positive, long-term, successful change.

Read more like this on our Mental Wellness page:

About the Author:

Talli Dolge is the host of the KSAT video podcast "From Living in Silence to Living Out Loud." She is the founder and creator of the Mobile Mental Wellness Collaborative. She has also contributed on-air and online for KSAT 12 since 2020. Talli earned a Master's Degree in School/Community Counseling from SUNY.