Our American culture loves to set some goals. Television shows like The Biggest Loser encourage us to set (unrealistic) weight loss and fitness goals. Bosses set performance goals and our kids strive for academic success measured by standardized testing and graduation rate goals. This society is infatuated with achievement and progress, for better and worse. Many of my clients decide to start therapy because they are struggling to meet health, relationship, or general life goals and until recently I took the same approach to everyone-- define the goal, determine how the goal will be measured, identify barriers and resources, and set a deadline. When deadlines rolled around, the results were mixed. Some had done what they set out to do and felt a sense of mastery, while others had missed the mark and felt disappointed and ineffective. So I've changed my strategy. Rather than helping clients set concrete, rigid goals that require will-power to be met, I now focus on values-based goals that are inherently flexible and more manageable. Let's talk about rigidity, will-power, and values.
I was having a conversation with my husband about the most recent results of some swim meet at the Olympics. As we were discussing who won what, I realized that I was separating the contestants into those who won (got the gold) and those who lost (everyone else). If you've seen Talladega Nights, you're familiar with Ricky Bobby's mantra, "if you're not first, you're last." I realized how bought in I was to this all or nothing approach to goals. We decide on a specific outcome-- winning the gold, weighing a set amount, running a set distance in a specific amount of time-- and then any other outcome becomes unacceptable-- a failure. It's easy to see how this approach is ultimately setting us up for perceived failure most of the time and robs us of the opportunity to celebrate the process of change.
So what about will-power? The will-power delusion asserts that I just have to want something bad enough to make it happen. The self-defeating converse is where the problem lies-- if I didn't achieve a goal, it's because I didn't want it bad enough. I don't know anyone who set a weight loss goal or a substance use reduction goal who didn't want to be healthier with their whole selves. By insisting that the only barrier to success is a lack of will-power, we automatically short circuit problem solving efforts to manage the more likely barriers such as lack of skill, worry thoughts, emotions, indecision, or environmental challenges. Will-power is a useful element in the early stages of goal attainment, when motivation is running high, but it will not always be available to us in the same quantity. Will-power is essentially a combination of the emotions determination and motivation, but like all emotions, determination and motivation will wax and wane due to all sorts of other variables, many of which are out of our control.
"If I'm not using will-power to meet specific goals, then what am I supposed to do?" A values-based approach allows us to be realistically flexible in our goal setting, and avoid the will-power trap. Before committing to a goal, it's important do some introspection to identify the value driving that goal. For example, I have been less than happy with my weight since turning 30, and have typically tried to manage my weight by using food guilt and inflexible standards to motivate me to exercise and eat healthily. It wasn't until recently that I more deeply considered the "why"of this goal. When I checked it out, weight loss is about being strong, capable, and healthy (with a sizeable portion of acculturated beauty standards), but my rigid weight goal was conflicting with values of being compassionate and accepting of myself. So now I'm working toward weight loss (with help from Weight Watchers) as a function of my deeper values. If I plan to run 4 miles, but end up running 3, rather than berate myself for a failure, I view my 3 mile run as a success given that I made that choice out of compassion for my sore hamstrings or in recognition that it's 100 degrees outside. Instead of deciding that health is about exercising a certain amount everyday without exception, I act in the service of health and broaden the choices that are consistent with this goal. Flexibility helps us to honor the willfulness that shows up to let us know that a choice does not match the needs of the moment.
Ironically, the more flexible we are with ourselves, the more emotional, mental, and physical resources we make available for attaining our goals. We stop wasting precious energy on guilt, shame, and self-degradation, and can channel those resources toward our goal work. We stop trying to make the moment match our goals, and allow our goals to match the moment. Here are some tools for assessing your values, identifying meaningful goals, and using a flexible mindset to be your best self. Remember: more of our life is spent in the process than in the outcome, so learn find joy in the ride.