Goal-setting is a popular thing; plug it into Google search, and there are billions of hits. But is goal-setting always the best approach? Maybe identifying and heading in valued directions can be a good alternative some of the time, especially if something like mental illness is making the whole goals thing difficult.
Valued directions in ACT
Values are a big thing in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). They’re viewed as directions, as opposed to goals, which serve as endpoints. You can nerve arrive at your values, but you can continually move in valued directions. Because they’re a compass rather than a point on a map, there is no success or failure. If you stray off course, you can always reorient and get back on track.
We’ve all been taught assorted shoulds by the world that we’ve been socialized into, but they may not be consistent with values, and there are probably a lot of arbitrary markers along the way. Valued directions don’t require specific actions, specific amounts of time, or certain feedback from others. They probably live in a different part of your head than the inner critic.
The SMART acronym is a common way of looking at goal-setting that was first identified in terms of business management. There are a number of variations, including:
- Specific: What exactly do you want to do?
- Measurable: How can you measure whether you’ve accomplished it?
- Achievable (or attainable): Is it something you can actually do?
- Relevant (or realistic): Is it something that matters to you? Is it a good place to be focusing your efforts and energy?
- Time-limited: When do you aim to complete it?
The University of California has a SMART Goals How-to Guide if you’d like to read more about that kind of thing.
In contrast to SMART goals are dead people goals. This is another ACT concept, and it refers to things that a dead person would always be able to do better than a living person, such as feeling less anxious or not worrying.
Dealing with mental illness
Mental illness (or any kind of illness) can make goal-setting hard. Motivation may be in short supply. Capacity may also be limited; if illness is causing craptastic concentration, you can set lofty reading goals all you want, but whether or not you’ll be able to achieve them is questionable. Capacity isn’t necessarily going to be consistent, either; just because you’re on the ball enough to spend an hour reading today doesn’t mean that you’re going to have the concentration for that tomorrow.
I’m at a point with my illness now that goal-setting doesn’t work particularly well. My capacity is limited and trending downhill, and it’s hit or miss, so it’s hard to predict whether a goal is going to be achievable or not. Apathy is an issue, too. Even if something matters to me at certain times doesn’t mean it’s always going to matter. I find that trying to persist with things when I give zero fucks about them can often just make those things feel aversive.
I don’t think that motivation is really the biggest issue for me; it’s not that I want the endpoint but can’t find the wherewithal to get there. My issue is more that I give zero fucks about the endpoint, so why expend energy uselessly heading towards something that I don’t care about. If there is something that I give half a fuck about, I can round up the motivation to head toward it. Values can be a reason to persist with something even when there are no fucks. For example, seeing my niece often isn’t that enjoyable, but it’s values-congruent, so it’s something I continue.
Giving up vs. moving on
Giving up is generally framed as a negative thing, but perhaps moving on is sometimes a better choice than sticking with a given thing. What if the goal wasn’t a good one to begin with? Maybe you’ve discovered that it’s not something you actually want or it’s not actually important to you. What if you’ve realized that continuing to pursue the goal would mean needing to sacrifice other things that are more important to you? Maybe giving up is actually a way to spare yourself a lot of wasted energy.
It was apparently Benjamin Franklin who said “you can do anything you set your mind to.” I’m not convinced you can, and I’m definitely not convinced you should try. There are a gazillion different things you could do. Just because at one point your mind picked thing A doesn’t mean you should run with A ’til the cows come home and give up B through Z while you’re at it. It’s okay to stop and reevaluate, and perhaps change your mind.
One thing I like about the idea of valued directions is that there are many different paths that can lead you in a particular direction, and you can switch it up whenever you want without having to frame it as giving up.
Where are you headed?
Is goal-setting something that you work on, or something that works for you? Do valued directions sound like a useful concept?
Want a more pro-goals perspective? PositivePsychology.com has a good article on goal-setting and how to do it well.