Setting Goals vs. Identifying Valued Directions

Setting goals as endpoints vs. identifying valued directions to head in

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.

SMART goals

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? has a good article on goal-setting and how to do it well.

The post Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Metaphors is where you can find all things ACT-related on MH@H.

36 thoughts on “Setting Goals vs. Identifying Valued Directions”

  1. I’ve had troubles with the need for self-improvement hurting my mental health and relationships. Because of this, I’ve chosen a few things to improve on and learned to live with the rest.

  2. I don’t understand what ‘valued directions’ are but I do like Smart Goals – just common sense there. I don’t think I do goals, at least not anymore. At one point in my life my goal was to finish college before I died LOL But other than that, I don’t think I’ve ever had goals per se. At work you have projects and deadlines – are those goals? There are things in life that must be done – but they’re not goals – you want clean clothes you have to do laundry. Maybe I’m just not understanding this…But this I do understand – moving on! If you decide to learn something and discover you are crap at it, dropping it and moving on is GOOD! Why would you pursue something you aren’t good at? Unless the pursuit itself gives you some kind of pleasure…Quitting is not a bad thing at all –

  3. Ditto: goals are harder now that my MDD has reached the seemingly permanent state. I make them smaller, and there are less on any given day. Fatigue is easier. I bail now, though, in ways I didn’t when I was younger. I was definitely a victim of the sunk cost fallacy.

  4. This is a very good post, thank you. A while ago I discovered a concept called infinite games and I realised how this can be used to manage some of autistic traits. Valued directions remind me of this concept, while ‘goal setting’ would be equivalent to finite games, that are, by their nature, more about being closed minded.

  5. For some things, goals make sense, such as a to-do list for home and/or work. But for health and relationships, the valued directions is easier to deal with. That way, you’re not freaking out over daily “progress” as long as you’re on the way…

  6. It’s funny. I was thinking of asking you if you thought ACT was legitimate. I’m working through the book Mindfulness and Acceptance for Addictive Behaviors. It seems sensible to me, but you know me and my sensibilities.

  7. Motivation? What’s that? 😩

    I have been struggling to find the motivation to do anything. I compare my life to that of a cat these days. I do nothing and nothing about it. It’s a rare thing I am experiencing but it’s true, I’m lazier than I can afford to be. I hope it shifts soon. I can’t go on this way forever!

  8. A wonderful concept and practice…for everyone probably. You’re so right, it’s like the difference between an unrealistic feeling ‘fine/cured/nothing happened’ and feeling in control, moving the right way and sustainably so. And then there are goals we can’t put a finger on yet but following the direction can bring us closer as we figure it out.

  9. I had never heard of this! I always worked with goals, although I have learned it’s better to have 3 smaller ones on a way to something than just have the end goal and fail getting there. So maybe in a way, I was actually doing a bit of both? As my smaller goals did head in the direction I was aiming for?
    Thank you for sharing this! I learned something new today and I like it! 😁

  10. Thanks so much for posting, this is a major thing and is extremely apposite to me right now. Defining the difference between the two, goals vs values, makes it much clearer. I had a little aha-moment earlier today re: it is best not to sacrifice values for goals.

  11. I had not heard the expression “valued direction” before. This seems like a great concept to defray the cost of erratic, society-driven goal-setting. About the saying attributed to Ben Franklin, that’s not only untrue, but to impress that upon someone seems cruel and even dangerous. I could spend my life trying to learn all the mechanical tasks my dad failed to teach me, and never learn them because they are incompatible with my natural design. Conversely, as a sometime piano teacher, I can guarantee you that many of my students will never learn how to play a piano well, no matter how hard they try. Great post.

  12. This is new to me but I really like the valued directions. It’s a very good concept. Yes, you are right. Working hard towards our valued directions feels more meaningful. Even if we fail, we can easily accept as long as we pursue them with sincerity and no self-interest. Life is about exploring to be more human. I do not like to constrain myself with the society’s script about what you should achieve at this stage of life or if you are this or that. It feels annihilating. Of course, sometimes we cannot escape from it due to always being around people, but I try to be easy with myself. Still learning hard.

    1. “It feels annihilating” – that’s such a good way of putting. Exploring how to be more human can’t happen when we’re following others rather than our true selves.

      1. It is also challenging to follow our true selves, from my experience. Yet, it is worth the efforts amidst noises in the world. Let’s hope we will meet supportive people who can lead us out of darkness.

  13. Oh I like the phrase “valued directions.” That’s basically what my New Years resolutions are. They don’t have a definite endpoint, but I’ll still know when I’ve achieved it. But it’s not an endpoint when I’ve achieved it; then I keep going.

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