How to Accomplish Goals When We Feel Down and Out

Have you ever made new life goals and within days or weeks you give up? Well, research from the University of Scranton reveals that 92% of people give up on goals. For the successful 8%, how many times did they also fail before learning what works and what doesn’t?

But what if we’re feeling down and out with life setbacks, anxiety or depression? Are we really even motivated to make new goals?

Well, that’s what we’re going to look at! I don’t have all the answers, just some ideas from what I’ve picked up for myself along the way and what I’ve learned from coaching those who feel down and out with all kinds of life setbacks, anxiety, depression, and even mental illness.

1. It’s okay … compassion

As mentioned earlier, over 90% of us don’t fulfill our goals, so it’s important we respond with self-compassion vs. the “push” or “fight harder” will-power. Self-compassion releases oxytocin in the brain, which is often associated with that feel-good love, bonding, caring and comfort. Self-compassion literally acts like healing hormones to relieve stress and help us regain energy. The “push” or “fight harder” will-power activates our amygdala (threat center of the brain), releasing more stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) which makes us more stressed and can eventually lead to burn-out! So, we can take a deep breath, letting ourselves off the hook, realizing we’re not failures, and giving ourselves grace to explore different ways to reach our desired goals.

You can actually turn this into a prayer of comfort exercise. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 is a great place to remember a God who is already given us, and overflowing His mercy and comfort for all our afflictions, troubles, challenges, stress, anxieties, etc. It’s a simple thanksgiving for a God who longs to show us compassion and comfort (see Isaiah 30:18).

2. Why goals are soooooo hard!

When we’re feeling down and out with a lot of disappointments, discouragements, stress, or even anxiety and depression, our brains and bodies go into self-preservation mode (“fight or flight”) to survive, craving stress relief (self-compassion is so important). That’s why new challenging goals seem so daunting and impossible. We actually should first look at general care such as getting better sleep, small ways to be more active (exercise), better nutrition, how to relax and de-stress, finding more joyful outlets with friends, and even hobbies. When I coach, I usually start with these things. Life is not perfect, but within a couple weeks they have more energy and motivation to explore their true desired goals.

3. Goals balanced by disgust and delight

The reason we usually make goals is because we’re unsatisfied with where we are, but for some of us it’s more out of disgust. However, if we’re only motivated by a constant negative, it can make us “push” or “fight” harder for that breakthrough goal, which can then make us so burn out quicker (mood and motivation). However, being motivated out of delight and desire (positive affects) helps us naturally, and subconsciously, stay on track. Yes, it’s okay to be unsatisfied but having our goal connected to joy will have more benefits and will help us stay motivated!

4. Creating a vision goal, outcome & deadline

A vision goal is being able to articulate what we want with an outcome that states the overall results we want to see and experience. We don’t even have to have a specific plan yet, but really discovering the vision delight and desire. This is why some people create personal vision boards. They create a unique vision and then put up all the associated images that express all the different outcomes they will see and experience (physically, emotionally/mentally, relationally, spiritually). Then, having a specific deadline adds that challenge aspect to it and activates our brain to naturally work towards it. From a more clinical psychological review, this type of goal setting is tied to what’s called “cognitive priming” and even “incentive learning.”

So, here’s a simple tool and example to help build your vision goal, outcome and deadline: 

 Vision Goal:

What do you want? What is your desired outcome? What is the delight you want to see?

Example: “To have a healthier lifestyle and more emotional resilience.”

 Vision Outcome Experience:

— What does it look like? … Lose x amount of weight, being physically fit, less health issues, less stress, better routine and schedule (work & family balance), read 3 books for personal growth or entertainment, getting to do more of my hobbies, etc.

— What does it feel like? … Have more energy, consistent and better moods, stronger relationships, feel mentally resilient and stronger, feel smarter and more educated about whole-health life, more confidence, more involved spouse and parent, fulfilled getting to do my fun hobbies, etc. 

— What will life be like? … More confidence in my work, feel more resilient against stress/anxiety, balanced joy with work and personal life, strong loving marriage, deeper relationship with kids, consistent community life and even new friendships, etc.


Example: July 2019

As you can see, this method provides broader perspective including personal and relational/community benefits. We should keep it simple because we can always add more later. Having this clear now naturally sets us up to explore overall plans and strategies that resonate with who we are.

Extra tip! Jesus is not waiting at the finish line of your vision or outcome, He’s with you, at your starting point or where ever you are. Thus, we can turn this into a simple prayer and asking for His thoughts and dreams to be expressed as we go through this exercise. It’s okay if we tweak it some later it just means we’re growing in wisdom and faith! Make it fun!

5. Build around unique grace and pace

As we begin to look for different plans and strategies, it’s good to know our own unique Grace and Pace.

Grace is knowing the unique nuances of our personality and how we approach change. Some of us like a highly structured “1, 2, 3” plan while others prefer a lot of flexibility. Some of us want our personal space while others want a social group experience. Some of us like competitive markers and results while others just want a great emotional rewards.

Pace is finding the right balance of knowing our starting point and what we can really manage.  So, especially if we’re already feeling down and out, it’s good we use weekly whisker goals (small, simple, and achievable goals) vs. just having the final stretch goals (the overall result you want). Even if we’re at a slower speed with the plan, it’s okay! The small and simple changes also build huge rewards and results.

6. We need a plan with unique strategies that resonate with who we are, not control us to be like someone else.

It’s also important we feel in control of the process with different options and choices that fit our grace and pace, not exhaust us. If we don’t feel in control, then we don’t feel empowered and we’re just following someone else’s requirements, not our own. We don’t want a plan and strategies that require us to be or look like someone else’s goal. We want an overall plan and helpful strategies that resonate with us.

7. It’s a whole-health, whole-person approach

It’s easy to focus on just one area, but it’s good to remember this is going to be a whole-health, whole-person, holistic focus. We all know how it goes, if we don’t get good sleep, we’re more tired and less motivated to get on that treadmill! It’s good to look at tweaking life by focusing on the physical, mental/emotional, spiritual, and relational areas of life. We can also look at things within our environment that will help, or identify what our stressors are. We don’t have to work on everything all at once, but rather build simple strategies in each area to provide balanced changes.

8. We’re not failing…we just need to adjust the dial and learn to adapt the strategies.

Life is not perfect and it’s good to be aware how circumstances, people and our own emotions will get in the way of our goals and/or why our whisker goal strategies may not be working. So, whatever the reason may be, if we are hitting a wall, we may need dial it back from a 30-minute workout to a 15-minute workout. Maybe the next day we can turn the dial up some. However, if the whisker strategy goal is not working, then we can branch out to other resources or people we know and find other creative options that will resonate and we can try out.

9. Pressuring with results vs. Encouraging progress

We live in a microwave culture and many plans will boast their strategies will give us immediate results. We want to remind ourselves that this is a process, a continuum of growth, and it’s about seeing progress. We may not hit all the big goals we want…that’s okay! We may still be seeing some progress. That means that change is in good motion and momentum. It may be small, but over time, small changes still lead to big results. Again, most of us have busy schedules, juggling work, school, families, all kinds of activities, and all the stressors mixed in, and we can have a hard time following the pace of these plans. We’re all having to adjust what works for us and be encouraged with the progress, no matter how small it may be!

10. Cheering, celebrating and rewarding the effort!

We all need others to cheer us on and celebrate our efforts, our progress, and our results! Community will inspire us to continue, even when we’re feeling down and out! We might want to consider joining a community of peers who are doing the same thing (locally or online) and/or also sharing with the closest people in our lives (who are not critical when we hit the wall). Either way it’s nice to have people who support your new goals and overall vision.

Then, it’s also fun to have reasonable, creative, and affordable rewards. Like a sports team, choir or band having a meal together after the big game or big performance. They’re celebrating all the effort, even if they lost the game or missed a few lines or notes. So, how can we reward our effort and progress? It might be a fun activity or outing with our spouse or friends, getting to work on a special project or hobby we’ve been putting off, having a fun meal. It’s about having encouragement to celebrate and reward with joy all along the way.

There’s so much information out there on goals, but these are a just a few helpful hints. Now it’s your turn! Let us know what you think about setting goals, especially when you feel down and out.

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