This Exercise Can Help When Goal Setting Seems Overwhelming
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This Exercise Can Help When Goal Setting Seems Overwhelming


In the self-help world, goal setting is held up as the golden standard. It’s simple, according to posts on social media and self-help books: simply set a goal and work toward it. Voilà!

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple for many of us, especially if we’re dealing with a history of trauma, mental illness, or substance use disorder.

“Goal-setting is not always something that feels within reach, especially during times of uncertainty or during difficult life transitions,” Ionatan Waisgluss writes for Sunshine Coast Health Centre, a non 12-step rehabilitation program in British Columbia.

When you’re coming out of a tumultuous time of your life, it can be difficult to even define what you want your life to look like. That can make goal setting nearly impossible.

If that’s the case for you, Waisgluss recommends starting with another simple activity that can help you see what you would like your life to look like. Here’s how it works:

Think about your many roles

To begin, grab a pen and paper. Then, start thinking about the many roles you have. The first few will probably be easy: you might identify right away as a parent, worker, or friend. Go beyond just those initial roles, however, to really think about all the parts that you play in the production that is your life.

Waisgluss recommends thinking about your roles within these arenas:

  • Family: You might be a parent, child, grandchild, uncle, or sister. You can even think about your “familial” roles as they relate to your pets or plants. Jot down each of these.
  • Workplace: At work, you might be a business owner, a manager, an employee, a mentor, or an innovator.
  • Community: Are you a volunteer? A community leader? You might be a homeowner, tax payer, motorcyclist, club member, or many more.
  • Self-care: Finally, think about the roles that you fulfill for yourself. You are the steward of your personal development, your physical and mental health; you’re the caretaker of your spaces and things.

Chances are you’ll be impressed at how many roles you play, says Waisgluss.

“Some roles will be very important to you, and others will be fairly inconsequential. But still, these are the roles that you play, and by looking at them all in one place, you may find yourself surprised at the diversity and sheer number of roles you play, as well as how they tie in to so many other lives around you,” he writes.

Definite excellence in your roles

Once you’re done, look back over the list and consider which roles are the most important to you. Think about the ones that take up your time and those that bring the most meaning into your life. When you’ve identified the most important 3-5 roles that you occupy, think about what excellence would look like in those roles. Use your own definition of greatness, not a social expectation or anyone else’s idea of what your role should look like.

“Definitions of excellence can be long, short, detailed, vague, complete, incomplete… it doesn’t really matter,” Waisgluss writes.

The important thing is that you walk away with an idea of what excellence means to you. This isn’t a goal, per se, but it’s a way of defining direction in your life. When you’re not sure what to do next, you can focus on a step that will bring you a bit closer to excellence in the roles that are most important to you.

While you’re doing this, it’s natural to feel disappointed in how you’re fulfilling some of your roles.

“There isn’t a single human, alive or dead, who has always done perfectly in all of their roles,” Waisgluss says. “This exercise is not about showing off a perfect report card.”

If you feel shame, frustration, or regret when you consider any of your roles, simply observe that feeling and move forward.

Defining the future through the present

This exercise is beneficial because it helps you see where you are right now. Then, you use that information to visualize the future that you would like to see. Those more concrete parameters can be helpful for people who otherwise have trouble setting goals.

“Visualizing the future can be challenging at different times in our lives… thinking about the past can also bring about a lot of strong feelings,” Waisgluss says. “But by thinking about our present, and the roles we play in it, we can find direction in our lives and build a momentum that will carry us forward.”

Sunshine Coast Health Centre is a non 12-step drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in British Columbia. Learn more here.

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