Achieving goals isn’t easy, but decades of management research demonstrates that setting a clear goal provides us with a huge amount of motivation. In the workplace, when managers set clear goals and provide their employees with specific feedback, they see better performance. It’s no different when setting your own goals, although it’s harder to get that feedback, because you have to give it to yourself!
For many parents, realizing their goals can be difficult due to the amount of uncertainty thrown into the mix. You have a plan to exercise daily for 30 minutes, or write a blog post once a week, or spend 15 minutes meditating every morning. You may do it for four, five, even six days and feel really good about your accomplishment. And then – the baby hits a growth spurt and starts waking up three times a night again. A snow day cancels school. One of the children gets sick from daycare (again), and then your partner gets sick, and then you do. You get pregnant with twins and suddenly writing a book proposal doesn’t seem so important (cough, cough). A deadline comes up at work, and you want to spend any free time you have with your children. You go into survival mode and making sure everyone is fed and has clean clothes feels like a true achievement.
Once you come out of the crisis period, it can be difficult to get back on the path towards your goal. When we make small steps towards an achievement, it motivates us to continue. The opposite is also true. We get behind, and “catching up” feels impossible.
How Postpartum Depression Sacked My Goals
When I had my second baby, I was really looking forward to getting my “normal” body back through exercise. I had bought a few workout DVDs, a new mat, and was counting down the days until I could start to “bounce back.” About six weeks after he was born, things were tough. Neither of my sons seem to sleep all that much. Even with the lack of sleep, I started with my DVDs and was exercising about three times a week. It felt great!
Then two things happened. One, my weight did not budge. I stepped on the scale every day; looking back, that was probably a REALLY bad idea. Seeing the numbers stay the same, way above my “normal” weight, discouraged me.
Two, the lack of sleep and hormones caught up to me and I got sacked by postpartum depression. I’ve struggled here and there with mood disorders, in college and during my first pregnancy, but this was like nothing I had ever experienced. The baby crying would cause an anxiety attack. I wouldn’t be able to figure out how to calm him. He didn’t want to be held or to eat, and I couldn’t get him on any sort of regular nap schedule. I felt incompetent.
Picking up my other son from preschool with a baby in tow seemed much harder than I expected it to be. Then getting the boys home, fed, bathed, and to bed on two different schedules and by myself, since my husband came home from work after the baby went to bed, seemed impossible. I couldn’t get into a routine. I just wanted to cry.
I went back to work part-time, teaching an evening class, and the return to my “normal” life didn’t seem to help at all. I still held feelings of resentment, of being overwhelmed, and of not measuring up as a mom.
Building Flexibility into our Goals
One thing that we’re learning is that when people feel as if they have limited time spread across a number of different roles, their goals can be more difficult to achieve. Switching from your “work” self to your “home” self takes a certain amount of energy away from achieving your goals. Working moms and dads feel this pressure, but so does anyone who is switching among multiple different roles.
Another problem is that we set our goals without considering how our changing feelings might affect them. We say, “I’m going to run three miles a day no matter what!” and anything less than that is failure. There’s a whole culture on the internet of “What’s your excuse?” for not exercising, not being fit, not attaining the highest possible achievements in work. life, and family.
Goal-setting theory teaches us that it’s in making small steps to our goal that we gain motivation and feel as if we can keep going. Small achievements help us develop something called “self-efficacy,” the feeling as if we can attain the goal. The overwhelming goal of “lose the 20 pounds of baby weight” becomes more manageable when we can tie it to small steps we can take each day that help us achieve it.
After my second, I never really got back on the exercise train the way I planned to, and then I got pregnant with twins. After going through postpartum depression, I realized that while exercise can be incredibly important in recovering, sleep has to come first. Radical self-care is my number one goal for 2016. It’s hard for a mom to say that because it sounds selfish, but it’s not. If I am a basket case, I can’t take care of my boys. I can’t be a good, loving wife to my husband (who works his butt off to keep us all happy). For the sake of everyone I love, I need to take care of myself.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when setting goals for the new year – or really, any time. In my next post, I’m going to talk about how I plan to achieve my goal of self-care in the new year (and post-twins!).
1. Set a goal that is specific and measurable.
When managers give their sales staff goals that they can easily measure, and that give them specific and understandable targets, the sales staff invariably perform better on the job. The same can be true for you. Part of the reason that photos of your friends running marathons clutter up your Facebook feed is because a marathon (or 5K, or 10K, or any sort of race, really) provides a clear and specific goal that you can measure your progress towards. You can set out a specific plan of how many miles to run per week, and timing yourself provides a clear feedback mechanism.
Now if only we can find a way to replace all those running people in our feed with cats being cute.
2. Be realistic!
I posted on Facebook awhile back a question to my friends, if I should aim to get up earlier the way I’d like to, or if this time in my life of pregnant-with-twins-two-children-under-five was a better time to just hit the snooze button. Overwhelmingly, the response was “stay in bed, crazy lady!” Some of the Christian homemaker blogs I follow (I know, seems out of character, but I really like some of them!) talk about “seasons of life.” It’s ok to acknowledge your limitations and set realistic, reasonable goals that fit with your season of life. Losing weight is such a focus in our culture, but balancing a body recovering from childbirth, small children, and breastfeeding may not be the best time to start. Focus on your overall health – are you taking good care of yourself? Is there a small treat that you can give yourself, like a cup of tea, a short walk in a favorite place, or ten minutes reading a book, that would improve your mental health? There will be time enough to pick up with more aggressive goals for exercise later on in life. Acknowledging, appreciating, and even celebration your current “season of life” is essential. Setting goals in that frame of mind will help you find targets that are realistic for you right now.
For example, I’m not going to be joining CrossFit, going on a juice fast, or running a marathon anytime over the next two years – not with these little kiddos on the way who could care less about how many tires Mommy can lift (although that does sound sort of fun…)
3. Involve the whole family.
At Hewlitt-Packard, the computer company, founder Bill Packard famously put into place a goal-setting tool called “Management by Objectives” or MBO to motivate his staff. Known as “The HP Way,” MBO involved getting executives, managers, and employees at every level involved in setting goals for the organization. This increased the level of commitment and buy-in from people at every level of the organization.
By making your goals palatable and shared among the entire family, you can put this into practice in your house. My son attends a DC charter school where “learning expeditions” are a regular part of their curriculum, and this past half-year he and his classmates have spent a lot of time learning about food and nutrition. He comes home each week and tells us about a different food group, including the nutrients in them. Although my husband and I know that bananas have potassium and calcium helps build bones, the reminders from our son and the questions he asked has definitely encouraged us to think more about healthy eating for the whole family. Tony asks us regularly if there are “additives” in our food and told me that it wasn’t a good idea to eat so much ice cream because of the “additives.” Hate to admit it, but the kid is right.
Tony’s four years old (ok, “four and a half years old!” as he likes to say), and he’s inspiring us to eat healthier. If you can find a goal that interests the whole family, the commitment and ideas of all the members of your team will help the change stick. Since many of us set goals for exercise, perhaps using some resources geared towards kids. Before getting pregnant again, I tried to get the boys out to the playground, where I would take advantage of benches and other equipment to sneak in 15 minutes of exercise. There are also resources such as NFL Play 60 (http://www.nflrush.com/) or Let’s Move (http://www.letsmove.gov/get-active) that can make getting active fun. I always need resources for stuff like this because I’m not that creative. If your kids are moving, though, and excited about it, you’re likely to get out there too.
Or get a dog, which will force you to exercise. Just don’t get one like mine who hates walking!
4. Build in a solid feedback mechanism.
Without feedback, achieving goals just doesn’t have the same satisfaction. I use Scrivener for writing, and when I reach a certain word target for a writing session, a little box opens and it dings. Silly, yet so satisfying. And so annoying when I go back to edit and it tells me that I’ve no longer met the word target.
It’s so, so easy to live a “quantified life” and track just about everything in the world these days. RescueTime is s “freemium” program you can install that tracks everything you do on your computer and online. Seeing where you’re spending your time can help see if you’re using your time wisely. Many people use a FitBit, Jawbone, or Apple Watch to track steps to see if they’re getting enough activity each day. Something I’ve done is set a daily reminder for an online journal, and then every 90 days I have a calendar appointment to review the journal entries. For weight loss, weighing yourself at the same time each week or keeping a food log are the old-school, “analog” ways of tracking.
There are approximately a million other blog posts on the quantified self and tracking, and some I like below. Check them out.
A Formula to Stop You From Overcommitting Your Time [HBR]
Why You Should Be Tracking Your Habits (and how to do it well) [Lifehacker]
How To Track Everything in Your Life Without Going Crazy [Lifehacker]
Counting Every Moment [The Economist]
How Self-Tracking Apps Exclude Women [The Atlantic]
5. Be wary of “automatic thinking.”
There’s a clear link between depression and achieving goals, which might seem obvious. Since I’ve had antenatal and postnatal depression, research in this area is interesting to me. However, you don’t need to have had a major depressive episode to engage in what psychologists call “dysfunctional thinking.” Overgeneralization, perfectionism, and dependence on other’s approval can all be ways we can sabotage our goals.
Platitudes abound, from Nike’s “Just Do It” to grade-school posters encouraging children to “Believe in Yourself!” Yet these simple statements are exactly what we need to keep in mind when we’re thinking about achieving our goals. Psychologists working with depressed patients ask them to analyze the conclusions they draw from particular events. With me, I’m terribly sensitive to criticism from my partner. I tend to be on the messy side, and when he asks me to clean up dishes or pick up after myself, often what I hear instead of a simple request is “You’re a bad housekeeper and therefore a worthless wife.” This is, of course, not at all what he means. Realizing that this script kept getting activated in my head made me aware that this “automatic thought” wasn’t rational, and I’ve started to consciously correct it when it arises.
You will absolutely encounter setbacks on the way to achieving your goals. When you encounter one – a pound gained instead of lost, a week of missed workouts, a day with too much Facebook time and not enough face time with the kids – how do you talk to yourself? Does the script in your head say, “You’re worthless, you’ll never get this right, you’re a bad mom/dad/person?” If it does, challenge those thoughts consciously. Evidence shows that challenging these thoughts lessens the negative emotions you might feel after not reaching your goal.
Reframing your setback optimistically as a “challenge” to overcome allows you to continue to pursue the goal. After correcting the negative thoughts that may not be rational, look for evidence of causes outside of yourself that could contribute to not achieving your goal. Was the weather bad, which prevented you from getting outside for your run? This path of thinking allows you to come up with a indoor exercise alternative when the weather is bad. Did sick kiddos make dinner a rushed, stress-eating affair? Next time you make a soup or casserole for dinner, plan to make an extra one and stick it in the freezer for crunch times. Reframing our failures as at least partly attributable to outside events can help us come up with solutions to continue to achieve our goals.
Next week, I’m going to tackle my own goal of radical self-care, and how I plan to achieve it. Stay tuned, and happy 2016!
What’s gotten you off track with an important goal? How did you get back on the path to achieving it? Leave a comment; I’d love to hear your story and if you’d like, interview you for another post! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Locke EA, Henne D. 1986. Work motivation theories. In International Review of Indus- trial and Organizational Psychology, ed. CL Cooper, I Robertson, pp. 1–36. New York: Wiley
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 Eligman, M. E. P. 1998b. Learned optimism. New York: Knopf.