“G” is for goals now that spring is here. Goal setting is a practice that can be used time and again for living well. It has helped me in both my personal and professional life. It has been especially helpful when it comes to providing support for caregivers and patients with serious or terminal illness. Because of the pandemic, goal setting has taken a back seat to basic survival activities for many of us. To welcome spring, let’s focus on the art of goal setting and plant some seeds for wellness.
Thinking about the way nature works in the garden, spring is the time for seed planting. In summer, those seeds come to fruition and fullness. Fall is the time to harvest what was planted, and in winter we rest and rejuvenate as we subsist on the bounty of the harvest. The same cycle can be true for our goals. It starts with an initial concept or idea; the intentional seed is planted in consciousness. Exactly who plants the seed (the self, a higher power, the ego, the divine, etc.) is a great question; and I trust that the reader has his or her own idea in answer. Time and attention are dedicated to the idea in order to nurture it to fruition and fullness. We then take practical steps to actualize and harvest the concept, enjoying the experience and the accomplishment. Next, we rest and rejuvenate while dreaming up another concept or goal.
Considering this cycle in relation to the pandemic may be painful given that many goals made in 2019 were set aside. Weddings, travel, reunions, sporting events, concerts, and other activities that might represent “bucket list” desires or lifelong aspirations were postponed or cancelled in 2020. It was almost as if the winter (resting/dreaming) phase of the cycle lasted for an entire year. In cold climates, winter also means more time inside, more introspective moments, sleeping, and dreaming. Normal winter activities like gathering around the table for savory meals shared with family, music jams, movie or game nights with neighbors or friends were not common this winter. According to psychologists studying about how we are doing on the heels of winter and a year-long pandemic, the isolation has been more difficult for extroverts and people who live solo. Introverts have been happy to retreat further inside; a strategy that can have challenging social health consequences long-term. But now that the spring winds are howling and there is cautious optimism about containing the virus, even the introverts are starting to think about appropriate, safe future goals.
I learned about goal setting in 2002 with the amazing author, speaker, and master coach, Maria Nemeth, PhD, MCC. In this intimate TEDx Talk she discusses: “What do I want my life to be about? What do I want on my tombstone?” There are things I learned with Maria that serve me to this day including: how to quiet the “monkey mind”; the difference between the truth (the actual facts) and honesty (the story about the facts); how to “play” toward a goal; and the difference between a life intention and a goal. Her way of creating goals is more about being than about doing. It is about moving toward something fulfilling, rather than away from something unpleasant or frightening. It is about contribution rather than damage control or warding off danger. I think of goal setting in this way as palliative, bringing comfort, smiles, inspiration, and optimism to life. What better medicine a year into the pandemic?!
Dr. Nemeth taught us about many things, “SMART” goals included. This mnemonic acronym, coined by George T. Doran in 1981, originally stood for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. Over the years it has morphed and changed a bit. My preferred words are: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-based. There is also an expanded version of the SMART goal formula that is “SMARTER” which stands for SMART and adds Evaluate and Readjust; or Exciting and Reviewable. SMARTER aligns with the shifting tides of pandemic life and are also well suited persons facing medical challenges or end of life. Sometimes to be successful we must re-evaluate, and shift plans if our biology is challenged or a difficult life circumstance arises. Maria defines “successful” as “doing what you say you are going to do with clarity, focus, ease and grace.” These are states of being.
An example of a personal SMART goal is: “I complete a 5K run by May 1, 2021 to be healthy and fit.” It is attainable because I am sure I can do it if I train each day until then. It is relevant to my life intention to be fit and healthy. There is date to complete the goal and it sounds exciting to be running again. I am acutely aware that my biology is not as youthful as it once was in terms of running. So, if my training is not going well, due to an injury or some other event that eclipses training, I can readjust the end date. While this is sometimes known as “moving the goal post,” I give myself permission to do that if the goal is creating more stress than joy or endangering the biology. If I do move the end date, I will still be playing toward the goal, still be training, even if I am walking and not running. The catch is that I must remain in the truth about why the goal post has moved (the truth, not the story).
Now let’s set up a SMART goal for a family caregiver who is feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. “I secure respite care for my mother for two days a week by April 14, 2021 to be rested and well.” This goal opens the possibility to reach out to family members, neighbors, friends, or volunteer groups, and/or to agencies that provide paid professional respite care. Doing the research and asking for help will take courage, time, and attention, but the reward of having free time and feeling more rested will far outweigh that effort. Caregivers can create a support network through a process developed by Sheila Warnock and her co-author, Cappy Capossela in their book, Share the Care. The process engages a community to support the patient and their primary caregiver during serious or chronic illness, cancer treatment, palliative and hospice situations. There is detailed information about how to get started on their website.
What about a goal for cancer patients?
- “I bake cookies for my daughter’s first grade class by the end of June to be a supportive mother.”
- “I take one ballroom dance lesson with my wife by September 1,2022 to be a loving husband.”
- “I walk the river trail with my dog, Winston, to be engaged with nature.”
These goals are not just a distraction from the worry that cancer can bring or from the discomfort of cancer treatment protocols. They are about activities that evoke love, enjoyment, and intentional ways of being. These are comforting, palliative, and life affirming goals.
Goals for a hospice patient need to be tailored to match physical and emotional ability.
- “I visit with my granddaughter for an hour on Saturday, to be connected to my family.”
- “I listen to the La Traviata opera with my neighbor tomorrow to be spiritually uplifted by music.”
- “I write my brother a thank you note today to be a loving sibling.”
Instead of large sweeping goals like running a marathon or traveling to Thailand, the hospice patient’s goals may sound small but are nonetheless powerful and bring meaning to life at this stage. One of my clients was a young mother with terminal cancer. She set a goal of seeing her son perform his musical instrument at the school concert to feel the sheer joy of all those music lessons paying off. She said that if she “had to move the goal post” because she was too sick to attend, she would have her son play the piece at her bedside. She was very frail and needed to enlist helpers to get to the school, but she did get there; did feel great joy as she watched her son play. This still brings tears to my eyes to recall her grace (another excellent “G” word). She died peacefully within a short time after the concert.
No matter where you are on life’s path, it makes sense to create some goals. Positive Psychology offers a wonderful overview on the Wheel of Life, originally designed by Paul J. Meyer as a coaching tool. If you are feeling a spring in your step and are ready to begin transforming some of the last years’ pandemic stagnation, please explore the Wheel of Life. You can hand draw it or work visually from the sketch in the article. The Wheel helps you rate your satisfaction level in ten different areas such as health and fitness, community, career and work, fun and recreation, etc. If you score low in some of those areas, challenge yourself to a SMART (or SMARTER) goal. Some ways to enhance the process include hand-writing your goal on paper so you can read and review it every day; engaging a “goal pal” to help you stay accountable; tracking your progress on a regular basis either by journaling or talking to your goal pal; and celebrating your accomplishment when you attain your goal.
SMARTER goals make sense as COVID-19 is not contained, and goal posts may need to be moved. Remember to set goals that you can play toward and that contribute to a preferred state of being. Keep the CDC protocols for health and safety in mind as you emerge from this exceptionally long winter. Even those who are fully vaccinated need to remain mindful of the protocols as much is still unclear about virus variants and immunity. Check with local and state health resources to see how area hospitals are doing, what the infection rate is, and how the vaccine rollout is progressing. Awareness of these things can help you stay well.
Goal setting can be fun and spike happiness hormones (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins) that may be lacking after such a long period of limitation, loss, and despair. Researchers in the Netherlands found that half the fun actually is in the planning. Happiness factors increase when planning for a goal. Now that the weather is warming, short term planning for outdoor activities, small indoor gatherings, or virtual meetings can be uplifting. Long term planning for concerts, family reunions, or air travel can also uplift. Think about engaging with a goal pal so you can start to talk about those plans. Feel free to share your goals in the comment section below. Wishing you enjoyment as you spring into the season of new beginnings.