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Compassionate Goal Setting in 2023

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STOP SETTING GOALS that add to your personal stress load! Every year millions of people make resolutions and set goals, but to what effect? Certainly, having and working toward realistic goals can promote productivity, but goals can be stressful and they can generate feelings of guilt. For 2023, why not consider an alternative to New Year’s resolutions and rigid personal improvement plans? Compassionate goals differ from customary goals in that they are (a) gracious to self and others, (b) disarming of guilt, and (c) fundamentally flexible.

Some people generate many goals per day. Each goal set then acts to invite frustration when progress toward attaining it is blocked. Goal frustration is stressful and too much is not healthy—for us and for those around us! Can grace help? The answer is ‘yes!’ Luckily, there is some research wisdom to indicate that people who set goals are more productive than those who do not set goals, even if they do not reach their goals. In other words, it appears that it is having goals and working toward them, rather than attaining them, that predicts productivity. We are compassionate in our goal-setting when we focus on the process rather than the end product. Affording ourselves grace, we may rest our success on having engaged in working toward the goal rather than having attained it in a binary, all-or-nothing way. Certainly, there are goals that have to be accomplished without fail and on time, but where possible, even a little bit, setting compassionate goals can decrease one’s overall stress load.

For most people, failing to reach goals can result in feelings of guilt and shame. Guilt and shame are basic human emotions that are designed to be felt when we have done something wrong. The posture of compassionate goal setting is one of grace. It holds that failing to reach goals that we have set for ourselves is not wrong. Many factors about ourselves, other people, and the world in general act to obstruct our goals. Encountering objective obstacles to goal attainment is not wrong. In fact, it is guaranteed to happen in almost every case. We are setting compassionate goals when we acknowledge that we will face many challenges while working toward our goals and that, even when the challenges are our fault, they are not wrong. They are just problems to solve. Without guilt and shame.

Compassionate goal setting is also fundamentally flexible. These compassionate or “soft” goals are defined by both the degree of specificity with which they are set and the manner in which they are pursued. To set compassionate goals, think in terms of ranges rather than specific target points. For example, soft goals may involve a frequency range for a target behavior occurring during a time interval, such as a week or two, rather than at a specific time. Hence, the goal to exercise 1-3 times per week is much softer and thus less stressful than attempting to work out every day. It’s hard to work out every day and frankly that is a bad goal to set—unless you like frustration and guilt! Conversely, setting the goal to make it to the gym or go on a run 1-3 times over the course of a week is much more attainable. With compassionate goal setting, we afford ourselves flexibility to approximate what we hope to accomplish in the context of an already challenging work-life balance. Furthermore, the way we approach working toward a goal is fundamentally more flexible if we seek to work for soft time intervals rather than focus on completing some specific step of a project. Thus, the goal of “cleaning up around the house for 20-30 minutes” is much softer and less stressful than the goal of “cleaning the bathrooms start-to-finish.”

Of course, all of life’s activities can’t be driven by soft goals, but where possible, compassionate goal setting can be significantly less stressful than traditional goal setting. Using it when possible can have a positive effect on overall quality of life. So beginning this new year of 2023, choose one or two target behaviors to increase or decrease 1-3 times over the upcoming weeks and months and give yourself grace when obstacles arise—because they will!

Author’s Note: This article was written using compassionate goal setting.

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