How to create menaningful life goals
This article How to create meaningful life goals goes through several steps that will help you get to know yourself and identify life goals for you and your unique circumstances. The article covers:
The importance of affirmations
Find your main problem
Find the root cause behind your problem
Map your time-line
Find your role changes
Analyse your time-line
Identify your life wheel
Create SMART goals
The importance of affirmations
Before diving into the possible changes you would like to make and new directions you would like to explore, I suggest you reflect over and honour yourself for what you already have accomplished over the last period and who you have become during the last year or two since this will set a positive tone.
Try to find at least 20 posts.
This can be:
- traits you have shown
- goals you have reached
- positive changes you have made
- boundaries you have learnt to set
- development of new insights, values, perspectives
- people you have helped
- memories and special moments you have co-created
- things you have done well
Another reason why this is important the importance of positive self-affirmations, see under self-esteem – focusing on what you already have and accomplishments already made, which also will make you less defensive and hence more open to feedback and change – and to creativity in what else you would like to accomplish.
Find your main problem
This chapter is about to inspire you to take control of the direction of your life, one step at a time. It will take several steps because it is easier said than done. We can’t change everything at the same time and change takes time. But we can find a direction to move towards, which slowly but surely aids us to automatically refocus our activities and small decisions in everyday life, which then will pull in the same direction.
This week’s exercise is about finding out what you would like to change by first identifying the problems to be solved. When we define the problems correctly, the solutions are often visible and fairly given. It is easier for us to aim at the most apparent symptom, which of course can provide relief for the moment. And it is common not realizing causes and effects. Why is this a problem? If the problems are solved at the wrong level, it is likely that the symptoms will come back in other areas or in other situations.
As a first step, let’s look at the apparent problems you would like to change, solve or manage?
Is it about:
An inner critical voice?
Busy doing things for others and having too little time for your own life?
Symptoms like stress, insomnia, rumination, anxiety, sadness, fear, health problems, loneliness, lack of hobbies? Dissatisfaction with work, career, decisions, behaviours or relationships?
Now study your list. See if you can group your problems into themes, by relatedness or cause:
Your inner life such as your mood, feelings or thoughts?
Difficulties speaking up for yourself?
I suggest you share your list with a trusted other to see if there are other things that you have missed, other connections or even root-causes.
Find the root cause behind your main problem
We are searching for a direction to move in that automatically helps us focus and affects everyday decisions. This week’s challenge is to dig a little deeper for the root cause of each problem in the list you did last time. Sometimes professional help is needed to understand this.
It is important to take this in several steps, even if repetitive, as we otherwise only relieve symptoms instead of the actual cause that created the symptoms. The basic idea behind today’s exercise is that we are smart beings that adapt to our surroundings to survive both physically and psychologically.
Hence, symptoms and problems have often arisen for a reason as ways of defending or protecting us against a situation, a habitat that we needed to adapt to, often family upbringing, school environment etc. Hence, often have these strategies been functional in the context you were in, but now they do no longer work or have other, unwanted consequences.
Look at your list of basic problems. For each of them, think about how you feel when you’re in a situation where the problem is – for example in a situation where you feel uncomfortable, like making a speech:
What were you thinking about right before?
How are those thoughts negative, critical, self-attacking, agitated?
What’s the worst with the situation?
What is the disaster you are trying to avoid?
What feelings do you have that you want to understand or change? Sadness? Frustration/anger? Shame? Fear?
Are you afraid of something: afraid of dying/showing insecurity, what people will think of you, being discovered/incompetent/a bluff, losing your job?
What do you miss when being in that situation? Pride? Independence? Courage?
Want more joy, desire or inspiration in your life?
How did you get here?
When did the problem start – what happened in your life right before?
Do not worry if you did not get any insights, your understanding will develop over time in exercises to come, aiming to find a deeper, exciting and more meaningful direction. In the next exercise, I’m going to share a concrete tool that can help you understand your root cause.
Map your time-line
To identify a meaningful and motivating future direction it is helpful to know your starting point. That is why we in earlier posts have looked deeper into your current problems or dissatisfaction. Today we will look at your past. This can help you evaluate which areas you want to set new goals within.
A concrete tool that you can use to understand what may need to change in your life on a deeper level is the timeline. Exploring some background is used more or less pronounced within psychology to identify important patterns and/or focus areas.
Also, mapping out one’s background has in itself been shown to have a calming and enriching impact on psychological well-being.
However, if you know that you are suffering from trauma or feeling very resistant to this exercise you should not do this by yourself but together with a licensed therapist.
A timeline consists of two axes: one axis for your mental health on a scale ranging from minus 10 = worst possible mental health to +10 = best possible mental health, where 0 = neither good nor bad, in-between/neutral. The other axis shows time-intervals over your age, e.g. 5 year-intervals.
Under life goals you will find an example for ‘Anne’. As can be seen in the picture, Anne began most recently to feel bad, the on-set, when she had her child. Going further back it is apparent that she also had a tough period in her childhood when her parents divorced and her grandmother unexpectedly died, a tragic event that also affected her mother a lot. She has also had challenges with her first boyfriend and worries over grades. Important events that have influenced her mental health and well-being, who she is today.
You can start by identifying at least 5-10 of your most important life events that have impacted your life, both positive and negative. You can choose between connecting them with a line as in the illustration over Anne’s life, or just mark the events with a cross and a label. Next week I will go through how you can challenge yourself to add more themes to the timeline and later on use the timeline to set your future direction.
Identify your role changes
In the last section I introduced the timeline, a tool that per ce can bring much clarity to why you feel the way you do, why you are where you are today as well as what has to change to get back what you miss.
Here we will work on it some more. This since it is important to include in your timeline all major changes in your life, good or bad. Surprisingly often, almost daily, I meet people who have not connected the dots in front of them. This is because it is difficult and that we maybe do not know about the importance of looking for on-sets.
But there are always triggers in your surroundings. Your reactions are likely the consequence of a change. Connecting the dots gives a lot of relief and clarity and also understanding of one’s needs, hence points to a desired direction.
Often there are important changes in circumstances that both can be perceived as negative and/or positive, such as own or other’s conflicts, illnesses, diseases, losses – even pets, traumatic and violent events including bullying, re-allocations: moving, changing jobs or responsibilities, boss, school etc. that are difficult to adapt to and that influence our well-being.
It can also be changes in roles – own roles or the role of an important person creating bad moods and problems like parents, siblings, partners, children, relatives or close friends such as meeting or loosing someone special, family conflicts, changes in close family relationships, graduating, getting engaged, married, divorced, becoming a parent etc. even if the change is not bad per se or even could have brought something positive that we ‘should’ appreciate, but for one reason or another it has been difficult to adapt to.
Write it down in your timeline even if you right now do not see any direct connections.
Analyse your time-line
In the last chapter we worked with the timeline. This week we will analyse it for a last time.
Take a few minutes and take in your timeline. How does it feel? Can you some unexpected coincidences? Now, ask the following questions:
What had changed at the time you have a low and high mark respectively?
Did your start or stop doing something important as a consequence – did your daily routines change in some way?
Did something happen to a close one that had an impact on your life?
If your problems/symptoms are not already listed in your timeline, then mark when they started and see what happened at that time in your life.
What did your life look like then? What happened just before?
What was going on in your life?
How did you experience your important close relationships, such as partner, parents, siblings, friends, colleagues, children, others?
What changes took place – for certain, there will be, but if your problems have been with you from a young age they can have more to do with how you have been treated, such as attachment experiences, psychological abandonment or other traumatic experiences. But be sure, there is always a reason for psychological symptoms and changes in wellbeing, even if difficult to find at first.
Let’s take one step back: You may right now feel that you can see connections more clearly – or the opposite – that you have gotten even more questions, but no answers, and are even more confused?
Be patient, this is a new way of thinking that takes time to learn and understand – to connect your symptoms with life circumstances.
To summarize, we have begun to uncover the path behind you that contributed to and affected the symptoms and related issues you have today.
In next posts we will look at the future and possible life goals.
Identify your life wheel
Now we will start looking forward to whom you would like to become and the life you desire to live.
After completing these exercises, we will look at how you can use your previous work with the problem list and timeline and incorporate them to ensure you get the right weights and prioritization to the different dimensions that you would like to change.
A first step is to identify which your important dimensions are based both on what your life looks like right now and which areas in your life you would like to prioritize, i.e. your dimensions.
A common tool in this assignment is drawing 10 circles like a dart board. There are many versions of this exercise. I use an adjusted version of the life wheel used in coaching. Here the scale is the following: the centre of the dart board, i.e. the bull’s eye = 0 = lowest score possible: you give your life in this dimension no single point/grade, i.e. this lacks completely in your life to 10 = Top score: Your life is completely as you would like it to be in this dimension.
Then you draw diagonal lines over the circles through the centre so that it becomes a cake with slices. The labels of the slices can be:
1 Mental health
2 Physical health
3 Financial situation
5 Leisure time/hobbies
6 Partner/intimate relationship
8 Other relatives and friends
9 Personal development
10 Life mission/goals
To be continued in next post, where I also will display an illustrative example.
The Two Ratings in The Life Wheel
In the last chapter we started with the life wheel, an illustrative tool used in coaching to identify the areas in your life you would like to change, your dimensions, as well as a list of 10 possible dimensions you could consider to be drawn on a dartboard-like illustration with 10 circle areas, see illustration.
The scale goes from the bull’s eye = 0 = lowest score possible: you give your life in this dimension no single point/grade, i.e. this lacks completely in your life and/or is totally unsatisfactory, to 10 = top score: Your life is completely as you would like it to be in this dimension.
- Now assign each dimension you choose to a slice and give each of the dimensions you chose 2 ratings on scale 1 to 10, the first score shows where you are today and the second score where you would like to be, your future goal.
- Then shade the area from the centre of the circle up to the score each area gets today, see illustration.
- Then mark with a thick pen the number where you aimed/ideal level is on each dimension. The reason that I have made this addition to this exercise is that all dimensions might not be that important right now in your current life. For example, you might rate yourself high on career, i.e. an 8, but lower for the ideal level right now, a 5, if you just have given birth to a child and intend to stay at home for a long while – hence not a dimension you would like to focus on/prioritize at this point in time of your life.4. Then look at the gaps. Choose 2-3 focus areas/dimensions based on level of importance, i.e. those dimensions with the in absolute terms highest ideal ratings AND the biggest gap from where you are today.
Create SMART goals
Up until now we have looked at your problems, the likely root causes as well as the dimensions of your current life that you would like to focus on. Now it is time to start formulate actual goals to get a desired direction.
A useful tool for this is the SMART model. This stands for 5 important characteristics of goal-setting: Specific Measurable Achievable Relevant Time Limited, to help you set and achieve motivating goals:
Goals should be concrete and reflect how life will be when you have reached your goal. The goal better sleep is a start, but feeling rested is even more concrete because it describes an experience and is easier to compare. Remember to use use active words that indicate a direction for your desired state.
Goals must be measurable for you to know that you are moving in the right direction and to assess when the goal is achieved. Possible dimensions are time such as how often: per day or week etc. or a scale of satisfaction. What can be measured or quantified is easier to implement. To the goal wake-up rested, one can add: at least 5 of the nights in a week, measured with a scale of sleep quality at 0-10 where 0 = not at all and there 10 = fully rested, i.e. here: wake-up rested, a minimum rating of 6 on average, at least 5 of the nights in a week.
The goal should be achievable. When it comes to the better sleep example, this excludes goals such as “sleep like I did when I was younger” because (in addition to being non-specific) then you likely had a different daily rhythm and sleep needs, i.e. that goal would be both unrealistic and not plausible.
Interim goals can sometimes be important to keep motivation up. Achievable means that your goal should be desirable and challenging, but still reasonable. For example, the goal “I will sleep and feel rested on average minimum 5 nights per week and without regular use of sleep medicine” might require interim goals, such as step wise reduction in medication if you have been used to this.
Also, an interim goal could be reducing stressors in life, such as changing work hours, division of labour or implementing new sleep routines for more members of the family if your sleep problems are related to stress and current life style.
The goal must be meaningful. Saying that “I’m going to sleep for at least 10 hours per night” is not appropriate because it’s not controllable and it could probably make you tired because it’s more than what is normally considered healthy for a non-stress-damaged person. But of course, optimal amount of hours for sleep is individual.
Research shows that in general a more realistic goal is to on average sleep at least 7 hours per night. If it gets lower it is important to ensure compensatory rest and get more sleep the night after.
Finally, your goal also needs a time table. It is usually said that the difference between a dream and a goal is that a goal has a time plan, something that we can be held accountable for.
There are many dimension to consider: A too short time horizon makes a realistic goal impossible and too long time horizon demotivating.
Having a realistic but stretched time line is as important as the goal itself to keep moving even when motivation is not that present.
You do not have to achieve the entire goal at the finish time, but rather continuously evaluate that you are moving in the desired direction.
The long-term goals can change, life can take on new turns, unexpected events may force you to change pace, path or focus.
In the sleep example introduced in earlier posts, it is not realistic to believe that a sleep problem being present all your adult life can disappear within a short time period. But new routines, exercise, relaxation and talking to your manager are relevant sub-goals.
If you have had severe problems or problems of a longer duration, you often have an increased vulnerability for this area for some time, with risks of relapses during stressful periods, since the body is now set to the disturbed pattern, so-called conditioning, see under anxiety.
Hence, it is often better to start with weekly step-wise goals that are revised monthly.