When it comes to goal-setting, writing down a list of things we’d like to accomplish is the easy part. Actually following through on those plans? Well, that’s a bit harder — especially when you have kids. After all, parents’ days are filled with appointments, sports practices, homework help and meal prep. Finding extra time and space to work on personal passions or tackle new challenges doesn’t always fit on the to-do list, but experts say it’s vital to parents’ mental health to honor that call.
“Keeping the ball rolling on personal goals is important for our psychological health because it fuels our wellbeing and keeps resentment at bay,” says Yael Schonbrun, a licensed psychologist, assistant professor at Brown University and the author of “Work, Parent, Thrive.” “Setting personal goals is something we do for ourselves. It also helps you to be there for your loved ones in a healthier way.”
Schonbrun and other experts we spoke to agree that setting intentions and working towards success, even amidst the chaos of parent life, is essential to maintaining a strong sense of self and a positive outlook. Here are the strategies they use to help parents create space to establish and achieve their goals, no matter how big or small.
1. Make sure your goals are achievable
The key to good goal-setting is that your goals should actually be reachable. If your goal is too complex, rigid or overwhelming, it’s going to make your life harder and zap you of your motivation, the experts say.
“Err on the side of setting a goal that is too easy rather than too hard because you want to set yourself up for a win,” says Schonbrun. “Small wins help us build a sense of competency and momentum.”
In addition to creating easier wins, life and career coach Letisha Bereola says to keep your goals clear, specific and aligned to your interests and lifestyle. “Think creatively and don’t be afraid to choose a route that feels fun to you,” she adds. “If you’re going to be hacking away at a goal most of the year, it needs to be something you don’t mind coming back to.”
2. Break your goals into steps
Big goals are great, but they can also feel daunting. The experts say the first thing to do with any goal is break it down into actionable steps. “A goal to write for 15 minutes a day is less intimidating than one of completing a chapter this week,” points out Schonbrun. “A goal of putting on your sneakers and going for a walk twice a week can feel more achievable than a goal of walking five miles.”
Bethany Cook, a licensed psychologist and the author of “For What It’s Worth: A Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive Parenting,” suggests mapping goals out over the course of the year. To do this:
- Write down each goal and the steps needed to accomplish it.
- Break your year into quarters and create smaller goals for each one.
- Plan a “re-evaluation” stop at the end of each quarter.
“At any point in the process, if something isn’t working, tweak it, drop it or shift it,” Cook adds.
3. Enlist support
“Keeping your goals all to yourself can be quite lonely,” notes Bereola.
Maybe you’re nervous to talk about your plans in case things don’t work out or you’re worried others might judge you for prioritizing your own needs. But the experts agree it’s important to have someone in your corner who can root for you and support you when needed.
Cook suggests talking about your goal with a partner or friend. You could even create a “couples’ goal,” like saving for a trip or taking a ballroom dancing class, if you have an idea for something you can work towards together.
“Having someone who knows about your goals is not only an incentive to keep at it, but they can also be the cheerleader you need when it gets tough,” Bereola adds.
4. Reward yourself when you follow through
As soon as you set a goal, decide how you’re going to reward yourself for working towards it, suggests Bereola. “It feels nice to pat yourself on the back, and we don’t do it enough,” she adds. “For example, I picked up a rowing class. It’s right next to a great smoothie place. Every time I show up, I celebrate myself by allowing someone to make a healthy and delicious smoothie for me.”
Once you get into the habit of pursuing your goal, you may not even need the reward anymore, she adds, but having a reward system in place will help you stay focused on your intentions while you establish new routines.
5. Let go of guilt
So, you had a hard week and didn’t follow through on some of your plans. Do not entertain thoughts of guilt or shame, Cook says.
Even the most driven and determined people in the world have to deal with unexpected interruptions, need a break or have to regroup from time to time. Here are Cook’s steps to recommit to your goals after a setback:
- Recognize when you’ve gotten off track.
- Objectively identify how it happened.
- Fix the issue.
- Decide what you need to have a smooth and effective ‘merge’ back on.
- Get back on track as quickly as possible.
“Be kind to yourself,” adds Cook. “Remind yourself that you only really ‘fail’ if you don’t get back up when knocked down.”
6. Make time for rest
Scheduling breaks and days off is just as important as mapping out active steps to reaching your goals, the experts say. Make sure to give yourself time to relax, and don’t be afraid to scale back and change your schedule when you go through a particularly busy or difficult period.
“There will be seasons when we’ll need to prioritize rest over our goals,” Bereola says. “You’re a human who takes care of other humans. Be sure to make space for rest and recovery when you need it.”
7. Be flexible with your definition of “success”
Finding success shouldn’t mean waging war against your established habits or feeling pressured to give 100% effort every second. Instead, Schonbrun says, success with your goals should feel possible within the life you lead right now.
“If your goal is to engage more often in your spiritual community by attending weekly events, consider defining ‘success’ as having made it to two of the four events hosted per month,” she offers. “Then, attending any more than that is icing on the cake!”
8. Remember: Slow and steady wins the race
So, you can only work on that book proposal for ten minutes a day or fit a yoga class in every other weekend. That’s OK!
“Don’t be daunted by the length of time something takes,” says Cook. Instead, focus on building small, consistent habits that lead you in a positive direction.
“You’re going to be five years older whether or not you make changes toward reaching your goals,” she adds. “Decide today to make small daily changes that you can sustain over time. This energy and effort will grow, and in five years you will be in a far different place than you are now.”