While it’s typically easy to set goals, it can be a challenge knowing what goals we actually, in our heart of hearts, want to pursue. People often set goals for themselves that have been governed by what others around them find valuable, or the pressure and/or praise they received from adults and peers in their lives growing up. We tend to assume we really want the things we have been told are worth wanting, then falling victim to blind ambition devoid of genuine passion.
“Successful goal setting is all about passion,” says psychologist Leslie Riopel. “ If you have passion for your goal, you are much more likely to achieve it. On the other hand, if you’re setting goals that other people want you to set, you may find they are more difficult to achieve. Always focus on goals that bring you a sense of passion and excitement.”
But given that we’re all products of social conditioning, it’s easier said than done to disentangle what goals we truly want for ourselves from the opinions, beliefs and judgements of those around us. The answer is learning to tune inward, which is where mindfulness comes in as a key factor in setting meaningful goals.
The Relationship Between Mindfulness and Goal Setting
“Often we have a lot of societal suggestions and conditioning that, I’m just using examples, if you make more money or if you get a promotion, that’s a good goal to have,” says Brewer. “[Mindfulness] can help us really pay attention and see what we actually get from achieving certain goals so that we can step back and really pick meaningful goals.”
A 2020 study found that mindful individuals were better at setting “self-concordant” goals, or goals that are personally relevant and meaningful rather than things you feel pressured or obligated to achieve. Consequently, these goals are more likely to make us feel competent, fulfilled, agenic, and connected to others.
“Because mindfulness fosters an ability to see what we deeply value, and what we find most interesting and enjoyable, mindfulness promotes more carefully chosen goals,” says Dr. Kirk Brown, a social psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University and expert on self-determination theory. “There is no solid evidence that I’m aware of that mindfulness promotes goal achievement, but we have [unpublished] evidence that it promotes more satisfaction with one’s goal achievement and more enjoyment in the pursuit of those goals.”
How to Set Mindful Goals
Contrary to what some believe, productivity and goal-achieving don’t stand in opposition to mindfulness. In fact, by marrying the two we use awareness as a tool to set more self-congruent goals that will make us happier, more motivated, and more fulfilled.
But it’s one thing to know that being more mindful will help us set better goals, and another to actually become a more mindful person who sets the right goals. Here are six tips, practices, and exercises to mix mindfulness into goal-setting and pursuit.
1. Set small goals that facilitate mindfulness
To become more mindful in your goal setting you might start off by first setting complimentary smaller goals that will bring your awareness into the present.
“Being mindful is all about being present in the moment,” says Riopel, a certified mindfulness teacher. “Setting a mindful goal is not always about setting a big goal, but more about focusing on smaller, more achievable goals that help you stay present in the moment.”
For example, set a small process goal of practicing gratitude after each run you complete, or keeping a running journal in which you write how you felt after each run and how it fits in with your more long term goals. This could also mean setting goals like waking up before work each day to run, or running a new trail once a week. Because these goals focus on daily happenings, they warm you up to knowing what higher, long-term goals you may want to aim for.
“Starting with small goals is an amazing way to see results quickly, which helps motivate and inspire you to set bigger goals,” notes Riopel.
2. Pay attention to how you feel
Pay attention to how the behaviors that align with your goal makes you feel. A study published in the Journal Perspectives on Psychological Science found that awareness is at the forefront of successful goal setting and behavioral changes. This is because when we try to change behaviors, we tend to see a dueling nature between our impulses (sleep in on Sunday) and the cognitive control trying to redirect those impulses (get up early for a 10 mile long run). This study looked at how those cognitive systems can work harmoniously to align impulses with values.
Behaving in ways that line up with our goals and values often feels better than behavior that does not. By paying attention, we may notice that new behaviors adjusted to align better with our goals make us feel good, and the positive feedback may reinforce and solidify a new behavior. This can be done by giving observance to your body, thoughts, and emotions regularly.
“It helps us see how rewarding each of those [behaviors] are so that we can choose which one we want to set as a goal,” says Brewer “Without awareness, how are we going to know what is actually worth going for?”
First take note of what behaviors are necessary to achieve a certain goal, then observe how behaving in those ways makes you feel physically, emotionally or otherwise. Using this approach, Dr. Brewer has developed app-based mindfulness training programs to help people achieve various goals such as quitting smoking, eating healthier, or unwinding habitual behaviors around anxiety.
“We start by teaching them how these habits around unhealthy behaviors get set up, and help them map those out,” he explains. “Once they can map them out, we then have them focus on that cause and effect relationship.”
For example, if your goal is to run everyday, you might ask yourself what you get from waking up early to run? Or, if you’re having a problem finding time to run every day, you might ask yourself what you get out of scrolling through social media after work. Dr. Brewer advises that you think about how this makes you feel on a somatic level, in your body, rather than intellectually.
3. Get curious
Awareness isn’t synonymous with mindfulness. The non-judgemental attitude that defines mindfulness is also facilitated by curiosity.
“You can think of mindfulness as being awareness plus being curious,” says Brewer. “So mindfulness isn’t just being aware, because we can be aware of something and say oh that sucks, we’re judging it.”
For example, if your goal is to run a marathon and you feel yourself wanting to stop and walk on training runs, you might judge that moment as unpleasant. You’re running and you’re tired and it’s driving you towards an unwanted behavior (not completing your run). But, says Dr. Brewer, if you add curiosity into the moment, you can dig into what that desire to stop running really feels like, where it’s coming from, what the tiredness is about.
“Curiosity itself feels good, it’s kind of the joy of discovery,” explains Brewer, noting that we can use it to dig into questions about, for example, where we might feel certain desires towards behaviors or cravings in our body.
Exploring those questions can foster good feelings naturally through the inherently joyful discovery process that accompanies curiously.
4. Savor the process
Fully soaking in the moments of accomplishment before jumping to the next goal you have for yourself is critical for avoiding the goal-setting hamster wheel that can lead to arrival fallacy. (A phenomena in which we overestimate how happy finally reaching our long-term goal will make us and feel surprisingly unsatisfied once we get there.)
“Saving happiness for achievement is putting stock in an uncertain future; for example, how do we know we’ll enjoy our achievements?” asks Brown. “The mind is very good at staying on a ‘hedonic treadmill’ — we achieve something, we savor it just briefly, and then it’s right on to the next goal pursuit. When we enjoy and take interest in what we do, as we’re doing it, we accrue a double benefit — enjoyment in the process, and enjoyment at the end.”
Taking time to celebrate each important goal you achieve or positive new behavior you develop along the way, whether it’s PRing in a 5k or just getting out of bed 30 minutes earlier to do a morning shakeout, is also important.
“So many of us set goals and achieve them but forgot to take the time to really savor them,” says Riopel. “It’s so important to celebrate ourselves and to celebrate all the accomplishments we make. It doesn’t matter how big or small the goal is either, because you can still celebrate a small accomplishment such as taking a few minutes in the morning to practice mindfulness or incorporating healthier foods into your diet.”
Additionally, feel and express gratitude for new experiences, people you meet, or other positive outcomes that result from the process of pursuing your goal. Doing so has been shown to enhance happiness and lower stress levels, which means you won’t be staking all your happiness in a possible future event.
Mindfulness meditation — a type of meditation in which you focus intently on one specific thing or sensation, whether it be your breath, an object, or a body part, for a set amount of time — has boasted a wide range of benefits including enhanced focus, lowering anxiety, and enhancing athletic performance. And according to Dr. Brown, it may be the best way to encourage the self-reflection that comes with setting self-concordant goals.
“[Mindful meditation] allows us to become aware of what’s going on inside us at a deeper level, below the chatter of our beliefs, shoulds, and musts,” explains Brown.
6. Embrace uncertainty and adaptability
Setting goals can help us become more in-tune to our own sense of personal power in chaotic times (like right now). And while it grinds against human nature to embrace uncertainty, doing so can be a large-scale opportunity to practice mindfulness and curiosity.
Riopel points out that uncertainty gives us the ability to better learn how to process, acknowledge, and explore the emotions that come with not knowing what lies ahead. And although it may seem like a bad time to set any goals, they can help us cope with precarity when set right.
“We can’t often change what might be happening around us, but we can change how we react,” says Riopel. “We can continually set new goals, and establish positive habits that help us go from surviving to thriving… Goals help motivate us and in turn help us feel much more positive and hopeful.”
You might also take the time to ask yourself why you are pursuing a particular goal, and if you can pursue what you find enjoyable, interesting, and important right now regardless of what the future brings. Dr. Brown suggests that if we do what’s meaningful and enjoyable right now, it may be easier to deal with uncertainty.
“It’s important to remember that Covid or not, the future is always uncertain,” says Brown. We could get an injury that also keeps us from a goal race, for example. “Keep in mind that our lives are lived now, not in the future. This doesn’t mean forgetting about our goals, but rather means not sacrificing the present for an uncertain future. An important message from mindfulness and motivation research is that taking care of this moment is a powerful way to promote a future we can be comfortable in, regardless of what happens.”