At the start of a new year, everyone seems to be buzzing with enthusiasm expressing their plans and goals. But when life feels like an uphill struggle, it is hard to see optimism in the world of to-do lists, planners, and productivity apps. You feel like you have too much on your plate, causing you to think that goal-setting should take a back seat.

And now we tend to question: Is goal setting merely exclusive to mentally healthy people?

The answer is no. In fact, goal setting can be a powerful tool to help you focus on positive action and gives you a sense of purpose, which can be especially useful when you are overwhelmed with negative thoughts. However, it is essential to use caution and plan carefully when attempting to set goals amidst mental health difficulties. All too often, goal-setting can become another source of pressure that may further weigh on one’s already burdened shoulders.

If the thought of goal-setting has you feeling overwhelmed, don’t worry – it doesn’t have to be a daunting venture. With thoughtful consideration and strategy, setting goals can become an empowering tool that can turn your breakdowns into breakthroughs. To assist in jump starting this journey, we’ve provided some helpful tips below.

Tune in to your feelings

You might assume that goal setting requires optimism at the highest level possible.

Here’s a little caveat: you don’t need to buy into the pressure of toxic positivity.

Turning a blind eye to the presence of your troubles will not be of great help. Remember, setting goals can be a difficult task at the best of times, but it can be especially challenging when dealing with a mental health crisis.

Therefore, the first thing to do is to accept that you are going through something difficult. This can help you move forward and begin to set goals that are realistic and achievable. This thinking will also help you gain a sense of perspective—something that you will need in magnifying the areas of your life you want to work on and, thus, in identifying your goals.

Keeping a journal is an excellent way to have meaningful and honest conversations with yourself. This method can help you process your thoughts and emotions so you can reflect on what you truly want and need in your life. Writing down thoughts and feelings often helps us to identify patterns in our behavior, understand our triggers, and uncover personal motivations. Additionally, revisiting past accomplishments can provide motivation during difficult times and remind us of the progress we have already made.

Break major goals into doable short term-goals

Once you have a better understanding of your feelings and what you want, you can start identifying your goals. However, this process should be done with caution, as setting unrealistic or overly ambitious goals can leave you feeling more discouraged and unmotivated.

The best way to start the process of identifying your goals is to divide them into smaller, more manageable pieces.

For instance, you want to achieve financial independence. This may initially sound overwhelming, but if you plot out the steps you need to take, getting the goal sounds mentally and emotionally digestible. You may start by focusing on one of the issues hindering your way toward the goal, e.g. overspending. Try financial hacks such as the 50/30/20 rule: 50% of your income is allocated to your needs, 30% goes to your wants and the remaining 20% toward savings. You may be starting small now, but at the end of the day, these small steps will add up and form a huge outcome.

A known trick to help you come up with an achievable goal is to make it SMART, which is an acronym for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.

In our example above, we can further digest our goal of “financial independence with a focus on avoiding overspending” in a SMART goal by:

Specific: I will reduce my monthly expenses by $300. To do this, I’ll make it a goal to eat at home instead of going out and using cash instead of credit cards for all my purchases.

Measurable: I will track my progress by reviewing my expenses daily and adjusting accordingly.

Achievable: Each week, I will plan my meals ahead of time and create a shopping list to avoid unnecessary purchases. To further control my spending, I will follow Dave Ramsey’s envelope system, where I allocate a certain amount of cash for different categories. Once the money in each envelope is gone, I cannot purchase anything else until the next week.

Relevant: Staying within budget and not overspending can help ensure that I have enough saved for rainy days. It also benefits me long-term by providing me with the means to save for retirement, purchase a home, and invest in other assets to achieve financial freedom.

Time-bound: I will achieve this goal within 3 months. I will do regular reviews and progress checks throughout that time to ensure I am on track. I will highlight any additional facts or figures that could affect the outcome, and I will make any adjustments when needed.

Focus on self-care

Achieving your goals is certainly important, however, taking care of yourself should be the utmost priority.

One way to do this is to practice self-care. Now that you have the right mindset to achieve your SMART goal, combine it with healthy physical well-being. It will help you ensure you have the energy and motivation to work towards your goals without having a sheer mental overload.

Getting an adequate amount of sleep, consuming a wholesome diet, and exercising to activate those happy hormones can all help. Additionally, you can nurture a state of mindfulness through activities such as yoga, deep breathing exercises, or meditation.

Unless you think this journey is best taken alone, you can also seek a trusted accountability partner or coach. They can act as a reinforcer to prevent the derailing of your plans. As the name suggests, they hold you accountable for your goals by constantly checking in on your progress, hence motivating you to put your best foot forward. But aside from getting down to the business, they can also be a friend—give you a pat on the back during your milestones and a listening ear during your struggles.

Thrive from a place of love

When we are striving to accomplish the same goals as others, it can be difficult not to compare our progress. It’s easy to become discouraged when observing how quickly others can attain their desired results in life. But for someone who is juggling a battle for inner peace and setting a goal, tell yourself a gentle reminder:

You are allowed to walk while the others run; either way, all of you will arrive at the finish line.

And as you set and achieve your goals, treat yourself as you would a young child — with patience, kindness, and compassion. If you would not be overly harsh for accidentally dropping a drinking glass, then why would you lash out at yourself for the times you fell short of your goal?

Some research suggests that there are approximately 60,000 thoughts per day, with 80% of them being negative. Historically, to survive during ancient times, it has become an innate function of the human brain to look for signs of danger. We are predisposed to seek out the bad. But in this journey of getting goals, how can you take a more confident and relaxed approach?

“Know that showing up is half the battle”—this quote may sound cliché, but it bears repeating, and it may work as a good nudge. Our best does not look the same every day. There will be times you wish you could bottle up those passionate days so you could take them off the shelf whenever you need them. But you don’t have to be completely fueled up to run the course.

James Clear agrees with such in his book Atomic Habits. He asserts that you don’t need to be twice as good as the others to earn a better result; you just need to be slightly better. And by slightly better, you can show even just 1% of your growth each day. In the long run, these little one-percents will accumulate into a significant outcome. As such, it is important to suspend judgment until you see how things pan out.

Additionally, you can factor in flexibility in achieving your goals. This is especially necessary when you confront unexpected setbacks along the way. For example, on the SMART goal that we set above, one setback you might encounter is unexpected expenses. In the middle of saving up, suddenly, your laptop gets broken, and you need to replace it with a new one. This can be an incredibly distressing situation, and it can throw your timeline off course. One thing to do is revisit your goal. Maybe you need to add a new envelope dedicated to work-related needs. Do make necessary timeline adjustments, and factor in unexpected expenses in your plan.

Cheers to your small wins

You can see this as an everyday scenario in preschool classes: the teacher would give cute star stamps to students just for showing up to school. This does not merely limit to this age group, as this idea can be helpful to anyone. So if you showed up for the battle today, revel in the joy whichever way is most helpful to you.

In the process, you can also use these little blowouts as positive reinforcement that will push you to achieve the next win until all steps are crossed off the list. Psychologically, reinforcement is used to heighten the likelihood of a positive behavioral response.

A little bash once in a while also serves as a breather. Take a pause whenever necessary. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, refers to this period as white space. In her summer sabbatical article, Brown explored this concept by writing a formula: S()R. S stands for stimulus, R for the response, and the parentheses as the white space. She notes that the absence of space between the two would lead to a greater number of piled-up stimuli and responses. Apparently, this experience sounds unappealing to someone experiencing mental health difficulties. Schedule as much white space as you need; the world and your goals can wait.

Breakdowns with breakthroughs

With harrowing mental adversities, setting a goal almost sounds impossible until you find a gentle pick-me-up. We hope this article serves as one and provides the necessary motivation for you to take that first step. Have faith in yourself. After all, in this world of breakdowns and breakthroughs, setting the goal alone is a great core memory.

If you would like to read more on this subject, please use our 7 Secrets of High Performers e-book and see for yourself what dreams you can make a reality.