Three Keys to Effective Goal Setting with Depression

By Vickie | Uncategorised

Jan 11 goal setting with depression

Goal setting when you’re chronically low in mood, have no energy or motivation and nothing seems possible: sounds like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it?

But it’s January again and that means…time to set goals for the New Year!

What are you going to achieve over the next 12 months?

A new job? Finish a major house renovation? Start an MBA? Lose masses of weight? Grow your business to 6 figures…?

New Year’s resolutions or goal setting when you’re experiencing despair and distress are excruciating and when I was depressed I dreaded this time of year.

Everywhere we read…

‘Make this your best year yet!’

‘Make 2017 the year you…[insert unreachable goal here]!’

‘Don’t wait another year, achieve anything you want in 2017!’

Setting goals when you’re feeling overwhelmed with sadness, frustration and misery is not the same as when you’re well.

In depression-speak, goals such as ‘clean the kitchen’, ‘mow the lawn’ and ‘get dinner on the table’ may as well be ‘become a brain surgeon’ or ‘buy a maxi-yacht and sail single-handedly around the world’ or ‘take over a small nation in a bloodless coup and be remembered forever in the annals of history’. goal setting with depression

Goal setting with depression may seem like climbing a mountain.

Chronic low mood and emotional dysregulation is a disorder of the mind which affects your ability to think clearly, making New Year’s resolutions and goal setting a very different kettle of fish to those lucky ones who are not affected.

So you need to be gentle with yourself.

Don’t race into goal setting all guns blazing, aiming to change every aspect of your life within just a few weeks!

While setting goals alone does not overcome deeply felt misery, it is an effective tool to help get some focus and direction which plays a bit role in getting some order back into our lives. Feeling in control helps switch off the stress response which is part of emotional dysregulation. Overwhelm and stress can be controlled by goal setting. This has a positive impact on our mood. 

Goal setting with depression can be tricky, but it's not impossible and it's well worth thinking about how you can develop develop this skill. Click To Tweet

Here are my three keys to effective goal setting with chronic low mood:

1/ Make Goals Specific

2/ Make Goals Small and Doable

3/ Be Kind To Yourself

Let’s look at these three areas more closely:

1/ Make Goals Specific

In a joint study led by the University of Liverpool, researchers investigated how people experiencing various levels of depression set goals.

They asked two groups of people – one with depression, the other without depression – to describe their short-term, medium-term and long-term goals. The researchers then categorised the answers based on how specific they were. That is, they were looking for the amount of concrete detail in the answers.

It seems, from the study, that people without depression set specific goals whereas depressed people tended to set goals which were vague, hazy and unclear.

Also, people with depression found it more difficult to assess whether a goal had been reached, because they used vague and imprecise terms to describe success.

Have you ever set a goal such as ‘Next year I’m going to be happier’ or ‘Next month I’ll start losing weight’ or ‘I’m going to get a good job soon’?

The problem with these types of goals is that they lack a motivating factor because they are so general. They lack the detail which tells us exactly what we need to do to reach the goal and the evidence we will have when we get there. goal setting with depression

You don’t have to tackle the mountain first up; try a gentle walk as your first goal.

When we are feeling depressed, we do tend to think in abstract, broad strokes. We tend to generalise about the world and people and events. We tend to think in black and white. Setting goals with low mood may lead to similar generalisations which are not very effective for taking action.

We want change. We want better things in our lives but if we can’t define what those ‘better things’ are, it’s hard to set a definite goal. If we can’t set a definite goal we won’t know how to get there. If we don’t know how to get there we won’t know what to do and the motivation for action will just trickle away.

Do you remember the conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat?

Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?

The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.

Alice: I don’t much care where.

The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go

Alice: …So long as I get somewhere.

The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.”  

(From Lewis Carrol, Alice in Wonderland).

The researchers in the University of Liverpool study suggest that setting vague and abstract goals could perhaps worsen the effects of depression because goals are less likely to be actioned and therefore attained, resulting in a loss of interest in change and the lack of personal motivation.  

Making specific and measurable goals increases your chance of taking action on them and if they are small, simple steps, also increasing the chance of success and motivation to keep going!

2/ Make Goals Small and Doable

I think we all know how hard it is to get going when you’re weighed down by the lethargy and exhaustion of a long-experienced low mood.

However, it is sometimes those very actions which seem so hard to do in depression which are the very ones that we need to do to feel better. Click To Tweet

But you do need to adjust your expectations of yourself.  Understand that your ability to achieve goals is affected by your emotional state, and recognise that goals you may have been able to reach easily when well, may not be so readily achievable when you’re feeling really down.

You need to take tiny steps and to realise that each tiny win is just that, a win!

Don’t be critical of the goals you set when you’re feeling unhappy with yourself and life.

Every goal, no matter how large, starts with a single step. Multi-national corporations don’t start out that way. They often begin with one small office or shop and grow from there, over time. A big old oak tree starts with a tiny acorn; tiny ants are capable of creating amazingly complex burrows and nests, but it all starts with a single step.

Set tiny goals and be proud when you achieve them.

Setting tiny goals will ensure you reach them. And it feels good to reach goals. goal setting with depression

Take baby steps when goal setting with depression.

But you may find that you criticise yourself for such tiny goals. Surrounded by self-help gurus who suggest you reach for unattainable goals to generate motivation and momentum have got it wrong when emotional dysregulation is thrown into the mix.

A goal is a goal is a goal.

There is no inherent value in the size of the goal. It’s all in the perspective. A big goal for Bill is a little goal for Sam. So what? We’re all different. We’re all having different experiences of life. Take care not to judge yourself for your goals, especially when you’re goal setting in spite of your chronic despair.

Sure, people without depression may be able to accomplish more. Sure, when you didn’t so bad you probably did accomplish more. But if you are experiencing low mood and negative emotions, and they’re stopping you from accomplishing what you would like, just take a breath. Relax. It is what it is. Yep, there it is. You have depression. So what. Read more about accepting depression here.

You can still do stuff. It’s just that your stuff may have different proportions to the stuff you did when you were feeling better. So what.

So set ‘you-sized’ goals, go do them and be proud of your achievement.

3/ Be Kind To Yourself

You may hear yourself saying ‘What kind of goal is this? This isn’t a goal! What are you thinking? You can do way better than this. This goal is ridiculous. Forget this goal. It’s too embarrassing’.

So the barrier to achieving the goal is not lack of desire or lack of will, but the negative talk that we whispers to ourselves:

‘That’s a goal? That’s not a goal! You’re not going to get anywhere with goals like that! Aim higher, aim bigger! You must do better! It’s just not good enough. You’re just not good enough! What’s the point if it’s not perfect?’


‘You’re pathetic, you know that, don’t you? Just pathetic. If only you were a better person. But you’re just an idiot, a loser. No wonder you have to set pathetic little goals. You’ve only got yourself to blame!’

Goal setting when we’re in a low mood means we are prone to negative self-talk about our goals and ourselves for setting them.

Judging our goals as being ‘too small’ or ‘useless’ and ourselves for being ‘weak and pathetic’ for setting them set us up to fail. We will never take action on a goal that we don’t believe in.

On the other hand, if we set up large and long-ranging goals, they seem out of our reach and unattainable. We are unlikely to take action on those types of goals either.

If you had some kind of accident which resulted in broken bones or torn ligaments, setting goals for recovery is reasonably straight forward. Your doctor and physiotherapist would work with you to design a program of exercises and check-ups which would gradually move you towards full use of that limb.

You wouldn’t attempt to go further or faster than is possible under the circumstances because that would probably be detrimental to your overall recovery. It would be dangerous and inadvisable to do more than possible with the injury you’ve sustained.

You’d take it a day at a time, setting small goals to start with and increasing the size or intensity of the exercise until your at the next stage, be that walking without crutches or having the plaster removed and flexing your write for the first time.

Think about goal setting with depression in the same way. Set goals which feel possible, even if they seem very small because all it takes is a few wins to improve your motivation for setting slightly larger goals. goal setting with depression

Give yourself a hug (or your dog!) when you have a small win!

You must be gentle with yourself and work within your limits, gently stretch yourself a little bit further when you feel ready.  

Progress slowly but steadily. Talk to yourself with kindness. Treat yourself gently. Reward yourself often. A warm bath with scented soap, a movie, delicious fruit like strawberries or a mango, a cup of tea and good book, a new pair of shoes!


Goal Setting When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed: How To Do It Effectively

If you’re not sure where to begin with goal setting, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What motivates me?
  • What interests me?
  • What would I do more if I could?
  • What do I want?
  • What do I enjoy or care about, (or what did I care or care about before my illness)?
  • What are my dreams and hopes?

These are very general questions to get you started. Use a mind map to generate ideas and don’t discard any ideas you come up with.

Write the question at the centre of a piece of paper and draw branches outwards, each with an idea.

Then look at the idea on each branch and answer these questions:

  • Why do I want [this thing]? to be fitter and healthier
  • What would [having this thing] mean for my life? Eg. what would being fitter and healthier mean for my life?
  • How will I know / what will I feel when I have [this thing]. Eg. How will I know when I am fitter and healthier?
  • How will [having this thing] change my life? Eg. How will being fitter and healthier change my life?
  • What kinds of things will I be able to do when I [have this thing]? Eg. What kinds of things will I be able to do and experience when I’m fitter and healthier?
  • What do I need to do to achieve [this thing]? What do I need to do to be fitter and healthier?
  • Who can I call to help me achieve [this thing]? Who can I call on to help me be fitter and healthier.

Add any other questions you can think of to generate more ideas.

Finally, look at your mind map and decide on one small action you can take in the next few days to move towards this goal.  Goal setting does not need to be grandiose or earth-shattering. Goals for improving health and fitness could be the following:

  • Find my runners or tennis racquet or goggles or some other piece of equipment
  • Go to the gym and just look at what’s available
  • Go to the library and borrow a healthy recipe book
  • Call my friend and ask her to take a walk with me this weekend
  • Look online for some basic stretches to do tomorrow morning
  • Book an appointment with my doctor to discuss this goal

So welcome 2017 with open arms! It’s time to make decisions and set goals. Goal setting despite your low mood can be done effective with the three step process I’ve outlined above.

A new job? Finish a major house renovation? Start an MBA? Lose masses of weight? Grow your business to 6 figures…?

Nahhh, who needs those things?  Forget the hype and focus on you.

What would make you happy in 2017? Be specific! Daydream and lay all your ideas out where you can see them. Choose one. Set a small, doable goal. Take the action.

Enjoy the good feelings! Rinse and repeat! goal setting with depression

Set Your Goals and Achieve them in 2017!

I wish you all the very best as you start to take small, achievable steps towards your New Year’s goals!

I’d love to hear from you about your own goal setting ideas and successes. Please leave a comment below and help me get the conversation started!




About the Author

If you'd asked her 15 years ago if she believed life could be a wonderful as it is today, Vickie would have answered, 'I just don't know, but it doesn't seem likely.' Now she knows that if she can turn her life around, it's possible for you too. Ask Vickie how she can help you design the life you'd really love to live and say goodbye to depression forever.

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