Goal-setting can be especially difficult when dealing with depression, ADHD, or other mental health issues. This guide is here to help.
"The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I change." —Carl Rogers
Sustaining the goals we set for ourselves is no easy task. Just picture the wake of New Year's Resolutions left behind as people got busy, tired, bored, or distracted. It's normal to set a goal, drift away, and come back to it when it feels important again. For many, it's also frustrating when those goals feel important, but drifting away is made too easy by ADHD, depression, or other circumstances that affect that coveted sense of motivation.
Finding your system for identifying goals and then integrating them into your day-to-day is a very personal process, one that is affected by a lot of different factors. The tips below aren't a prescription for motivation. But perhaps they'll provide a few practical things to try and ways to reframe how you think of goals, motivation, and follow-through.
#1 - Be curious about the reasons.
There are so many reasons we feel unmotivated, and here's a hot take: It's not because you are broken, defective, or lazy. Yet when we look for the reasons for our abandoned goals, we so often stop searching beyond this conclusion.
I won't pretend that it's easy to unsubscribe from that inner story, but at the very least, we can expand the list of reasons to include many other real things that truly do impact motivation:
There are other needs in your life sapping your attention and energy.
You're steeped in situations, circumstances, or relationships that feel unsafe, making it hard to prioritize self-growth or flow states.
You feel in some way disconnected from the goal at hand — maybe it feels inauthentic, uninteresting, or intended to please someone else.
Your brain works differently but you feel trapped in a system that demands you do things in a certain way.
Whether it's through journaling, therapy, or talking with a loved one, you might uncover that there's more to the story.
#2 - Slow, gradual changes are more likely to stick.
Drastic changes are hard to sustain because humans are built to maintain homeostasis.
Homeostasis = The body’s natural preference for stability, consistency, and balance.
If you struggle to make a bigger change stick, consider instead making small changes and work your way up.
A note for those in active addiction, if sobriety/moderation is among the things you're struggling to stick to: This guide emphasizes the importance of small steps for creating change, but it may not be applicable for individuals living with severe, life-threatening addiction. Drastic change is possible, especially with support, and can be life-saving.
#3 - Make a list of small changes.
Write down a goal. Now write it down again, but easier. Keep making it easier until you’ve arrived at a micro-goal that feels truly doable.
Example: Let’s say you hate exercise. You set a goal to exercise for 30 minutes five times per week, but by week 3, you’ve fallen off the routine entirely. It feels pointless to even try, and you return to the nightly couch-and-TV routine.
Then, you cut the goal in half a few times, and arrive at a goal of going out for a walk twice per week. It’s not as much as you’d like to be doing, but it’s actually sustainable and provides a feeling of self-efficacy.
#4 - Take note of signals that you’re going too fast or too slow.
Does the goal as your currently enacting it feel too hard? What are the signals your body or mind send you that tell you to slow down?
Does the goal feel too easy? How do you know that you have capacity to push yourself a little more?
#5 - Keep boundaries with yourself.
We all have parts of ourselves that protest when we want to change. Think of it as that inner voice telling you it’s okay to skip out on your goal today.
This part may be doing its best to protect our beloved homeostasis—and sometimes, it’s a useful voice to listen to when we need to slow down. Other times, we need to bench this part so we can practice something new and grow.
To help set boundaries with this part of yourself, consider writing out a few rules you’d like this part to follow. Here’s a template you might use, with examples:
I give this part permission to:
I do not give this part permission to:
Have 1-2 drinks on Saturday with friends.
Have alcohol on weekdays.
Veg out on the weekends.
Skip my short weekday walk.
Have up to 3 hrs. of social media time daily.
Override my screen-time limit alert.
Spend $100 on new clothes per month.
Spend more than $100.
Leave dishes in the sink overnight.
Leave dirty dishes for more than 24 hours.
Set boundaries that are realistic and supportive. Although they might be difficult to maintain, you know that keeping them means protecting your health and wellbeing.
#6 - Set reminders.
The brain’s autopilot feature is useful for a lot of routine functions. But, it can feel like it’s working against us when we’re trying to intentionally build new neural pathways. For this reason, it can be helpful to set reminders that make us think, “Oh yeah, I’m trying to change that.”
Some reminders might look like:
A number on the top-right corner of your daily calendar reminding you of your drink limit that day (or whatever thing you’re trying to limit).
A notification on your phone alerting you that it’s time for your walk.
An app that tells you you’ve reached your daily time limit on an app.
Setting aside your exact spending limit in cash without adding to it.
A sticky note on your bedroom door to do the dishes before going to work.
#7 - Celebrate your wins, big and small.
Celebrating a step in the direction of our goals is important—whether it’s a big step or baby step. Here’s why:
· Ritualizing our wins consciously reminds us that change is happening.
· It sends a message to our self that we are worthy, deserving, and capable.
· Infusing joy through celebration helps us sustain change through positive reinforcement.
For some, celebration can feel fake, undeserved, or contrived at first. That’s okay. The stories we carry about being broken, defective, and undeserving can run deep. It takes time and practice to re-author them.
This article is written for the sole purpose of providing information on mental health topics. It is not a substitute for professional mental health counseling, diagnosis, or treatment, and should not replace or alter any treatment or care you are receiving without direct consultation from your mental health or medical providers. Any questions regarding your treatment should be brought directly to your professional and medical practitioners.
Frank, B. (2022). The science of stuck: Breaking through inertia to find your path forward. TarcherPerigee.
How to ADHD. (2022, March 22). How to Stick to Habits and Routines Without Falling Off. [YouTube]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nhtQs2M-7rs