How do you set good long-term goals if your values shift over time?
November 26, 2016 2:51 AM   Subscribe

It’s a simple question, but one I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. As I’ve grown, what I want out of life has changed dramatically. As a very goal-oriented person who takes a long-term view, I’m struggling to understanding how to set good life goals given that I know my perspectives will shift with time.

It seems like there are a couple options:

1. Don’t set long-term goals. Focus on short to medium term goals, knowing that you’ll be able to appreciate achieving them. (Example: instead of looking for a spouse that might make you happy for 50 years, look for one that you know will make you happy for the next 5 years).

2. Set goals broad enough that they’ll likely transcend time. (Example: maintain a general level of health in strength, cardio, and diet)

3. Try to predict what a future version of you will want, and focus on those things. Can either (a) look for people who are similar to you, at a later life stage, or (b) try to use semi-empirical data like ego development theories. (Example: later in life, most people value relationships more than they do careers, and it’s better to over-index on those)

None of these seem like great options.

How do people set good-long term goals that withstand changes in your own self?
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (14 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think option 2 is a good start. I would make a list of lifetime goals - to use your example about being healthy. So you can have yearly short-term goals within that category - like for 2017 you will walk X miles a day. In a year, re-evaluate that goal. You might say, "Yeah, X miles was good, but I'd like to try something other than walking this year." Your lifetime goal may be to be financially stable, so your yearly goal would be to put $X away for that year. At the end of a year, you might say, "Wow, I put away a lot of money, next year I'm going to try to meet $X goal." You can probably come up with a few solid goals that will last you your lifetime, but for your need for goal setting, use those shorter term ones to mark progress.

Example: instead of looking for a spouse that might make you happy for 50 years, look for one that you know will make you happy for the next 5 years
No, please don't do this. Look for a spouse that will allow you to grow and change as a person (in addition to all of your other spousal qualifications). And FWIW, goals that involve other people - and their feelings - aren't a good idea in general. A better goal for this example would be to take actions that would provide you more opportunities to meet new people.
posted by NoraCharles at 4:57 AM on November 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


i suspect this is very cultural. i don't think i've ever had much in the way of explicit goals, and i can't say i regret it (but i guess i come from a privileged background, so perhaps it's less important?). anyway, i think that means that there's no external answer - you need to look inside yourself to find what you need, personally.
posted by andrewcooke at 5:00 AM on November 26, 2016


For me, my goals (especially long term) are navigation aids. Life is a journey and all that. I think of them as a way point, if I reach one great! But it's not a finish line. If I find that I need to shift a goal mid-course, then that's ok and does not invalidate my efforts up to that point.
posted by forforf at 5:03 AM on November 26, 2016


I think, i think maybe, it doesn't matter. Set your goals, aim for them, work toward them, celebrate your achievements. When / if your values change, change your goals then. But i was chatting with another late 40s woman the other day, and we both had stories where our play as children predicted our future lives. We do change and become more sophisticated and complex, but that flesh coloured worm visible through out the days of our past - that person remains intact. We just become more... us.
Don't worry about this thing - there will be plenty of other challenges life unexpectedly throws at you to keep you on your toes. Set your (awesome) goals as many years in the future as you like, your future self WILL know what to do if those goals don't work anymore.

More specifically to your question, god yes, set a goal for health (I'm a recent ex-couch potato, i do NOT want to be an unwell old person). This is a good goal, no matter what.

In terms of choosing a spouse, that's a huge question on it's own, and i will simply say, make sure you pick someone who gets that it is team US.

Do not try to predict your future self. That person comes about from challenges and adventures you -now, and you-soon, experience, and life is stranger then fiction. Maybe try to become a person comfortable with multiple eventualities? It's ok if your life suddenly changes direction, because that's what you chose.

In writing this, I'm reminded of something a wise person said to me. You can't time travel (forwards or backwards). Trust in yourself that you will have the capacity to deal with everything. You will, you know. Some of it will be fucking hard (you should see my life right now), but deal with it you will. Set your goals, it keeps your life from being boring and gives you direction, and trust future you to deal with any changes in plan, because you will.
posted by b33j at 5:26 AM on November 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


Set goals that build skills rather than achieve results. You can set ways to measure them but don't see that as the end.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:12 AM on November 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


1. Don’t set long-term goals. Focus on short to medium term goals, knowing that you’ll be able to appreciate achieving them. (Example: instead of looking for a spouse that might make you happy for 50 years, look for one that you know will make you happy for the next 5 years).

5 years is a pretty reasonable time-frame to think about for most things, imo. It gives you enough of a lead time to accomplish something substantial and leaves plenty of room to adapt to changing circumstances.

Though there are exceptions I can think of, at least for me. (The main one, top of mind for me right now: as a straight woman in midlife, I might date someone 10-15 years my junior for a while, but I wouldn't marry them. I think the odds of a partner like that hanging around in 20 years might be long. Though there are definitely a few couples I can think of who are in those long odds and very happy, I just wouldn't risk it. I also wouldn't date anyone 20 years my senior, because the time I'd be free of having to step in as a carer in some capacity would probably be pretty short. Again plenty of counterexamples, of course.) But for pretty much everything else, from career to home ownership, I think five years is a good time container to think about.

2. Set goals broad enough that they’ll likely transcend time. (Example: maintain a general level of health in strength, cardio, and diet)

The example you've given, I'd think of as more of a value. You can't really aim to have a general level of health (and that's relative, really, and not totally in your control). You can aim to eat a certain amount of fiber or clock X hours a week of cardio. You can value health. Same for financial security or family. But yes, I think you can and should use heuristics like this to organize your priorities. This also leaves some room for change.

3. Try to predict what a future version of you will want, and focus on those things. Can either (a) look for people who are similar to you, at a later life stage, or (b) try to use semi-empirical data like ego development theories. (Example: later in life, most people value relationships more than they do careers, and it’s better to over-index on those)

I think this is the least helpful. (With the exception of my dating example above.) Yes, odds are you'll probably go through a given stage, but you might not. And, you're changed by the commitments you make and relationships you have in the short term, as well, to a degree.

You also just don't have enough information to make some of those predictions (when it comes to e.g. the economy & career decisions). Bit more of a chance with this on a 5 year scheme. A *bit*. All you can do is make the best decision you can, given the information you have.
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:54 AM on November 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


I've been doing some training in the process of psychiatric rehab, and one of the big take-aways is that we're supposed to be helping clients set longish-term (3-5 year) goals about the types of roles (social, living, learning, working) they want to achieve, not set behavioral goals. So, "I want to be an active member of my local running group," not "I want to run X miles every week" or "I want to lose 30 pounds." The behavioral goals might develop as stepping stones to achieve the new role (or maintain a current role), but they're not the point in and of themselves. And part of choosing those roles is paying attention to your overall values, and working toward roles that will support the values that are important to you.

So perhaps it might help to think in terms of what kind of roles you want to achieve or maintain, based on your underlying values, and then (as warriorqueen said) on building the skills you'll need to be in those roles.
posted by lazuli at 7:01 AM on November 26, 2016 [5 favorites]


In general, when thinking about long-term goals, I've always focussed on things that will give me more options down the road. For example, I decided that I wanted to buy a condo and pay off the mortgage, because I would have had to pay for somewhere to live anyway, and this way, if I decide to chuck my current life and move to Bora Bora, I can sell and use the equity I've built up to do that. But, I decided against getting a house, vs. an apartment, because I felt that the investment of capital, plus maintenance costs, etc., would have limited my options too much in the medium term.

set longish-term (3-5 year) goals about the types of roles (social, living, learning, working) they want to achieve, not set behavioral goals.

Wow, I really love this idea, and I have never heard it before. Examining the skills you're going to need to take on the role you want would really help clarify things. Lots to think about.
posted by rpfields at 9:03 AM on November 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


lazuli, are you referencing Swarbrick's model of wellness? It's my favorite roadmap for teaching wellness skills.

OP (and others who are interested), here are a few resources:

  • one-page [PDF] that explains each of the eight dimensions of Swarbrick's model
  • three-minute video from the US Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration
  • slide deck on using a Wellness Wheel as a regular measure of how you're doing in each dimension

    The keys to fruitful use of the wellness approach are regular check-ins with yourself (I do them weekly but I know some of my clients do them daily or monthly) and stifling the urge to be perfect in all areas. Life ebbs and flows; you may not find some areas as relevant as others, but it's a useful tool to see how you are doing overall.

  • posted by catlet at 11:28 AM on November 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


    lazuli, are you referencing Swarbrick's model of wellness? It's my favorite roadmap for teaching wellness skills.

    No, I don't think so. We've been receiving training from BU's Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, and the model is to help clients assess need for change, develop readiness for change, choose goals, and develop skills to achieve or maintain their desired roles in four environments: living (mostly focused on where the person's living), social (which would include any non-work non-educational environments involving other people), learning, and working. It's specifically about developing, setting, and working toward goals in each of those areas, not just assessing wellness (which is important too, of course!).
    posted by lazuli at 1:46 PM on November 26, 2016


    I'm 35, and no, for the most part, I have not found that my values have shifted over time. There are things I never thought I would like which I have discovered that I do, in fact, like. There are things I thought I wanted that, after learning more, I realized I didn't want. But that has to do with knowledge, not really change of personality.

    There are also trade-offs, for example I didn't think I ever wanted to live in a suburban area dependent on a car, but then I fell in love with someone, and this is what our lives need to be like right now in order for us to be together. The person I fell in love with is more important to me than transportation or urban design, so I've temporarily put the long-term goal of "car free" or "live in an aesthetically beautiful space" on hold in favor of being with someone who makes me happier than any Arts District loft ever could. My personality has not changed, but the parameters of my life have.

    So I would say that, honestly, you should throw all of these options out and take things as they come. Learn as much as possible about the goals you're interested in pursuing, and be honest with yourself about whether this is something you actually want or something you think you ought to want. Be flexible. The rest will work itself out.

    (Also, maybe try to know yourself better so that you can tell what goals are worthwhile in the first place?)
    posted by Sara C. at 2:39 PM on November 26, 2016


    This is not directly pointed at your question, but immediately came to mind after reading it -- would it help to keep some sort of record of yourself and your ever-shifting values?

    Part of my uncertainty about my future self stems from not properly understanding/remembering my past self. What caused your values to shift? What goals did you end up achieving? Which goals did you lose interest in, and why? Can you record what it's like at the time so that, in the future, you have some sort of past-self-catalog to reference?

    I'm always surprised when I come across a physical indication of my past self -- code I've written, offhand comments I've made, even past grocery lists scribbled on Post-Its...and suddenly, that illuminates just how I got from there to here. It's a nice anchor to have.

    Also PLEASE take care of your body.

    Best of luck!
    posted by miniraptor at 8:14 PM on November 26, 2016


    Start with your values as the basis. Those are much less likely to change over time. Then think of goals that follow under your values and pursue them. As someone said upthread the goals may change as you accomplish them from year to year. For example one of my values is to be a good steward of that which God has entrusted to me. So i have set up goals under this value such as give X amount to charity this year or exercise x times a week for 25 weeks. Another value is serving others so i have a subset of goals related to that value. Etc etc
    posted by TestamentToGrace at 10:09 AM on November 27, 2016


    How do people set good-long term goals that withstand changes in your own self?

    I've experienced both internal and external change which mean that my life, personality and values have changed a lot from where they were when I was ten years younger. I think that's part of life to be honest. I can't imagine a person aging ten years and not developing new ways of looking at the world unless those ten years had been remarkably uneventful.

    This means that my specific goals have shifted with time, but tend to stick to the same overarching themes: for e.g. ten years ago my health-goal would have been "Lose 30 pounds by hook or by crook" and now it's "Exercise 3x a week", so you see the specifics have changed (and in my view, improved) but the overall theme of taking care of myself has remained the same.

    So I would say your second option makes the most sense - if they're broad, then you can fit mini-goals underneath the broader umbrella which are more specific. So this year your health goal could be: learn a new sport and next year it could be: run a 10k, but the overall goal of taking care of your health would remain unchanged.
    posted by Ziggy500 at 10:58 PM on November 27, 2016


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