When setting goals sets you up for failure
March 7, 2022 3:52 PM   Subscribe

I have trouble sticking to the smallest goals and just cannot wrap my mind around how to set any goal without setting myself up for failure. I have felt like this for at least 40 years. Is there any way out of this?

I have bipolar disorder that is well treated for the most part, but I have always struggled with taking care of myself. I am having a flare up of depression right now and am having the hardest time setting goals for even the simplest of tasks. I don’t understand how people do this.

For example, the pandemic triggered my agoraphobic tendencies pretty strongly, and since I am working from home and my fiance can run errands, I can easily not leave the house for a week. Doing so makes me feel terrible, so I decided last week that I should make myself leave the house every day, even if just to go to the store across the street for five minutes. I feel better when I leave the house, but I don't actually want to leave the house. I want to WANT to leave the house. But the inertia of not leaving is stronger than knowing I will feel better if I do.

I went out of the house seven days in a row and felt very good about it, but today I just do not want to and I have not gone out and it is getting dark and cold so I probably won't go out. So I set what should have been the simplest goal and couldn't achieve it. I feel like such an incredible loser for not being able to force myself to do what almost anyone could do without even thinking about it.

I keep thinking about the concept of doing something every day and marking it on a calendar to create a chain. And then you don’t break the chain. But then how does anyone never break the chain? It seems absolutely impossible to do something every single day.

I am haunted by an acquaintance of mine who eight years ago decided he would go running every day and he has. Every single day. No matter whether it was raining or freezing or he was sick. He made the commitment and has never broken the chain. He completely transformed his life. I want to be this person but I am absolutely incapable of it. But knowing that other people can just set their mind to do something and then actually do it makes me feel utterly hopeless in comparison.

I know my thinking is colored by the depression, but I still have to take care of myself while I'm in the middle of it. How on earth do I accomplish anything knowing I will fail sooner or later (and much more likely to be sooner)?

I know this is very all or nothing, but even if I say to myself "oh, I'll just go outside today and not worry about the future," it doesn't work. I KNOW that I am supposed to do it more than once and I can't fool myself into focusing on just the present day. I know that I will fuck up eventually and it makes it seem pointless to try to change anything.

I feel like I am spiraling a bit in my question, though I suppose it illustrates the thought processes I am fighting against. What has worked for you? Have you been able to set goals and actually achieve them while depressed? Do any of the tricks out there actually work? I just feel like hoping I can do better is setting myself up for failure and it hurts more to set a goal and fail than to just not try at all.

Thank you to anyone who read this. I so appreciate any suggestions or experiences you can share.
posted by Neely O'Hara to Health & Fitness (25 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I don't think it's useful or helpful to look at it as "I wanted to go outside every day, and I went outside seven days in a row, but I missed one, so now I've failed." Nobody but you gets to say when you've failed and as much as depression wants to tell you that you've failed, you haven't, by any reasonable metric (I don't think "must X every single day without fail" is a reasonable metric). You just missed a day, and you can go outside tomorrow! Now, if you get to tomorrow and depression says "why bother, you missed yesterday!" then, well, tell your depression that your goal is to go outside on as many days as you can, not to be unattainably perfect, and then go take a walk.

My personal ambition is to take a brisk 30 minute walk every day, but sometimes something comes up (I have to work through lunch and then it's dark, etc), but the point is to do it as often as possible, not to be literally perfect. I missed two days last week. I still went for a walk at lunch today.
posted by Alterscape at 4:14 PM on March 7, 2022 [13 favorites]

Best answer: I make my goals even smaller, in this case, opening the front door and standing on the step for 30 seconds would count.

Obviously YMMV as to if that's enough to count, but beating yourself up over it helps no one but the depression.
posted by larthegreat at 4:23 PM on March 7, 2022 [9 favorites]

Best answer: I absolutely don't want to go outside when it is dark and cold out. NO JUDGMENT HERE.

Off the top of my head, how's about defining "go outside" as "I literally put on shoes and stepped onto the front porch, even if I'm still in pajamas and then go back inside?"

I had agoraphobia during year one of the pandemic and the only reason I would leave the house is so my car battery wouldn't die and then I'd be screwed if there was an emergency. If you have no particular reason to leave the house, at least lower the boundaries.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:31 PM on March 7, 2022 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the repsonses already! Just one clarification - I live in an NYC apartment so there are multiple steps involved in going anywhere near outside - I have to get fully dressed and go through the lobby to poke my head out of the door. My biggest hurdle is wanting to put clothes on. Once I have clothes and shoes on it's not that hard to leave the apartment, but getting dressed requires overcoming a ton of inertia. I feel like I could make the goal just putting clothes on, but then I would feel compelled to go out because it would feel silly to sit around the house in outside clothes. And then it doesn't seem like a small task anymore.

(Not to be frustrating! These are just the circles my brain goes around in. I wish I could just step outside!)
posted by Neely O'Hara at 4:51 PM on March 7, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have to take fuckups into consideration. And I literally have a rule that I can't just give up forever because I missed some days. With the exception of maybe taking certain medications, missing a day or more doesn't stop me from re-starting.

I personally don't feel much satisfaction from "streaks" so I know that's not much use as a motivator. For things like you're talking about (and I feel it too) like "not leaving the house for a week makes me feel bad", I just know better than to go straight to MUST LEAVE HOUSE EVERY DAY. A week feels bad, so...go out once or twice a week. For me, my car battery will shit itself if I don't drive every two weeks, and my car has an expensive battery that AAA won't replace for me and it's a huge pain in the butt and THERE is my motivation. The fix isn't to drive my car every day, it's to drive it at least every two weeks, so I do that.

I've done a fair amount of work around battling perfectionism, which is how I get to that place I guess. I am an okayist, not a perfectionist. I try hard not to hold myself to standards I wouldn't hold for others - especially someone I like. Just like my friends, I deserve lots of forgiveness and encouragement to get back up when I fall down.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:10 PM on March 7, 2022 [6 favorites]

Best answer: This is something I VERY OFTEN struggle with, I've always thought it's because I have ADHD. In fact for me it's almost like if I make up my mind to do something tiny extra over my usual routine every day, I reflexively and deliberately stop doing even my usual routine.

Anyway, beating myself up about it or shaming myself in my head just made my sulky reaction worse. Cutting tasks down into ever smaller steps led to just rolling my mental eyes and think, "Fuck off, why should I patronize myself." Promising myself a reward for after the task meant I'd just reward myself now, because fuck you, I am the boss of me.

The strategies that have helped me are:

- Creating external pressure. Inviting people over is a great way to force me to clean my house, for example. Joining a writing group is a great way to force myself to churn out a few pages every week. Agreeing to meet a friend for lunch is a great way to take a shower and get out of the house. Knowing that my kids are watching me forces me to behave in a semi functional way when they are at my place. I feel accountable to other people, I don't like letting them down, and I am very motivated to be a good parent, so it works.

- Body doubling. When I am struggling, I confide in my friend and she shows up at my place to just sit there and read her book while I miraculously do the thing I have been avoiding. This even works if someone is sitting with me with their video on in a Zoom call.

- Rewarding myself DURING the task, not afterwards. If I do the dishes, then I get to listen to my podcast while I work. And it's physically impossible for me to listen to my podcast for as long as I sit here wasting time on MetaFilter. So I'm pretty sure I'm going to go do the dishes soon. I really want to listen to my podcast. In the past I've told myself things like, oooh maybe I can walk to Starbucks and get some decadent coffee drink. Once I start craving the treat, I'll go outside.

- Lots of therapy which has helped me learn to be kinder to myself, and practice self care. Increasingly, I feel mentally and emotionally strong enough to tell myself some version of, "I deserve to have someone taking care of me and making sure I'm healthy, happy, fed, clean. I deserve a good parental figure. And fuck everyone who failed me in childhood. I'm gonna show them how it's done by taking care of me like a good parent right now. Let me parent myself with as much kindness and care as I parent my kids. Let's do this."

This doesn't help me build streaks. I don't think I'll ever be a streak kind of person. But that's okay! I get everything done that I need to get done. I am kicking ass at life even though I have only stepped outside for my "daily" walk four days out of seven this week. Four is better than the 0.5 I was accomplishing before, I mean, that's success.
posted by MiraK at 5:20 PM on March 7, 2022 [19 favorites]

Best answer: You have to change the definition of "fucking up." Going outside 7 days out of 10 isn't fucking up. Going outside 4 days out of 10 isn't fucking up. Fucking up is missing one day and then just never moving again and giving up. The only fuckup is giving up. Everything else is just gradations of success.

If what you mean by "I don't know how not to set myself up for failure" is "my brain won't let me make achievable goals, it doesn't think I deserve them" then

1) you're lookin' at maybe your mental health conditions are not being quite as well managed as they used to have been and
2) short term, have someone else make your goals for you.

also, screw that runner asshole. he won't be so smug when his knees are graham crackers from taking zero rest days.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 6:03 PM on March 7, 2022 [15 favorites]

Best answer: What you’re describing sounds like executive dysfunction — basically, trouble with getting yourself to DO things. It’s often associated with ADHD but also with mental illnesses like depression and bipolar. If you haven’t already, researching strategies for dealing with executive dysfunction might be helpful.

I have ADHD so I relate deeply to your question. It’s so frustrating not to be able to just make myself do things the way other people seem to be able to. But so far the best strategies I’ve found are to “trick” myself into doing things by just doing the first step, or forcing myself to do things, e.g. by making plans with a friend.
posted by mekily at 6:41 PM on March 7, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Some thoughts:

I actually dated someone who did "Don't Break The Chain" for workouts. I can tell you from first hand observation, he kind of lied about it. He did make the chart. He did fill it out. But he allowed himself to skip a couple days here and there, and he would just work out longer the next day to compensate and fill in two Xs. He didn't tell others that, because it doesn't sound cool. But that's what he did. And you know what? It was great, he lost 40 lbs and his chronic semi-depression abated noticeably.
He "failed" but it was a major life success.

There's actually an entire lifestyle philosophy based around putting on your shoes for no reason, and the rationale is exactly what you've identified: when you have shoes on, it's easier to do other things. FLYLady's Get Dressed To The Shoes. She suggests making the bed and keeping the kitchen sink empty and clean too, for the same reason- they are quick easy tasks that make you feel accomplished and start the ball rolling to get more things done each day.

It really helps to figure out what your speedbumps are (in your case, getting dressed is one) and just solve the speedbump and see if anything else follows naturally. Some speedbumps I've solved, which have all worked out amazingly:

- I had to do laundry urgently when I ran out of underwear. Instead of feeling like a failure for not wanting to do laundry, I got 20 extra pairs of underwear. Now I basically never *NEED* to do laundry, so I can just do it when I'm (rarely) in the mood.

- I hated sorting dirty laundry and would procrastinate and finally dump it all out and feel overwhelmed and tired. So I got a wardrobe with 4 laundry hampers inside (Ikea Pax + 4 x Ikea Skubb) that each hold a full load. I labelled them: lights, darks, sheets, towels. Now as I put things into the hamper, my laundry is always pre-sorted into perfect-sized loads and I never have to sort laundry: I just drag out one hamper and throw the whole thing into the machine. Bonus is that it's REALLY easy to throw laundry in the hamper so my floor is cleaner. And the wardrobe has a door that hides the laundry hampers so the room looks great.

- I would forget how old certain foods were and then be nervous to eat them. Instead of feeling like a failure for food waste, I attached a sharpie to the fridge door on a string, so now it's fast to label things.

- I hate vacuuming because the vacuum is too heavy to lug upstairs. I bought a dustbuster. Now I vacuum all the time because it only takes a minute and isn't tiring.

- I hated sorting receipts because I always need a marker and a stapler and a staple remover and I could never find them all. Reader, I went to the dollar store, spent $5 on those three items, and I store them IN MY TAX BOX so they're always there when I need them. So now I have 2 staple removers. One in my desk like a normal person, and one IN MY TAX BOX like a tax ninja.

What speed bumps can you solve?
posted by nouvelle-personne at 6:49 PM on March 7, 2022 [28 favorites]

Best answer: When I'm trying to develop a new habit, I find it easier when I link it to something I'm already doing. For example, "I will do x just before I eat breakfast".
For some reason, it's also easier for me to do dayly habit things early in the day. I take my meds just after I wake up. Otherwise there is too much potential for forgetting, postponing. Also the decision of when should I do thing I don't really want to do is taken away and I don't have the stress of constantly having to decide. The * should I do it now? Ugh. Just a bit later. But I should do it Now. But I don't wanna. * loop is exhausting.

I make sure that I don't measure how tough a thing is by other people's standards. Going out every day is, manifestly, a big ask FOR YOU. It used to be for me, too.

When I don't do the things I decided to do, it does not help me to frame it as failure, or proof that I won't be able to do x again tomorrow. I didn't meditate today. Crap. I will just try again tomorrow because I still think it's a habit I want to develop.

Starting to do a thing, deciding to do a thing is fucking tough even if it is "just" getting dressed. If it feels tough, it is tough. The fact that imaginary other people don't find it difficult is irrelevant. The fact that you find it tough doesn't mean you will never do it though!

I find it helpful to change my inner narrative from "oh my god this is so hard, I'm never going to be able to do it" to "this sucks, but I'm doing it anyway because I can do the thing" insert swearing as needed.

Also, I don't have to solve my problem (anxiety and depression in my case) for the rest of my life starting today. I just have to get through today. Do the things that will help me, today. Tomorrow is not my responsibility.
posted by Zumbador at 7:28 PM on March 7, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I set what should have been the simplest goal

Umm, no. No you did not.

I decided last week that I should make myself leave the house

You're experiencing agoraphobia. Leaving the house right now is an incredibly stressful activity, on par with dental surgery. It is possibly the least simple thing you could be doing.

every day

And you have no end date. Assuming you've got another 30 years in you, that's 10950 days you've signed up for.

You have, as you say, set yourself up for failure.


It seems absolutely impossible to do something every single day.

That's certainly my experience. I generally go by the week with easy goals and lots of slop. For your pushing past agoraphobia example I would plan to try to go out every day for a week, but accept a minimum of 3 days. If that turned out to be too easy then maybe next week I'd accept a minimum of 4.

The idea is to set goals that you absolutely know that you can meet and then prove that you can meet them. Then and only then do you incrementally increase the difficulty.

There is a romance to the "today I change my life" goal or even just "stretch" goals, but you don't have to carry that. Honor who you are and what you personally experience (agoraphobia is real!) and set your goals accordingly.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:21 PM on March 7, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I have a similar story. At some point, I just deal with the idea that entropy will win but I can make tiny stands against it each day. Some days it’s getting out for a walk. Some days it’s answering my friend’s email.

To me, it seems like getting dressed is your impediment. Maybe just take a step back and let yourself get dressed every day. If you got up and told yourself, “Self, what a great day to fight entropy. I’ll get dressed and have something to eat.” You dress. You eat.

Then, if you want to take a break from work mid-afternoon, you have less of a hurdle because you are already dressed.

I tell myself no one else has to fight entropy and chaos like I do and I’m awesome.

This hack has helped. My partner is a creature of habit and does things by rote. Every day. I’m just not wired that way. Every day is a new challenge.

You’re ready for anything if you’re dressed. Or that desk gets dusted. Or whatever.

(Note: for me, today was an e-mail day, not so much a dress myself and take a walk day. But, entropy has met.)
posted by rw at 9:25 PM on March 7, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I keep thinking about the concept of doing something every day and marking it on a calendar to create a chain. And then you don’t break the chain.

What this pattern does is take a small goal - go outside for a walk - and blow it up into a huge goal - go outside for a walk, every day, without exception.

The way to get shit done is to do the exact opposite: any goal that feels too big, especially if it's likely to be a recurring goal like going outside for a walk, can be actually written down on paper and then broken down, in writing, into much smaller sub-goals. And those sub-goals can themselves be broken down in their turn, until they're so small that we do have the spoons to work toward just the very next one.

The writing-down is useful because one of the major obstacles to getting shit done is short-term memory slots being either used up or disabled by whatever else is going on in life. Any time I try to break a big job up into sub-goals without writing it and them down, I need to rely on my brain rather than a sheet of paper to keep them all straight, and that's more work and the whole process can easily become self-defeating.

Humanity is the toolmaker. When there's something we'd like to do that we're not currently equipped to do, what we do is use something else to help get that job done. My present inability to leap tall buildings at a single bound is not because I suck at being Superman, though I obviously do; it's because I have yet to organize enough bungee cords and scaffolding.

A sheet of paper and a pen are very very versatile tools, especially when the difficulty we're facing is existing in a state of consciousness that makes the triggering of total overwhelm more likely than not. Writing stuff down is a really good way to make short term memory less of a bottleneck for action.

One danger in going this route is that we end up constructing some huge list of elaborately detailed steps that itself looks so completely intimidating as to act as an impediment to action. One way to mitigate that is to put aside the writing as soon as the first sub-goal that is within spoon range has been identified, and then just go and achieve that before doing anything else. The writing you've already done isn't going anywhere, and when you eventually come back to it to resume the goal breakdown process you won't have lost a thing.

As for wanting to want to go outside: completely reasonable, but based on a bit of a misunderstanding of how human beings actually function.

Our brains implement a self-concept that likes to big itself up as being the real us, the central us, the essential us, the piece of us that is in charge and in control. If we take this nonsense seriously, it follows that in order to get anything done we need to get buy-in from the central executive beforehand: in other words, we need to want to do the thing before we can do the thing.

But in fact 99% of what we do is governed more by habit than anything else. And the reason for that is that habit avoids cognitive work and cognitive work is so incredibly energy-intensive that if we didn't rely so heavily on habit we physically couldn't eat enough food to fuel the amount required. So when the central executive issues some fatwa about what we "really" want, 99 times out of 100 all it's doing is offering up a rationalization for not doing anything different from what we've been doing all along.

Habit is subtle stuff, and it works at every level of brain and bodily operation, and it's trained up by what we actually do. We can train it up faster by doing stuff with the deliberate intent of turning whatever we're trying to do into a habit. So every time you go out for a walk, whether you wanted to or not, what you're doing is training up a going-for-a-walk habit; and if you do that with the deliberate intent of training up a habit, rather than as part of some huge arbitrary ego-driven failure-prone-to-the-point-of-self-sabotage goal like maintaining a pristine unbroken list of days gone out walking, you really can't lose.

Working methodically and mechanically through a pre-written list of sub-goals saves huge amounts of cognitive work as well, incidentally.

The principle to throw back in your ego's face is that despite the lies it's telling you, motivation follows action and not the other way around. Motivation is nothing more than a Just So story that purports to explain why you're about to do whatever it is that you actually are about to do. Motivation follows action, 99% of action is habitual, habits can be deliberately built, and the process of building them deliberately can be fascinating and rewarding to experience if you take that as your overarching primary goal.

Also, it would probably pay you to get some bloodwork done and have yourself checked for low iron, low vitamin D and whatever else you can think of that might be making a physical, bodily contribution toward your present lack of spoons. Vitamin D deficiency, in particular, is a big contributor toward physical and mental fatigue especially if you've been spending a lot of time indoors.
posted by flabdablet at 12:05 AM on March 8, 2022 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I took a whole dang day- long workshop once on getting yourself to do things - for work! - and it was exactly what folks are saying here with the shoes and the dressed. For a specific thing, if you want to do it, what is the smallest possible action that will get you on the downhill slope towards that thing?

Ex., I have trouble getting up from the sofa to go upstairs to bed at a reasonable hour, even when i am screaming at myself about how late it is and what a dumb thing this is I'm doing. Turned out the smallest action necessary was looking away from my phone. I don't have to convince me-reading-Twitter to close it or put away my phone or move any part of my body except my eyes. But once I do and hold them there looking at the world it's like, oh, the sofa is boring. And then I can stand up and I can pocket my phone and I can feed the cats, because I broke my inertia with a small thing.

For lots of people the "first step" in going outside or working out is putting on the clothes, so that's why it shows up for so many people. Might help for you too. But if that's not the thing maybe it's something else, like walking out into your hallway or into the stairwell or elevator. And if you duck outside while you're there, great, but if not you still got out of your room.
posted by Lady Li at 12:06 AM on March 8, 2022 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I generally go by the week with easy goals and lots of slop.

There is much to dislike about the Church of the Subgenius, but the concept of Slack and making sure there's always enough Slack in the Plan is 100% sound.
posted by flabdablet at 12:12 AM on March 8, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Tomorrow is not my responsibility.

The way I've always formulated this idea is that if tomorrow's going to suck, it's quite bad enough for it suck tomorrow without it fucking up today even worse as well.

Related: beating myself up for present inability to achieve $thing is only ever going to make achieving $thing harder. So I try to cut myself at least as much slack as I'd cut anybody else. It's completely appropriate to be self-reflective and a bit self-critical, but being one's own harshest critic is counter-productive.
posted by flabdablet at 12:18 AM on March 8, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: A couple of thoughts:
I feel better when I leave the house, but I don't actually want to leave the house. I want to WANT to leave the house. But the inertia of not leaving is stronger than knowing I will feel better if I do.
I have found there is not much benefit in trying to make myself want to do the thing, or enjoy doing the thing, versus acknowledging and accepting that I don't really want to do the thing but I will anyway because it is necessary or beneficial. For me, the idea that I should feel more positive or more motivated about something is actually counterproductive, perhaps because it shifts the focus away from conscious action and onto some more intrinsic character flaw or moral deficit.
I went out of the house seven days in a row and felt very good about it, but today I just do not want to and I have not gone out and it is getting dark and cold so I probably won't go out. So I set what should have been the simplest goal and couldn't achieve it. I feel like such an incredible loser for not being able to force myself to do what almost anyone could do without even thinking about it.
Doing anything literally every day without interruption is actually a really big deal. The content of the goal might sound simple but you are setting a very high performance target with little flexibility or room for error. It's easy to feel demoralized a la "ugh why can't I even do this one little thing every day f-ck it why bother" and give up entirely. I am also not very habit-driven so doing something consistently for a while does not make it automatic for me.

I get much better results by setting goals to do something X times per week (or month), e.g., "exercise 5 times a week". This sets a reasonably ambitious target while building in the recognition that some days I'll get busy or just not want to do it, and that's okay. I use the Streaks app to set reminders and track progress. It's a simple concept, kind of like a sticker chart for grownups, but I find the reminders helpful and seeing my progress "streaks" is surprisingly motivating. It's helped me do things more consistently over the long term compared with an all-or-nothing approach or trying to rely on internal motivation alone.
posted by 4rtemis at 4:56 AM on March 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think your expectations for goal setting are too high. Of course any set of goals you are going to challenge yourself with are going to fail. They always do, and not just for you, for all of the rest of us too.

Okay, yes, there are people who challenge themselves to run twelve marathons a year and succeed because they have tons of money, tons of luck, masses of support and are willing destroy their bodies doing so... but even they hit a year where it won't happen any more. Goals are aspirations, not rules. Goals are systems so you can measure your progress. Goals are like tests - they are supposed to give you data on how well you are doing more than they are supposed to be a be-all and end-all in themselves.

The first thing about your goals is to consider them to be faulty when they don't work, not you. You want to be active and healthy and not to be agoraphobic? Your goals worked quite well for seven days and now they aren't working. The fact that they stopped working is to be expected, so what you do when they stop working is modify the structure and figure out why they don't work.

It's very possible that the last two or three days worked because you had incentive to try and go out every day to make it a whole week, but once you had done the week the goal of going out ever day for a fortnight was insurmountable. That's data, that for you, structure that goes for a life time or even for a month is likely to be too long. Nothing wrong with you, our whole culture is set up to give us goals in five day stretches with two days off. Almost everything we do is scheduled with the understanding that a five day run of getting to work is the most practical chunk. There's nothing wrong with you if you have the same amount of stamina as the average person with a job.

Strict goals work for people who like discipline - "Thank you Ma'am, may I have another!" For people like that knowing exactly what they have to do reduces anxiety and is helpful support. There's no reason for you to stick to rigid system like that unless it reduces your anxiety over deciding what to do.

There are a ton of hacks for goals. The two most important ones that I know are counting only successes and not failures, and allowing catch-up.

Counting successes is simple. Rather than challenging yourself to go outside every day, challenge yourself to go out twenty five times. You can go out any time you want, skip a day if you want, go out twice in a day, go anywhere you want, and you count it even when you have to go outside to put the garbage out, or when the fire alarm goes off in your building, or when you have a doctor's appointment, just as much as if you do if you put on your shoes and go jog. In your current situation you can say to yourself that you have managed seven of ten, so you just need to do three more to make a nice sub goal.

Now if you are someone who is forgetful, or busy, or often gets sick you can end up not going outside at all for weeks on end. So you probably do want to set a goal like going out every day so that going out doesn't start to loom as a huge challenge. But under those circumstances you are allowed sick days or work days, or mental health days. You set the challenge of going out every day for a week - and when you miss Thursday you are allowed to go out twice on any other day, as a replacement for the session you missed. As long as you manage to get out seven times before 12AM Sunday morning you have met your goal. It really doesn't matter exactly when you go out if you still manage to go out seven times in one week. You also allow yourself placeholders. If your goal is to go outside, it counts if you get dressed and stand on the doorstep for a mere four seconds. You DID go outside. You are allowed to modify your goal by putting your coat on over your pajamas, or going out at midnight or any other way that helps you do it. It's not cheating if you don't mange to get all the way across the street. It's adapting to the fact that you are not an automaton, and some days you will be sick, or anxious or fed up with the goal list hanging over your head.

You're being hard on yourself. Goals are there for you. They are not your drill sergeant and you have not enlisted. If you fail to meet your goals it's because your goals are not working - which is your cue to modify them and come up with something else that does work for you. You may like one poached egg and toast for breakfast and it's the right amount of protein and carbs to get you going, but you haven't failed if you have peanut butter toast instead. When you catch yourself having Froot Loops, the question to ask is why, not to shame yourself but to provide loving support. Maybe you are sick of gluey toast. Maybe you are having a bad week. Maybe you had a fight with your boyfriend. Maybe your boyfriend ate up all the bread. Once you know why you did it, or didn't do it, you kindly and supportively figure out the best way to keep care taking yourself so that you can resume having protein and carb breakfasts and so that you don't end up queasy all morning.

Goals are something you do so you don't wake up one morning and discover you should have been working on something for the last twenty five years and never did. You're not going to be happier if you hate going outside and keep doing it. Long term happiness is to work on going outside modifying what you do an how you do it, until going outside makes you feel like a kid being taken out to the playground. If you hit resistance being mean to yourself and screaming at your inner child to put their damn shoes on is going to only make you hate going outside more. So be kind to yourself. Maybe you would rather phone a friend and chat to prevent social isolation, and work out to an exercise video instead. Alternatives and flexibility means that you meet your goals better, and work on your long term needs. Right now you need to just be utterly loving and supportive - and proud that you care enough to be working on this things. If your goals are making you miserable than they are failing, even if you do meet every one of them.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:30 AM on March 8, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: If your goals are making you miserable than they are failing, even if you do meet every one of them.

This is a very important point. Lots of people spend lots of time in pursuit of stuff they're completely convinced will make their lives better, only to find that it doesn't; there's an entire advertising industry fully devoted to promoting this practice, but there are endless non-advertised examples as well.

There are often huge differences between the things that we expect will improve our lives and the things that actually do, and it's important to pay attention so we don't just blow straight past the latter without ever noticing what they are; it's quite rare to find a single life improver that's enough on its own, so we'll generally want to collect a bunch of them.

This is a way healthier approach than setting arbitrary though seemingly plausible goals and then pushing to achieve those, even if we see them appearing to work well for others. We're all different, and doing things that improve my life could easily make yours a grinding misery and vice versa.
posted by flabdablet at 7:20 AM on March 8, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I thought of a speed bump you can solve. Order 2 comfy dark sweatsuits in a dark heather grey colour (On this listing the colour is called “Black Heather” - meaning a very dark grey that has some variance of black and white thread showing, a bit mottled looking). They are now your outdoor Jammies, and you can wear them to bed, around the house, and outside - coffee shop, groceries, walk, whatever you want, they are “dressy joggers” but fine to lay around in.

I specifically chose dark heather grey because that colour hides dirt, stains, lint, and pet hair perfectly (whereas black would show dirt and lint). That’s one more speed bump solved- you don’t need to wash it as often. And I suggest getting 2 so washing them both is closer to a full load and you won’t feel bad about it.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 7:27 AM on March 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Would setting out your clothes (or even just one piece of clothing) be an easier small step towards getting dressed? Find a time that it's easy to remember (getting up, going to bed the night before), and do it then? Bonus - if you don't manage to get dressed, it's waiting for you the next day.

I don't know if this is helpful, but I am someone who is very motivated by keeping streaks/not breaking the chain (hello duolingo and wordle), but even so, my track record is not perfect. Very few people are like your friend, and to be honest, their approach does not sound that healthy (running while sick isn't a great idea).
posted by loop at 12:03 PM on March 8, 2022

Best answer: Here is a different way to do goal setting that might work better for you - set you goal to complete a certain number of tasks, but drop the time limit. Track how many days you go outside and when you get, say, 7 you get a gold start. When you get to 28 you buy yourself a little something. Make the chart a 7 by 4 grid and enter the dates when you do it (no empty spaces for skipped dates). Full credit every time you do it. Every day is a chance to get a star - yesterday doesn't matter.
posted by metahawk at 12:08 PM on March 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Heck, you went out SEVEN days in a row. That’s awesome.
You don’t have to do something everyday to be successful at it. Set a goal of 4 days a week.
Set a goal of “front porch.”
Setting a goal to do something every single day makes it really, really hard to accomplish. Don’t be so hard on yourself.
posted by SLC Mom at 12:20 PM on March 8, 2022

Best answer: I don't like goals. I usually fail at them the same way you describe. What helps is a) focusing on the process, not the goal, or b) focusing on identity instead of goals.

So with option a), I try to take the steps and build habits that would ultimately lead me to my goal, but if I don't reach my goal, it's no big deal. Eg, with weight loss, you can set your goal to be at a certain weight, and then you don't reach that weight and you feel like a failure and go back to your old habits and undo all the progress. Instead of focusing on your weight, focus on the process of losing weight and habits that support it: eating healthy food, lots of veg, limit portions, limit snacks, exercise etc. All of these things will make you healthier even if you don't reach your goal weight.

With option b), you think of yourself as someone who goes outside every day, or someone who enjoys running, or someone who loves exercising. Because you are someone who goes outside every day, you say to yourself "but I'm a person who goes outside, not someone who spends the afternoon on the couch" and it's easier to get dressed and put on shoes and go out.

I would do some research around identity-based habits vs goals and see if anything there helps.
posted by gakiko at 1:19 AM on March 9, 2022

Response by poster: Thanks so much to every single one of you who responded. Every single word you wrote was so incredibly helpful. I wrote this question at a low point in a depressive swing and wasn't thinking at all clearly. A few weeks later, after stepping up therapy and meds, I'm feeling much more even keeled and actually feeling proud of the small steps I've been able to take toward feeling better. I've been leaving the house pretty regularly but haven't been holding myself to an impossible goal of every single day. I had also been struggling with keeping up my dental hygiene and I have improved that a lot too. You all gave me the grace I wasn't giving myself and I couldn't appreciate it more. Thank you all so much!
posted by Neely O'Hara at 3:52 PM on March 23, 2022 [4 favorites]

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