Failure-Proof Your Goals

Setting three tiny personal goals each month—instead of one huge one for the entire year—allows room for setbacks and restarts that keep you moving forward whether you have a chronic illness like rheumatoid arthritis or not.

by Lene Andersen, MSW Patient Advocate

Last year, an article I wrote for HealthCentral inspired me to create a new way to improve my life and achieve my goals (despite the overwhelming mountain of stuff that comes with living with rheumatoid arthritis): I call it #3Things. Here's how it works:

Every month, I choose three things to focus on—one for the body, one for the soul, and one that is prosaically called “miscellaneous.” To help me stay on track (hello, accountability!), I invite my personal Facebook-peeps to join me by sharing their own #3Things. We get really small with the choices. For instance, last January, my “body” goal was to drink more water; in February it was to make green smoothies. My “soul” goal has ranged from meditating to getting outside every day to playing with my camera. And most months, for that last hodgepodge category, I inevitably come back to a two-minute tidy to keep down the chaos in my home. This is quite literally what it sounds like—spending two minutes (no more) straightening up an area that needs it. It’s something I can do most days, even the bad ones.

We track our daily progress and get together every Saturday morning on Facebook to talk progress and cheer each other on. It’s been a resounding success!

Instead of setting big, vague goals that I give up on three weeks into January, chipping away at these small specific ones has helped me be successful in ways I haven't been before. For instance, I usually procrastinate on my taxes, agonizing at the last minute, and getting them in late. Last year, I started gradually pulling all the information together in early March and sent them in long before the deadline. No more tax stress. And for anyone who thinks two minutes is not nearly enough time to make a dent in anything, consider this: Once my mini tidies had dealt with the surface chaos, I started digging into drawers and shelves. One year later, my home is organized and calm. Yes, it took an entire year to get there, and I could get lost in the frustration of being slowed down by RA. Instead, I have focused on the joy of every week getting a little bit further. There is something to be said for feeling accomplished on a regular basis!

Others in my community had the same experience. By staying small and keeping in touch with like-minded folks, they too accomplished more and felt better about themselves. Focusing on three small things—or sometimes only one, if someone is having a rough time with RA—means that we’ve actually got a shot at accomplishing our goals. What I love about this approach is that it shifts the focus away from things that feel difficult or even impossible given our chronic illness. You don't need me to tell you that RA messes with your entire life and can make you feel desperate and, occasionally, quite useless. Instead, #3Things provides a steady stream of proof that we can do the things we need to do. Perhaps more slowly, but we get there.

And here's my favorite part: When things don't work out and a goal isn't reached, that's a success, too. You haven't failed. You now have an opportunity to think more deeply about whether this goal was right for you in the first place. This is where having an accountability group can be really powerful: They can help you be more aware of what’s going on and why you may not be dealing with the goal. Instead of defaulting to a quick negative judgement of yourself, this process can reveal that perhaps this particular goal wasn’t the right thing for you to focus on at this moment in time. Maybe you just didn’t enjoy it or your RA got in the way. Either way, you can then let go of the goal without guilt.

Personally, I have tried and let go of my daily meditation goal not once, but three times in the last 12 months. Because much as I feel I “should” meditate, my brain, body, and soul are simply not interested. On the other hand, making green smoothies and wandering around my neighborhood with my camera at the ready are now priorities in my life. Because I had the opportunity to think about what feeds my soul—photography, not meditation—I am able to fully be present when I hold my camera and feel better for it.

Resolutions are aspirational. They reflect our dreams about the kind of person we would like to be or think we should be. But even healthy people don’t have the time or energy to follow through, and no one blinks. In fact, this is such a Thing that there’s a Ditch Your Resolutions Day on Jan. 17. The message? Perhaps it was the idea that was flawed...not you. That’s an important thing to remember when you feel as if your RA holds you back from achieving anything at all.

However, including RA in every plan for change has the potential to make your efforts more successful than anyone else’s. When your health requires you to think more carefully about what you want and what you are capable of doing in your present circumstances, you can make a better plan that truly reflects both your dreams and the reality in which you have to grow them. Even if that reality is two-minutes at a time.

Lene  Andersen, MSW
Meet Our Writer
Lene Andersen, MSW

Lene Andersen is an author, health and disability advocate, and photographer living in Toronto. Lene (pronounced Lena) has lived with rheumatoid arthritis since she was four years old and uses her experience to help others with chronic illness. She has written several books, including Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain, and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain, as well as the award-winning blog, The Seated View. Lene serves on HealthCentral's Health Advocates Advisory Board, and is a Social Ambassador for the RAHealthCentral on Facebook page, facebook.com/rahealthcentral. She is also one of HealthCentral's Live Bold, Live Now heroes — watch her incredible journey of living with RA.