A grain of salt: The detrimental danger of goal setting

By Ammi Midstokke
Reader Columnist

There’s a sort of pass/fail culture happening in, well, pretty much everything we do these days. We set lofty intentions and label them as “goals,” then determine that anything falling shy of that mark is a failure. We can apply excuses as a measure of compassion, but the summary is always the same: We failed.

Ammi Midstokke.

“I just need a goal,” says my perpetually dieting friend. Last year, her goal was a wedding dress and she starved herself (and mind you, she was not a pleasant human during those months) so she could look “amazing enough” on that day. She did not meet her actual goal (some kind of ridiculous temporary Twiggy who would have required the loss of bone density or the amputation of a limb, no doubt). 

The morning of her wedding, we ran along the river banks, sun on our skin, bodies healthy and happy, talking about how wonderful it was that we’d found our people. “I didn’t reach my weight goal,” she said, as if this would diminish the joy of her day. As if she would be thinking about her failure more than the sacred moments of union. As if she maybe wasn’t worthy.

Study after study shows that defining, setting and working in steps toward goals is directly related to us actually achieving them. My question is this: Then what? 

The goals we set are a dance with immediate gratification, deprivation and the pass/fail that always has us narrowly escaping another self-imposed lecture on why we weren’t good enough or why we’ll only try to be good enough if we have some urgent reason. There are two urgent reasons I see most motivating in my clinic: imminent cardiac arrest/death/maiming or vanity.

Somewhere, somewhen, someone gave us the impression that we’d one day “arrive.” I hate to disappoint, but that’s a fallacy. We don’t reach our goal weight or pant size and suddenly not war with food anymore. We don’t give up alcohol and find ourselves granted with gifts of healthy coping tools. We don’t PR at the gym or in a 5K and find ourselves miraculously enlightened and fit. And until we accept the infinite ebb and flow of life, bodies and wellness, we’re just going to keep dangling these damn carrots in front of our faces.

We don’t need a goal or the fear of failure to motivate us to work toward something. What we need is commitment. Commitment to ourselves, our families, our health, our values. We can do the things for the sake of the thing, celebrate our achievements and honor the journey. We don’t have to have a reason to get healthy. Being healthy is the reason. And sure, it doesn’t come with a blue ribbon or a finish line, but there is also no failure. 

These 30-day whole food plans and 90 days of sobriety all come with wonderful intentions, and yes, it feels good to achieve them, but do they permanently alter our habits and perpetuate our long-term health “goals” or just make us feel like failures the other 335 or 275 days a year? Are we more committed to healthy habits after these? Or do we just forever compare ourselves to those peak moments of unsustainable gym habits or that time we felt so good on a 10-day cleanse?

Stop. If you like setting goals, commit to something instead. Make it a journey toward something, something infinite and unknown. Or start at age 90 and work your way backward. I’d like to still be running trails as an octogenarian, so in my 40s, I’ll take a rest day when my knees hurt. I’d like to not need a new pant wardrobe every five years, so I’m committed to eating a doughnut only if it’s a really good doughnut made by a doughnut chef who lives, breathes and dreams doughnuts. 

The only thing we’re ever really going to arrive at is death. The goal is to get there as healthy, happy and grateful as possible. Trust me, no one gets there wishing they’d weighed 10 pounds less on their wedding day or not had cornbread during their Whole-30 stint. Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate all those goals and just ask yourself: What are you truly committed to? 

Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at [email protected]

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