What do you do on the weekends?
I like to read self-help books and stroll in the woods.
Unfortunately, I don’t have time for house chores during the week. So, I dump them in the Saturday box in my agenda:
Saturday comes. I sip the last drops of coconut milk from my bowl of hot cereal. I stretch my sides, then roll up my sleeves.
Hours scurry by…
But the washing machine still hasn’t been emptied. (I decided to wash the delicates by hand.)
Hard water stains still cover half of the shower. (I had to clean the grout first.)
Don’t even talk about vacuuming! No reading. No strolling.
Has this ever happened to you?
You set high goals and feel pumped. But then, you get caught up in details, ruminate or exhaust yourself. You might feel so overwhelmed, you don’t even start.
It’s time to stop setting unrealistic goals.
That way, you don’t set yourself up for failure and wonder what’s wrong with you.
Nothing’s wrong with you. You just need to learn how to set realistic goals and motivate yourself.
So, how do we do that?
Start with a baby step
It’s exciting to start a new habit. Especially when you know it’ll help you feel good, confident and fulfilled.
I used to exercise only on the weekends: two 40-minute walks along the Loire River. That’s better than nothing, but I wanted to exercise 30 minutes everyday.
My optimistic self raved, Yeeeeaahh, I’m gonna rock it everyday from now on! Let’s go! Woo-hooo!
3 days later, after trying to keep up the new rhythm, I’m back to sitting on the couch.
Willpower and positive thinking have their limits. And drastic changes rarely stay.
Instead, scale down the frequency or intensity of your goals:
- Exercise 3 days/week instead of 7
- Meditate for 5 minutes/day
- Cook 2 healthy meals/week
- Scrub ½ of the shower today, the other ½ tomorrow
- Vacuum 1x/month
The point is to chop up your goal into tiny habits and maintain them consistently. Then, scale up little by little.
Or if you’re still struggling, scale down more: Meditate for 1 minute per day. Scrub ¼ of the shower everyday for 4 days.
For every tiny habit, make them stick by planning ahead. Use these pointers:
- When will you do it (daily or weekly)?
- Where will you do it?
- How will you be reminded?
- Who will keep you accountable?
- What’s at stake if you do it well versus if you don’t do it?
Concrete, baby steps won’t help you achieve your goal right away. But they will help you gain momentum—and give you the confidence necessary to reach your goal.
Don’t wait till you feel good or conditions are right to take action. Otherwise, you might not get anything done, feel guilty and lousy or resort to social media.
Just start with one mini task.
Then, you’ll feel a tiny bit better. And that’ll get the ball rolling…
So, what’s your next baby step?
Connect to your why
Sometimes we get so caught up in details and to-do lists that we forget what’s most important.
When we connect to our bigger why—the uplifting reason we do what we do—it motivates us to joyfully take action. Even if the task is as banal as house chores.
Before vacuuming the house, for example, I ask myself, How will I feel if I vacuumed now? Or later?
I visualize how pleasant it’d be to walk barefoot without lint sticking to my soles. The thought of leaving the house messy again, however, forms a small rock in my belly.
Then, I remind myself how grateful I feel to even have a house to vacuum. How my partner Loïc and I love our home sanctuary, where we reboot ourselves after a long day. It’s our nest for new ideas, self-care and play.
Sometimes, we think we want something, but it’s not what’s best for us. We might not realize our goal comes from others’ expectations.
Like many women, I desired flat abs… until I learned that women are biologically predisposed to store fat cells in their abdomens. So, I decided to stop fighting with my body and enjoy my good health.
Whenever you feel demotivated or intimidated by your goal, envision what good things would happen if you took action.
How would achieving your goal help you or others?
What impact would it have on the world?
“Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.” —Rumi
Check your self-worth
Do you tend to tie your self-worth to achievements?
Similarly, setting high standards motivate and inspire us to décrocher la lune (take down the moon, the French equivalent of “reach for the stars”).
But unrealistic standards can make us feel not good enough, damage relationships and keep us from success. It’s like expecting a bird to clap its wings (except for rock pigeons!), then criticizing it when it fails.
To stop setting unrealistic standards, we need to acknowledge this: When we base our value largely on achievements, it activates a vicious cycle…
1. Tying your self-worth to achievements: I tie my self-worth to my job.
2. Setting unrealistic standards and assuming consequences: I must perfectly execute all my tasks. If I don’t, I’ll lose my job.
3. Engaging in unhelpful behaviors: I check my work excessively, procrastinate, seek reassurance, overcompensate, organize or make lists ad nauseam, struggle to make decisions, don’t know when to stop, fail to delegate or quit altogether.
4. Beating yourself up: I see only my failures, brush off my wins and conclude I’m stupid and doomed to homelessness.
5a. If you achieve your standard… you might set even higher standards next time (go back to step 2): I did an excellent presentation, but I could’ve done better. I was lucky.
5b. If you don’t achieve your standard… you might beat yourself up, which reinforces your belief that you need to achieve to feel worthy (go back to step 1): I’m a lost case. I’ll never make it.
Of course, no one wants to go through this vicious cycle. It’s just what we’ve learned to do, most likely as kids.
Our teachers and parents rewarded us for good grades. Other people are more attracted to us when we look “perfect”. When we achieve high standards, our bosses promote us.
Sometimes, we’re simply hard on ourselves when it comes to mistakes.
However, pursuing unrealistic standards demands high costs like time away from friends and family, less energy for other activities and severe stress.
Do you see the self-sabotaging cycle?
*For a helping hand, check out my one-to-one coaching session, The Set Realistic Standards Session.
Treat yourself kindly
If you’re aware that you need to stop setting unrealistic goals, congratulations!
No, really—it’s not always obvious, especially for those struggling with perfectionism.
The next step is to ponder the origins of your goal/standard.
Maybe your parents harshly criticized you when you were a kid. Did you attend a school bent on high performance at all costs? Or play on a hard-core sports team?
Let those painful memories arise in your mind. Notice any tension in your body. Breathe deeply.
Sitting with these thoughts heals past hurts, so that they don’t negatively affect who you are today. It’s like giving yourself a big hug. 🙂
Next, reflect on why this goal is unrealistic, unreasonable or unfair: It’s impossible to satisfy the ego. We can always do more, but at what cost?
Consider the costs: I never have time for my loved ones. I beat myself up and feel crummy. It’s not fulfilling.
Lastly, pat yourself on the back. Let yourself set achievable goals and not feel like a couch potato.
Take a tiny action towards your goal. And celebrate tiny victories.
Practice makes… good enough.
Stop setting unrealistic goals—be compassionate
Many people think having sky-high goals helps us improve our lives.
But these goals can also keep us from enjoying the present moment and seeing how stunning we already are.
So, take baby steps towards your goals. Connect with your bigger why to motivate you.
And when the going gets tough, remember that you’re human. No one can do it all.
“Peace is your every breath.” —Thich Nhat Hanh
About the author
Annie Moussu is a mindfulness-based life coach who helps women let go of perfectionism, self-doubt and people-pleasing. Sign up for her newsletter to get blog articles twice a month.
Further reading to help you stop setting unrealistic goals: