Using Mindfulness to Appreciate the Journey of Goal Achievement

“If you think that peace and happiness are somewhere else and you run after them, you will never arrive. It is only when you realize that peace and happiness are available here in the present moment that you will be able to relax. In daily life, there is so much to do and so little time. You may feel pressured to run all the time. Just stop! Touch the ground of the present moment deeply, and you will touch real peace and joy.” – Thich Nhat Hanh.

Why do we set goals?

Ultimately, we believe that when we achieve them, we will feel better. We will become happier, or in any case, we believe some positive outcome is associated with the goals that we set or a negative outcome is prevented.

However, research shows that in general, people overestimate the anticipated impact of future events. This is referred to as the impact bias. This means that when you ask people, “Imagine what it would be like to, for instance, lose your job,” or end up in a divorce, etc. people overestimate the effect of such an event.

They might say, “Oh my gosh, I would never recover from this. I would stay miserable forever,” and so on.

Nevertheless, when these events happen, people, of course, do not feel so good in the beginning, and they may suffer, but after a while, they come back to a certain baseline level again and the effect of the negative event is much weaker than what they expected it to be in the first place. This is called the impact bias.

Another research finding that is related to this refers to hedonic adaption. Hedonic adaption means that we get used to everything we get and achieve.

Once we’re there, once we have our big house, or we’re in a new relationship, or we finally manage to get paid more, after a while, that’s just our new baseline condition.

This is the new actual default condition in which we’re living. We easily forget that we once were looking forward to this condition, and we’re used to it. We call this hedonic adaption.

This is where mindfulness becomes so powerful. Mindfulness means that we pay more attention to the present moment.

Mindfulness doesn’t mean that we don’t set goals anymore or that we don’t want to achieve that future point anymore. Instead, mindfulness is a way to cultivate a balance between the goals we aim to achieve on the one hand and the present moment that is taking us to these goals, on the other hand.

The Benefit of Goals

Whatever your goals are, they’re a big part of most people’s lives. For a good reason too because there are a lot of benefits.

  • We know from research that goals can help determine direction. Goals help us concretize ideas that we have or values that we want to pursue because it’s a fixed endpoint. We can say, “Next week, I want to achieve this,” and it becomes tangible. It becomes reachable. Hence, goals determine the direction and can help us in that way.
  • They can also increase motivation. Only imagining the outcome, only thinking of what it would be like to reach these goals, can be tremendously motivating to many people.
  • Of course, reaching goals can contribute to what we call self-efficacy or the belief that we can carry on and carry out the necessary behavior. We can see that we have what it takes to do something. Achieving goals can help us build a certain belief in ourselves. A certain sense of self-efficacy, so to say.
  • Finally, last but not least, they also enhance focus, because as I said before, a goal is some concrete point in the future. It’s something to focus on. I think when people have no goals, I think it becomes clear that life can be a bit vague. People don’t know what to strive for. They have no sense of direction. By having certain goals, obviously a limited set of goals, we can focus on one point and stay focused without getting distracted too much by other things.

These are a few examples of the positive aspects of setting goals. However, there are also a lot of pitfalls when it comes to goals.

Pitfalls of Goals

Many things should be considered when setting and striving to reach goals. The first one is that goal setting can be very counterproductive.

  • An excessive focus on goals can have paradoxical effects. Rather than getting closer to the goal, we sometimes find ourselves moving away from it.
  • In some cases, an excessive focus on the future, on the things we want to accomplish, can prevent us from getting there.

Several different research findings on this issue have emerged too:

  • For instance, when people strive to have less negative thoughts about themselves, paradoxically, they often start to experience more negative thoughts and a decrease in self-esteem.
  • Similar findings were also found for dieting and weight management. When people try too hard to lose weight, some people actually engage in more overeating and often gain rather than lose weight.
  • Falling asleep is another example. When we try too hard to fall asleep, to reach this goal of sleeping, we find ourselves staying awake all night.

These are a few examples of how, in some cases, a focus on goals can prevent us from reaching these goals.

When we look at the process that’s at play here, it becomes clear that it has to do with the discrepancy that exists between the present moment, the now, and the future.

What happens if we become too focused on the goals?

We also inevitably become very much aware of the fact that we’re not there yet. We become very aware of the discrepancy that exists between this very moment, for instance, making $4,000/month and where we want to be, which is at $10,000/month.

This increased awareness can have many consequences.

One of the most likely ones is frustration because we feel we’re not moving fast enough. Maybe we’re experiencing no progress at all. Or we’re just simply frustrated because we’re not there.

We’re not where we want to be. Hence, frustration is a common byproduct of an excessive focus on the future and the discrepancy between now and the future.

Paradoxically, many people believe that to achieve goals, you have to be very focused on goals. But when you become too focused on goals, this means that part of your attention can not be devoted to what you’re doing in the present moment.

A major disadvantage of an excessive focus on the future is less attention to the present moment.

Goals are in the future. Per definition, a goal is something that is not there yet. You want to achieve it. So, it’s in the future.

The future is always a mental concept. It’s always a thought. You can only think about the future. This means that when you pay a lot of attention to goals, you also have many thoughts. We spend a lot of time in our minds, in our heads, losing contact with this moment.

What you see here is that a relationship with the present moment changes if you become so obsessively focused on the future.

Simply put, the present moment is just a way to get there, rather than a means to an end. What happens, I think, is that when we focus too much on the future, the value of the present moment is being evaluated in terms of goal contribution.

I think a very common example is when people say, “Time is money.”

In other words, if this moment is not bringing some kind of financial benefit, it’s useless. Or, if a certain moment is not helping us move closer to a certain goal, it’s not valuable anymore.

If we adopt this quite extreme view, and this is what you often see in business cases, it becomes very difficult to see the true value of each moment because we evaluate the moment purely in terms of its ability to contribute to a future goal.

We forget that even moments that seem very aimless when we experience them can be very enriching.

Final Thoughts

In summary, we can say that mindfulness is still shining some light on the goal in the future, but devoting most of our attention to the present moment because we realize that this moment is all we have.

The future is a concept. It’s something that occurs in your mind. It’s not present there. By focusing only on the future, we lose contact with the playground of life. The very essence of life, which is this moment. This is all we have. If you lose contact with it, you lose life itself.

So, this realization helps us to make goals and plans and use our agendas, but at the same time, it helps us realize that the way to the goal is most important.

We realize that we don’t need to remind ourselves constantly of the fact that we are aiming to achieve a goal.

What you’re doing and where it is taking you are in the back of your mind, in most cases. You don’t need to check constantly whether you’re in line with your goals or not. This is why it’s so important to also focus on the present moment.

Once we become more focused on the present moment and make the goal less important than the present moment, our attentional space broadens.

This is also represented by the fact that the attentional light that shines upon the first part of the road here is broader. It’s bigger. It means that we just get more out of life. We just see more. The richness of the moment is more present when we focus on it.

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