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Screw SMART goals.
Now that I’ve gotten that years-long, suppressed, festering expression of resentment of my high school Executive Functioning Skills class out of the way, constantly maintaining goals is a crucial element of mental health. I’ve always found SMART goals to be too rigid, structured, and therefore inaccessible to be of any help to me. Why would I take time to find a piece of paper and a writing utensil, remember an acronym some teacher explained to me a couple of times, and use it to set a life goal? Why would I continue to consult that paper, especially during trying emotional times? I never used the method tangibly. The acronym’s tenets are intuitive, anyway: make it realistic, set a time frame, boom (essentially). How do I continually motivate myself to reach my goals?
A common symptom of depression and- surprisingly enough- OCD, is what can present as a non-functional malaise: not leaving bed, general apathy (depression), overwhelmed to the point of inaction (OCD). These disorders present as obvious barriers to achieving pretty much anything substantial, and for someone as ambitious as myself, the opposing forces of high hopes/potential and perfectionistic overwhelming creates a perfect storm, ever bubbling and oft roaring, of self hatred and self blame. When my symptoms fall more on the depressive spectrum, less common though that may be, I have trouble knowing what I want and what I’m looking forward to. I lie in bed, sleep a lot, dream little. When my symptoms are more OCD/anxiety focussed, I am inundated with a frantic cycle of go get that thing that you want SO badly! Oh, you can’t because you’re constantly terrified and obsessively performing compulsions, or afraid you will? Better not do anything, you’re so preoccupied as it is and so many things will go wrong! Now you’re missing out, damn you! Why is everything so hard for you? You have so many things wrong with you, far too many. You’re not be as smart or capable as you thought you were… but you have to try! Oh, you can’t? –
– Ad infinitum. I have lots of things that I’m desperate to accomplish and lots of potential obstructions to those accomplishments. However, I have managed to identify a set of coping mechanisms that I use to get things done, anyway. None of these things I learned in school. Through trial and error, I discovered what works for me.
1.) Remind yourself of your motivators, morning and night.
Usually, motivators come in the form of people/places/things or long term goals. For me, I am deeply, intrinsically motivated by my little brother, my puppy, my friends, and getting as good an education as I can, as soon as I can. Though I could add to the list, this set is the most compelling to me. In goal form, I am motivated by wanting to be present for my little brother in a way I wish I’d gotten, give my puppy as happy and fulfilled a life as her late older brother, be a source of love and constance for my friends, and get to freaking college!
Those are actually very broad, long-term goals, so they’re really better classified as general motivations. I want to do those things, but a smaller subset of actions is required in order to move towards those long-term goals. To be there for my brother, I may have to wake up at eight AM to go to a soccer game two hours away. I have to get up and go to school on a consistent basis, and do my work even more consistently. I have to reach out to my friends proactively, remember important dates and happenings, and stay grounded and responsible when giving them advice. I have to make time to take walks with my puppy, without risking eating disordered behaviors.
This segues into a second subset of actions required to reach long term functionality; staying mentally healthy. This looks like sticking to my meal plan. This looks like advocating for myself. This looks like being proactive in telling my doctors about my life’s happenings. This looks like taking my medication consistently. This looks like making hard, interpersonal decisions and putting myself first, for a while, sometimes.
Speaking of segues, the bedroom is usually the epicenter of a child/teen’s life, for most. At the very least, it is the visual environment in which one both falls asleep and wakes up, almost every day. What you see as you doze off and awaken can have a crucial impact on what you choose to do that day. There’s a reason they tell you to meditate in the morning. What you do, see, and feel in the first few minutes of your day has a sneaky way of setting your daily tone, so to speak.
I’ve found it helpful, throughout my whole life, to keep little waving motivators in my room, there to greet me when I awaken and coo me to sleep. For a long time, this simply looked like a dreamcatcher, the origins of which I am uncertain, that I’ve miraculously kept hung in all four of the homes I’ve lived in within the last eight years. Around five years ago I did a room redesign (truthfully, I instigated the redesign to rid myself of environmental reminders of my suicidal time period and attempt; I got my puppy during the same month) and purchased a white board with a cork frame to match my white Pottery Barn (boy did I have to arm twist my parents) four-poster (like in Hogwarts dormitories!) bed, desk, and dresser. I decorated the cork frame with pictures of my dog, my brother. Upon that cork frame has been draped reminders of many of my life’s experiences: old letters, scraps of doodles, pictures of boyfriends, replacements of said pictures, polaroids, sticky notes. I still have hung an old floral corsage I got on Etsy for prom that was constructed using meaningful pages of Harry Potter books and painted using the color scheme of my dress, as well as a sweet note from one of my best friends, a pin I got at the March for our Lives in NYC, a note from my grandfather, and a compliment some girl passed me at an old therapy group on a magenta sticky note.
Something I made myself recently is a motivation board (above). It’s painted in my favorite color scheme and on the top tier of the frame is the term “Unbreakable Vows.” In the Harry Potter world (if you hadn’t guessed by now, I’m a religious devotee of the series), an Unbreakable Vow is a deep, intentional promise made between two wizards. I’m making vows to every lovely element of my board, promising to work towards them and/or use their inspiration to work towards my goals. If I wake up to the sight of Bruce Springsteen, I’m much more likely to brush my teeth to Rosalita than I am to Let It Go. If I fall asleep gazing upon Robert Mueller’s gloriously sharp jawline, I’m much less likely to dream of the collapse of NYC’s infrastructure, King Kong style. If I fall asleep to the sight of my ever-present friends, I’m less likely to mournfully dream of the folks who’ve left my life.
My board took me a hot three hours and a genuinely delightful trip to Target to accomplish. First, I printed out around fifty pictures of people, places (like my dream schools), and things that make me happy, are positively meaningful to me, and/or motivate me. I picked up a cork board at Target; I also grabbed a couple of paints, some brushes, twinkly lights, and some cute pins, but these are more optional, creative additions. Budget allowing, though, I’d encourage you to pour some creative energy into your goal/motivational board (or whatever medium you choose). The more you make it feel like you, the greater impact it will have on you when you need it most. Display it so that you can see it from your supine vantage point upon on your bed.
2.) Keep some form of daily list.
I’ve always despised planners. It’s not based in anything rational or moral. I just couldn’t stand it when I’d blow off my planner and consequently get in trouble in school the next day for my empty “Wednesday” slots (god forbid I be held accountable for my intentional inaction…). My schools have almost always given me planners that were, design wise, genuinely hideous. I don’t know who they hired to make them or if they got a random student to do it for them, but almost every year I’m handed a spiral, floppy and droopy, MS Paint looking booklet that assumes I like school far more than I do with all of its academic life tips. It didn’t speak to me, so I didn’t use it. Most of my time in high school I used scraps of paper, my Notes app, and my questionable-at-best memory to keep track of my work. Needless to say, I was never the most reliable homework doer, as much of a teacher’s pet as I was. The key, I now believe, was that I needed to want to open the planner.
This August, I bought myself (or my mother bought me, I can’t recall…) a cute Kate Spade planner. Spade had recently passed by suicide, which is what drew me to the name, but I went into that Papyrus store determined to find a planner that spoke to me, and in that planner, that’s what I found. It was organized exactly the way I would have organized it myself: simple lines, room for a daily goal, notes pages after each month and featuring plenty of folders (not to mention stickers!). My daily goals are always something like add more dairy! or reduce picking to one hour before bed! or simply go easy on yourself, girl! Even just the act of setting those small goals for the next day grounds me into my life and what I want out of every sunrise and sunset. I’ve kept up my planner ever since, and a length of time such as this has been quite the underdog feat for me.
You don’t have to shell out for a Kate Spade planner to keep organized on a daily basis, though. If the Notes app does work for you, build a habit out of that! If you prefer a free-form diary upon which you can design your own lists, list away to your heart’s content. You can even find blueprints for print-your-own planners for sale on Etsy! The determining factor of daily planning’s success is your investment, and you won’t invest in something that you don’t care about, that doesn’t feel like you.
Ultimately, everything comes down to your hopes for the future. When I was in treatment for my eating disorder, a ritual they has us perform was on our last day, we’d sit in a series of five chairs; one was present day you, a second was you in six months if you relapsed, the one behind that was you in two years if you relapsed, the fourth was you in six months if you recovered, and the fifth was you in two years if you recovered. You sit in each chair and summarize your life in it for about two or three minutes before moving to the next chair. My feedback was that in the relapse chairs (I described a skeleton of a body, dropping out of high school, in a bad relationship, perhaps eventual suicide) I appeared robotic, removed from the horror of what I was describing. However, in the recovery chairs, I burst into tears before joyfully reciting the details of the life I wanted for myself. Where relapse was a morose, dull, matter of fact story for me, a brighter future full of the things I loved and wanted elicited an outpouring of emotion and desire from me.
This emotion can be channelled in smaller, less dramatic ways. Using appealing reminders of your long-term hopes, you can push yourself to put your nose to the grindstone on a daily, grueling basis in order to get where you want to go. I have to do that every day to stay in the recovery chairs.