Two States of Mind

Can we mindfully live for today AND focus on long-term goals…at the same time? 

Goal-setting is a common topic for coaches of all disciplines to talk about at the outset of a new year. Goals are important: having something to aim for gives us direction and means that what we desire will be more likely to occur – more so than if we simply threw caution to the wind and let the universe decide our fate.

If you read our last blog – which spoke about living in the moment and being mindful of where you are (rather than where you/others think you should be) – you may feel that our advice to set firm long-term goals is a bit of a contradiction. 

This is not the case; there’s no reason why we can’t enjoy both states at the same time

Being mindful brings meaning to our thought processes and underpins why we do what we do, and why the goals we set are important to us. If we don’t focus on the moment, which is the basis of mindfulness, our thoughts can easily dissipate and divide. Without focus, our mind can conjure up reasons why we shouldn’t be setting out on our course of action or find obstacles that wouldn’t necessarily be there if we focused and exercised self-belief. 

Conversely, it’s not natural (or helpful) to continually be in a mindful state, because we’d stop learning, growing or progressing. Time marches on. Technology develops. The world continually evolves. If we never looked to the future and tried to predict upcoming events, we wouldn’t be able to adapt to new scenarios if they arose; we’d lose our resilience. 

However, our goals don’t always have to gaze at us from the horizon. We can have short-term goals, which require more focus due to their limited timeframe than longer-term hopes and dreams. For example, perhaps you’ve put on a few pounds over Christmas that you’d like to get rid of…you’re not likely to make your weight-loss goal a five-year plan – rather, you’d give yourself a month or so to lose each half-stone. Such a short-term plan needs mindfulness in order to succeed, to stay on track against temptation, and to reflect on each pound that’s lost as a small, incremental achievement in its own right. Without mindfulness, and if your weight-loss goal was spread over years rather than weeks, your motivation would simply fizzle out.  

Longer-term goals tend to involve more steps. A change of career, for example, is something people can rarely bring about in a few months. The necessary retraining and gathering of relevant experience take time.  

Our brains love goals just as much as they love appreciating the sights, sounds, thoughts and feelings associated with a singular moment in time. The brain constantly learns from patterns and experience; when we achieve a goal – whatever it is – this success gets stored in our subconscious. If we repeatedly succeed, this ‘imprint of success’ becomes stronger and stronger. Put simply, the more we succeed, the better a success we become…which is why it’s important to set short-term and long-term goals.  

On reaching a goal, our brains release the chemical dopamine, which is relative to pleasure and motivation. Therefore, success is much more likely to occur if the goals you set are associated with things you like doing and which give you pleasure. 

Never beat yourself up if you fail to reach a goal, though. For a start, some goals aren’t linear, and one step of the process could quite easily take you in a completely different direction, towards a revised goal. Regularly taking time to be ‘in the moment’ allows you to reflect on any change of plan and understand why it occurred, ready for the next time a similar situation raises its head. If you were entirely goal-focused, such understanding would pass you by.  

Living in the moment is a good way to ‘track’ your success. Slowing down, appreciating what you have, where you are in life and what you’ve achieved, is a great way to measure how near/far you are to both your short-term and long-term goals. Imagine you’re running a marathon: at some point you’re likely to be apart from the ‘pack’ as the race evens out. If you’re not paying attention, without a fellow runner or signs to follow, you could end up miles off-track. That same analogy can apply to your goals. If you don’t take a moment every now and again to check and measure where you are, how will you know when you’ve reached the finish line? Because there’ll be no stewards handing out foil blankets and water. 

Goals can only work if they’re something you really want. Our lives are busy enough without weighing them down with pointless outcomes imposed by our peers, our managers, our families or society itself. Just as dopamine enriches and cements success in our brains, the chemicals released when we believe we’re a failure can take up residence, too. So, if it’s not the right time for a life-changing goal, that’s absolutely fine. Mindfulness can help our hungry-to-learn brains in the short-term; however, day after day spent with nothing to aim for…no hopes, dreams, and a lack of any direction…makes it more difficult to stave off negative thoughts and feelings. 

Certainly, if life feels like a constant drag and you’re perpetually fighting to keep your head above water, this may be a sign that you’re in need of some short-term goals (and even a couple of longer-term goals) – even if their only aim is to make your life a little easier.  

So, what will be your short-term and long-term goals of this new decade? And how will you practise the art of being in the moment, which, as we’ve illustrated, is so crucial for success as well as our mental health?