How to Set and Achieve Goals When You’re Chronically Ill
By Kim Penix
I love the last week of the year. It’s a week that always fills me with hope and anticipation of the new year to come. The stress of the holidays is over and my body can rest and recuperate for the coming new year.
This is also the time that people tend to set their goals for the coming year. (Have I ever mentioned how I’m a type-A person stuck in a chronically ill body? Oh, the torture!)
Goal-setting for someone with a chronic illness can seem like a waste of time. How are we ever supposed to succeed at a goal when our body is trying to shut us down?
I’ve learned a few things over the years I’ve been ill and one is that it is possible to set and achieve goals. You just have to go about it differently than most.
Here are the nine things I think are important when setting goals:
1. Be realistic.
It’s not going to do you a bit of good to set a goal you have no way of accomplishing. I’ve always admired people who complete triathlons, but let’s be honest here: That ain’t happening for me. Make sure your goal pushes you but make it one you have the ability to achieve. You may not exercise self-care to the extent your body needs. Maybe that’s a realistic goal for you. You can try new ways to relax or connect with others or choose a new hobby to try.
2. Make it motivational.
If you can already walk on a treadmill for 10 minutes at a time, setting a goal to walk on a treadmill for 15 minutes a day, three days a week by the end of the year isn’t stretching yourself. Give yourself something to push toward. That’s when you really feel alive — when you see yourself reaching goals that took effort to accomplish.
3. Only set a few goals.
I hear top self-help gurus talking about the eight to 10 goals they set each year that cover different areas of their lives. I believe that’s just too much for someone to focus on when they happen to be at war with their own body. If you’ve never set goals before, try one or two this year. If you have set goals in the past I would still stick to no more than four. The amount of time and energy our illness takes is huge. We don’t need to add a stressor of 25 goals to our list of things to do.
4. Always pick one health-related goal.
You might want to ignore this area of your life altogether because it already demands so much of your time, but your health is essential. Choose a goal that would make you feel a bit healthier when you reach it come next December. Maybe it’s to research your illness better so you feel like you actually know your enemy inside and out — pick a few books you’ll read this year or set a plan to spend two hours a month researching from your laptop.
5. Start slow.
If your goal is to gain strength, don’t start by joining a gym and trying a 30-minute workout on day one. You’ll only throw yourself into a flare. You might start instead by grabbing some soup cans and doing a few arm curls. As you review your goals, you’ll increase your amount of exercises and repetitions.
6. Don’t always get caught up in an end goal.
Make progress the true goal. Some goals do have an end game, like writing a book or organizing your house. Most experts will tell you these are the only kind of goals to make. I tend to argue this when it comes to those with chronic illness. Like I mentioned in number 5, if your goal is to make your body stronger, then decide on a few exercises and number of repetitions you’ll do. Complete that consistently for a week or two and then re-evaluate. Increase the number of exercises and reps as you go. By the end of the year, you’ll be stronger than you were when you started on January 1.
7. Break it down into workable chunks.
Take a few minutes to break each goal up into pieces. Maybe you want to try a new elimination diet to see if that helps your symptoms. Take the first month to come up with some tasty food that will fit with the new diet before you even begin any cooking. Set yourself up for success. If your goal is to learn about your illness, decide which month you’ll read which book and which months you’ll be doing online research.
8. Review frequently.
Write your goals down on paper and put them somewhere you’ll see them often — if not daily! Set a specific time frame for reviewing your goals. I suggest once a month, but you might choose to review your goals weekly. Whatever you decide is fine. Just be sure to stick to the review periods. These are crucial. During your review period you’ll need to look at your goals and re-access. Don’t toss a goal out the window if it isn’t working right away. Re-access. Did you try doing too much at once? Did an added illness or extended flare stop you from reaching the goals for that month? You might need to alter the plan a bit.
9. Show yourself some grace.
There are some things you can control when it comes to your health. But let’s face it, our health has a huge control over us. You have to allow yourself the grace to get through the goals or to scrap them all together and regroup.
The whole point of setting goals is to make progress and be the best you possible. You may find some goals don’t work for you or you may find they aren’t that important to you after all. That’s OK! Just don’t let your illness force you into a situation where you feel like your life is over. Like I’ve said before, it may not be the life you imagined, but it can still be a good one!