You should set goals because striving to meet a goal makes you happier. This is because a goal gives us structure and purpose, but also once you set a goal, your brain feels like you have already attained that goal. (This explains the euphoria we feel when we decide to “start a diet.”)

1. Our brain thinks we are finished before we start.
We need to be very careful setting goals. Our brain is hard-wired to get very upset when we lose something we already have, so we get upset when we don’t actually reach the goal. And, the bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around its non-achievement.

I have this process from setting yoga goals. Over the past five years I have become anxiety-riddled over the calming effect of yoga.

2. Goals are really about process – the results are ancillary.
To reach a goal you have to separate it into small steps. I did that before I had kids. I had a goal of going to a class. Then going to a specific class. Then paying for private lessons to get good. Then practicing every day.

Then I had kids, and predictably, things went to hell. I tried hiring a babysitter to do yoga (too expensive). I tried bringing my baby to yoga (in NYC the hard-core Ashtanga studios are okay with this. Probably because no parent can handle it for more than a few times.) And I tried doing yoga on my own, at home.

3. Realistic people quit more often.
I told myself I had to wait. I told myself the timing was bad. This was depressing which isn’t surprising because realists tend to be depressives. But realists are also clear thinkers, and I was right to wait.

When my kids were older, I rearranged my whole life to get to an Ashtanga class every day. After a week I realized that an Ashtanga class every day would be a full-time job.

The reality was depressing.

4. There are five aspects to a serious goal.
So I told myself I had to do yoga at home; people don’t like to lose what they have, and I have a body that does difficult yoga poses and I don’t want to lose that.

I set goals the scientific way, which means I write each goal to meet five criteria:

  • Define the goal as something specific
  • Phrase the goal so it’s measurable
  • Make sure the goal is something achievable
  • Frame it as relevant to the bigger picture in your life
  • Create a time frame for success

5. Get ideas from the other people achieving your goal.
I also bought Yoga Journal to read about how other people are achieving my goal.

The photo up top is one I took from the back page of the Oct. 2013 issue.

The caption is from the photographer. It says, “My husband and I moved to the country from Philadelphia. And as we drove past the fields I had a moment of inspiration to connect with my new rural landscape. Being a city girl, I’d never encountered a hay bale, and I was very surprised how easily it rolled!”
– Jill Manning pictured in Farmville, VA

The first problem with this photo is that the hay bales weigh hundreds of pounds. They don’t roll.

Another problem with the photo: The bale is sitting on land that is not planted for hay.  The bale also would never be sitting on a field that’s grown back so tall. As soon as the farmer bales the hay, he removes the bale so the ground under the bale can grow.

Then I checked out Google maps. Guess what?  There are no farms in Farmville, VA. It’s a university town. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farmville,Virginia.

The last line on the page in Yoga Journal says : “Be part of the yoga scene. Submit your favorite yoga photo.”

But how could you really be part of the yoga scene? It’s lies. It’s Photoshop. Or something else, but that something is not real.

The worst sort of goal is one that we pretend is achievable even though we don’t really see a path to doing it. The truth is, the only people I know who are doing a 90-minute Ashtanga series every day have very few other responsibilities in life, so that’s a goal that’s not worth me thinking about.  And, if you read carefully, Yoga Journal is really about how you have to be a yoga teacher in order to do yoga every day, and yoga teachers make no money.

The lies of the yoga community remind me of the lies in the business community. The you-can-have-everything lie.

I coach so many people who want to be with their kid after school but they also want a fun, challenging meaningful job. So few people have those jobs that for our purposes they don’t exist. (You can’t get a great job but only give half your energy to it. People who give all their energy get those jobs. It’s only fair.)

When we are not meeting our goals it’s a big sign that they are not the right goals for us.

Look at what’s really driving you to have a great job. You are not going to make a lot of money if you leave at 3pm every day, so you are probably wanting a great job so you can get out of the house each day, and have some amount of self-esteem.

Wanting self-esteem from our job is a bad goal because we can’t depend on it–we don’t have enough control over it. We have to get self-esteem from inside ourselves. And if you want to get out of the house every day, go do yoga.

Just kidding. (Sort of. I mean, just go do something. You don’t need to be paid.)

It’s enticing to pick something unrealistic as a goal because our brain sees a goal as an accomplishment. It’s enticing to get that feeling for something really, really big. But those really big things so often are not attainable and we make ourselves crazy.

I am grateful to Yoga Journal. I’m grateful that they ran such an absurd photo and caption because it shows me how unachievable my yoga goals are. My goal actually is to feel moments of peacefulness each day. And I’m pretty sure I’ll feel those by just letting myself off the hook from my unrealistic yoga goals.