Not your usual New Year post

Everyone does it at this time of year: you know it, the “best of” or “10 of my favourite” or “looking back over the year” or any of the other variants. Or perhaps “Goals for 2015”.

I’m not going to. Not because I don’t think there’s anything worth sharing from last year, but because I’m trying to look at life differently for a while. You’ll have spotted the theme in my posts on goals and goal-setting recently – I’m not a great fan of setting goals although I’ve personally set goals most New Year Days throughout my life. But I’ve decided that maybe it’s not such a good thing any more, and here’s why.

I think I pointed out that some people treat goal setting in therapy as a sort of “to-do” list. Tick all the goals and voila! therapy is complete. You’re now perfect. Or at least, you’re ready to be discharged. Of course it’s not like that really, as most outcome studies show. People make quite large changes in the first couple of weeks of therapy, then plateau, then slowly but inevitably, move back to how things were before all the fuss began. I could cite you numerous studies across many different fields of rehabilitation and they’ll pretty much show the same thing. Yes, people are better off than before they came to therapy, but overall change is quite slight.

What, I wondered, would happen if we treated this as normal and part of life? What if we saw therapy as providing only a short-term boost? Would it all be worth it?

And I have thought a lot about the “what it is like” to have achieved goals. So my goal this last year has been a very long time one of completing my PhD. I look back on the process as being one of incredible learning, most of it alone, yet supported by so many people. By taking nearly 7 years to chip away at it, the thesis has become part of me, I’ve developed habits and practices that I find very hard to stop. They’ve been integrated so that I don’t think too much about why I look up a series of references, scan the abstract, view the results, then poke about in the methods section and the stats and finally look at the discussion – when it’s the discussion that so many people think is the best part! This, and asking to see the evidence, and see more than a single study, and wanting verification – these habits have become ingrained.

So a goal, PhD done, I can tick off my list. But I’m still doing the things I did as part of my goal. How then, can I have “completed” it?!

You see, I think goals are over-rated. I think we sometimes look at goals and think that if we achieve X we’ll be satisfied. I don’t think this actually happens. Instead, what I think happens is we develop some habits, and these habits embody what is important to us. So, for example, if we think cleanliness is important, we might set a goal of “having no fillings this year”, but to achieve it we need to make sure we clean our teeth, floss and see a dentist. But the habits of cleaning teeth, flossing and seeing a dentist are the actions we need to take to achieve the goal of no fillings. And these habits or actions are how we show that we think cleanliness is important.  And they get ingrained so we actually live our values.

The problem with goals is that things can get in the way of their achievement. If my goal is to save $2000 for a trip away, any number of habits will help this happen. And the value of saving is in that delayed gratification and all the small habits and actions that make putting money aside something that I do. But in the end, if my car breaks down, or a child needs money, or I have other important things to do with that money I won’t have achieved the goal. Yes I might have saved the money, but I don’t get to do the trip. If the bank’s funds are embezzled, I don’t get the money or the trip. If the air fares increase, I don’t get the trip. But I will have been living a whole series of actions that demonstrate an important value I have: I’ll have learned about delayed gratification, learning I can wait, learning that I don’t need to buy a coffee every day. And these small actions are how I live my life every day, rather than that single trip away that I might have had. Because life really is about these small everyday things we do.

So… setting goals isn’t my priority this year. My priority has been to review my values. What really IS important to me. And these are what I came up with:

  • balance in life – adequate rest, fun, excitement, alone time, intellectual stimulation, conversation, peace, creative time
  • learning – how I do anything is how I do everything
  • beauty and appreciation – natural, human-made, flavours, colours, tones, textures, complexity, simplicity

Only three. Because I think that’s quite enough.

And my actions – they’re the important part of this. What I do each day, all those small acts, they’re the things that count towards living my life, or just ticking the boxes.

If you’re a pain clinician, what little actions do you do to live the values you hold?


  1. I fully agree!

    The insistence upon and prioritization of goals over values has become a sickness in our culture. The obsession with superficial goals causes incessant busyness and gives us only an occasional blip of happiness, while diverting our attention and energy away from what can bring us long-term satisfaction.

    Sustained well-being can only be achieved by living toward our deepest inner values – some of which we may not even be aware of because they’ve been obliterated by the demands of culturally fashionable goals.

    1. It’s a strange situation isn’t it, when values are the reason behind doing all these things. I’m grateful I learned about ACT and how it can apply in chronic pain management (and in life management!), now to applying it in my own life… not an easy job, but it’s the ongoing stream of little things that makes life what it is.

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