We live in a goal-obsessed society. From childhood, we're encouraged to set goals, then put all our efforts into achieving them. This approach means many of us accomplish things we wouldn't otherwise have managed. However, such a narrow focus can lead to a number of psychological problems as well.
A danger of sustaining a narrow focus is that life becomes unbalanced.
The first is what Harvard psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar calls the Arrival Fallacy. This is the (false) belief that when we achieve a particular goal, we'll finally become – and remain – happy. The truth is, the moment of achievement, although glorious, is only fleeting. We're then left feeling let down and lost, unsure where to direct the energy we're so used to calling up to allow us to keep chasing our goals.
The second problem is that just after reaching a goal, we're likely to be exhausted and in need of recovery time. However, because we're so used to pushing – often well beyond our limits – we don't recognise that need. Ron Friedman, the psychologist and author, points out that during the time we're so intensely focused on one aspect of life, the demands in other areas inevitably pile up. If we turn back to those other demands, before we fully recover, it's all too easy to feel defeated and inadequate as we try to catch up.
Another danger of sustaining a narrow focus is that life becomes unbalanced, and we may neglect those aspects that replenish us – important relationships, regular exercise and time to pursue creative hobbies.
Finally, there's what management consultants George Parsons and Richard Pascale call the Summit Syndrome. This tends to affect over-achievers, individuals whom everyone regards as incredibly successful. Without realising it, over-achievers start focusing not on their goals but only on their craving for the adrenalin that comes from continually challenging themselves. Inevitably, they over-extend for too long… then burn out. When they then attempt to put their life back together, they become painfully aware that they've no sense of a bigger picture.
If you see yourself in any of these descriptions, what can you do to avoid another "push and crash" cycle?
Allow recovery time. After an achievement, take time – at least a week – to rest and eat healthily, and do nothing else. Plan carefully before you try to meet neglected demands. Make a list of the tasks that require immediate attention. Divide the work needed for each into chunks you can complete in one working day. Then rewrite the list in order of priority. Schedule one activity every day that gives rather than uses up energy – exercise, a hobby, friends.
When you feel ready to set your next goal, divide the process of achieving it into small steps, and be sure to reward yourself each time you achieve one of them. This will remind you of what really makes us happy – focusing on the process of achieving goals, rather than fixating only on the endpoint.
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