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Is Taking on a New Goal Stressful?

States of mind


The conventional wisdom for taking on something new in your life is that it’s best to wait until everything’s going smoothly. This comes out in statements like “I can’t deal with that right now” or “It’s hard enough just keeping my head above water” or “I don’t need another thing to worry about.”

Assuming you’re not already involved in diligent work on some life change or major project, though, there are some compelling reasons that taking on that kind of goal might be one of the most beneficial things you could do. Here are some of the doubts that come up about taking on new goals, examined a little more closely to reveal reasons to reconsider.

“I already have enough stress: taking on something new will just add more.”
There’s a pretty common idea out there that effort equals stress, but in fact the reverse is probably more accurate. Research on stressful situations suggests that the most stressful ones are those in which we don’t feel we have any control. Taking action by its nature gives us a greater sense of control, and making progress gives encouragement and self-confidence that each are doubly valuable in times of stress.

In addition, many kinds of goals–fitness, better nutrition, improving sleep, incorporating meditation into your life, cleaning up your home or work space, organizing, addressing financial problems, and sorting our personal conflicts, to name a few, can directly address some key sources of stress in your life and/or make you physically more resistant to stress. Exercise particularly has been proven time and again to relieve stress, and not getting enough sleep has been identified as a key culprit in creating anxious moods.

“I don’t have time to take on something new right now.”
Only you can decide what you do and don’t have time to do, but any number of goals can be pursued in just a few minutes a day. For example, studying vocabulary for a foreign language for five minutes three times a day is an excellent way to rapidly expand your mastery, because we learn best when we’re given the same material several times with a few hours between exposures. Other examples of goals that can be pursued with just a small amount of time include a 15-minute-a-day meditation, beginning to get an office organized by filing just a few papers at a time, and even certain creative activities, like writing or practicing an instrument. Small blocks of time may not be what you’d picture as an ideal, but they do allow for noticeable progress and even have some special advantages over larger blocks. (Thanks to Robin Dickinson, who started learning Chinese in one minute a day, for comments that contributed to this point.)

“I’m too worried about other things to think about a new goal right now.”
One of the benefits in taking on a new goal that you’re excited about is that it gives you something positive to think about, something that can even distract you in helpful ways from thinking too much about a negative situation from which you might need a little distance. If you choose a goal that’s truly inspiring for you, you provide yourself with a means to turn anxiety into creative work.

“I don’t need to pile on more responsibilities.”
Goals certainly can create stress–and often wind up completely unsuccessful–if they’re taken on grudgingly, out of a sense of obligation. For instance, thinking “I really should lose some weight” (or worse, having someone else goad you into trying to lose weight) tends to be one of the worst mindsets you can bring to a fitness goal. What kinds of goals work better? As mentioned here, doing things because of the immediate benefits to your quality of life is usually much more successful than doing them because of a distant goal (especially if you have trouble believing you can reach that goal). Taking on a goal that makes you truly happy adds an enthusiasm rather than a responsibility to your life. If you’re feeling like you’re responsible for too many things but aren’t already pursuing a constructive goal in your life, consider whether there are any constructive goals that would deliver immediate benefits to you on a regular basis, perhaps even benefits that can help make your other responsibilities easier.

“I’ll get to it when things are easier.”
One final reason to consider taking on a goal even during difficult times is that easy times don’t necessarily come around very often; it’s much more convenient to turn bad times into good times than it is to wait for the good times and only do constructive things when everything else is going smoothly.

Photo by danepstein.



  1. Walter  •  Sep 20, 2009 @3:49 am

    Taking on a new goal is stressful only if we allow it. We make the excuses you have enumerated above. The important thing to consider in taking on a new goal is your willpower to materialize it.

    Thanks for this wake-up post. 🙂

  2. Luc  •  Sep 20, 2009 @9:00 am

    Thanks for commenting, Walter. “Allow” seems like a very good word choice. One of the books I’m reading at the moment, Deeper Than Reason, by Jenefer Robinson, makes a very detailed exploration of how we experience emotions and points out that even though an emotion might start as an automatic response, it quickly becomes something we maintain through thinking and attention–so that anxiety, frustration, or fear (not to mention happiness, wonder, and gratitude) on some level only continue when we allow them to.

  3. Robin Dickinson  •  Sep 21, 2009 @5:21 am

    This is excellent, Luc.

    So much of what I take away from your post seems to come down to one’s perception of time i.e. if we perceive that it will take a relatively long time to experience a sense of achievement, we have to ‘wait’ until we can commit a large enough block of time to make it seem worthwhile. Here, it would be stressful to even think of taking on anything new.

    However, once one is free from this perception of time, and open to the idea that the key is to START working on the goal, rather than wait until you can allocate a large enough chunk of time to work on the goal, then amazing things are possible. This is obviously a much bigger discussion that this comment box will warrant.

    Luc, what is your view on this ‘perception of time’ idea, and how it relates to creating a stress response?

    Best, Robin

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