8 Things to Remember When Setting Goals with a Chronic Illness

When I attended a pain management course last year we had to create an individual goal each week to try and achieve, and then feedback to the group the following week how it went. We had a sheet where we could track our progress and make sure our goals were “attainable”, but despite this I still didn’t achieve a single goal I set. I ended up lying some weeks pretending I had done more than I had because the pressure of discussing how your goal went to a group of 15 people was quite intense and intimidating. Each week my goals became further and further out of reach as I became so ill I ended up housebound half way through my pain management course. I simply couldn’t understand where I was going wrong; I was doing as the health professionals told me and was setting loads of goals, but I wasn’t achieving anything. I felt hopeless.

It took me a very long time to work out where I was going wrong and the many problems that contributed to not attaining my goals at that time. Since then I’ve figured out how to make goal setting fit around both me and my illness and turn it from a negative experience into a positive experience. I know what things I need to do to avoid feeling hopeless and have even been able to say “no” to a health professional when they encouraged me to make goals again in a style that didn’t suit me.

Since this experience, I have two mind sets about goal setting as there are both positive and negative aspects of it:

The positives of setting goals:

  • It gives you a sense of purpose
  • Makes you feel like you’ve achieved something
  • It gives you hope about the future
  • They motivate you

The negatives of setting goals:

  • You feel like a failure when you don’t achieve them
  • They can distract you from living in the present moment
  • Goals can feel quite pressurising, which can make us feel stressed and unhappy
  • It can be upsetting when you realise how little you can do and how small your goals are

Goal setting is very personal and I think it’s important to explore what’s best for you. For me, I no longer set myself physical or long-term goals as I find the experience is very disheartening when I don’t achieve something. I also think it’s important to not force my body to do something it’s not ready to do due to the nature of my illness. I prefer to stay focused on the present moment and to create myself little “to-do” lists each morning which I feel give me as much satisfaction and purpose each day as “goals”. To help find what’s best for you and to make goal setting more of a positive experience than a negative, I have listed below 8 things I hope you find useful to remember when setting goals with a chronic illness:

  1. Learn what’s in your control and what’s not – It took me a while to eventually figure out where I had originally been going wrong – all the goals I was setting were physical goals; they all relied on my health and on my illness, and that wasn’t in my control. I cannot change the fact I fell ill, nor can I change the fact that I’m still ill. I can aid my body towards recovery to the best of my ability, but I cannot make myself better. If we all had that sort of control over our bodies, then no one would ever be ill, because everyone would choose to get better! That meant I couldn’t tell my body, “okay, so by the end of this month I should be driving again because it’s one of my goals”. Even if the goals were considered “attainable”, I couldn’t control whether my body was able to “attain” them that week or not. Therefore, it is very important you understand your illness and what is within your control and what is not, and to only work on things within that framework. For example, you could aim to work on your sleep pattern, because that is something you have control over and it can help aid your body towards recovery. To read more about “How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep”, click here, and to read about “Sleep Routine’, click here.

  1. Don’t compare yourself to the healthy version of you – One of the biggest problems with goal setting for people who are chronically ill is we often compare our goals to the things we “used” to do. We set our goals too high and too out of reach, which only sets ourselves up for failure. It is important to focus on your body’s ability now instead of constantly comparing yourself to your healthy version. By doing this, you are more likely to set small, realistic goals, and therefore you are more likely to achieve them.
  2. Avoid self-criticism – The purpose of goals is to motive you; don’t allow them to be used as a stick to beat yourself up with. It can be so easy to turn our goals into pressure, which then make us feel stressed and unhappy, and that is not going to help our health and happiness! It is important to not be critical and be kind to yourself when you don’t achieve something or if you’re not doing as well as you hoped. To read more on “Part 1: Why You Need to Practise Being Kind to Yourself”, click here, and to read “Part 2: 12 Ways to Practise Being Kind to Yourself”, click here.

  1. Take it one day at a time – The frustrating thing with chronic illness is you never know how your body is going to feel each day. Sometimes you can wake up and feel awful for absolutely no reason! Therefore, it might be an idea to avoid making goals for more than one day in advance, because each day is so unpredictable. By doing it in the morning, you’ll have a much better idea of how your feeling that day and how much you’ll be able to do. If I wake up and feel awful the only goal I set myself that day is “to get through the day”. By taking it one day at a time, or even one hour at a time, you will eventually get there.
  2. Set yourself “to-do” lists instead – I don’t know about you, but for some reason I find the word “goal” quite intimidating and often associate it with something hard and often out of reach. Something I do now each morning is to set myself little “to-do” lists. I find calling them “to-do” lists a lot less daunting and feel like they are lot more achievable. I also make sure that my “to-do” lists are not set in stone and try to keep them very flexible, so if I don’t do something today that was on the list as I didn’t feel up to it, I just roll it onto the next day. No biggie.

  1. Make the goals achievable – The goals I set myself now are things I already do daily, therefore they are achievable. For example, my goal might be to read to a certain page in a book, or reply to a friend, or make pancakes for breakfast. I never set myself goals for things I haven’t done before or I’m not able to do, such as “leave the house”, because when the time comes and my body is ready I’ll do it, but I won’t force my body to do it just because it’s a “goal”. By setting goals for things I know I can do, it means I can feel satisfied at the end of each day and feel like I’ve achieved something. I know a lot of people who are ill might feel their day is wasted or they simply become bored and feel like they have no purpose. It’s very understandable why so many of us feel this way, which is why by achieving small things each day we can feel like our day hasn’t been wasted.
  2. Listen to your body – There are illnesses like M.E. where pushing your body beyond your limits is extremely harmful and can cause a flare or relapse. Therefore, be very careful when you set physical goals with a physical illness. However, there are some illnesses where setting physical goals can be beneficial, such as making a goal to do a little walk each day if you suffer with arthritis as you need to keep your joints moving. But no matter what your illness is, always listen to your body, and if your body is telling you to stop, stop!

  1. Go with the flow – Instead of making things happen, I’ve learnt to allow things to happen. If one day I wake up and feel good and I go on to achieve something big for me, then I can celebrate that achievement and feel proud. But as I never had that achievement down as a “goal” and instead just allowed it to happen when my body was ready, it meant that I could avoid the feeling that if I hadn’t done it I had “failed”! By allowing myself and my body to go with the flow it has released my expectations of “where I should be now” or “I should be getting better”. It means that on the days I’m not doing so well, I can accept it and just say, “it’s one of those days and I can’t control that”.

I hope this can help you find a style of goal setting that will suit you and to use it as a positive experience and not a negative one. Remember, if anyone tries to encourage you to do goal setting in a style you don’t think is right for you, then be brave and say no! You know yourself and your body best.

Metta, E xx

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4 thoughts on “8 Things to Remember When Setting Goals with a Chronic Illness”

  1. So much love for this post! I came to the same realisation as you. And, interestingly, I take a very similar approach. I use a bullet journal and I pencil in little to-do’s each day. I often jot down a little something for each day of the week right at the start (as this also helps me plan my energy) but I allow myself to be flexible and move things forward if I need to. I place no pressure on myself. And if I do something that’s not on my to-do list, I add it in afterwards anyway so I will be able to look back and see what I have accomplished. It’s amazing how a change in perspective has helped me to feel a sense of achievement and purpose 🙂

    1. Thanks Donna for your kind comment! Yes I do something very similar to a bullet journal! Thats a really good idea, so important to be flexible. How funny I do exactly the same, I always add things to my do list that I’ve done even if I didn’t write it down, just so I can cross it off! I’m really glad it’s given you such a change in perspective and has helped you feel a sense of purpose and achievement. I think that’s so important and I’m so happy to hear that for you! Hope you have a good rest of the week. Sending love, Evie xx

  2. Such a great post Evie. I related to so much of it.

    For a long time, I used to set myself really huge goals – i’m talking before I got sick again – and this is partly what lead me to such a severe relapse of my ME back in 2010. Driving myself far hard and having too many goals as well as being too focused on achieving them.

    Now I realise, the best way, is a flexible, healthy balance.

    Setting little tasks for the day ahead, with no pressure, can be helpful when one day can sometimes blur into the next due to chronic illness can’t it …. it helps to feel we have a bit of structure.

    Thanks for sharing your tips lovely,

    Emma x x

    1. Thank you Emma that is really kind! I’m sorry you had to go through the relapse to realise your huge goal setting might have contributed to that – but it’s definitely something we seem to learn the hard way.

      I’m really happy you’ve managed to find a way which is a healthy balance for you now. I completely agree, it’s so important to allow things to be pushed onto the next day because over doing it for us can only make things worse!

      Hope you have a lovely week Emma, lots of love xxx

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