By Jill Bajorek, LCSW
We talk a lot about goals—in therapy, at work, with people around us. We look at our needs and decide what we want to add or how we want to improve. It’s great when we give ourselves something to work towards, but what happens when we set the bar too high to reach? Why do we sometimes challenge ourselves way beyond our capacities? And how do we find the right amount to aim for?
A helpful starting point is to think of our priorities. We can rank them in terms of importance and necessity. Some things we have to do more than others and being mindful of that can give some guidance for the extras we want to incorporate. Thinking of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we must start at the bottom of the pyramid with what keeps us alive. We need to eat, and ideally focus on good nutrition. We need a roof over our heads, clothes to keep us warm, the ability to sleep, and general good health. We cannot accomplish any goals past that if we don’t satisfy those needs consistently. After that we can move up the pyramid and focus on work, security, friendships, self-esteem, etc.
When we are looking at our lives from the perspective of priority, it becomes a little clearer why we sometimes cannot accomplish all we set out to do. Sometimes circumstances out of our control prevent us from focusing on some of our higher-level goals. If we are sick, for example, we cannot expect to run a marathon that day. This feels obvious, but with this priorities model we can say that our health needs aren’t being met so we cannot challenge something extra on top of them; the priority is simply being healthy again. Additionally, too many extra items can cause us to move down the pyramid and shift our priorities. If we are healthy but plan too many mentally or physically taxing events at a time, we will become tired and hungry, we could get sick and maybe injured. This suggests the importance of balance and how we need to find that in our priorities. The concept of doing enough or things being good enough IS good enough for these reasons. It’s enough to accept our limitations and work within them.
We need to address mental health as a reason for adding balance, too. The concept of burnout is being talked about more, and rightfully so as so many of us are susceptible to it. Sometimes we hit a mental block where it’s hard to concentrate. Some studies show we are only capable of focusing for 90 minutes at a time before needing a break. We need to take those breaks in order to be more productive, but more importantly to care for ourselves and not push too hard. Taking breaks is self-care. Our bodies and minds sometimes tell us when we are hitting that wall, but why not stop a little before that? There’s no way to find a perfect balance, but it has to be somewhere before burnout. If we are so exhausted that having a night in with takeout and Netflix sounds more appealing that going to the gym, maybe that is what we need. Maybe we shouldn’t need to reach that point of burnout, we could instead accept what we are capable of doing that day/week/month/year and consider that good enough.