Category Archives: Goals

The undeniable anticipation of a bowl of Weetabix

When people move to a new country, as I did in 2013, there’s usually some food or drink from home which they miss.

In my case it was Horlicks (the malted milk drink) so when my brother Geoff arrived here last week he smuggled a couple of jars in his suitcase.

However there was another UK staple that turned out to be unexpectedly available in the US – Weetabix (if you’re not familiar with it, it’s a wheat breakfast cereal which comes in the form of rectangular biscuits).


Lucky days. I was happily surprised to find it on the supermarket shelves here.

Actually, mentioning it gives me a good excuse to remind us both of the value of having things to look forward to, even if they’re modest and seemingly insignificant.

An example?

If you prefer your Weetabix a bit soggy and milk-soaked, as I do, how about getting your breakfast ready before you head for the bathroom in the morning?

It’s a tiny ritual I perform most days, and even though it sounds slightly preposterous, while I’m in the shower I genuinely look forward to sitting down to eat my Weetabix.

I think it’s always helpful to look forward to things, because doing so is likely to make a real contribution to your overall happiness and well-being.

But while it’s great to have a sense of keen anticipation about big stuff, you can also help yourself by setting up smaller opportunities.

So if there’s something you usually do quite routinely most days, and which you generally enjoy, why not prepare it a little in advance, turning it into a small upcoming treat?

Please let us know how you get on in the Comments section.

Knowing where to go when it’s dark

I wonder how many children would look you in the eye on their first day of school and tell you that their goal is to graduate with distinction from Harvard?

With the exception of a precocious few, I can’t imagine many being so focused.

I’d have thought it was more likely that, with an inevitable degree of trepidation and nervousness, most kids would aim for a much closer target on that first day: getting through to breaktime, then to lunchtime, then to going home time.


Isn’t this how most of us go about our day-to-day lives?

Maybe we start the working week looking forward to its end.

Or we set off on a journey in the belief that it will feel good to reach our destination.

Although we may (and ideally should) carry loftier ambitions in the back of our mind, you generally get through the day by adopting a ‘I’ll do this, then I’ll do that’ mind-set.

I say ‘generally’, however, because this sensible logic may tend to go out of the window when your mood is low.

If forced, you’d probably say your aim is to feel better: a statement of the blinking obvious, really – of course you don’t want to remain in the depths of despair.

Would anyone?

But when you’re well and truly down, the distance from where you are to where you want to be is just about as immense as the journey from Day 1 in Ms. Wallace’s class to tossing your mortar board in the air.

It’s worth remembering that, just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, recovery from depression is nearly always a slow process, taking weeks and months rather than hours and days.

So perhaps it’s also worth recalling how you made progress through your school days, focusing on smaller, closer goals.

On the darkest days, one goal may be as ‘small’ as getting out of bed.

Another could be showering and dressing.

A third might be walking round the block.

Big goals are great, but on life’s darker days smaller ones can be the difference between keeping going, and not.

What I learned from running a carnival sideshow

I worked for an American fun fair for three months in my early twenties.

I call it a fun fair, but it was properly known as a carnival – and as a temporary ‘carnie’ I travelled around the small towns of Northern California that blissful summer, helping to set up the sideshows and relieving the locals of their hard-earned dollars, sometimes giving them a plush toy in return, if they managed to win.

Mind you, winning wasn’t easy.


The sideshow to which I was allocated was called Scat Cats.

Three or four giant wooden cats stood at the rear of the tent, each with a circular cut-out mouth: you won by throwing a baseball through one of them.


Well, no.

Appearances were deceptive, and when you looked closely (which you couldn’t really do from the punters’ side of things) it was evident that the hole’s diameter was only marginally larger than the ball.

The only way to get one in (and we were taught how to do so, in order to make it look easy) was to throw the ball with a strange kind of pushing action, straight out from your chest.

Trying to get it in using a ‘coming in from the top’ strategy wouldn’t work, as the ball would meet the aperture as an ellipse rather than a circle, bumping into either top or bottom, or sometimes both.

(Imagine you were a tiny person on the surface of the ball – as the target approached, its circular shape would be foreshortened into an oval.)

Of course, this didn’t stop people having a go.

It was ‘all the fun of the fair’ to try but not succeed, walking away convinced that you’d been so close.

If only.

To some extent the players of my game were aiming at impossible goals.

I suppose they didn’t mind, although they may have if they’d stopped to think it through.

However, in general we do best when we have real, achievable goals to look forward to.

So what goals could you set yourself today?

And how could you reward yourself for achieving them?

They needn’t be big – in fact it’s often helpful, especially if your mood is at a low ebb, to choose easier targets which you might be able to reach in much shorter time periods – but they should be specific and attainable.

Although I’d steer clear of the Scat Cats game should you come across it, if I were you.

Who’s charting your course? Are you?

Early sailing ships often had a small, precarious platform attached to the top of their main mast called a crow’s nest in which one or more unfortunate sailors would sit, acting as look-outs.


The view was better up there, of course, but the movements of the vessel were also greatly amplified, leading it to be associated with sea-sickness in all but the most hardy of men.

(Perhaps this was actually the real reason that those on the decks below were wise to wear oilskins and sou’westers?)

When you’re piloting a ship, it’s important to know what’s ahead of you.

For one thing, it means you can avoid obstacles such as icebergs, but it’s also how you know when you’re getting close to your destination – when you’re near to reaching your goal.

I can’t imagine many early ships set off on voyages simply for the hell of it, pleasure cruises being a later invention.

Instead, there would have always been an intention: to get somewhere, to get home, or perhaps to engage in bloody battle.

On days when you feel ropey, I think it’s understandable (perfectly excusable in fact) to lose sight of your own goals and objectives: the things you may have to look forward to.

At times, it may even feel as though there’s nothing on the horizon for you – that you’re drifting along with no particular place to go.

While this can work for short periods, it’s not a great way to live, and I say this from past personal experience.

Having even quite modest goals to look forward to can help you keep out of the doldrums.

Bigger goals are even better, but be content to plan really quite simple objectives for yourself to help you get through those less-good days.

Land ahoy?

Make plans, even when you absolutely don’t feel like it

When I browse around book stores here in the USA, I’m often struck by the use of a particular Dr Seuss quotation on cards and gifts meant for newly graduating students:

‘Oh, the places you’ll go!’

When you’re young, there’s a strong tendency to believe that as one thing finishes, another – perhaps better – begins. That’s probably mostly what you’ll have experienced during the progress of your own education. As one door closes, another is already opening to welcome you in.


Also, as you grow up there are always those age-related milestones to look forward to: being allowed in a bar, getting your driver’s licence, seeing movies that were forbidden when you were younger.

The life of a growing child is pretty goal-driven, you’ll probably agree. For many, however, things change as the years pass. It may seem as though there’s less to look forward to, and possibly even that some of what’s to come is to be regretted or even feared.

This is never more so than at times when the clouds have descended on your mind. On a particularly grey day it may seem as though there’s little to anticipate, not much to get excited about.

However, although it’s supposed to be impossible to tickle yourself (I’d try but I’m in a university library) there are certain neurological actions that can actually be self-started. For example, you can schedule yourself something you’ll look forward to.

While this obviously wouldn’t work with something like a surprise party (unless you’re pretty forgetful) it’s certainly possible to create your own things to get a little excited about. I’m sure you’ll have ideas, so why not schedule something positive for later on?

How the smallest goal can help on the shabbiest day

When someone’s mood is low, it’s usual for them to have little appetite – both literally and figuratively.

In its most literal form, there can be two ways of regarding food when you’re depressed.

Sometimes you may look for comfort from over-eating stuff that’s bad for you (either sweet or savoury snacks, for instance), while the alternative situation could be that you really won’t be bothered to eat at all.

More figuratively it’s likely that your appetite for life itself will be diminished.

When you feel like this, it’s common for ‘what’s the point’ thoughts to cascade through your mind, leaving you believing you’ve little (perhaps nothing) to look forward to.

Sadly, this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as you may simply stop putting things in your diary – so the days ahead will appear to hold nothing in store.

What can we do about this?

Although it can help a lot to be able to look forward to things, especially when everything around you seems dark, your head is likely to work against itself; refusing to make plans or accept invitations.

Just as the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, perhaps the answer is to persuade yourself to set the tiniest goals.

Maybe you’ll decide that you’ll leave the house at 6pm to walk around the block?

You could plan in the morning what you’ll eat in the evening.

Or you might plan to read just two pages of a good book later in the day.

Although they may not seem like ‘proper’ goals, they are at least the kind of small actions which you could view as achievable, perhaps even looking forward to them a little.

Just as you’d be wise to start eating cautiously after being physically unwell, gently build up your emotional appetite step-by-step when things prove tough for you.

The objective today is to set an objective

One of the big differences between taking a dinghy out for half an hour on a rowing lake, and setting off across an ocean in a cruise-ship is that in one you have to take your own sandwiches, while in the other, food to suit all tastes and appetites is available on tap, around the clock.


Another difference, of course, is the question of direction.

In the rowing boat you’ll spend thirty minutes going round and round in circles, while the cruise-ship generally has a destination in its sights, even if after a long voyage it too takes you back where you started.

I’m sure most of us go through periods of life when it feels as though we’re on the rowing lake, with limited horizons and the feeling we’re getting nowhere.

Perhaps there will be other times, however, when life seems to cut through the water like a sleek liner.

It gives us a strong sense of direction, and feels as if we’re making continual progress towards our goals.

It’s not always much fun being on the rowing lake, but remembering that things would feel different if you were on a cruise-ship might actually help.

Even on a little lake, you can set yourself goals (which apart from the food, seems to be one of the principal differences).

Could you make five complete circuits in your half-hour? Try it.

Perhaps you’ll treat yourself and your companions to an ice-cream when you disembark?

Why not?

Maybe you could build up a head of steam by rowing fast, then see how far the boat will glide with the oars out of the water?


Setting yourself small objectives can help on days when bigger ones feel impossible.

When it seems as though there’s little to look forward to, why not create one or two modest goals of your own, even if you have to make them up?

Have something to look forward to, today, right now

In 13th century Middle English the word ‘gol’ meant ‘boundary’ or ‘limit’, which is probably how you’d have referred to the perimeter of your settlement, and perhaps also what you’d have called the furthest distance you could travel in one day.

Over time an ‘a’ got added, giving us the more familiar ‘goal’, which we’d now either use to mean the area that’s targeted by players of team sports as they attempt to score points, or of course the result we hope to achieve through some kind of action.


In the English game of cricket, the batsman aims to knock the ball out of the park (mixing my sporting metaphors) by having it cross the ‘boundary’, either direct from his bat through the air, gaining six runs, or having come into contact with the field along the way, in which case four runs are awarded.

When we talk about goals in everyday life, however, we generally see them as temporary limits.

Once they’ve been reached, there’s usually always more to be done another day.

The bigger the goal, the harder it can be to reach, and there are times in life when a low mood restricts your ability to achieve most things, let alone the kind of auspicious targets which you may have set for yourself during happier times.

Goals can be helpful though; particularly so when they’re something to look forward to.

So carry on setting them even when you’re at a low ebb, but make them smaller.

Miniscule even.

But do make them specific and achievable.

It could mean telling yourself that you’ll have a relaxing bath tonight at 9pm, say.

Or you might schedule a 15 minute walk at lunchtime to buy a birthday card for a good friend.

Don’t be over-ambitious, however.

We all have our gols.

Sometimes it’s enough to have small things to look forward to

It’s pretty well accepted that people who have things to look forward to in life tend to have a better state of wellbeing than those who don’t.

It results in maintaining a relatively optimistic outlook, and when you’re able to maintain a glass half-full view of life it stands you in good stead.


But what if you believe, rightly or wrongly, that you don’t actually have much to look forward to? What if you’re going through one of those patches when it feels as though life has dealt you a shabby hand?

Believe me, it happens. Whilst there may be some who appear to skip through everything without a care in the world, I think the honest truth is that most of us face periods when it feels as though someone has turned down the colour on our life, a bit like the knob on the first colour TV my family owned which, when twisted, changed the picture from saturated psychedelic at one end to monotonous black and white at the other.

During these times it can genuinely feel as though you’ve nothing to look ahead to.

If this happens, one trick can be to persuade yourself to anticipate quite small (perhaps, in the normal run of events what you might call routine) events.

If you’ve been out somewhere and are on your way home, look forward to walking through the front door to put the kettle on. If you’re engaged in some run of the mill chore, look forward to finishing it.

When you’re doing this, even if it’s only fleetingly, create an image in your mind of how you’ll feel when you get home, or complete the task.

It can help you get through an otherwise grey day.

How to avoid tasks feeling monumental when you’re low.

Back in 1953, two intrepid climbers reached the top of the world for the first time. After a gruelling climb, Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing got to the summit of Mount Everest.


These days, hundreds climb Everest every year, with extraordinary newspaper photographs showing traffic jams of people awaiting their turn to get to the top. I’m sure it’s still a remarkable achievement for those who make it (however, although the numbers have increased dramatically, the danger hasn’t diminished – and many sadly don’t) but one can’t help but feel that what began in the 1950s as a bold expedition has become rather more routine.

Pioneering or not though, you’d have a clear goal in mind if you set out to conquer a peak, and goals can be good things. They give you purpose. They help to define your life. They equip you with something tangible to focus on.

Setting goals is all well and good when your spirits are high, but if you’re heading through a bad patch, it will probably be far harder.

With a low mood, there’s a tendency to take a pessimistic view of the world, believing (possibly correctly) that you’re capable of achieving little. Belief drives activity, or in this case, inactivity.

But even tiny goals can help.

Clearly you’re not going to climb mountains when you’re feeling dejected, but even a messy kitchen can seem like Everest in such circumstances.

So what do you do? The answer is probably to break a big task into much smaller bite-sized chunks. Rather than expecting yourself to knuckle down to get the whole kitchen spick and span, it could be sensible to promise yourself that you’ll spend no longer than ten minutes doing (some of) the dishes.

Even a small achievement such as this can help you feel better, leaving you better equipped to tackle another ten minutes a little further down the line.

Goals are goals, big or small.