Setting Goals With Mental Illness: How You Can Stay SMART in the Face of Struggle

Mental illness is one of the most difficult challenges a person can face.  It is running a marathon inside your head every single day, something that is taxing mentally and physically.  It’s something an outsider cannot truly understand unless they’ve lived it.

One of the hardest things about living with mental illness is staying motivated to reach goals you have for yourself.  Depression basically zaps you dry of motivation, so staying productive during these periods can feel impossible. I wanted to talk about an emerging theory that will explain why you find it so hard in the first place, and offer some tips on how you can set goals when you are struggling.

The Spoon Theory is a metaphor that aptly describes what it is like living with chronic illness.  Whether you have depression, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, or something else, I know you will find this relevant.  Basically, the Spoon Theory says that a person starts out their day with a certain amount of “spoons”: 12. Each spoon represents an amount of energy that you begin your day with.  For every seemingly normal action you take (for example: showering, going to work, or cooking dinner), you deplete the amount of spoons- or energy- that you have left. This is a pretty simple concept and is detailed in full in the chart below.

This theory is precisely why emotionally normal people find it so hard to understand mental illness. The most basic activities leave us with little to nothing left at the end of the day.  For us to function “normally” we have to use every reserve of energy that our specific body is capable of, which isn’t much to begin with. And if we want to go above and beyond, say, go on a trip or spend the night bar-hopping, that can be almost unthinkable for someone living with mental illness.

This is why motivation is so hard to maintain.  But there are a few tips I can offer for anyone struggling who is looking to reach goals they set for themselves.  Whether that goal is to run a 5K, finally start your own blog, or simply get through the day, I think you will find this helpful.

Why are so many goals left unfulfilled? Well, simply put, they are not SMART.  What does that mean? SMART is an acronym popular in the personal development community.  It stands for a goal that is Specific- Measurable- Achievable- Realistic- Time sensitive. This is a proven way to make goals easier to meet, if you word them a certain way to begin with. I will give you an example.

Ex. I want to exercise more. This is not specific or measurable.  It might be achievable or realistic, but it also does not have a time deadline.

A better goal would be: I want to use the treadmill at the gym 2 days a week, and increase that to 4 days a week by June 30th.

This new goal is:

  • Specific.  It clearly states exactly what action you plan to take.
  • Measurable.  This is something you can track your progress on with a calender or fitness app.
  • Achievable.  It is a goal that can be achieved as long as you stay motivated.
  • Realistic.  It has the person working their way up to their ultimate goal, rather than saying they will use the treadmill every single day right out of the gate.
  • Time sensitive.  It gives a clear deadline for when they want their goal to be achieved.

I think this is a really great practice for someone with mental illness.  For one, it is an exercise in thinking realistically and with the future in mind. It keeps your brain focused and gives you something to be excited about.  Also, since this is proven to make goals easier to achieve, it will give you a boost of dopamine that will help fight the blues. Meeting this goal will make it more likely for you to set other goals in the future.  It will set off a chain reaction that will be really beneficial for getting you back on track to a healthier and happier mind.

If you are suffering from mental illness, do not be afraid to set goals.  It is absolutely possible to have depression, or bipolar disorder, or borderline personality disorder, and reach goals you set. Do not sell yourself short.  By living with this illness, you prove to the world every day that you are braver and stronger than you could ever know.

That being said, keep this in mind when you begin your new goal-setting journey:

  • Be kind to yourself. There will be missteps, days where you simply cannot make any progress.  That is okay. Your brain is debilitated by a chemical imbalance, so you need to allow yourself a little grace.
  • Start small. Exercise is a great way to fight depression, but starting with the goal of running a marathon might not be for everyone. Start where you are at. That will help ensure that you meet the goal you are setting.
  • Find a community.  Whether it is your friends and family, or an online group of people going through the same things you are, find people that will encourage you and help keep you accountable.

Depression might be a lifelong battle, but it does not mean that your life cannot be a meaningful one.  Set those goals, and remember: Make them SMART ones.

About the Author

Jen (the writer behind the blog, Diffusing the Tension) lives in Northwest Indiana with her husband and two children (ages 4 and 2). She has bipolar disorder and frequently writes about her experiences with that. In her spare time, she is a bookworm, TV junkie, and fitness nut. You can follow her on:

Instagram- @diffusing_the_tension

Facebook- Diffusing the Tension

Pinterest- @diffusingthetensionblog

Her blog-

14 thoughts on “Setting Goals With Mental Illness: How You Can Stay SMART in the Face of Struggle

  1. Interesting post. I’ve never heard of the Spoon Theory before. I like the sound of it for explaining mental illness to others who do not understand mental illness, like you mentioned.

  2. Lovely post. I’ve heard of the spoon theory, however, I prefer the matches one much better. You are using more and more matches until eventually you ‘burn out’. But that’s just me 🙂

    Either one is good at describing mental health to someone.

    I always use SMART targets, especially in recovery, and find they are the only way of organising/setting goals that don’t cause panic!

    – Nyxie

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  4. This is the first I’m hearing of the spoon theory and it makes a lot of sense. I have a lot of people around me who struggle with mental illness so I try to educate and encourage myself in the fight!

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