Use mindfulness to achieve your goals more quickly

Man sitting at bench at cafe, using a computer
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Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Previously we’ve discussed how mindfulness can help you achieve your goals. Let’s see this in action by focussing on Bill, who’s been struggling with his study assignments. How can he use mindfulness to achieve his goals and overcome his fears of not coping? And can you adapt the strategies he uses to a similar situation?

Bill skipped his accounting assignment

Bill was highly nervous about starting a new accounting course. He hadn’t studied for years, and was worried he’d mess it up. And perhaps his fears were right. He’s already missed the deadline for the first assignment.

Now he’s thinking of giving up. He’s annoyed and disappointed that he couldn’t even reach this first hurdle. It’s left him feeling like a failure.

After a day of worrying, he decides to keep going with the course. However, to make sure he can reach his goals, he has to work out why he couldn’t do that first assignment. What was holding him back from doing what he needed to do?

He knows this could be hard to face up to. But he needs to find out for the sake of his future.

So what strategies does Bill use to work out what went wrong? And how can he get back on track and stick to his goals? Perhaps he can use these to help him with his sleep problems as well. 

Using mindfulness to help achieve goals

Bill decides to focus mindfully on what he’s thinking and feeling about his course. His jumpy mind takes ages to settle down, but he persists.

1 Getting prepared

Firstly, Bill focuses on what he can see, hear and touch for a few minutes to allow himself to feel calmer. Then he thinks about his coursework. He waits to see what emotions and thoughts pop up.

For a while he can’t grab on to anything; there’s too much bouncing around in his head. But he keeps going, using short breaks through the day to notice more thoughts and feelings.

2 Now Bill taps into his internal chatter

To Bill’s surprise, these are the messages he’s hearing himself say:

I’m too tired after work to concentrate.
It’s too cold to go out after dinner.
I’d rather sit in front of the TV.
I don’t get how the double-entry system works.
I should be picking this stuff up much faster.
Everyone else is younger and more computer-savvy.
I’ll look like an idiot if I ask for help.

Bill wasn’t aware of these thoughts before. He notices how daunted these thoughts make him feel. Now he understands why he didn’t pass up his first assignment. He’s not lazy – he has good reasons for finding it hard. Although he puts in lots of effort, he needs to change how he’s working.

3 Bill’s learned valuable information

Bill’s learned that:

He’s tired after work.
He’s easily put off by the thought of going out in the evening.
He needs to overcome his fear of asking for help in front of others.
He needs some extra tuition in accounting.
Most importantly, he needs to stop his negative thinking from affecting his confidence.

4 Bill notices when unhelpful thoughts start

He keeps noticing his moment-by-moment thoughts and feelings. Then he picks up the exact moment these unhelpful messages to himself start. This is how he’ll start to use mindfulness to achieve his goals more quickly.

He also picks the instant his feelings of dread tempt him to avoid class. Right then and there, Bill tells himself he doesn’t need to take any notice of these thoughts and feelings. His brain is trying to trick him into believing he won’t succeed.

But he knows he’s succeeded in learning other things in the past. So he can learn how to do accounting now. He doesn’t need to listen to these messages of gloom.

He can still go to his course and succeed, even if his brain tells him he can’t.

5 Bill picks one issue to work on

Bill decides to work on the belief he can’t learn this new work.

Firstly, he acknowledges the presence of these thoughts, and lets them sit in his mind without demanding that they disappear. Note that he’s not stamping them down or suppressing them.

However he lets the thoughts recede from front of his mind and focusses on preparing for his course. The thoughts are still floating around, but he’s not repeating them or adding to them.

When they pop up more strongly, he reminds himself they’re not true. If this is too hard to do, Bill writes the thoughts down. Then he reads a list of all the things he’s learned over his lifetime.

By the time he’s finished, he remembers he’s learned many new skills in the past. Some of these were difficult and needed a lot of time to master.

So it is really true he can’t learn anything new? Or that he can’t learn to be more consistent?

No! His brain is steering him off course. He can ignore these messages and get back to doing what he needs to do.

6 Bill accepts his dread of looking silly

Being mindful means accepting your brain’s messages without being self-critical. So Bill doesn’t ridicule himself for fearing he’ll look silly. He accepts this is a natural feeling for many people in this situation. But who cares if someone thinks he’s silly for asking for help?

How is that really going to affect him? He’s looked silly before now, and the unpleasant feelings only lasted a few seconds. He decides he can stand that level of unpleasantness.

7 He stops jumping to conclusions

Anyway, the rest of the class may not even think Bill is silly. That’s just an assumption he’s made with no evidence. Some students might also want to ask the same question, but are too shy.

So Bill decides he can still go to class, even though he feels a bit anxious. When he focuses on the work, he finds the anxiety fades a little.

8 Bill praises himself for tackling the challenge

Bill tells himself it’s reasonable to find study hard after years away from school. He acknowledges it’s frustrating learning new computer programs. He reminds himself that mastering a new skill takes time.

Now he feels less anxious when he reaches a plateau. He knows he’ll reach a new level if he keeps plugging away at his study consistently. His brain needs time to take in these new concepts. Bill praises himself for persisting, even when he’s discouraged.

He knows his knowledge is improving all the time, even when he feels at a standstill. His mindfulness practice has helped him learn to simply notice and accept his feelings, and then continue what he needs to do.

9 Bill accepts his anxiety

Bill decides to take effective action even though he’s still a bit anxious. Bill emails the teacher for help, although he feels a bit silly doing so. However, he gets a helpful reply with no hint of criticism.

He also watches online tutorials about accounting. When he can’t understand an idea, he notices his anxiety rise. He accepts this anxiety without fighting it. It’s OK to be anxious.

Then he focuses his attention back onto the video and watches it a couple of times until he understands the work. Even though he’s anxious, he can still focus and learn. And over time, his anxiety gets less and less.

In class, he notices others struggling. So Bill asks a question even though he feels anxious. Then he notices how many others seem relieved he raised the issue. He realises he can learn by making mistakes, and asking for help, and no-one will think he’s stupid.

It’s ironic. By initially trying to squash his fears, Bill made it harder to deal with them. He had no idea what was really wrong. Once he was aware of his negative self-talk, he could work on the problems.

He realised feeling anxious or worried didn’t have to stop him. Now, even when he feels anxious, he can still act effectively. Even when he feels stupid, he can still work effectively. These feelings fade away as he focuses on his study.

10 Bill ignores anxious thoughts and feelings

Bill acts as if the thoughts and feelings aren’t true. Now he knows he doesn’t have to believe what his thoughts and feelings tell him.

He can decide if they’re worth listening to or not, especially if he’s a bit stressed or anxious. Most of the time he decides they’re not worth worrying about.

Use mindfulness to help achieve goals

Bill’s so pleased at how successful he’s been in working out his study problems, he wants to apply these skills to other areas.

He knows poor sleep and low energy levels in the afternoon affect his performance too. Now he’s going to see what’s making it so hard for him to tackle these issues. Mindfully noticing without judging will help him analyse what’s going on. After that, he’ll be able to take some steps to fix the problems.

Follow his progress as he continues to use mindfulness to help achieve his goals.

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