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Setting Goals When You Are Chronically Ill

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By Suzan L. Jackson

This time of year, all you hear about is New Year’s resolutions. It is easy to feel left out when you are chronically ill and unable to lose 20 pounds or run a marathon or write a book or do any of the other exciting things you hear others talking about in January. Being sick doesn’t mean you have to ditch the life-improvement process, though; it just means you have to adjust your expectations and learn how to set goals that are right for you, at this point in your life.

I was a high achiever before getting ME/CFS 14 years ago (and also a very analytical engineer). Through work or on my own, I had been through all kinds of self-improvement classes and read a wide range of books: Zig Ziglar, MindMaster, Myers-Brigg Personality Test (I’m an ENFP), 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and more. I was an expert on getting things done and being productive and even taught companies how to set goals and objectives on a larger scale to make environmental improvements.

In my first years of illness, I was frustrated as I watched my old goals sit on the sidelines, languishing year after year. At some point, though, I realized that I could still use these same goal-setting processes for my new life with chronic illness; my goals would just be different – in some cases, very different! I applied those old concepts I had taught others to come up with a whole new way to set personal goals for myself, even with chronic illness.

Step 1 – Forget resolutions – Set lifetime goals

This is something I learned in the old days – to think about what I wanted out of my life long-term and write down those over-reaching goals. Your lifetime goals might be about health, relationships, joy, etc. These are big-picture things that don’t usually change. Here are my six lifetime goals:

  1. To have strong, fulfilling relationships with family and friends.

  2. To be a writer, writing what I enjoy, and contributing to my family’s income.

  3. To spend time outdoors with friends and family, doing activities that I enjoy.

  4. To create and maintain a comfortable, happy, nurturing home environment.

  5. To be healthy.

  6. To be financially stable enough to take care of our family and reach our long-term goals (more of a joint goal with my husband now).

These haven’t changed much since getting sick, except that I added the one about being healthy – when you’re well, it never even occurs to you that being healthy is a goal! What has changed is the way that I interpret some of these, given my limitations and needs now. That’s where objectives come in.

Step 2 – Set specific objectives within each goal

This is where you begin to get more specific, detailing what objectives would help you to achieve your goals. I wrote down a few objectives under each of my lifetime goals. For instance, under my relationship goal (#1 above), I included the following objectives:

  • Spend more time with my husband
  • Have fun with our kids
  • Stay in touch with distant family and friends

My objectives for “Be Healthy” include:

  • Improve mine and my son’s health by trying new treatments
  • Improve stamina and become more active
  • Reduce stress and rest more
  • Make time for myself

Do you see what I mean about chronic illness objectives being different than those for healthy people? One of my key objectives is to rest more! That’s a New Year’s resolution I’ve never heard discussed on the Today Show.

Step 3 – Set measurable targets to help you meet each objective

This is the key to success, to help you actually move toward your goals. For each objective, set well-defined, measurable targets. My lifetime goals never change, my objectives only change rarely, but the targets can vary every year. For example, consider my objective “Reduce stress and rest more.” If I just stopped there, with that vague objective, it is unlikely that anything would change. I have deeply ingrained habits that often keep me from listening to my body and resting as much as I need to.

So, my targets for 2016 for “Reduce stress and rest more” were:

  • Meditate for at least 10 minutes a day
  • No computer after 7 pm
  • Rest when symptoms flare (greater than a 3) (NOTE: I track my daily symptoms using a 1 – 5 scale)
  • Take one “day off” each month with no responsibilities
  • Do 2 fun things for myself each week (besides TV)

See how specific these targets are? They are reasonable targets – small steps – that I think I can truly meet. For instance, meditation experts recommend meditating twice a day for 20 minutes. I am trying to establish a new habit, so I started with just 10 minutes a day – it’s something easily measurable and achievable for me. These targets are specific to my own needs (and weaknesses). I know that too much time on the computer wears me out, but I am online almost all day. I go downhill fast at the end of the day, so my target to put the computer away by 7 pm ensures that I have some restful downtime with my husband every evening (that helps with my objective to spend more time with him, too!).

Step 4 – Track progress

Even with specific targets, I still used to set them in January and forget about them until the end of the year, when I’d be disappointed I didn’t meet them! It is critical to find a simple way to track your progress. It might take some trial and error to find a process that works for you. With my over-analytical tendencies, I use an Excel spreadsheet with all of my targets listed down the left side of the page. I spend 5 minutes each day jotting down how I did on my targets, then take a quick look at the end of each week and each month. It sounds like a lot, but it is really only a few minutes a day, and this is what works for me. I can see what I’m doing well and what I need to work on. Another option is a quick look at your targets at the end of the day or week and maybe a few notes in your journal about what to work on next. Merely reading your targets daily or weekly will help to keep them fresh in your mind.

Chronic illness and goal setting are not mutually exclusive. You can still set goals and objectives and make progress on whatever is important to you in your life. The keys to success are to focus on your own needs, desires, and limits and to make your objectives or targets measurable and specific. I love the start of a new year and the whole process of setting new objectives and targets for the year ahead. Bit by bit, very gradually, I am improving my quality of life in small ways that matter to me and getting closer to achieving those lifetime goals.

Suzan Jackson, a frequent ProHealth contributor, is a freelance writer who has had ME/CFS for 13 years. Both of her sons also got ME/CFS, but one is now fully recovered after 10 years of illness and the other is in college, also dealing with three tick infections. She writes two blogs: Learning to Live with ME/CFS (with an emphasis on LIVE!) at http://livewithcfs.blogspot.com and Book By Book at http://bookbybook.blogspot.com. You can follow Sue on Twitter at @livewithmecfs.

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