Goal Setting and Depression

Defining our goals is, in my opinion, the single most important thing we can do in our lives. By defining our goals we can improve our relationships, our contentment level, our motivation, our over all life satisfaction. Unfortunately people with depression are less able to set clear, specific, measurable goals.

Humans thrive off of successfully completing tasks. Each little item checked off our to-do list gives us a little boost of dopamine. It feels good! It doesn’t matter whether our goal is as simple as saying, “I will google weight loss programs” or “I’m chopping vegetables today.” or if it’s a bigger goal like, “I’m completing my masters degree within 4 years.” Checking off boxes feels so good!

But if you have depression, you may have difficulty even defining the boxes. On top of that if you do define a goal, you may not be clear about when you’ve been successful. You don’t know when to tick the box, or even where the box is.

I want to be very clear here, I am not giving advice to you specifically. And I am not giving medical advice. None of what I’m saying is meant to replace your own specific care plan or medical advice.

Today my goal is to share some tips that have worked for me and my clients. I want you to find value here, but I also invite you to seek further support if this isn’t enough. Some people benefit from a blog post, some benefit from the guidance of a solution-focused coach, others benefit from psychiatric care. Please seek help if you need it!

Setting Yourself Up For Failure

If you set three goals for each day and complete all three goals, it feels Ah-mazing! But what if you set goals that you can’t achieve?

  • Today I’m going to be more calm
  • Today I will yell less
  • Today I will be more motivated

These goals sound lovely, but how do you know if you’re ‘more’ calm? How do you know if you’ve yelled ‘less’? How do you measure motivation?

Setting goals that aren’t realistic is just as big of a problem. Logically, we may understand that it was impossible to finish the task we set for ourselves, but our heart won’t care. It’ll still weep and wail and question our worth. Doing this once may not be a huge deal, but each time we set ourselves up for failure, it hurts more and more. Goals that are unrealistic include:

  • This year I’m going to make 1 million dollars (when you’re currently unemployed and also don’t have an idea for a business)
  • I’m going to lose 200lbs in 3 months.
  • My business is going to make $40, 000 this month (said when you don’t have a product ready to launch).

Even worse, sometimes we hit ourselves with a double whammy. We set large unspecified goals. We can’t measure whether we’ve completed them, and we also can’t see progress.

  • I’m going to clean my house and keep it clean from now on could be an example if you’re overwhelmed by cleaning already.
  • I’m going to start a business and make a fortune.
  • I’m going to be the best mama ever for my children and be more calm from now on.

How do you define the outcome of those goals? How do you know if you’re succeeding?

When we can’t see progress, we stagnate.

Specific and Measurable Goals

Setting goals doesn’t have to be hard. But it does require some clarity. What do you want?

Start small.

The smaller you start, the easier you’ll be able to achieve your goal successfully. You can always add a second step later, but it’s a lot harder to measure progress when the first step was too big.

It’s okay if your goal is to get out of bed. Even if you sit on the floor beside your bed, you can tick off that box. You did it! You reached your goal. Tomorrow you can set the goal to make it to your closet. Don’t worry you don’t need to open the door to the closet yet. Just get there.

But be intentional about your goal.

You can set your goal at anytime, just make sure you set it, then allow yourself to do it, and acknowledge the effort you put into reaching that goal!

Some of you may question whether or not you should celebrate sliding out of bed onto the floor. Listen closely!

If getting out of bed is difficult, then allow your success to be literal and clear. “Sitting on the floor beside the bed is more than I did yesterday. Yay! I did it!”

If sitting on the floor beside the bed isn’t a bit of a stretch, then don’t make it your goal. You know what you’re capable of and you know what takes a bit of effort on your part. Allow yourself to reach your goal, but don’t cheat yourself out of success.

A few years ago I was going through chemo for cancer. I celebrated sitting up in bed. I celebrated sitting on the floor. I celebrated climbing stairs, just to sit on the floor at the top.

Each night I made my goal for the next day.

Tomorrow I will sit at the table with everyone else for supper.

It sounds so simple, but it took effort on my part. And you can believe I celebrated the effort and the success!

Goals Imply A Future

When you have depression it can be difficult to envision the future. Seeing the future opens doors to possibilities and also supports a positive outlook on life. When depression narrows our focus to the painful here and now, we can trick ourselves into believing we don’t have or don’t deserve a future.

One way to break the habit of fixating on now in a negative or unhealthy way is to create goals that are slightly in the future. Tomorrow, one week, two weeks, a month. Build up slowly. Start with creating one goal for tomorrow. When creating and meeting goals one day at a time becomes easier, then you can work on two days or a week from now.

Celebrate each win as you successfully complete each goal.

Making goals can feel overwhelming, impossible, and even pointless at times. This is why creating small easy goals can be so important.

Fixation vs Goal: What’s the difference?

Fixation appears in a couple different ways. One way is by fixating on the present. Particularly the uncomfortable or upsetting moments. Fixation also appears when we focus on something we really want.

In the previous section I talked about shifting your focus to the future with goals set into the future. Now I’m going to talk about the difference between fixating on something you want and setting a goal.

The difference between fixation and goals comes down to a couple different factors. The first and most important factor is whether or not you have any control over whether you can achieve what you want.

If you don’t have control over the outcome, it’s usually a fixation.

Fixating on something you want can create tunnel vision which allows you to see the outcome, and only the outcome, with no possible opportunity to see the possibilities along the way.

There’s a joke that highlights this point:

 A woman was stuck on her rooftop in a flood. She was praying to God for help.
Soon a woman in a rowboat came by and the woman shouted to the woman on the roof, “Jump in, I can save you.”
The stranded woman shouted back, “No, it’s OK, I’m praying to God and he’s going to save me.”
So the rowboat went on.
Then a motorboat came by. The man in the motorboat shouted, “Jump in, I’ll save you.”
To this the stranded woman said, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and he’ll save me. I have faith.”
So the motorboat went on.
Then a helicopter came by and the pilot shouted down, “Grab this rope, I’ll lift you to safety.”
To this the stranded woman again replied, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and he’s going to save me. I have faith.”
So the helicopter reluctantly flew away.
Soon the water rose above the rooftop and the woman drowned. She went to Heaven. She exclaimed to God, “I had faith in you, but you let me drown. Why?”
To this God replied, “I sent you a rowboat, a motorboat, and a helicopter, what more did you want?”

We envision only one way for things to turn out. When we do this, we fail to see the many different possibilities that present themselves every day. There are so many different ways to move forward. Many different ways to get what we want in life, but if we fixate on a specific path or a specific outcome, we prevent ourselves from moving forward.

How a Coach Can Help

A solution-focused coach guides you to defining what you want. Sometimes this takes a few sessions depending on how many roadblocks you have. Sometimes it’s quick and easy. Once you’ve defined what you want and how you’ll know you’ve got it, a coach guides you to creating an action plan that you’re committed to doing.

A coach doesn’t tell you what to do. A coach doesn’t diagnose you. A coach doesn’t judge you. A coach supports you and holds space so you can open doors and see possibilities and make goals.

If you’re not ready for a coach, you can ask yourself a few questions to help guide yourself.

  • What do I want?
  • What do I get out of this? or Why is this important to me?
  • How would I know I achieved it?
  • What’s the first step I can take to doing this?

Thank you so much for reading this post! Comment below with a goal you accomplished this week. I’d love to help celebrate the attention and effort you put into yourself!

Setting goals improves mental health, but only if done right. Are your goals helping you, or hurting you?  Defining goals can improve relationships, contentment, and motivation. Find out how to define your goals!


Love this! Very empowering 🙂


Thank you! I’m so happy you found it empowering!


great read! we all need reminders now and then.


Thank you! I’m so happy to hear others are getting value from his post!


Such a well written post. I especially love the little story of the stranded lady. That speaks volumes to me. ❤️ This week I’ve managed to cross off a few things that have been on my to do list. It’s hard to get motivated when it’s -40 outside 🤣


I hear ya on getting motivated when the temp is so low! But even with low motivation, you did it! I’d really like to acknowledge you for the way you showed up for yourself and checked things off your list!


What a great post. I am so guilty of the ‘broad goal’ without meaning and have been more mindful of making goals that are achievable. This has meant that I am actually feeling quite good when I achieve the outcome instead of feeling like a failure. I now break down bigger goals, set time frames and check in to see whether I am meeting deadlines or struggling. Being more proactive with this has also helped!


What a shift! Breaking down goals and defining them so you can clearly see success – thank you so much for sharing the way this has helped you. I really appreciate hearing success stories 🙂


Love this!! Very well written with great strategies!!! Thank you!!!


I’m so happy you liked it. Thanks for stopping by!


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