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Manage Stress with Daily Goals

Manage Stress with Daily Goals
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You’ve got your big project to work on. The deadline for your goals is looming over your shoulder. You are starting to feel it’s hot breath of guilt whenever you aren’t working. Socializing with your friends, taking a break, even just going to sleep now seems like it is just wasting time. When you are working you feel tired and drained and when you aren’t working you can’t really rest because of the nagging feeling that you simply aren’t doing enough.

Burnout is a big problem when you are working towards goals. Your goals become so motivating, that doing anything not directly related to their achievement seems wasteful. Half of you wants to recover your energy to go back with full force and the other believes you are just wasting time.

In their groundbreaking book on Energy Management, Tony Schwarz and Jim Loehr, they make the case that managing energy cycles, not just time is the key to peak productivity. From their work with companies, they begin applying the secrets of world class athletes. The secrets of resting to recover energy between periods of hard work. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy and it will cause your productivity to go down in flames.

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After reading this book and various other works on the subject of energy management, these ideas sound great. Unfortunately, there really isn’t an effective system for putting them into place. How do you draw the line between resting the right amount for full performance and just being lazy? How can you create a system for managing your
stress?

The best system I found is also one of the most simple. Get yourself a binder or notepad that you can refer to throughout the day. Before you go to bed each night, write down all the things you want to accomplish the next day. These are your daily goals. As you work the next day check off the items on your daily goal list.

How It’s Different Than Traditional “To-Do” Lists

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Some of you might start saying to yourself, “It’s my to-do list that is causing me to burnout in the first place! When I look at all the things I have to do I start feeling guilty when I’m not working!” Daily goals are very different than a to-do list.

Your daily goals list only contains the things you want to accomplish tomorrow. Those familiar with the Next Actions lists in the GTD system will notice that those lists contain everything you need to do. Daily goals are separate from to-do lists because it only contains activities for tomorrow.

Secondly you don’t add things to today’s goals. I almost never make additions to today’s list during the day unless something unexpected comes up that needs to be handled immediately. If I need to do work, it get’s put on my to-do list for the next day. This way you know from when you wake up how much is on your plate for each day.

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How Daily Goals List Prevents Burnout

Once you complete all the actions on your goals list, the rest of the time is yours. Relax, socialize and do whatever you want, by completing your daily goals you have earned it. You don’t have your to-do list looming over your shoulder because your new tasks won’t be updated until the next day.

What this allows you to do is it helps you find out what amount of workload is a light, moderate or strenuous day for you. So if your deadline is coming up fast and you have a lot of energy, a few weeks of this practice will allow you to schedule in enough work so that you will work hard throughout the day to accomplish all your goals. If you have
a bit more flexibility, you can make your goals lighter so that you can fit in more recovery time.

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Your daily goal list is like setting the temperature on your stress thermostat. Too little stress and you are getting nowhere and aren’t improving. Too much stress for too long and you hit burnout. Daily goal lists let you take control so you can temporarily ramp up your productivity or slow it down to properly manage your energy.

Eventually by using this technique and systematically creating hard days followed by lighter ones, you can increase your productivity. Professional bodybuilders take time to stress their muscles followed by periods where the muscle tissue can be rebuilt. You can apply the same process to your work by setting hard days followed by lighter days. Set your daily goals so you can get more done and feel less stress.

Scott Young is a University student who writes about personal development, productivity and goal setting. Scott is currently writing his first book, Personal Evolution, which will be available in the fall. You can learn more about Scott or read hundreds of other articles at his website.

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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