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Three Warning Signs That Your Goals May Be Toxic

29/01/2015 15:13 GMT | Updated 31/03/2015 10:59 BST

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Everybody's had the experience of setting a goal then struggling to find the motivation to achieve it. We all have examples, ranging from eating healthily and exercising to finding a new job or starting that dream project (writing the book, starting the business, etc). But it turns out that the reason some goals seem so damnably difficult to achieve is because they're actually "toxic"; they have failure and demotivation built into them from the moment you set them. In this article, you're going to discover how to know if you've been trying to achieve a toxic goal. You're also going to be introduced to the "organic" alternative to toxic goals; authentic desires. Here are three warning signs that your goal may be toxic...

1. Your goal has the "I'll-be-happy-when..." structure

"I'll be happy when I've lost the weight / got more money / found 'the one'." It's a seductive idea, isn't it? But it doesn't work that way. While it seems so plausible that the circumstances we want could give us the feelings we desire, that's not how the mind operates. After all, if that were the case, the rich and famous would be free from depression, drug addiction and divorce.

I'll-be-happy-when goals reinforce the "outside-in" misunderstanding; the mistaken belief that our feelings can come from something other than thought in the moment. While it can genuinely appear as though weight-loss, money or a new partner can make us feel attractive, secure, or sexy, it's a trick of the mind. We're always and only living in the feeling of our moment-to-moment thinking, even when it looks like our feelings are coming from somewhere else entirely.

2. You don't feel good when you think about your goal

The simplest way to tell if your goal is toxic is this; it doesn't feel good when you think about it. The primary purpose in setting a goal is for you to enjoy your life more and more as you create the accomplishments, experiences and relationships that matter to you. With their compelling promises of future happiness, I'll-be-happy-when goals carry a subtle implication; that you're going to feel less than happy / fulfilled / secure until you reach them. Your emotional wellbeing is not dependant on your circumstances (even when it seems like it is).

Research shows that people habitually attribute their state of mind to external factors. Ask someone who's in a bad mood why they're feeling low, and they'll usually point to a variety of culprits (E.g. Their job, finances, dress size, relationship, bad childhood etc.) We tend to overlook the pivotal role that thought in the present moment is playing in our experience. We've all had situations where we've fallen asleep after struggling with an insoluble problem, then woken up the next morning feeling easily able to solve it (or wondering how we managed to see it as a problem in the first place). Your mood is like a pair of glasses that colours whatever circumstance you're looking at (job, relationship, past memories, future prospects), then tells you the mood-coloured version is what the circumstance is really like. Our misunderstanding of this trick of the mind is the source of most stress, conflict and unhappiness.

3. You've set an uninspiring goal instead of going for what you really want

The outside-in misunderstanding makes the whole domain of goal-setting appear to be a risky endeavour. After all, if you believe that you need to achieve your goal in order to be happy, peaceful or secure, then it seems like there's a lot at stake! As a result, many people are scared to go for what they really want, because they're worried they'd be devastated if they failed to achieve it. So they set a goal that's realistic but utterly uninspiring, then beat themselves up for not feeling motivated to achieve it.

Authentic desires are things you want for your own sake. You want what you want, whether you think it's possible for you or not; whether you end up having it or not. And you have an inner source of resilience that means however things turn out, you're going to be able to handle it.

Here's a question I sometimes share with my clients to help them tune into their authentic desires:

"If there were a miracle tonight, and when you woke up tomorrow, everything is exactly how you'd like it to be, how would you know a miracle had occurred? What would you see, hear and feel that would let you know the miracle had taken place?"

As you gently reflect on this question, you may start to notice your feelings shifting and changing. Your feelings are a reflection of the ebb and flow of thought in the moment. And as you fall out of the misunderstanding that gives rise to toxic goals, you'll find yourself falling into the place of peace and clarity that is the source of all authentic desires. After all, if a goal's worth having, it should be able to put a smile on your face today!

If you'd like to share your answers to this "miracle" question, or to share any insights you're having as you read this article, please post them using the comments below.