Don’t let conflicting goals bring you down

Recently a high school cross-country runner from Devils Lake, N.D., demonstrated her priorities in a thought-provoking way.

During a cross-country race, Melanie Bailey encountered a fellow athlete limping along the course, sobbing in pain. While other runners steered around her, the petite Bailey chose a different response. She stopped and said to the larger, injured runner, “Here, hop on my back.” And then the good Samaritan bent down, picked her up, and carried her to a medic.

I’m not judging other athletes. I would expect top athletes to focus on winning the race. We don’t know Bailey’s athletic ability, her goals, and therefore whether she sacrificed those goals during the race. We only know that she said, “I felt so bad for her, I had to do something. I couldn’t just leave her there.”

The story clearly illustrates how our priorities and values largely determine our choices. Inherent in the story is the idea that when we have competing goals, we can be forced to make a choice.

We all face competing goals in life. We may want good health and a good career and yet we can’t both be at a yoga class and at work finishing up a project. We may want to be a good parent and an attentive spouse, but it’s hard to establish date night when our parenting role affords us few breaks. We may want to save money to buy a house in a better neighborhood, but we may also wish to spend money on dinner with friends to maintain strong social ties.

Conflicting goals can result in unhappiness instead of action, according to research psychologists Robert Emmons and Laura King. By asking people about their goals and then monitoring them, the researchers identified three main consequences of conflicting goals.

1. We worry a lot. We waste time and energy contemplating the competing demands of our goals. Ruminating becomes a dominating, largely involuntary activity and our repetitive thoughts are largely unpleasant.

2. We get less done. Even though we’re thinking a lot about our goals by ruminating, we take less action. The researchers found that people with clear, nonconflicting goals “tended to forge ahead and make progress, but the rest were so busy worrying that they got stuck.”

3. Our health suffers, both physically and mentally. Emmons and King found that people in their studies with conflicting goals reported fewer positive emotions, more negative emotions, and more depression and anxiety. They also reported a greater number of trips to the doctor and illnesses.

It’s clear we pay a price for trying to manage conflicting goals.


Fortunately, there are remedies to mitigate some of the angst and increase our action and satisfaction in the face of conflicting goals.

1. Get your “to do” items down on paper and out of your head, in an organized manner, on each goal front. People feel more nagged by their goals in general when they don’t have a clear sense of what needs to get done and a prioritized “to do” list to back it up. If your desk has random bits of paper and napkins with the name of a recommended local yoga studio, a reminder to organize lunch with a consultant, the names of two people who could offer advice on a project, and a list of awesome ideas from eight weeks ago, and if you are unsure whether you have time to get to any of it, you may already feel defeated. Research shows that when we can just get our ideas into organized lists and attach action items, we feel less anxious and free up mental energy to be more productive. We will still need to divide that energy among competing goals, but there will be more energy to go around.

2. Harness your self-control. Successful people generally self-regulate better than less successful people and therefore waste less time and energy. It’s not that we need to be a productivity robot 16 hours a day; rather, it’s just helpful to exert a bit more control over our choices. For example, once we sign up for a yoga class, we need to get there on time each week. We have a choice in how we spend our afternoon at work in order to be prepared to walk out the door at 5 pm sharp. Actually, it’s not one choice, but many choices in how we spend our time in the afternoon. At the most basic level, we can help ourselves by monitoring and regulating our beliefs about what we can realistically get done between 1 and 5 pm. We can regulate our emotional energy so we don’t overreact to problems and still have enough emotional energy left at 5 pm to want to leave for yoga. And we can regulate our physical energy by eating low glycemic foods for lunch so we are sharper in the afternoon.

3. Maintain a healthy perspective and avoid the “I’ll be happy when I achieve my competing goals ” trap. In other words, just decide to be happy now. Even as we experience our limited capacity in the face of competing demands on our time, we can allow ourselves to experience a sense of fulfillment. We can honor the purpose we are serving in the places we do invest our energy. If we watch someone else get a promotion and we’ve chosen to focus more on our kids’ lives than on work, we can choose to feel good about that priority. We can value the investment we’ve made in one area rather than measure how much we’ve fallen short in another area. Someone once said, “Pain derives from the gap between what we want and what we get.” We can save ourselves a lot of disappointment if we focus less on what we didn’t get.

Melanie Bailey had to choose between competing goals when she came across an ailing competitor. There are only three spots on a podium. The question is, which podium is most important? In which arenas of life? When we choose our goals wisely and become okay with the trade-offs we’ll need to make while pursuing them simultaneously, we can mitigate potential negative consequences.

Good luck defining success for yourself.

Julie Henszey of Wauwatosa is a speaker, executive coach, author and owner of Next Step Goals LLC.

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