Why we find it hard to set real-life goals

A common problem faced by maladaptive daydreamers, and to a certain extent by immersive daydreamers as well, is that we feel we aren’t reaching our full potential in real life. It’s hard to find the motivation to work on the things that are important to us, and we find it hard to sustain our efforts long enough to achieve anything meaningful.

There are a few reasons why this might be. In real life, the most meaningful achievements tend to be the ones that we have to work hardest for. The sense of achievement comes not from reaching the goal but from the pride we feel at how hard and how consistently we worked to get there. The problem is that daydreamers have a magic shortcut. We can jump ahead in our minds and vividly imagine what our lives are going to be like when we have achieved our goal. Although it’s normally motivational to be able to really connect with the desired outcome, we can overdo it. We can imagine the end result so vividly that we get to experience many of the benefits of the future result right now, in the present. And then when we snap back into reality, we realise just how much work we’re going to have to do to get to the same place in real life. And even if we know that achieving that thing in real life would be so much more satisfying than living it in our heads, the sheer enormity of the task ahead of us, that huge gap between there and here, feels overwhelming. When faced with the choice between working hard for a chance of having the real thing in the distant future, versus having a pretty good daydream alternative right now, the daydream is going to win every time.

So how can we stay focussed on our real-life goals without the daydreams getting in the way? Well, first we have to pay attention to some basic principles of goal setting:

Goals must be SMART. You’ve probably come across the acronym before – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bound. What does this mean in practice?

Specific – You can use your daydreaming ability to help you with this one. What will it look, feel and sound like when you have achieved your goal? For example, if your goal is to be more confident, what does a more confident version of you do that your current self doesn’t? Try being that more confident you in your daydreams to really get a feel for what’s involved.

Measurable – How will you know when you have achieved your goal? And how will you measure your steps along the way? Can you make a plan with clearly defined targets, each of which gets you one step closer to your main goal?

Achievable – Do you believe, really believe, that you can achieve this goal? If the answer is no, you’re never going to put in the effort necessary to get there. If you don’t believe your goal is possible, you need to be very honest with yourself about why not. Ultimately, you’ll need to adjust either your belief or your goal until you can bring them into alignment.

Realistic – Do you have the necessary skills and resources to achieve your goal? Is the outcome fully under your control? Is there anything else that needs to happen first? Spending some time thinking about these questions can help you to get clear about what will be involved in achieving your goal.

Time-bound. You are far more likely to achieve your goal if you give yourself a deadline. Otherwise, it’s all too easy to tell yourself that you’ll start taking action tomorrow, or the next day, or when you have time, or when conditions are perfect. A goal without a deadline tends to remain just a wish.

Once you are really clear about what you want to achieve, and by when, there are a few things you can do to make it more likely that you will follow through.

1. Write down your goal. In writing your goal down you are making a commitment to yourself to follow through. Put it somewhere where you will see it often, so that you have a constant reminder of what you have decided to do.

2. Break your goal down into steps. Make yourself an action plan of how you are going to achieve your goal. Make each action as specific as you can and give yourself deadlines for each action. That way you can see the progress you are making. Each time you cross an action off your list, you’ll get a motivational boost from knowing that you are one step closer to the final result.

3. Accept that your motivation will come and go. This is natural. Take advantage of the times when you’re feeling motivated to make more progress. When you’re not feeling motivated, be kind to yourself, remind yourself of why you chose to work towards this goal and know that if the goal is right for you, your motivation will return.

4. Recruit a support network. The more people you tell about your goal, the more likely you are to achieve it. Particularly if those people will support you and encourage you along the way. They can inspire you when your motivation takes a dip, offer suggestions when you get stuck, and help you celebrate your progress. If you don’t have a support network in real life, then having some of your characters work through similar challenges in your daydreams can be equally inspiring. My daydream mentor is remarkably good at giving me a boost when my motivation drops.

5. Celebrate the journey. The reason it’s more rewarding to achieve our goals in real life is because of the learning and personal growth that comes along the way. You’re going to expend time and effort in achieving your goal. For some normative daydreamers, the promise of the end result is sufficient to make that effort worthwhile. But I suspect most of us need to enjoy the journey as well. Find a way to make it fun. Find a way to value the lessons you learn along the way.

It’s hard making the most of real life when you have a daydream world spinning away in your head, but it can be done. We often resist real-life goals because of the hard work involved in reaching them, but it’s that very work that makes the end result more rewarding than its daydream equivalent will ever be.