I’ve always had trouble with the concept of goals. Don’t misunderstand, I’m a very driven and motivated person, and I like routine and structure. But, something about the idea of goals has always rubbed me the wrong way.
Maybe it’s the continual cycle of setting goals, being motivated, forgetting or losing focus on the goal, recommitting and starting over. To me, this cycle feels exhausting, discouraging and not very productive.
There was one point in my career as a registered dietitian where I was finally able to pinpoint what always bothered me about goals: When most people set goals, they’re really talking about values. It was a true lightbulb moment.
Here’s the distinction between goals and values, and here’s why it matters when it comes to nutrition and health.
Goals vs. values
Goals are things you can cross off your list; goals either will or will not be completed. You can set a goal to run a race in October and when October rolls around, you can cross that off your list. You ran the race! You completed your goal.
But values — unlike goals — are things you nurture. The very nature of values is the inability to ever cross the finish line with them.
Values are things you can do right now; values are always available to us, but the nature of values is that they can never actually be achieved. We’re never done working on values. They give us direction in how to live our lives, and most of the time, the things we value elicit certain desired behavior.
It would be silly to have a goal to be honest and then tell the truth one day and cross off honesty from your list. The problem here is that honesty is something you value, it isn’t really a goal, and you can’t ever be done with it. Honesty is something you continually work on, consistently making efforts to be truthful and forthright.
Why health 'goals' miss the mark
So here’s how this connects to nutrition and health: Health isn’t a goal. It’s something you might value, though, and because you value it, it’s something you can work on and nurture right now.
We can’t just eat a carrot one day and cross off “health” from our goals list. Valuing health and nutrition is more complex than any one food. So, just like it would be silly to say you’re done with health when you eat a carrot, it’s also really silly to say you’ve ruined your health because you ate a cookie.
The way you care for yourself over time with sleep, nutrition, movement, rest, mental health, etc. is what helps you move toward your value of health. Because health and nutrition are things you value, they’re available to you right here, right now.
It can be so helpful to understand the distinction between goals and values. When a thought comes up about something you want to do or work on, you can identify whether or not this is something you can cross of your list and be done with (goals), or if it’s something you’ll never be done with but can continually nurture (values).
Recognizing this distinction can help you avoid burnout and frustration as you continue to foster positive relationship with the things you value most. It can be a game-changer in making progress and finding peace with food.