When it comes to goal-setting, I’ve tried techniques meant for preschoolers and well-established adults. I buy star-studded reward charts and fill their tiny grids with shiny rainbow unicorn stickers for worthy deeds such as arriving on time, completing an hour of work, and socializing with people. I download sleek iPhone apps that organize my duties by urgency. I peruse business blogs and read enticing articles that promise seventeen answers to my question. I spend far too much time looking through day planners and agenda books to find the one winner with the right formatting and spacing and line-darkness. I create impressive to-do lists on eleven-by-seventeen sheets of paper using Magic markers.
For all of my grandiose plans and dreams, though, the results aren’t always in. I’m likely to devise a color-coding system, then lose my agenda book halfway through the year. I get overwhelmed at the mile-high to-do list or feel failed for not checking all the boxes—even if it’s inhumanely possible to check all the boxes. Like many others on the autism spectrum, I’m hardly a pro at executive functioning. Most likely, I could complete more tasks if I made shorter lists and stopped holding myself to perfectionistic standards. But when it comes to not achieving goals—whether big, important goals like finishing writing a book or smaller, more mundane ones like finally sorting through that ever-growing pile of papers—the roots are, I think, deeper than mere disorganization. For me, achieving goals means conquering anxiety and initiating change.
Like most humans, if a task scares me, then I am less likely to do it. Unfortunately, my anxiety is “generalized”, as clinicians say—or, translated, “I’m scared of almost everything.” It’s not exactly practical to put aside everything that scares me when everything scares me! As nervous as I can get about my everyday existence, I’m frozen with fear when it comes to the unknown. Goals, by their very definition, represent change. In order to accomplish what I want, I need to be brave enough to put all my energies into the new because the old is now over. Change means ripping the rug out from under my own feet on purpose, and who wants to do that? It means making guesses and possibly having regrets. I may be unhappy with my present path, but I am somehow, illogically, attached to the way things are. Is this resistance to change just another part of autism spectrum disorder or generalized anxiety disorder, or is it a common conundrum? Either way, fear and change are my obstacles to completing goals.
Am I so scared of the future that I am unwilling to go there? Am I so set in my ways that I'd rather keep my day the same and be miserable? I claim I like things to be the same, yet I am tired of the status quo. Maybe that’s a good thing, though. Complacency does not lead to goals. Unhappiness, leading to striving for more, does. When I work with young people who think, interact, and learn in different ways, oftentimes people with my same labels, I see that the smallest actions they take are sometimes the biggest deals. So why shouldn’t I extend that same compassion to myself? After all, setting goals is as easy as scribbling ideas on a sheet of paper; achieving goals is a process that involves organized a scattered mind, beating up fears and realizing that change may be uncomfortable, but leads to new experiences that make life worthwhile.
Emily Brooks, a journalist on the autism spectrum, advocates through her writing for broader acceptance of members of the disability, queer, and gender-nonconforming communities. Currently, Emily writes from Brooklyn, New York, where she works with children and teenagers with disabilities and their families. You can find her at www.emilybrooks.com.