Pinpointing the driving forces behind our goals

As I touched on briefly in my last post, if a goal is to reduce “retail therapy,” it is not enough to just resolve to stop shopping.  If we are to permanently reduce or eliminate shopping, we cannot succeed unless we consider the role it plays in our lives.  Frequently when we hit the malls after work or on the weekends, it isn’t out of strict need that we shop.  Although this economic downturn has dampened our enthusiasm for consumption, we are still a nation of shoppers.  We shop because we’re bored, to be social, because we’re stressed out and shopping calms us down, or just because we need to unwind after a long day.  We shop as a reward for a rough month or for pulling through a big project.  We shop for the thrill of a bargain.  Notice, then, that we don’t shop for the strict purpose of shopping; rather, we use shopping as a tool for coping with other emotions.  We turn to shopping to handle boredom, stress, decompression; we use it as a reward system; we even use it to socialize.

So what happens during an economic downturn and we can no longer afford so much “retail therapy,” or during sporadic bouts of budgeting or credit card diets?  Treating symptoms without curing the underlying illness does not prevent new symptoms from popping up.  So long as the underlying illness remains, symptoms will emerge in one form or another.

In other words, if we remove “retail therapy” from our life without identifying what need it is filling, we doom our efforts from the very start.  The distress will manifest in a different form, or how often have you gone on a strict diet for a few days, only to blow it on a large piece of cake with ice cream and whipped cream?

However, if we peel back the layers to figure out what underlying need drives our desire to shop then us can come up with new coping mechanisms to replace the old behaviors.  Keep it simple.  Pick one to three “replacements.”  Blend them into our life as seamlessly as possible.  This may mean keeping supplies close at hand, building a routine into daily life, or reaching out to friends for support.

In my case, shopping is one outlet for handling the uncertainty and anxiety of starting a new phase of my life.  However, it is not my only way to achieve a sense of control in uncertain times.  I also find it helpful to keep in touch with friends and family, read a good book, listen to music, explore my new environment on foot or by bus, photography, go for a run, engage in creative projects.  So in January as I take away one coping mechanism I must fill the void with a good balance of other activities.  I have a couple good books on my nightstand.  I already have plans to spend time with friends this weekend.  A couple friends are trying out a new collaborative photography project, so I will keep my camera on hand at all times.

S.M.A.R.T. goals are important.  They keep our goals feasible.  They keep us on track.  But to use them to greatest success we must also consider the context in which change happens.  Humans do not exist in a vacuum, and neither do our emotions, behaviors, and habits.  Everything from social forces to individual emotions influence our daily life.  Without them we would not be who we are today, but without factoring them in we cannot achieve the best possible version of ourselves.

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