How to Start Thinking About Mental Fitness Goals

In the last post I had been discussing mental health as mental fitness, in a way that allows an individual to look at what is happening in their mental world in terms of strengths instead of deficits. It also opens up new avenues of personal exploration in which our mental worlds can be an intentional place where we work to keep ourselves healthy and strong, rather than passively. Just as physical fitness goals vary for people, mental fitness goals can and should vary as well.

So, what is your mental health goal? For so many of the people I talk to, it often comes down to relief from symptoms. “I want to worry less.” “I want to improve my marriage.” “I want to stop feeling hopeful.” The language that we used to talk about our mental health is similar to the language we use to discuss relief when we have the flu or a cold. “I want to feel better, and be back to normal.”

But what is normal? Often, with mental fitness, it’s something that we take for granted. And, honestly, it’s the easy way out. Normal is autopilot. Normal is relaxed. Normal is out-of-sight and out-of-mind. But normal doesn’t have to be normal. Normal doesn’t have to be checking social media tens of times a day and watching TV for hours. In fact, working on mental fitness will have long term benefits. Taking time each day to work on your mental fitness will help delay or prevent the onset of dementia, keep you more active and socially connected, and help you have a more fulfilled and satisfying life, especially into old age.

The first thing to do when taking this view is to decide what your goals are, and how to get them. To do this, I think it is important to provide reasonable answers to the following questions:

  1. What am I working towards with my mental fitness? Why am I doing this?
  2. How much time and energy am I putting towards this goal?
  3. How will I know that I have achieved my goal?
  4. How will I reward myself for achieving my goal?

These questions are preliminary, and may end up needing other questions to help clarify the answers so that the goal is both realistic and actionable. Let me give you an example from my own life.

In order to become a licensed psychologist there is a test called the Examination for Professional Practice of Psychology. This test is the culmination of an individual’s knowledge and work, and covers the entire field of psychological practice. It is very hard, and many people fail. Almost everyone that I have spoken to about it speaks about it in ways that relive the dread they faced taking it and the relief they have that they have passed it. Many say it is the hardest thing they have done in the field (and rightly so).

When I was preparing for the test, I used some test preparation programs to do on an at home study basis. I had the time to be able to devote and this was better than going to a class or weekend seminar for me. So, with the above preliminary questions in mind, I went about my studying. As I knew the test would be difficult, I couldn’t phone it in and had to take it extremely seriously. With that in mind, my answers to the fitness goals questions were: 1) I am doing this to become a licensed psychologist. 2) I am willing to put in at least 20 hours a week of studying. 3) I will know that I have achieved my goal when I pass. 4) I will reward myself with passing the test, never having to take it again, and going to Disneyland (not hard as I took the test in Anaheim, a perk of being in SoCal).

The answers to every question but #2 seems fair and self explanatory. But what exactly does #2 look like? How to study? I will answer that at length in the next post.