In my early 20s, I was in a job I didn’t like and was desperate to become a journalist. So I set myself a goal of getting into journalism school. That project took over a year to achieve. I forfeited parties to stay home and study for tests; I stayed up late on weeknights redrafting my personal statement, and side-hustled freelance pieces to boost my portfolio.
Now, even the thought of sending one email to push along a work project feels me with an overwhelming sense of dread.
In the before times, I loved setting myself goals. They gave me a sense of purpose, helped me structure my time and enabled me to focus on my priorities. I’d happily even go after things I didn’t even particularly want just to challenge myself (I once trained for and ran a half marathon and I hate running). But over the last few months, I can barely focus on the things I do want to achieve, even the ones I’m passionate about and matter to me.
This all manifests in an exhausting and frustrating paradox. I spend the time I’m not working thinking about how much I want to achieve my goal and I mentally make plans for how to do it, but then when I sit down to work, I can’t focus and my mind goes blank. So I procrastinate. More recently, to delay this vicious cycle, I’ve started putting off even starting my day, which, of course, only makes things worse.
At first, I put all of this down to the latent pandemic-related anxiety we’re all currently experiencing. I also wondered if I was just burned out. It’s very likely that both of these things are at play to an extent, but neither felt like they quite hit at what I was feeling. When I drilled down into my problem, the stress was radiating from the idea of setting a goal and going after it. The simplest way to describe it is that the idea of going after something I want exhausts me.
So I started calling this “goal fatigue”, a term I thought I’d made up to refer to a very specific form of professional angst I was experiencing. But after presenting my symptoms to work experts, it turns out that not only was my cod-psychology diagnosis correct, but goal fatigue is a known phenomenon that pre-dates the pandemic.
“In my world of research of organisational behaviour and leadership, we talk about goal fatigue in relation to emotions,” Dr Sankalp Chaturvedi, associate professor at the Imperial College Business School tells me. “We tie emotions to our goals and exhaustion happens when multiple emotions conflict with each other.”
As Chaturvedi explains, because we’re currently struggling to manage multiple anxieties right now, we’re getting stressed which leads to fatigue and that, in turn, affects our performance and ability to go after the things we want. The lockdown effect is the main culprit, as it continues to blur the boundaries of work and rest. Even for freelancers who are used to working from home, the pressure of navigating homeschooling, sharing a home workspace with others and having no respite from pandemic-related news is causing emotions to spill over into all areas of life.
Chaturvedi also emphasises that not only do we have a lot of stressors at the moment, but they’re also in conflict with each other. “Work guilt collides with family conflicts,” he says. And there’s no outlet – fatigue only happens when we aren’t able to effectively manage stress. “Pandemic fatigue, Zoom fatigue – all these terms capture the emotional exhaustion that people are going through right now,” Chaturvedi says.
The pandemic gave rise to a host of new psychological issues such as collective grief about the loss of our old lives; a decline in ambition, and memory problems. But while the pandemic created a perfect storm for these issues to arise, they did exist before 2020, according to Chaturvedi. If anything, the pandemic has shone a light on how much the field of work-related mental health problems is still in its infancy. The World Health Organization only classified burnout as a syndrome linked to chronic workplace stress in 2019. Even fatigue itself – and how it relates to work – is a poorly understood condition.
The first significant work on fatigue in 60 years was Robert Hockney’s 2013 book, The psychology of fatigue. In it, he posits that not all fatigue is necessarily a negative state and that’s more complex than simply an energy depletion. “The effort of maintaining task goals, rather than work demands per se, appears to be the main cause of fatigue,” he wrote. Even the question of why we get so tired by our desk jobs is one that continues to elude psychologists. The latest research, which builds on Hockey’s work, suggests it’s to do with motivation. As we start to lose interest in the tasks we’re supposed to (work) and become increasingly tempted by the things we want to do (chill), an inner tension arises that results in fatigue.
Even at the best of times, going after professional goals is challenging. “In terms of motivational psychology, because goals are often long-term and quite abstract they can be overwhelming,” says Dr Janina Steinmetz, an associate professor at City University’s Business School who studies how people pursue their goals in a social context. Say for example you set yourself a goal of saving for retirement. This means constantly working on your finances; it will take years to see the results of your efforts and it can be daunting to think about how much work that task demands of us. Given how precarious the future feels right now, this overwhelm becomes amplified. “Uncertainty reduces the efficacy that people feel in their actions,” Steinmetz says. “If I don't know if I even have a job tomorrow it's really hard to motivate myself to work because, what's the point?”
A solution to this is to focus on what brings pleasure and joy in each activity in the current moment. Steinmetz says this doesn’t mean making drastic changes to our work but even small things like listening to music while carrying out a boring task or gamifying our work by trying to do something faster can help. “People don't really think along these lines when they think about motivating themselves at work, but actually research shows that this is much more motivating them trying to remind themselves that they should care about their jobs.”
In other words, stop trying to motivate yourself by telling yourself that you should be ambitious and driven and instead find a way to give pleasure to otherwise unpleasurable tasks. “That's often the problem that you see with motivational quotes, the stickers people put on their laptop to ‘pursue your dream’,” Steinmetz says. “That's motivating for a second, but then you still have to go through your inbox and answer whatever boring emails that you have.” In those moments, thinking about an abstract goal that dull task is in service of won’t motivate you, but making a game of it might. “If you say ‘OK, five more emails and then I get to do something fun, that's much more motivating in the moment,” Steinmetz says. “These small momentary pleasures seem too trivial for us to really think about them, but they actually help a lot in terms of motivation.”
The bad news for people who work for themselves is that it’s entirely down to us to find ways to manage the stress and fatigue associated with our work. While organisations are trying to find ways to help their employees at an organisational level, independent workers have no institutional support to lean on in times of crisis. On top of that, the very nature of self-directed work presents its own set of challenges. “One of the things that people in the self-driven world do try to do multiple things at the same time,” Chaturvedi says. Instead of multitasking, he recommends planning out your time and allocating specific slots for each task, including your breaks. “You have to try to physically disconnect from work so that you are not looking at your phone and working even you're taking your break,” he says. “This becomes even more important for self-employed people because they are the ones who have flexibility but they also are responsible for their own performance.”
By far the most effective way individuals can combat work stress, according to Chaturvedi’s research, is mindfulness. His research is currently focused on training people to break up their work with seven to 10 minutes of mindfulness interventions. These are intentional breaks, a time to take a pause without being hard on ourselves or other people or even judging anything around us. “We have shown that if we do practice this, it has an impact on your emotional exhaustion, which goes down dramatically." The research also found that performance, work satisfaction, and how committed you feel about your job all increased.
While I don’t doubt that cultivating a gentler approach to work is the solution we all need right now, I still can’t help but wonder if a shortcut might be to throw goals out of the window altogether. Considering how uncertain everything feels, is there any point in setting goals? “Goals are still so important,” Steinmetz says. “They give coherence and meaning to the many individual tasks that we have to do”. She tells me that if I completely disregard all goals, I’ll run into the danger of not even bothering to look at my emails because it will all seem so pointless. “We need the overarching goal to give meaning to otherwise meaningless tasks,” Steinmetz says. “But to actually do them, it doesn't help so much to focus on the overarching goal itself, but instead it helps a lot more to focus on what gives us pleasure in the moment.”
So where does all this leave me and my goal fatigue? For one thing, just knowing that unpacking work-related stress is more complex than most of us realise has taken the pressure off significantly. If psychologists haven’t figured this stuff out yet, it’s ok for me to struggle, too. As for what I do about all this, well the answer was there in front of me this entire time. If thinking about goals is what’s stressing me out, the solution is not to abandon them outright, but to shift my mindset. I’ve been so focused on forcing myself to focus, I’ve neglected to address some basic wellbeing practices. As Chaturvedi put it, “If you try to move the goalposts multiple times, you'll only end up feeling tired of running.”