Women are famous for setting goals. We’re going to lose 20 pounds in time for our niece’s wedding, save up enough cash for that trip to Hawaii and make sure to get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day.
Then, a lot gets in the way. Your daughter needs a poster board for her science project. The boss needs the weekly report. The sprinkler guy is coming to activate the watering system.
It’s a woman’s nature to place the needs of others before herself. But is it always healthy for her – and those she cares for? The answer is no.
We consulted with an accomplished woman, Air Force Brig. Gen. Kathleen Flarity, one of only a few women in our community to serve as a general in the military, to answer your questions about how, in a frenetic world, to set goals, stick to them and achieve them.
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Flarity, who holds doctorates in nursing and education, is the deputy director of the CU Anschutz Center for COMBAT research, and a research nurse scientist for UCHealth. She’s the Mobilization Assistant to the Command Surgeon, Air Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. She’s a mom, a wife, a sister, friend, an entrepreneur, and a life coach. She’s spent a career helping others learn good habits.
She’s one of the featured speakers in The evrē Podcast series created by UCHealth, an initiative to promote women’s health and well-being. You can find Brig. Gen. Flarity’s podcast, and many others, here. Here’s her advice on setting goals and achieving them:
What should you do if you have fear around the goal-setting process?
Well, it’s normal, right? People often have fears around goal setting. Sometimes, if you share your goals with someone else and then you don’t accomplish them, it can feel like a failure. But I always think … it’s a working goal, right? It’s something to look forward to and it’s a moving target. Sometimes the goals that you don’t achieve, open up other opportunities. You never know.
What has motivated you throughout your life to accomplish so much but still be yourself?
I had an Australian general officer who said, ‘All of you Americans, you are all alike. You just all blend together.’ He said they keep their personality in Australia.
I once had a leader who said, ‘Kathleen, your personality is part of what got you to where you are. So you need to keep that.’ That was such salient advice. Every place I’ve gone, every position I have held, you get the real deal.
I figure at this level, they invited me to the table, so I’m going to share my opinion with respect and dignity, but I’m going to share my opinion. I’m not a ‘yes’ person. Sometimes that challenges others, but that’s why I’m here.
How do you manage when you feel overwhelmed and things are not going your way? What got you through?
We all have those days that we feel like we’re not good enough or not enough. I start with small and meaningful things.
With age, I have changed the way that I view the world. Now, I consider my personal well-being in my definition of success. On those days that I feel down, I think, ‘I need to do something that renews, re-energizes, re-passions me so that I can be that person I want to be.’ Often sharing my story with people I trust, helps me through the challenges.
When I find that I’m not being as kind or as patient or whatever, it’s often because I failed to do things that nourish me. I start small, a long hug, a walk or coffee with a friend. Things like that. But then, overall, you’ve really just got to think about the big picture. Yes, maybe today I wasn’t motivated to do this or I didn’t accomplish that, but tomorrow’s a new day. I can re-attempt tomorrow.
What are some of your favorite practices in accomplishing your goals?
I think it’s important to start with small, meaningful steps that don’t overwhelm you. Instead of saying, ‘I’m going to complete a PhD,’ start with a class from the community college. Those are little steps, but they’re small and attainable goals. Instead of saying, ‘I’m going to run a marathon,’ I might say, ‘I’m going to run a mile without stopping and then maybe a 5k.’ And then eventually the marathon.
Then it’s really important to pick goals that you’re passionate about. That inspire you. You’re not doing it for anybody else, because if you’re doing it for somebody else, it’s their goal, not yours. That’s really one of the keys to achieving your goal.
Also, I think it’s easier to add something than take something away. For example, it’s easier to say that I’m going to walk 15 minutes a day, five days a week than say, ‘I’m giving up chocolate.’ Adding something rather than feeling like you’re giving up something. It’s feels easier to achieve.
Is it a good idea to share your goals with a friend or loved one?
I think it’s important to share your goals with somebody you care about and to say, ‘I want you to help me with this. This is what I want to do. And I want you to hold me accountable, check in with me, be my cheerleader, and support me in this.’ You’re more likely to achieve a goal if you share it with somebody than not. Then monitor your progress and don’t beat yourself up if you fall short of your goals, just reset it.
How do you remind yourself of your goals?
For me, even little sticky notes, are a visual reminder. Love is a choice I make daily. Just reminds me to be the person I want to be to the people around me who are important to me, to my kids and to my family and to my colleagues. I make this choice daily.
How important is self-care in achieving your goals?
In today’s challenging world, women are increasingly pulled in so many different directions. Who would have envisioned that you would have to serve in so many capacities? People who are teaching their kids at home, they’re multitasking. As women, we typically take care everyone and everything else first, and ourselves last; making sure the kitchen is cleaned up, the kids are tucked in bed, and your partner might be watching TV and we’re doing laundry.
If there’s anything left over for us, and we’re not too exhausted, we might do something that nourishes us, but then we feel guilty about it. Truly being able to change that mindset, that if we do something for us, it’s not selfish. It’s actually healthy. If I take care of me, I’m going to bring a better self to every relationship, every work environment, wherever I am, I’ll bring a better me to that. That’s my best self to the people I love, I care for and the people I lead. It’s a journey to be able to change those perceptions, to be able to really say, ‘I’m good enough.’
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How does caring for yourself help your family?
I have a family and partner who understands this is what I need to renew, re-energize my passion. It took a while to figure that out. I’d come home from work and then go right into all those things that we do as women. Then, sometimes, I would not bring my best self and I’d recognize that.
I realized that if I didn’t do something for me every three days, I would be less kind, resentful and just not the person I wanted to be. Sometimes I would come home after a challenging day and I’d give everybody loving and then just say, ‘I need to take 20 minutes and go for a run.’ And they supported it too because they knew the person that I would bring back would be the person they want me to be. I figured out that a 20-minute run in nature was just what I needed to renew.
Do you have advice for women on how to reframe things so they’re not setting themselves up for failure?
So much of it is we’re not compassionate to ourselves. I say be as compassionate to yourself as you would to anybody else or to a child. You wouldn’t talk to your child the way that we talk to ourselves — that negative self-talk.
It’s hard to change our perception and really think of our positives. Part of it is the brain has a negative bias. In historical perspective, it protects us. If there’s a cave over there and a friend got eaten by a saber tooth tiger, we’re going to avoid the cave. That’s why we remember the one question on the test that we got wrong instead of the 99 we got right. We replay the negativity. It’s hard. It’s hard to change that perception, but it is worth the effort, you are so worth it! You are amazing and what you bring to the world matters.
How can caregivers or first responders learn resiliency?
Compassion fatigue (like PTSD for caregivers) is a real issue faced by health care providers who are performing some of the most valuable and challenging mental and emotional work in our society. Those suffering from it are not alone, are not defective, and this is not a permanent struggle. Healing, satisfaction, and resilience are possible and within reach of any caregiver or first responder.
At UCHealth, I teach the graduate nurse residents (new nurses) a resiliency program, entitled “Passion in Practice” because I’m very interested in compassion fatigue resiliency. Part of it is, when you go home at the end of the day, how do you self-talk? The nurse residents share that they ruminate on all the things they could have done better or different or whatever at the end of each shift.
As part of the program I ask them — because it takes three weeks to change a habit — I say, ‘For the next three weeks, when you’re leaving the hospital, I want you to say, ‘Damn, I’m good. UCHealth is lucky to have me.’ And not ruminate over the negativity because there’s always things we could do differently. Then I make them repeat it. UCHealth and our patients are lucky to have these amazing nurses.
How do you align your focus so you can set realistic, attainable goals?
Anybody who knows me, knows I say this a lot: I need to have joy, purpose, meaning in my life. And this goes especially for people who are really busy. I used to say, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea. How can I help?’ Now I experience the power of no. You are smart and talented, and people will come and ask you to do things. For me, at this age, if it doesn’t bring me joy, purpose, meaning, I’ll say no. … Because if I’m saying yes to something, it means I’m saying no to something else.
If I’m saying yes to go do this, it’s time away from my kids or people whose company I enjoy, or taking that time to nourish me. When you think about those goals and when you set them, as I said earlier, it has to be for you. It has to inspire you. It has to bring your passion forward. You shouldn’t do it because somebody else thinks you should.
I will get lots of opportunities and I will say, ‘I’m so honored that you thought of me, but at this time I don’t have the bandwidth to do it.’ Or just something that’s respectful because you don’t want to close doors, but make choices, make choices that are right for you. Don’t feel the pressure, because in our society you feel a pressure to do more and be more. Just let it go.
How can women manage the feeling of being overwhelmed?
One of the things is figuring out, as I say, what renews, re-energizes, and re-passions you so that you can come back the next day with energy and joy?
Another tool for me is minute meditations. The minute meditation that I recommend in my seminars is hand washing with intention. We wash our hands before and after every patient. After I care for a patient, I’m washing my hands and I do it in the patient’s room. I’m breathing in peace and I’m exhaling calm, and as I’m washing my hands, I’m feeling the warmth of the water and the soap and I’m thinking: ‘I did my best for this patient and I’m letting it go.’
Because, what we tend to do is ruminate on all the things that we could have done better, or different. Even during the COVID pandemic, when we were so busy with lots of patients. I would still do the minute meditation. I would take that pause to help reset. And then for the next patient, I’d wash my hands. I want to be open. I want to be receptive. I want to bring my best self to this.
For most health care providers, on average 30 times a day, they will get stressed… I call it amped up. If they implemented these minute meditations, they actually help reset from the fight or flight to the rest and digest, allowing them to be more empathic and have more energy at the end of the day.
What are the physiologic changes the body experiences from stress?
It takes work to get bodyfulness and mindfulness, especially in health care. From stress we get headaches, stomach issues, sleep disturbances, tension in our jaws, neck pain and back pain. We are not taught to check in with ourselves (bodyfulness). By the end of the day, we feel like we’ve run a marathon, and it’s because we’ve surged our bodies with all those stress hormones, experiencing biochemical swings all day long. No wonder why we don’t sleep at night!
I think it’s so hard right now, there’s so much pressure to know everything and to perform. The other concept, I talked about the negativity bias, to say, don’t ruminate over that one thing or two that you could have done better. But think about the 99 things you did right. That’s not our normal. Calm the body, calm the brain. The Buddhist call it the monkey brain as you lie in bed at night and you ruminate, as your thoughts jump from branch to branch to branch. It’s unproductive, and not healthy for us.
What is your definition of success?
Truly, my personal well-being is now in my definition of success. I grew up in the generation of Baby Boomers — money, position, power. It’s not that anymore. It’s relationships, it’s ‘can I make a difference in the world? Can I help the people that I care about?’ That’s big and small. That’s my kids. That’s the nurse residents or all the airmen in the Air Force that I take care of or I lead. And the communities. It’s the work that you’re doing, making a positive impact in the communities. Again, it’s that joy. I have a full and grateful heart.