Letting Go of Stress Around Your Goals: 4 Tips to Help You Relax

“Control is never achieved when sought after directly. It is the surprising consequence of letting go.” ~James Arthur Ray

I have always been a bit of a control freak, and if I’m not mindful, it can suck the joy out of my work and my passion.

I like tasks done a certain way, which means I don’t always do well when it comes to delegating to others and can end up overextending myself.

I want things to be done on my timeline, which means I may feel a need to micromanage tasks I have delegated to decrease the potential for delay.

And I sometimes feel a need to know where things are going, which means I often need to remind myself to stay open to new possibilities.

In short, I like to feel that everything is going according to plan—my plan—so that I leave very little to chance.

Chance can be a scary place. It’s the realm where things could go wrong because you didn’t steer, compel, or manipulate them to ensure that they went right.

It’s the place where anything could happen because you weren’t clear or pushy enough to make things happen as you visualized them.

It’s a space where things are unpredictable, random even, where you don’t feel you have a say or a choice.

These are things I’ve thought before.

If you have a controlling instinct like I do, it can be difficult to ascertain when you’re being too heavy-handed, causing yourself stress in the process, and when you’re simply being proactive and taking responsibility for your life.

It’s a thin line between empowering yourself and taking your power away.

On one side, you know you’ve done your best but accept that other factors contribute to your outcome; on the other side, you cause yourself immense anxiety trying to foresee and eliminate those factors.

It can feel terrifying to simply let things happen, particularly when the stakes are high—when you care about something so deeply that it feels like a piece of you.

But ironically, trying to control things can actually limit their potential.

Imagine you stood in front of a flower all day, trying all kinds of fertilizer to push it to grow faster. In addition to trying too many things, minimizing the effectiveness of any one, you’d essentially rob it of sunlight while casting your overbearing shadow.

The fear that it might not grow would all but ensure that outcome. 

So how do we know when to step up and when to step back? How can we ascertain when we need to do more and when we need to trust more? What’s the difference between shaping the future and trying to control it?

These questions have been particularly relevant to me now, as I am months behind the scheduled launch date for a new project, largely because of things beyond my control.

On the one hand, I know it’s not unreasonable to expect things delivered on the agreed-upon timeline; on the other hand, I know stressing out won’t actually accomplish anything.

If you’re also trying to find the middle ground between pushing and allowing, you may find these tips helpful:

1. Set and communicate expectations but accept that things may not go to plan.

This may entail expectations of yourself—what you need to do to quit your job in six months. Or it might pertain to people you work with—what you want them to do and when.

Without some kind of plan, a goal stays in the realm of “someday,” which is a surefire way to push things off. But having a plan and being rigid with it are two different things.

Unanticipated factors may come into play. You may learn something new that changes your direction. You may encounter some obstacle that alters your timeline. Or, someone you’re working with may discover something in the process that compromises what they’re able to do and when.

Expect the unexpected and anticipate that things may veer off course. Then, if and when they do, know this is part of the plan. You don’t need to stress about it or fight to avoid it so long as you haven’t given up.

2. Know the difference between letting things happen and letting things go unsaid.

This is a big one for me. Though these two traits aren’t exactly complimentary, I have both the controlling and people-pleasing instincts. So I may feel anxious when things aren’t working out as I anticipated but also afraid to voice my concerns when someone else isn’t doing what they said they’d do.

Trusting in the future doesn’t mean we stay quiet when someone we’ve entrusted repeatedly fails to follow through. It means we take responsibility for aligning ourselves with people we believe to be dependable and competent, and then remember that belief when we’re tempted to push.

If you don’t trust the people you’ve aligned with, ask yourself: Should I get additional help? Or work with someone else?

We can’t control what other people do. We can only control who we choose to trust. We can’t guarantee a specific outcome. We can only do our best to enable an effective process.

3. See the goal as shaping you.

When we fixate on a destination we need to reach as quickly as possible, at all costs, we end up motivating ourselves with the mantra “Keep doing.”

At least that’s how I’ve operated in the past. I’ve had my list of action steps, I’ve thrown myself into completing them, and then when I encountered obstacles, I focused on getting past them.

I’ve recognized that I didn’t leave much time for learning from those obstacles and allowing those lessons to shape my desires, intentions, and efforts.

It’s a tiny shift in mindset, but when you see the goal as shaping you, in addition to you shaping it, you’re then free to see problems as opportunities.

Every setback gives you an opportunity to improve how you deal with challenges. Every misunderstanding helps you strengthen your ability to work with others. Every delay gives you a chance to revisit your intentions and ensure your choices are aligned.

And through it all, you learn to focus on the present and grow where you are right now, regardless of where you’re headed.

This is how we give our all—not by pressuring ourselves to make things happen tomorrow but by doing our best with what’s happening today.

The surprising consequence of this shift in mindset: the better we respond to what’s in front of us, the more effective we are in creating what will be.

4. Release the fear within the process.

When I’ve been most controlling with my goals, it wasn’t just about my drive to get things done. It’s also been connected to fear: If I don’t push, things might not happen, and these things have to happen.

It’s great to be passionate about our visions, but attaching to them with fear is a surefire way to create stress and minimize joy.

The alternative is to accept that if we keep going, good things will happen—both now and tomorrow—even if we can’t predict or control exactly what they are.

The future we create may look completely different than we visualized, and the process may evolve in ways we didn’t anticipate.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be disappointing. It could end up being far better than we knew to imagine.

That’s the beauty of releasing control: When we let go of how things have to be, we open ourselves to how they can be.

We cause ourselves stress when we attach to an outcome and push to get there as quickly as possible. Our power isn’t in controlling the future; it’s in shaping it by using the present wisely.

Photo by Clara S.

About Lori Deschene

Lori Deschene is the founder of Tiny Buddha and Recreate Your Life Story, an online course that helps you let go of the past and live a life you love. Her latest bookTiny Buddha's Gratitude Journal, which includes 15 coloring pages, is now available for purchase. For daily wisdom, follow Tiny Buddha on Twitter, Facebook & Instagram..

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  • Sarah

    This is so incredibly timely for me right now. I am 40 weeks pregnant today and completely stressing about this perfectly timed birth that isn’t. I’ve got three kids that will need a sitter, plus an hour and a half drive to the hospital. My husband’s company is changing insurance in three days further complicating things. Nothing seems to be going according to plan, but I’m prepared as I can be at this point. Now I need to trust my body and let the rest happen as it may. Stressing isn’t making any it any easier. Thank you 🙂

  • Lori, I really like how you’ve helped to define and illuminate that fine line between healthy wielding of our own power vs. heavy-handedness. It’s hard sometimes to know which is which and these ideas are really helpful. I feel like I have a good scale or way to compare when I’m a little confused as to which is the best way to act. Thanks!

  • Thanks Bobbi! This has been a big issue for me, knowing where that line is. These ideas have been quite helpful to me!

  • I’m glad this was helpful to you Sarah. Congratulations on your pregnancy and soon-to-be new addition!

  • lv2terp

    Lori, reading your posts are always like looking at myself in the mirror, it is freaky! haha…I appreciate your posts, learning from you, applying to myself through your experiences, lessons learned, etc…Thank you for sharing your wisdom!!! 🙂 The 4th on really resonated with me, thank you for opening my awareness a bit more in my journey of growth, I appreciate you very much!!!! HUGS from this loyal reader/fan 🙂

  • Lily

    Lori! i think i am so much like you, i always want to have control of everything… i almost realize about days a few months ago and i’m working on it and your post really shake me inside 🙂 thanks by sharing and greetings from Mexico!

  • Lily

    about this*

  • cutupbunyy

    “Imagine you stood in front of a flower all day……you’d essentially rob it of sunlight while casting your overbearing shadow” that was my favorite part it helped me really see your point. Thank you for writing this I always try to control outcomes & this helped in seeing steps I need to take to let it go 🙂

  • You’re most welcome! That’s a visual that’s really helped me, as I often feel a strong instinct to push.

  • You’re most welcome Lily!

  • It means a lot to me to know my writing makes a difference, so thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. Hugs back to you!

  • Michael Baylosis

    Thanks, Lori!

    I find this article pretty much applicable to me right now. I’m graduating from college within the next four months. This phase in life brings along with it a lot of stress, a lot of pressure, and heaps of anxiety in overcoming the last few hurdles just so that I can graduate on time & with my desired outcome. Once in a while I have to remind myself about releasing the fear & being less of a control freak with regard to the possible outcomes of this stage in my life.

    This post was a gentle nudge from you. Thanks so much! I really appreciate all the kind words 🙂

  • this is such a great list. #4 particularly stands out. goals are so much more manageable when we’re not attaching any fear to them. thanks for the tips, Lori

  • You’re most welcome!

  • You’re most welcome Michael! I remember when I finished school feeling a lot of those same things. If I were to tell my younger self anything it would be to stress less and enjoy more. (That’s actually something I tell my current self too!) Congrats on your upcoming graduation. =)

  • Hey Lori, this is so where I’m at at this moment – wanting the hurry up and wanting the just right – so many fear based expectations.. #2 really got me and aligning myself with the right people and owning my voice . I can truly empathise the difficulty in learning to let go and have a say about things … Being aware seems and being with fear seems the only way to navigate the journey and truth for ourselves as we take a step forward .. The process of learning can be exhausting

  • That’s really been the biggest one for me, number 2. It’s been frustrating to feel like I am the mercy of other people when they aren’t doing what they said they’d do. But I also realized I need to speak up and then trust them, or work with other people. Stressing/complaining does me no good! I’ve been checking in with myself in this process and saying, “What’s in my control? What’s my fear? What’s the lesson?” and this has been helping. I concur, the learning can be exhausting at times!

  • Rahul

    I simply loved this article !Everything just made so much sense.
    But I am still a little confused,I mean I can let go of the things I have absolutely no control over ,for example- the weather,the traffic etc but I struggle to let go when I actually do have some control over the event,a simple example would be when I’m sitting in class and taking down notes.Even when i’m fairly sure that that i’ve written everything down properly I still feel the need to take someone else’s notebook(usually the first ranker’s notebook) and verify everything word by word even if it takes half an hour or more.
    So,my question to you is how do you decide when you’re being proactive or just too heavy handed?(I know you already did give us the answer to that,but I felt that it was too vague and I need something more detailed) and also was I being too pushy and too controlling when I borrowed my classmate’s notebook to verify my notes?
    And,lastly I want to thank you for writing such great article-so thanks lori!It really has make a difference in my life.

  • Renée Hurt Thomas

    A timeless piece. So relevant to many lives, situations, and seasons. I am so glad I read this today. It was the perfect message for my heart and mind. Thank you for sharing your wisdom Lori.

  • You’re most welcome! =)

  • Sarah

    I literally just googled “I feel stressed when I set goals” because I was so exhausted by the constant pressure I put on myself to make progress and ‘succeed’, ticking things off lists and writing new lists etc. This article perfectly summed it up, giving me the reassurance and shift in mindset I was looking for. Thanks so much!

  • Katey

    Ummm… I don’t really think this helped me because this site popped up when I searched 3 GOALS for relaxing. If you could do another post for that, that would be great. For people that did look this up its very very very helpful. But not the ads.