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Goal: thriving in the empty nest

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

In midlife, it is just too easy to focus on the losses and forget about the gains. I feel it myself, the temptation to give in to nostalgia about the days when the kids were still with us and a sense of discontent toward how life is now. But I know I need to focus on the present with hope and anticipation for the future in order to thrive right now. And who doesn’t want to experience joy and peace in the present?

One powerful method I’ve been using to help me thrive in the present is simply setting new goals for myself. Just the act of setting a goal signals something to my mind and heart that convinces me to stay in the game. Goals tell me that there is still a lot of life yet to live, so I need to get busy in the living. It’s hard to stay passive when we have taken on a challenge!

A year ago, I took on (for me) a crazy challenge, one that left my husband scratching his head and asking himself if I had lost my mind! A friend invited me to train for a half marathon with her. I have never been a runner, never enjoyed it when I had tried it, and never considered running as anything other than a form of mild torture. But I loved spending time with my friend, and when another friend agreed to join the “fun,” I knew I didn’t want to be left out and I said yes. I had a goal: couch to 21k, and I had five months to complete it. Simple, right?

Not so simple, as it turned out. But definitely transformational. I started slowly, alternating running and walking. We trained three times a week and slowly increased our distances, and I made it to 4 miles when an old injury flared up and kept me from running for a month. Once I recovered, I was way behind on my training and eventually I had to make a hard decision: I pulled out of the half marathon and my friends ran it without me last April.

While I felt so disappointed, I still wanted to complete my goal. So I kept running, worked through injuries to build a stronger body, and eventually I ended up on the starting line of the Army 10-Miler in Washington, DC a few weeks ago.

I share this not to make a runner out of you—we all should set unique goals that bring us joy and encourage us to thrive. But there are a couple principles for setting and accomplishing goals in midlife, and making the experience life-giving.

First, set a goal that brings you joy. Choose a goal that builds hope into your future and provides enjoyment in your daily life. At times in life we have to set goals that are difficult, such as beating a disease or healing a relationship. But the goals I’m talking about today are for adding meaning and hope to our everyday lives as we find our joy in the empty nest.

Secondly, start easy and start slowly. Plan small steps toward your new goal. If you want to learn a new skill, start by practicing it for a few minutes daily and make the practice easy. My friends helped me start running by alternating running and walking and going short distances—pretty easy! For instance, if you wanted to learn a cooking technique, you could break it down into micro-skills and just start working on one of those for a few minutes each day—super easy!

Next, remove roadblocks. I bought running shoes and clothes so that I was comfortable during training runs, and my friends and I scheduled our runs for daylight hours so that we could enjoy sunshine as well as each other while we trained. We can make our goal easier to achieve if we make it simple and fun to work on the steps toward accomplishing it.

Fourth, if necessary, delay a goal, but don’t quit! Don’t let delay become defeat—instead, work to get back on track and keep going. My running goal wasn’t ultimately about a specific race on a specific date. It was about feeling good, getting mentally and physically stronger, and conquering something that was challenging to me. Remember, we are setting these goals to help us enjoy life! There’s no deadline on that.

Finally, when you reach your goal, celebrate! Don’t skip this step—you deserve it! If your goal was an artistic one, frame your art and hang it up or perform it for family and friends. If you were working on a cooking technique, invite friends over for a meal featuring your new signature dish. I ran the Army 10-Miler with my husband, one of our sons, and good friends, and our son's wonderful wife was waiting at the finish line for us with our brand new granddaughter—what a way to celebrate!

But wait! There’s one more step . . . Set a new goal. There’s no downside to continued personal growth, especially as we enter midlife. We need new challenges to keep our perspectives fresh and our minds flexible. And new experiences are a great way to celebrate the precious gift of simply being alive. My new goal is to complete—note, I did not say compete!—a mini triathlon. I like biking and swimming even more than running, so I can’t wait! What’s your goal? Share it in the comments below and encourage your fellow readers to continue to thrive in the empty nest.


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