I’ve been obsessed with setting goals since I was a kid. Back then, it was more of an outlandish list scribbled on notebook paper in the back of my Five Star Notebook, but there’s still something refreshing about sitting down and thinking about where you want to be in the future. However, learning how to set realistic goals is incredibly important.
Whether that’s five years, five months, five days, or even five hours — setting goals is scientifically proven to help get things done, but it’s important to set goals that are both dreamy *and* doable.
How? Read on, friends.
Make Them Meaningful
Personally, the more achieving something means to me, the more likely I am to follow through with it. It’s part of why finding my own joy in exercising regularly has been way more successful than chasing after an arbitrary idea of “thinness” that (let’s be honest) doesn’t actually matter that much.
When you want to learn how to set realistic goals, this is why you want to focus on things that you’re *actually* passionate about. Want to travel the world? Set a goal to save enough money for your first plane ticket. Don’t fall into the trap of setting goals that you want to want. (Example: I want to want to eat less ice cream. I don’t actually want to eat less ice cream.)
A great suggestion to help you *actually* achieve your goals is to ask yourself “why” three times. Want to quit your job — why? Maybe you’re tired of working at the same place. Why? Because you’re ready to try something new. Why? Because you want to find a work environment that can help you flourish and grow.
Suddenly “I want to quit my job” becomes “I want to find a work environment where I can flourish”, which is way more motivating when it comes to putting those thoughts into actions.
BOTTOM LINE: Do things for you, and find your ‘why’ to keep you motivated.
You might think telling people about your goal is the best way to accomplish it, but that might not be the case. In fact, a 2009 study discovered that — when people told others about their goal — they actually saw a premature boost in feeling accomplished that could end up hurting their progress in the long run.
Translation? You start to feel good about telling people and end up less likely to follow through.
Some people need accountability — whether that’s finding an accountability partner to team up with regular workouts or simply putting money on the line — but everyone’s different. Figure out what works best for you, and use it to your advantage!
You can also try gamification to make your goals a little more fun. I use this almost daily (except I call it self-bribery), and I set a number of tasks I need to complete in order to ‘earn’ a reward. My rewards get progressively bigger as I finish more things, so I’m more likely to keep going! In my day-to-day life, this might involve something small (like watching the next episode of your favorite TV show on Netflix only after you’ve tidied up your kitchen) or something bigger.
When I’m working on larger goals, like writing a book, it doesn’t make sense to give myself a reward after every paragraph or chapter I complete, so I’ll set my rewards for the entire book at once. Every five or so chapters written, I decide what I want my prize to be ahead of time so I know what I’m working toward. I’ve started with something small, like going to the movies, and worked up toward something big, like a massage, once I’ve finished writing the book!
BOTTOM LINE: Use accountability in the best way it benefits you — whether that’s sharing (or not sharing) your goals, putting money on the line, or making it fun. Do what works for you!
Break It Down
I’m a chronic overachiever, and it shows in my goals. Sometimes I have the habit of saying something astronomically big — like “I want to start a website where I can hire and amplify marginalized voices, support young people with a paid internship, build an accessible and inclusive media empire, and generate enough profits to start multiple non-profit organizations and eventually a book publisher.”
No, but seriously. That’s one of my goals.
And while there’s nothing wrong with having a goal that large, you can probably understand how that goal is a little *too* big to put into action. Where do I even begin?
This is where breaking your goals down into easy-to-complete chunks is insanely valuable. Every dream starts with a single step, so where does your first step begin? For me, it was launching this blog. I might have several years and a million more steps before I get remotely close to the finish line, but I have a list of actionable “mini-goals” that will get me there.
BOTTOM LINE: Follow-up is *critical*. If you have a goal but no plan on how to get there, you risk setting yourself up for failure.
Plan to Fail
Failure is beyond inevitable. I’m not saying you should be defeatist or think, “I’m going to fail anyway, so why set goals? Why try to make them happen?” I’m saying that by planning to fail, which is a critical part of learning how to set realistic goals, you can keep yourself moving forward when the inevitable rough patches happen.
If your goal involves getting more active, think about the ways in which you’re most likely to fail. Maybe you decided to go to the gym every morning before work — have you considered whether or not you’re a morning person? Are you forcing yourself into a workout routine that is a little *too* intense for a beginner? Do you even enjoy the style of workout you’re considering?
Come up with a game plan for those moments when life happens and re-adjust your strategy as necessary. If you’re trying to eat less fast food, you might need a backup option for mornings when you aren’t able to meal prep or pack your lunch. (I actually keep a stock of Birds Eye frozen pastas in my freezer for this very reason — they’re $3, perfectly for lunch, and microwavable. Oh, and they’re delicious.)
BOTTOM LINE: Think about the ways you’re most likely to fail and plan accordingly.