How To Set Goals You Can Achieve No Matter What

Ever wonder why most goals and New Year's resolutions fall apart in the first three weeks? It's not about willpower. It's not because "life got in the way." It's actually because vague goals lead to vague actions, which leads to—you guessed it—vague results!

Whether it's my clients, patients, students, or friends, I hear the same story time and time again: We all want change, but we don't know how to go about it. Most goal-seekers fall into two camps:

The first are those who are so excited at the onset that they have unrealistic expectations of what they can achieve. Despite their research and planning, they quickly burn out. Those in this category tend to be type-A overachievers, whose work style is characterized by bingeing and purging. In other words, they cycle between overworking and not taking action at all.

The second group is those that have some idea of what they want but no action plan to get there. They are the dreamers, wishers, and intention-setters. They set goals like, "I want to create more work-life balance." And while that sounds nice, it isn't clear what actions they need to take or even how they'll know when they've achieved their goal. As well-meaning as these individuals are, their lack of strategy and accountability keeps them safe from risking failure but also keeps them stuck.

Ironically, no matter which challenge you face, the solution is the same: You need to set better goals—ones that support and motivate you. And you need to outline a realistic and actionable plan that sets you up for success. We've all heard of SMART goals (the acronym for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound), but chances are that if you're seeking change or setting goals, they aren't hitting each point.

Here's how to define your goal (and actually make it happen):

1. Identify the specific thing you want to achieve.

Your goal should clearly define what you're going to do. It should outline what you'll achieve and how you'll get there. Be sure to include the exact steps you'll take.

Instead of "I want more work-life balance," try "I will take daily action to create more balance by prioritizing self-care in the form of meditating for 10 minutes each day, action No. 2, action No. 3, etc.”

2. Make it measurable.

Here's where most people get tripped up. Not only does your overall goal need to be quantified but so does each action step. This will help you to take feasible steps, maintain motivation, build momentum and will tell you exactly how much progress you've made toward your goal.

To make actions measurable, be precise:

Instead of saying "I'll leave work at work," try, "On weekdays, I won't check my email past 8 p.m. On weekends, I will only check it once per day."

To make your overall goal measurable, define your starting point:

Measure how many actions you currently take toward your goal and compare it to the number of actions at the end of your goal. Or rate your ability/level of success on a scale of 1 to 10 now and at the end of your goal.

If you exercise once per week, instead of saying "I'll work out more," try "I will go to the gym three times per week for 45 to 60 minutes."

3. Select a goal that is attainable by just you.

An attainable goal is not dependent on others, your circumstances, or winning the lottery. In our work-life balance example, a poor indicator of success would be the amount of work assigned to you. While that relates to your goal, you can't control what your boss tells you to do. You can, however, change how you respond.

"When I'm assigned a new task at work, I will communicate with my boss about due dates, project priorities, what's currently on my plate, and what can be delegated."

Goals should be achievable. They should stretch you slightly so you feel challenged but still be within your grasp. A common mistake I see clients make is trying to break goals into smaller pieces in an effort to make them more attainable. This is a slippery slope. For example, while saying you want to lose 5 pounds in one month is more realistic than losing 10 pounds, you can't control your metabolism. Instead, focus on the action steps that move you closer to your goal.

"I will take daily action to increase my self-care by drinking eight glasses of water each day, action No. 2, action No. 3, etc."

The goal is not about the outcome; it's about your ability to take consistent action toward that outcome.

4. Identify action steps that are relevant, not random.

EVERY action step needs to be directly related to your goal. Don’t throw random "nice-to-haves" in there. For example, I had a client whose goal was finding a new job. In her inspired and motivated goal-setting state, she wanted to add an action step of 20 minutes of yoga per day. While some may argue that yoga is great for everything, it's not directly related and, thus, doesn't belong in her goal. When selecting relevant action steps, ask yourself, "Does this action directly affect my ability to achieve this goal?" If it doesn't get you closer to your goal, don't include it.

5. Give yourself a deadline.

It doesn't matter whether you love or hate due dates, your goal still needs one. Pick a date that's far enough that you'll see results but close enough that you can maintain motivation to achieve it. Linking your goal to a time frame creates a practical sense of urgency and creates a healthy discomfort between where you are and where you'd like to be. My advice? Choose a date that's one, two, or three months from now. It's long enough that you can see a change but short enough to still be relevant. It'll also allow you to fine-tune your actions should you choose to continue going forward.

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