4 Steps to Setting and Achieving Your Goals
Updated: Jan 30
According to U.S. News & World Report, 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by the second week of February (Haughey). It’s a discouraging statistic, though not surprising given how little effort most of us put into coming up with them. But when is the last time you made a specific written statement of your resolution, or any other goal, as well as a detailed, realistic plan for how to accomplish it? These actions can make all the difference when it comes to making lasting changes in your life. Here we will provide you with four straightforward steps to making your goals and dreams a reality!
Why are goals important?
There are a number of reasons why it can be useful to organize your intentions, ideas, and dreams into the form of goals. Most importantly, goals serve to put your attention toward specific ends and give you focus. They can energize you, as well – setting a high bar for yourself is proven to encourage you to work harder (Locke & Latham, 2002). Ideally, a goal will also involve a deadline of some sort, which helps keep you on task; leaving a project open-ended tends to make it feel low-priority, while a firm deadline keeps it from falling through the cracks.
Finally, goal-setting encourages personal growth (Locke & Latham, 2002). It often entails learning fresh skills and improving and synthesizing existing skills, which can boost your confidence and lead you in exciting new directions. In short, there is nothing to lose and lots to gain by using a goal-setting approach.
Step 1: Brainstorm
Journal about your ideal day.
Use your imagination and include anything that excites you – don’t censor yourself!
In order to set a goal, you must first figure out what it is you want to achieve or change about your life. A great way to go about this is by journaling about what your ideal day would look like. You can write it out in narrative form if that’s comfortable for you, or in bullet points. You can get as detailed as you want about the activities you choose to include.
Don’t be afraid to let your imagination free during this exercise. Does your ideal day include a different job, living in a different place, or more time spent on certain people or activities? Don’t feel bounded by the status quo, guilt, or what sounds far-fetched or unrealistic. If it’s your dream, it’s your dream – give yourself permission to embrace it.
Goals are more effective and successful when you are dedicated to and excited about achieving them (Locke & Latham, 2002), so figure out what’s most important to you from your ideal day, and start there.
Step 2: Write a SMART goal
SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound.
Make sure your goal statement includes all or most of these aspects.
Feel free to modify the acronym to best suit your goal!
One of the most well-known approaches to goal-setting is the SMART goal format. “SMART” is an acronym devised by a management consultant named George T. Doran in the early 1980s for use by corporate managers; since then, it has become widely used in various professional, academic, and personal settings. It stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound.
Specificity is important because it helps you home in on what exactly you want to accomplish. Generic statements like “I want to get healthy” are a good starting point, but they are too broad to inspire consistent action; narrowing them down to something like “I want to walk for half an hour every day” is far more helpful.
Having a goal that is measurable allows you to track your progress; this can include any kind of metric or assessment that is appropriate for your goal. You can establish a quantity, like listening to 3 audio books per month during your commute, or de-cluttering one room in your house per month. Another option for making your goal measurable is to check items off a to-do list to track progress, like breaking up household cleaning into individual tasks throughout the week to check off in your planner.
Making your goal attainable is critical, as well. It must be something within your power – an action rather than a result. For example, if you decided you wanted to win a race, but instead came in third, it would be easy to think of your strong results as a failure, even though the speed of other racers was outside your control. But if you decided instead to focus your goals on the journey – training diligently and consistently, improving your pace, attaining greater fitness along the way – then no matter the result of the race, you could succeed by sticking to your plan.
A realistic goal is also important, because it keeps you from getting overwhelmed. If, for example, you want to make a big career change, but would need to go back to school to do so, make sure your goal statement accounts for the time and cost that this will require. Consider what you can achieve in a given amount of time and make sure your goal is broken up into small enough increments that you can reasonably accomplish it.
Finally, having a goal that is time-bound will keep you on track and making progress. A goal that is a finite task can be made time-bound by creating a specific end date, like reorganizing your closet by the end of the month. If your goal is to create a new habit, like taking daily walks, you can use this part of the acronym to set a deadline for phasing in the new routine, or as an opportunity for self-evaluation after a certain amount of time.
While the original acronym may be most helpful for management scenarios, Doran noted that, “The suggested acronym doesn’t mean that every objective written will have all five criteria,” (1981) and there are useful variations for different types of goals (Haughey). For example, “Meaningful” could be a more helpful option rather than “Measurable” if there is not a clear metric for your goal. Or, if your objective is to incorporate something new into your life on a regular basis, rather than complete a task, “Trackable” could make more sense than “Time-bound.” Using “Agreed-upon” instead of “Attainable” can make more sense if your goal will require other people to be involved, like making sure your partner or family is on board with changes around the house. Regardless of which variations you use, the more closely you stick to the concept of the SMART framework, the more useful your goal statement is likely to be (Doran, 1981).
Step 3: Create actionable steps
Break your goal down into small, specific parts so that you know what you need to accomplish on the way to your goal.
The more you break it down, the better, so that each step is attainable, and you’re working at it consistently.
Once you’ve defined your goal, the next step in accomplishing it is to turn it into action. Ideally, you want to break things down so that you’re doing something at least a few days a week that brings you closer to achieving your goal. Perhaps you need to start with making a list or taking inventory, or gaining more knowledge or skills. Consider the “Measurable” and “Time-bound” parts of your goal in particular when creating your steps.
For instance, if you want to read two books a month, your steps would break down to half a book each week. As another example, training for a triathlon that’s six months away would likely require a schedule of swims, runs, and bike rides each week, building in length and intensity. Any type of goal can be made more achievable when you transform it into a series of steps.
It’s also important to make each step or task small enough that it’s realistic and doesn’t feel intimidating. Starting an exercise goal with a ten-minute walk may not sound like much, but it will likely get you out the door easier than the idea of a half-hour run. You can always build to more ambitious steps as you gain momentum. Remember that it’s better to be taking tiny steps and still making progress than to be getting nowhere because you’re too overwhelmed to get started.
Step 4: Follow-through
Make your goal a part of your daily schedule.
Encourage yourself and don’t forget the reasons why your goal is important to you.
Find a support system, including a life coach.
The most critical, and often most challenging, part of goal-setting is following through on what we’ve set out to achieve. Our practicable steps go a long way to making this easier, but it’s still possible to lose steam, particularly when trying to create and maintain new habits.
One way to keep up your momentum is to incorporate your steps into your schedule. Whether your planner is pen and paper or the calendar in your phone, it’s a good idea to make your goal a part of your daily to-dos. This gives it a feeling of importance, on par with the other priorities in your life, and we all love the satisfaction of crossing an item off when the task is complete.
It’s also an excellent idea to add words of encouragement to yourself in some form. Positive reinforcement can instill confidence and give you the boost you need to keep going (Locke & Latham, 2002). It can be as simple as a ‘positive affirmations’ app on your phone, a note on the mirror telling you you’re doing great, or remembering to congratulate yourself each time you complete a step.
Research also shows that accountability, feedback, and self-assessment are just as important as setting your goal in the first place (Bandura & Cervone, 1983) (Locke, 1996). Checking in on your progress after an appropriate amount of time can provide you with the opportunity to redouble your efforts, try a new strategy, adjust your goal, or move on to your next goal (Wade, 2009).
Any time you’re struggling with your steps, try to come back to the feeling your goal elicits – the joy and excitement you felt when you thought about your ideal day, and the underlying reasons you have for whatever it is you set out to do. These emotions and sense of purpose will help carry you through the most challenging days!
It’s possible to maintain your follow-through on your own with these suggestions, but it’s also a good idea to remember that there is lots of support available out there. Don’t be afraid to lean on friends and family who can cheer you on or even join in your goal, providing solidarity and accountability for both of you. A club or group related to your goal can also be a great support system, filled with tips and ideas from people on the same path. Finding a life coach is another excellent option, and we have one on staff here at Mindful Ways to Wellness.
A life coach can help you through every step of this process, from exploring your passions and ideas, to creating goals and following through on them. Life coaches are there to cheer you on, keep you accountable, help you build new skills, and guide you toward growth and achieving your dreams. For more about life coaching and how the process works, you can check out our website. If you’re struggling with any step in goal-setting, life coaching at Mindful Ways to Wellness in St. Pete could be a great resource.
It’s difficult to understate the importance of setting SMART goals when it comes to making changes to your life. They can provide structure, give you a way to mark your progress, and keep things realistic, and, therefore, more achievable. As long as you are excited about your goal and ready to take the steps needed to stick with it, it is well within your reach. With the four steps outlined here, and life coaching at Mindful Ways to Wellness, you are on your way to making your dreams a reality.
Bandura, A., & Cervone, D. (1983). Self-evaluative and self-efficacy mechanisms governing the motivational effects of goal systems. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,45(5), 1017-1028. doi:10.1037//0022-35188.8.131.527
Doran, G. T. (1981). "There's a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management's goals and objectives", Management Review,70(11), 35-36.
Haughey, D. (n.d.). SMART Goals. Retrieved December 27, 2018, from https://www.projectsmart.co.uk/smart-goals.php
Locke, E. A. (1996). Motivation through conscious goal setting. Applied and Preventive Psychology,5(2), 117-124. doi:10.1016/s0962-1849(96)80005-9
Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American Psychologist,57(9), 705-717. doi:10.1037//0003-066x.57.9.705
Luciani, J. (2015, December 29). Why 80 Percent of New Year's Resolutions Fail. Retrieved December 27, 2018, from https://health.usnews.com/health-news/blogs/eat-run/articles/2015-12-29/why-80-percent-of-new-years-resolutions-fail
Wade, D. T. (2009). Goal setting in rehabilitation: An overview of what, why and how. Clinical Rehabilitation,23(4), 291-295. doi:10.1177/0269215509103551