How do I set realistic goals for myself?

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Individual aspirations. It's not the exclusive domain of managers and business owners; goal setting is a powerful tool we all can use to motivate ourselves, deliver effectively, and stay accountable for our performance. Goals help us achieve our best work when used effectively. However, too often they can fall by the wayside or become a source of stress and unhealthy pressure. So, how do you set goals that stick?

The Value of Setting Goals

Goals allow us to set expectations for ourselves and provide a sense of progress. They serve as a mindfulness tool—helping us declare how we intend to apply ourselves. From leveraging the fresh start effect to working within tight deadlines, goal setting utilizes many psychological techniques to help manage and direct our focus. There are various ways to use goals to motivate you and provide a purpose. Some goal-setting methods are highly structured, intentionally stretching, and focused on long-term deliverables, like the practice of OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). But goals can be as informal and short-term as you like—like setting yourself a daily to-do list or committing to a certain number of deep work hours each week.

How to Set Goals and Deliver Against Them

However you dress it up, goal setting boils down to setting an intention and delivering against it. Yet, meeting goals is rarely that straightforward. Often, this is because we haven't structured our goals correctly in the first place. Here's a template to ensure you set goals you stick to:

Make Your Goal Specific

It’s tempting to look at your career and think, “I want to do better,” but how will you measure this? Do you want a pay rise or a promotion to branch into a new specialism, develop a new skill, or set a new career course entirely? Goals should never be vague. Set yourself clearly defined objectives. For example, say, “I want to achieve X by Y” (measuring deep work). Only when you have clarity and a vision of what success looks like can you begin mapping out the path to that goal. Uncertain goals lead to uncertain results, and undeveloped goals lead to undeveloped futures.

Give Your Goals a Time Frame

Almost all goals require deadlines or time frames. Why? Because if you don’t have an end-point in mind, you won’t be able to measure the effectiveness of your progress. Setting time frames also allows you to work toward your goal more efficiently; if you know there are only three months until your self-imposed deadline, you’ll know you must work harder to achieve your goal. It gives structure, allows you to plan, and boosts your sense of urgency, which can be key to hitting your goals. Defining success without a time frame—or any aspect you can measure—is harder.

Always Aim High (But Not Too High)

There’s a consensus that goals should be attainable and realistic. This is true to a point; setting yourself a goal that’s entirely unattainable is not only a waste of time, but it will also be a significant blow to your self-esteem when you fail to hit your targets. The whole point of goals is that they challenge and inspire you. If you set the bar too low and aim to accomplish something easily achievable, you won’t have the drive and motivation to push yourself further. Think about what you really want to achieve: what have you dreamed of since you were young? Where do you see your future self? Where do you not want to be?

Draw Up a Proper Plan of Action

Please don’t make the mistake of being so focused on the outcome of your goal that you neglect the steps you must take to achieve it. Take the time to write out a detailed plan of action. The very act of writing it down will make it appear more substantial. Lay out the individual steps you’ll take, then cross them off once you achieve them—few things are as satisfying! Look into any tools to help you measure them so you know you’re progressing. Time blocking is an excellent tool for mapping out time to achieve your goals. Keeping productivity planners can also be helpful, but it can get time-consuming, so consider using tools that help you understand what you’ve already put into your goal without the extra effort. For example, Timely offers automatic time tracking and project dashboards to streamline your goal-setting and tracking processes.

Publicize Your Goals and Make Yourself Accountable

When it comes to setting and achieving goals, don’t be shy. Tell people about what you’re trying to achieve—by stating it publicly, you’re making yourself accountable for achieving it. If you set a goal and don’t tell anyone, the power of the goal is vastly minimized. Nobody holds you accountable, asks you how you’re doing, or where you are on your journey.

Write Your Goals Down

Studies and surveys have shown that you are far more likely to achieve your goals if you write them down. Writing down your goals helps make them real and substantial to you. If you think about a goal, it’s not physically real—and it’s easy for you to change your mind. Writing it down, however, helps you commit to the goals and gives you something you can visually see and reflect on. For example, Sid Savara emphasizes the importance of writing down goals to keep them at the front of your mind.

Set Short-Term Milestones

Goals that are far out of reach are easy to procrastinate on and put off. It’s fine to have long-term dreams, but in the short run, you should also have regular milestones. For example, if your goal is to write a novel, rather than just saying you’ll write a novel this year, commit to a certain number of pages or words each month. These short-term milestones will help you stay on track and make your long-term goal more manageable.

Be Specific

If you want to “lose weight,” how will you know when you’re done? Even if your long-term goal is “to get in better shape,” you can still be specific, such as “being in good enough shape to play football for two hours twice a week.” The more specific you are, the better motivated you’ll be as you get closer to achieving your goal. With vague goals, it’s very easy to get discouraged because you may not feel like you’re getting closer due to having no clear end in sight. Use specific, tangible words in your goals, such as measurements and (if applicable) a date by which they will be accomplished.

Measure Actions as Well As Progress

Sticking with the theme of setting fitness goals, many people get frustrated when they set a specific goal, such as “lose 20 pounds by summer,” and then fall short. While it’s good to have aggressive goals, it may be better to measure your actions instead of your progress in some situations. For example, instead of setting fitness goals based on pounds lost, you could set goals for how much cardio you do every week and whether you keep your calories below a certain threshold.

Think About the Results You Want to See

Before making a goal, look at what you’re trying to achieve and ask yourself: Is this goal something you truly want? Does it align with your values or other goals? Is it important enough to pour hours of time and effort into it? If you’re not willing to put in the time, it may not be worth pursuing. If you create a long list of goals to pursue all at the same time, you may have a difficult time achieving any of them. Instead, use the questions above to determine which goals matter the most to you right now, and then focus on those few.

Create SMART Goals

Once you’ve zeroed in on what you want, ensure your goal meets the SMART criteria: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound. The most crucial part of SMART goal-setting is to make your goal specific to track your progress and know whether you met the goal. The more specific you can be with your goal, the higher your chance of completing it. For example, many people set goals to lose weight but don’t always decide how much weight they want to lose and when they want to accomplish this goal. A specific goal would be “I want to lose 25 pounds by the Fourth of July.” This goal provides an exact amount of weight to lose and a completion date.

Plan the Steps to Get There

A goal-setting process forces you to think about the journey—in other words, how you’re going to complete your tasks—instead of just the end destination. This planning is crucial for success, allowing you to break down your goal into manageable steps. Lucidchart emphasizes the importance of planning the steps to achieve your goals rather than focusing solely on the result.

Seek Support and Use Resources

Sometimes, achieving your goals may require the help of tools or external resources. Whether using productivity apps, seeking mentorship, or utilizing tracking software, don’t hesitate to seek support. For instance, Timely offers various features such as memory tracking and project dashboards that can help in goal-setting and tracking processes.

The Psychological Benefits of Goal Setting

Setting and achieving goals can have profound psychological benefits. They enhance motivation, boost self-esteem, and provide a sense of accomplishment. Working toward a goal can be rewarding, creating a positive feedback loop that encourages further goal-setting and achievement.

Enhanced Focus and Motivation

When you set a goal, you give yourself a clear target to aim for. This clarity can significantly enhance your focus and motivation, making it easier to direct your efforts toward achieving the goal. Goals help you prioritize tasks and allocate your time and resources more effectively.

Improved Self-Esteem and Confidence

Achieving a goal, no matter how small, can significantly boost your self-esteem and confidence. It provides tangible evidence of your abilities and efforts, reinforcing the belief that you can achieve your goals. This boost in self-esteem can motivate you to set and tackle even more ambitious goals.

Sense of Accomplishment and Fulfillment

The sense of accomplishment that comes with achieving a goal is immensely satisfying. It provides a sense of fulfillment and can inspire you to continue setting and achieving goals. This sense of accomplishment can also positively impact other areas of your life, contributing to overall well-being and happiness.

Overcoming Common Barriers to Goal Achievement

Despite the benefits and structured approach to goal-setting, achieving goals is challenging. Several barriers can hinder progress, but the right strategies can overcome these barriers.

Procrastination

Procrastination is one of the most common barriers to achieving goals. Putting off tasks, especially if they seem daunting or unpleasant, can be tempting. To overcome procrastination, break your goals into smaller, more manageable tasks. Set deadlines for each task and hold yourself accountable. Tools like time trackers and productivity apps can also help keep you on track.

Lack of Motivation

Maintaining motivation over the long term can be challenging. To stay motivated, regularly remind yourself of why you set the goal in the first place. Visualize the result and the benefits of achieving your goal. Surround yourself with supportive people who can encourage and motivate you.

Life Challenges and Distractions

Life is full of unexpected challenges and distractions that can derail your progress. To combat this, try creating a structured routine that allows flexibility. Prioritize your tasks and focus on what is most important. If you encounter a setback, don’t be discouraged. Instead, view it as an opportunity to learn and adjust your plan accordingly.

Fear of Failure

Fear of failure can prevent you from setting ambitious goals or taking steps to achieve them. However, failure is a natural part of the learning process. Instead of fearing failure, embrace it as an opportunity to grow and improve. Reflect on what went wrong, make necessary adjustments, and continue working toward your goal.

Conclusion

Setting realistic and achievable goals is a powerful way to motivate yourself, enhance your performance, and achieve your best work. By following a structured approach to goal-setting—such as making your goals specific, setting time frames, aiming high (but not too high), drawing up a proper plan of action, publicizing your goals, writing them down, setting short-term milestones, being specific, measuring actions as well as progress, planning the steps to get there, and seeking support—you can set yourself up for success. The psychological benefits of goal-setting, including enhanced focus and motivation, improved self-esteem and confidence, and a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment, make it a worthwhile endeavor. Overcoming common barriers to goal achievement, such as procrastination, lack of motivation, life challenges and distractions, and fear of failure, is crucial for staying on track and achieving your goals. With determination, planning, and the right mindset, you can achieve your goals and unlock your full potential.

Remember, the journey to achieving your goals is just as important as the destination. Celebrate your progress, learn from your setbacks, and keep moving forward. The effort you put into setting and achieving your goals will be rewarded with a sense of accomplishment and the satisfaction of knowing you can achieve your goals. So, start setting your goals today and take the first step toward a more focused, motivated, and prosperous future.

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