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The Truth About Setting Achievable Goals

Whether you wake up with a plan or not, life has plenty of demands for your time. You’re familiar with the feeling of getting to the end of the day and looking back on it with a sense of frustration  —“Where did the day go?”  “How did it get away from me?” 

The hard fact is that trying to make any change — such as starting a new career, building a solid fitness routine, or making new friends,  is nearly impossible without a plan. Making a plan begins with setting goals. Let’s take a closer look at how goal-setting works, and how to set goals and intentions to get results. 

What makes a good goal?

You already know that a goal is something you hope to achieve. You may not know that how you phrase that goal (even to yourself —in fact, especially to yourself) really matters. As Forbes contributors Kimberlee Leonard and Rob Watts explain, the best goals are S.M.A.R.T. Here’s what that means: 

  • Specific: A strong goal is a specific one. Saying “I want to get in shape” is not specific. It’s vague and leaves little room for you to know whether you’ve achieved your goal or not. Instead set a specific goal such as “I want to run a 5k”. It gives you a clear outcome. 
  • Measurable: This one goes hand-in-hand with the previous marker of a strong goal. If your goal is measurable, you’ll see the progress you’re making. If you set the goal to “write a book,” every day that you don’t have a complete book feels like a failure. If you instead say, “I want to write 6,000 words this week,” you can see on Wednesday that you’re halfway to your goal when you hit 3,000 words. It will help with motivation and accountability. 
  • Achievable: Most of us have big dreams, and it’s fine to shoot for the stars in the abstract sense. However, when it comes time to set your actual goals, make sure they are achievable. It’s much better to take many small steps on a ladder than to make the first rung so high you never get started.
  • Relevant: Your goals should be connected to one another through a larger context. If your overarching goal is to start a new career, make sure the goals you set are working toward that end. Don’t get distracted by goals that aren’t related to the change you want to make. 
  • Time-Bound: It can be tempting to make a goal with no end in sight. However, to be the most effective (and to help you make sure it is achievable), you should really give it a deadline. “I want to contact six new potential clients by the end of the month” is much more actionable than “I want to build my client base.” 

Psychologists tell us that goal-setting is hard

Here’s what we know: a goal-setting action plan will bring results. 

As Dr. Marilyn Price-Mitchell writes for Psychology Today, making goals and putting them to paper makes a difference. In fact, those who wrote down their goals “were 33 percent more successful in achieving them than those who formulated outcomes in their heads.” 

This success might make it seem like we can simply pick up a pen and bring our dreams to life, but goal-setting is no easy feat. Professor of Psychology Dr. Elliot T. Berkman writes in his article “The Neuroscience of Goals and Behavior Change” about just how difficult it is to bring goals to fruition. That difficulty, according to Berkman, is tied up in behavior change: “To pursue what most people call a goal involves doing something different than what has been done before.”

He goes on to explain that such a behavior change can be broken into two components: the Way and the Will. 

“The Way” of achieving goals and changing behavior

When it comes to what happens inside our brains as we work toward a goal, there are some specific parts in play. Berkman calls these pieces “the Way” of goal-setting. They include attention, working memory, and the ability to plan. Things you can do to improve the way you approach your goals.

  • Focus: Make dedicated time to focus on work that’s free of distractions. 
  • Habits: Habit-making involves using consistent cues and rewards to build a new behavioral routine. 
  • Skills: Effort put into building skills specifically related to our goals is more likely to pay off than effort put into changing our brain’s functions.

“The Will” of achieving goals and changing behavior

The “will”, as it sounds, comes from our drive and desire to accomplish a goal. We have a lot more control over our motivation, and this is the area where we can see substantial improvements in our progress. 

  • Take Small Steps: Changed behavior is much more likely to last when it’s tied to past experiences, and that means starting small. Baby steps will take you further than a big leap that leaves you flat on your back! 
  • Give Yourself a Break: Just knowing that changing behavior is a challenge and that setbacks are not the end of the road can help you stay on track. It’s not an all-or-nothing deal! 
  • Know Your Values: You are much more likely to achieve a goal that’s tied to your own personal values and sense of identity. Know what matters most to you and use that framework to set goals that match.

Don’t wait to set your goals

As you can see, setting and achieving goals can be a complex process, but the best time to get started is right now. If there’s a change you’re ready to make, there’s no better time than the present to map out what steps you plan to take to get where you want to go. Don’t let another day go by when you wake up without a plan in place. 

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