Updated: Feb 19, 2020
Many of us have set goals and failed achieving them. Be it lack of motivation, too vague goals, too unreasonable deadlines, lack of proper action plan, or any other reason we may think of.
Setting achievable goals can indeed be tricky. However, I have compiled a list of steps that are important in setting goals, which make you more likely to achieve this time.
With the New Year just around the corner, many of us are starting to think of New Years resolutions. We may hope that with a new year we will get a fresh start to create new, healthier habits and feel extra motivated to set new goals.
Many of our New Years resolutions also involve the Post-Christmas effects. We often aim to exercise more, eat healthier and lose weight. We may also want to be happier and better with our finances next year, be more productive at work, spend more time with family, friends and people that matter to us, or spend more time in the nature.
But unfortunately, as motivating as our new years resolutions sound to us in the beginning, we tend to quit pursuing them almost as suddenly as we have started working towards them.
In fact, a survey found that only eight per cent of Americans achieve their New Year's resolutions (1).
How to set achievable goals instead?
Instead of setting New Years resolutions and ending up as the 92 per cent of people who don't achieve their resolutions, consider setting achievable goals. Goals can really be set at any time of the year and, depending on how motivated you are to follow your action plan, you are much more likely to achieve them than the New Years resolutions (1).
The following steps of how to set achievable goals are inspired by the well-known author of "Think and Grow Rich", Napoleon Hill (2). I have also adjusted them slightly, based on recent research.
1. Write down the goal
Make sure your goal is clearly written down. It can be on your phone, in your journal, your notebook, a stick-it note and hung on the wall where you always see it, or anywhere else you find convenient. Wherever you have it, make sure you can access it as often as possible in order to be reminded of your goal and feel how important it is to you.
By writing down our goals, we make a formal commitment to ourselves. A written commitment makes our goal more "real", official and important for us (2). In fact, a psychologist Gail Matthews showed that people who wrote down their goals were 33 per cent more likely to achieve them than those who didn't (3).
2. Analyze your goal
As you have written it down, take a few moments to mindfully analyze your goal. Is it achievable? Is it well-defined? Do you understand it?
Visualize yourself having achieved this goal. How do you feel? What timeline are you in? Where are you exactly? Who else is around? What things are around you? What sounds, smells and the temperature is around you? How do you look?
Try visualizing your achieved goal as vividly and in as many details as possible. By making sure our goals are clearly defined, makes them easier for us to understand them, which in turn increases our motivation to achieve them (2).
For example, we may start by writing down our goal as follows"I want to be happier next year". But this goal is quite loosely defined.
By analyzing it in this step, we can generate a more concrete goal that will increase our likelihood of achieving it by much more. Try mindfully thinking of things/people/places that make you happy. Think of a timeline of when you'd like to become happier.
By doing this analysis, you may even generate several goals, such as "I will meet my friends at least once a week for the next three months", or "I will achieve a certain personal best at the gym", or "I will finally go on the vacation I have dreamt of in the summer".
These types of goals are more specific and therefore easier to actually visualize. They would increase the overall happiness and can therefore be used either as sub-goals, or separate goals altogether.
Adjust your written goal to making it as detailed as possible. You can even use pictures, or drawings if needed.
3. Analyze the current situation
Think of reasons WHY you would like to achieve your goal. Mindfully observe how you are feeling now and why it is important for you to achieve your goal. What is missing in your current situation? Why do you wish to change it?
Realizing the reason WHY you want to achieve your goal is one of the key determining factors of whether you are likely to achieve it or not (2). This gives you a very powerful motivation that can be used in times of weakness or difficulties you may encounter while achieving your goal.
For example, if your goal is to be happier next year, analyze the reasons for why you are not currently satisfied with your level of happiness. Is it the time you delegate throughout your day that doesn't fulfil you? Do you not spend as much time with your family and friends as you'd like? Do you exercise very little, or not at all, making you less contempt about your body and giving you less chance to destress after a long day at work? Do you keep delaying that trip you've been dreaming about for a long time now?
4. List the differences between the current situation and your goal
Here you can use the means-end analysis, which is a great tool that you can then use to create a realistic and achievable action plan to achieve your goal (4).
Once you've analyzed your current situation and your goal in great detail, list the differences that are in between the two.
Include as many details as possible. What, who, where and how long time is required for you to reach your goal from the different perspectives you listed in step 2 and 3?
For example, if your goal is to achieve a certain personal best at the gym, what is missing between your current situation and your goal? Do you currently not have a gym membership and would need to get one in order to reach your goal? Maybe you currently exercise alone, or don't exercise at all, which prevents you from achieving your goal? Perhaps working out with an ambitious friend would help you reach your goal? Do you currently not have time for exercising after busy days of work? Think of what time of the day and which days would be the best for you to exercise. Perhaps you could use a training program that would help you to achieve your goal? Do you struggle with making exercise into a habit?
Learn more about how to turn bad habits into good ones on my blog post about habits.
Make a detailed list of everything that's needed for you to achieve the goal. Just as in step 2, you may use your imagination as much as possible even including visuals if it helps.
5. Make the list into an action plan and deadlines
Having analyzed your goal in all the previous steps, you may even have a draft of an action plan ready. This step is about fine-tuning it into a concrete action plan with real, set deadlines.
If your goal, for example, is the aforementioned one of achieving your certain personal best at the gym, you may make an action plan as follows:
Considering that you have a gym membership, you may decide to go to the gym four times a week, 1 hour each time. Having analyzed which times of the day and the week suit best for you, you may decide to go on Monday-, Tuesday- and Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings. If you think that you are more likely to achieve your set goal alone, rather than training with a friend, you may make sure that you exercise alone, without any distractions.
In order to make time for your training, you may have to reevaluate on what you spend most of the time in your days. Then eliminate the less productive activities, such as watching series during the days you were going to exercise. Changing one habit to another one, i.e. watching series to going to the gym, is very effective way to incorporate healthier habits into your days. Read more about it in my earlier post.
Make sure you also set deadlines as you make your action plan (2). Make sub-goals along your action plan and set deadlines for them. Think very realistically of what deadlines you can set and how do they correspond to your action plan.
For example, if you haven't trained much before, but set a deadline that after two months, you should be able to lift XX amount of weight, it may be quite unrealistic. Not only may it demotivate you from training altogether since the goal is just too overwhelming each time you think about it and try to increase the weight by much, but it may also be very unhealthy for your body and mind as neither get the proper time to physically adjust to the new routine.
Instead, think very objectively of how many times you'll actually manage to go to the gym and what is the reasonable increase in weights every session. Also consider the case of you getting ill, or possibly not being able to increase the weights each session.
In general, make sure you don't set unreasonable deadlines that would only make you stressed if you don't achieve them. At the same time, make sure your deadlines make it stimulating enough for you to strive for achieving them. Try to find a golden mean between unachievable and too easy deadlines.
6. Reevaluate your progress
Make sure to include feedback sessions either with yourself, or someone else who's involved with your goal to reevaluate your progress towards achieving your goal. Feedback is proven to enhance our motivation to strive for the goal, no matter how difficult it is, therefore also increasing the likelihood of us achieving the goal (5).
Is the action plan working? Do you need to readjust deadlines or subtargets? Was there anything you've missed when you did the means-end analysis, listing the things that are different from your current situation and your goal?
Identify exact errors that you have been making so far and try to overcome them. Also, identify what's been working best so far and do more of that.
Add whatever is needed to your action plan and readjust accordingly. It may be convenient to reevaluate your progress as you achieve your deadlines for your sub-goals, or whenever else during the process.
Stay tuned for more science-backed evidence and tips on mindfulness that I will post in this blog.
I am very interested to hear your opinion and tips on what you'd like to read about in this blog. Therefore you are more than welcome to leave a comment here, or contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org
Laura | MSc in Medical Science, Creator of The Greater Mindfulness
1. Prossack, A. (2018). This Year, Don't Set New Year's Resolutions. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/ashiraprossack1/2018/12/31/goals-not-resolutions/#177e4e623879 2. Hill, N. (1987). Think and grow rich. New York: Fawcett Books.
3. Matthews, G. (2015). Goal Research Summary. 9th Annual International Conference of the Psychology Research Unit of Athens Institute for Education and Research (ATINER).
4. American Psychology Association. (2018). Means-end analysis. APA Dictionary of Psychology. https://dictionary.apa.org/means-ends-analysis
5. Becker, L. J. (1978). Joint effect of feedback and goal setting on performance: A field study of residential energy conservation. Journal of Applied Psychology, 63(4), 428–433. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.63.4.428