Without goals, it can feel like you’re drifting through life without a plan, purpose, or sense of direction. While most people want to have goals in life that they work to achieve, not everyone knows where or how to start the process. Others set lots of goals for themselves but end up not accomplishing them. Successful goal-setters have a set of strategies they use to make changes that improve themselves and their circumstances.
This article will explain the importance of goal setting and will provide some proven strategies on how to set the right types of goals, as well as how to stick to a plan that helps you achieve them.
- What are goals?
- How to set a goal
- Additional tips on how to achieve goals
- The importance of goals
- Common questions
A goal is a desired change or specific outcome that is unlikely to happen unless you devote time, energy, and effort to making it happen. A goal is usually something you really want to be different in the future, usually because you’re unhappy with some area of your life right now.
This is where your will to change comes from, but in order to reach a goal, you also need to identify the way to accomplish it. The way involves the specific plan, steps, and actions you need to take, as well as the knowledge and skills you’ll need to execute your plan.
Sometimes the hardest part of setting a goal is knowing where or how to start. This section will help you identify the first steps to define your goals and create a plan on how to achieve them.
The first step is to figure out what you want or need to change. You then need to turn this into a SMART goal. A SMART goal is a goal that has the following required elements that set you up for success:
- Specific: A specific goal outlines the exact changes you are going to make, which helps you be clear on your objective.
- Measurable: A measurable goal is one that you can track your progress towards and one you know you have achieved.
- Achievable: An achievable goal is one that is realistic and attainable to reach, considering your starting point and the skills, time, and effort you need to reach it.
- Relevant: A relevant goal is one that reflects your top priorities and will provide meaningful rewards and benefits in an area of life that matters to you.
- Time-bound: A time-bound goal has a specific timeline or target date attached to it, helping to keep you accountable for taking steps to reach it.
Writing down your SMART goal is also important because this simple step is proven to make you more likely to accomplish it.
Here are some examples of how to write a SMART goal:
- Lose weight and improve fitness → Lose 10 pounds by Christmas by exercising daily
- Improve my social life → See at least 1 friend per week for the next 3 months
- Build up my savings to improve my financial situation → Stick to a budget so I can save $500 monthly for the next 6 months
After you identify a SMART goal, the next step is to make a specific plan on exactly how you will achieve it. A detailed and specific plan of action is proven to help people achieve their goals and also helps you feel more confident that the goal is attainable.
- Write your goal and target date at the top of the list
- Break the goal down into a set of actionable steps you can take
- Create a timeline for when you will start and complete each step
- Identify the skills and strategies you need to complete each step
- Make a list of outcomes or specific milestones that will indicate progress
- List ideas of how to overcome barriers like unexpected stress, low motivation, etc.
After making a plan, the next step is to begin taking action. Early on, it can be better to make small, consistent changes to your daily routine than to make big, drastic changes all at once. This makes you more likely to follow through and stick to your plan and also boosts confidence and motivation by helping you see some early progress.
Consistency is key when it comes to working towards any goal. Research has shown that it takes an average person 66 days to form a new habit. Once this happens, the new behavior has become “automatic” and no longer requires as much attention, time, and effort. While it will be hard to stick to your plan at first, try not to make excuses or exceptions and instead work on being as consistent as possible with following through with your goal plan.
Some people are great at making their goals list, outlining a plan, and even making some changes early on but end up sliding back into their old habits. Common obstacles to reaching goals include a lack of willpower, loss of motivation, or encountering unexpected stress or setbacks. Below are some guidelines and tips on how to overcome obstacles and reach the goals you set for yourself.
Willpower is something that everyone has a limited supply of, meaning it can be depleted if you use it too much. The early steps in the change process require the most willpower because this is when the urges and pulls of the old habits will be the strongest. As you get more consistent with a new habit, less willpower will be needed, and urges, temptations, and impulses to fall into your old ways will start to die out. 
There are also some other ways you can conserve willpower and self-discipline to have it when you need it most:
- Remove temptations and urges to conserve willpower early on
Example: Throw away junk food in your pantry if you’re working on eating healthier.
- Take steps to make the unwanted choice “harder” to choose early on
Example: Leave your credit card home when you go shopping to avoid blowing the Christmas budget.
- Make the “good choice” the easy one to make
Example: Automate your savings by having a part of each paycheck put into an IRA.
- Make decisions ahead of time instead of in moments of temptation
Example: Look at the menu before going out to lunch to decide what you’ll order ahead of time.
- Stay connected to your “why” and keep your long-term perspective
Example: Fast forward in your imagination when faced with temptation and ask yourself if it will be worth it.
- Build in some cheats and exceptions to avoid feeling deprived
Example: Have a set allowance in your budget for fun or unplanned purchases.
2. Make a plan to overcome barriers
Planning ahead helps to improve your follow-through and boosts your chances of achieving your goal. The plans are tailored to you and designed to help you overcome the barriers most likely to get you off track.
Here are some examples of plans to help overcome some of the most common barriers to reaching a goal:
- Unexpected stress: Build in more time for self-care, be flexible and willing to adjust your goals, plans, tasks, and priorities when an unexpected stressful event occurs but make a plan to get back on track with a revised timeline.
- Feeling discouraged when progress is slow: Be willing to consider adjusting your timeline or action plan to be more realistic, and work on staying positive by focusing on small wins, things to look forward to, and long-term benefits of reaching the goal.
- Outside factors beyond your control: List out the factors that aren’t within your control, and then make a list of the actions or responses to these that are most likely to improve them or limit their effect on you.
- Linking goals to self-worth: Remind yourself that your self-worth isn’t dependent upon your success, look internally vs. externally for validation, and focus more on the process of learning and growing instead of a specific outcome or success.
- Unrealistic expectations linked to a goal: Remind yourself that reaching a goal won’t create lasting happiness but that the process of working towards and achieving it can help improve how you feel about yourself and your life.
Motivation is consistently listed as one of the key ingredients to success when it comes to successfully accomplishing a goal. Building motivation early on helps to inspire you to begin the process of making a change, but maintaining it is the ultimate secret to achieving a goal.
- Ensure your goals matter: You’ll be more invested, motivated, and committed to goals that provide meaningful benefits and improvements to your quality of life, so make sure your goals reflect the things that matter most to you. Consider your top priorities, your passions, and the things you value the most when making your goals list.
- Write down your goal and measure your progress: Writing your goals down helps you commit to your goal, but keeping track of your progress helps you stay committed. There are many iPhone and Android apps, templates, and worksheets you could use, or you could just log your progress using a journal or calendar. Looking back on your progress can provide motivation and can also help you understand what’s working and not working.
- Making a pros and cons list: Making a list of the pros and cons of making the change can help you tap into your motivators for the goal, keeping you connected to your reasons for wanting to change. This list can be something you look at periodically, especially when you’re feeling unmotivated.
- Ask your support system to check in: Telling someone else about your goal (like a friend, personal trainer, or significant other) can help, and providing weekly check-ins on your progress makes you twice as likely to achieve a goal. Their involvement and encouragement can help you stay on track and also keep you motivated.
- Identify the skills, abilities, and knowledge you need: You’ll feel more motivated if you identify what you need to accomplish your goal and come up with a plan to learn any of the skills or knowledge you don’t already have. Confidence in yourself is needed in order to stay motivated, especially on hard days or when you encounter a setback.
It’s normal to have some setbacks along the way to reaching your goals. What matters most isn’t how many setbacks you have but what you do when they occur. When you deal with setbacks properly, they don’t have to derail your progress or lead to ultimate failure. In fact, setbacks and mistakes can provide valuable information about how to succeed.
- Talk through what happened with someone you trust to identify what went wrong
- Stop your negative self-talk and be more compassionate to yourself
- Look back at your progress to remind yourself of how far you came
- Make an action plan to avoid making the same mistake again
- Consider breaking down your steps differently or adjusting your timeline
- Get back on track as quickly as possible after a setback, instead of giving up
- Try to find the “lesson” in the setback and adjust your plan accordingly
- Build in small rewards to motivate you to complete each step in your plan
Periodically re-evaluating your goals and action plan is important, regardless of whether or not you’ve been able to make the progress you wanted. This review can help you make sure your goals are still the things that really matter to you or whether your priorities have changed.
Re-evaluating your plan can also help you figure out what’s not working if you’re not having success with your plan. After all, the solution is sometimes to work smarter in life rather than to work harder. Adjusting your plan according to what you’ve learned is one of the best ways to continue working towards the goals that will benefit you, your life, and your future the most.
Goal setting can help you feel more in control of your life and future. It provides countless other benefits to your physical health, mental health, and overall happiness. Certain types of goals provide more of a return on investment than others. Research has shown that setting “high goals” (as opposed to small or easy goals) provides the most rewarding and noticeable benefits.
- More direction, purpose, and meaning in life
- Higher self-esteem and confidence
- Improving your view of yourself
- Increased energy and motivation
- Feeling more connected to your core values
- Expanded knowledge and improved skills
- More intentional and productive use of your time and talents
- Higher rates of achievement and success
- Noticeable improvements in unsatisfactory areas of life
- Feeling more hopeful and optimistic about the future
Goal setting is the best way to create the life you want for yourself. Setting good goals means defining a SMART goal, making a specific plan of action, and following through. By using the strategies in this article, you can set and reach goals that improve your life, boost your confidence, and help you feel more in control of your future.
Setting goals that are too easy is not a great idea, as research shows that challenging goals inspire more motivation and lead to higher levels of achievement. Also, it’s the “big” goals that tend to have the greatest positive impact on you and your quality of life.
Goals should be challenging but not unrealistic. If you don’t have the time, resources, skills, or knowledge needed to reach a goal, you’re unlikely to reach it. You also will feel less motivated to reach an unrealistic goal and more likely to give up when it gets hard.