I’ve always been something of a goal addict. During my senior year of high school, I had to write an essay about how to achieve true happiness, and I wrote that I found happiness by setting, working toward, and achieving goals. Pretty insightful for a high school kid, I think.
Not much has changed since then. I’m now even more convinced that achieving goals is the path to happiness, though I’ve realized that the journey is more important than the destination. Whether it’s waking up at 5 am every day for a month or writing a book (hint, hint), I’m always working on something.
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about how to set, plan, and work toward goals most effectively. Here’s the best of the best:
How I Set Goals
Set SMART Goals
The best goals are SMART goals. SMART stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based. The best goals are going to be ones that have all of these qualities. If you know exactly what you’re aiming to do and when it needs to be finished by, then you can say for sure when you’ve made it and if you’re improving along the way.
While some goals just can’t be quantified, if a goal is specific and measurable, it will often be more satisfying to work toward because you can see your progress along the way and know exactly how far you are from the finish line.
For example, one of the most specific and easily measured goals I’ve ever set for myself was to make 1000 handmade ceramic pots during my final semester of college. Because I numbered each pot as I created it, I always knew exactly how far I had to go.
Seeing progress is a huge motivator. The more you’re able to measure your progress and know that you’re moving forward, the more you can rely on that for motivation when you need that little kick.
Don’t set unattainable goals. I’m a sucker for a good challenge and absolutely love to push myself just to see what I’m capable of, but I know my limits. I’m always on the lookout for signs that I’m burning out, and my fiance helps to catch the ones I miss. Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone. That’s where the most growth happens, but know that pushing yourself too hard causes more harm than good.
I’m sure we’ve all racked our brains trying to find a solution to an unsolvable problem, and an unattainable goal feels just the same way. Few things are more discouraging than going after something and just being unable to get there. Make sure your goal is something that lies within your control. It isn’t possible to control other’s actions.
An effective goal has to mean something to you. If your heart isn’t in it, it will be a struggle to put the work in every day, and the results won’t be all that meaningful if you get there. It’s easy to want to adopt goals because we society pushes them on us, or they’re what our parents want for us, but in the end, it is your life, and you’re the one who has to live it. Go after what matters to you. You’re not here to make someone else happy; you’re here to create a life that you love.
Set a deadline. I never set a goal without a deadline or, at minimum, a time to check in and assess my progress. It’s too easy to indefinitely put off goals that don’t have a deadline, and that deadline is immensely useful for the planning stage that we’ll get to in a bit.
Sometimes, goals don’t have deadlines. They’re lifelong, or don’t have a set endpoint. For instance, one of my current goals is to become more comfortable with putting my work and myself out into the world and accepting the criticism that comes with that. This blog plays a significant role in working toward that goal. This isn’t a SMART goal, and there isn’t a way to truly know when I’ve achieved it.
In cases like this, rather than measuring the goal directly, set related sub-goals and measure those instead. To become more comfortable putting my work into the world, I have to do just that. I post here four times a week (get on the email list if you don’t want to miss any!) in part because it forces me to accept criticism. I also regularly reflect on how I react to criticism and how comfortable I am with putting myself out there to make sure I’m making progress.
Bigger Isn’t Always Better
As much as I love to challenge myself, most of my goals at any given time aren’t all that big. Hitting a series of small goals in quick succession gives you that motivational high that you need to keep moving forward with the bigger stuff.
While hitting a small goal is excellent and fun to celebrate, it’s important to quickly set the next goal and keep moving forward. That modest goal isn’t the finish line, it’s just one milestone along the path.
Unless you know for sure that challenges motivate you and you have the discipline to stick with something difficult, set smaller goals than you think you need to. It’s easy to rush into a lofty goal and hit it hard for a few days or weeks and then fall off the wagon when the motivation runs out because the discipline isn’t there to support you.
Start with something that you know you can push yourself through even if you aren’t feeling motivated. Motivation is unreliable. There will always be days where you’ve just got to suck it up and discipline your way through something. In fact, that’s what I’m doing right now as I write this article. In my experience, more often than not, it’s discipline that does 95% of the work.
Don’t take on too much. It’s way simpler to set goals than it is to achieve them. It’s too easy to set a ton of goals and forget about them before the week is over. Break that habit. Take your goals seriously. Consistently setting and promptly forgetting about goals teaches you that your goals aren’t serious and don’t matter. But they are, and they do. If you set a goal, make sure it’s realistic and make plans to stick to it.
Speaking of plans...
How I Plan Out My Goals
Failing to plan is planning to fail. -Probably Not Ben Franklin
Setting goals is the easy bit. Getting there is harder. A good plan makes getting to your goal totally doable.
Start with a brain dump. Brainstorm. Whatever’s in your head that’s related to your goal, get it out. Put it on paper. In general, getting whatever’s in your head out onto paper is a good habit to keep. Journaling is an excellent method for self-reflection and is a surprisingly valuable and insightful practice. But that’s another post.
Once you have all of your ideas onto paper, start to sort them out. Put your steps in chronological order and find a starting place. While you’re at it, if you don’t already have one, start to consider your deadline.
My favorite way to plan out my goals is to work backward from my deadline. The first thing I do is build in a bit of wiggle room. This is anywhere from a day or two to a couple of weeks, depending on the overall length of the project. It’s much better to finish a couple of days early than it is to do a sub-par job because you were rushing at the end. You deserve to do a good job and represent yourself with excellent work.
After I’ve built in a bit of extra time, I plan things out, working backward chronologically. Depending on how things work out, you may find that you don’t need to start immediately, or you may find that you need to shift your deadline back to make things work out.
Even better, I love goals that can be broken up into lots of identical pieces that I can plan out as weekly mini-goals. Since, yes, I am writing a book, I decided first when I want to finish writing. Then I figured out roughly how long I’d like the book to be. A bit of quick math told me how many words I needed to write each week to reach that goal. From there, I set a weekly goal with small deadlines every Saturday evening.
Planning like this offers a bit of flexibility. Ideally, I write every day, but if I don’t, I can make up for that missed session throughout the rest of the week and still hit my goal each Saturday. I also built in some wiggle room right before my deadline in case I have any off weeks where I don’t quite meet my goal.
Some Strategies For Organizing Your Goals
Personally, I love my Google calendar. As soon as I have an idea of how I’m getting to my goal and what kind of timeline I’d like to work on, I calendar block the whole thing out.
I have a calendar just for deadlines, so I put the deadlines there, then add blocks of time as necessary to determine exactly when I’m going to work toward my goal. For me, this is the key to getting to my goals. When I set and plan my goal, I don’t just lay out a vague path from A to B. I figure out exactly when I’m going to work on toward my goal and what I’ll be doing at that time, and I put it all on the calendar. Get actionable.
Sometimes, though, I have goals that don’t quite fit on my calendar. Sometimes they’re more broad, or vague, or just too long-term to plan out every little step, but I still need to keep track of them. I have two methods for this.
One is the 5-4-3-2-1 method. I recommend reading the whole post I did about this, but the gist is that I plan 5 years, 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days, and 1 hour at a time. This strategy is great for breaking down long term goals.
It’s totally fine if you don’t know where you want to be in five years, but if you do have some sort of idea, the 5-4-3-2-1 method helps to take you from a big, intangible and somewhat abstract goal to something that you can do right now.
I also recently did a life audit, which you can read about here. In my life audit, I came up with as many wishes for my future as I could. Then I divided them up by category and placed them in groups depending on how far in the future I think I want to accomplish them. This helps me to keep track of those long term goals that I want to keep on my radar but that I definitely won’t be working toward right now.
My life audit Trello board lets me push back goals that I don’t have time for right now without feeling guilty about it because I know that they’re there when I’m ready.
How I Work Toward My Goals
The most important thing is just to get moving! Action brings results. Goals get achieved when you put in a little bit of work every day to move forward. As long as you have a decent plan and put time on your schedule to get to work, there’s nothing left to do but make it happen!
That said, there are some things that I do as I work toward my goals to make sure I stay focused, pivot when I need to, and keep motivated—though, as I said before, don’t expect to rely on motivation.
Find your Why. When you know why you’re putting in this effort and what rewards will come from your actions, getting started isn’t quite so difficult. No matter what I’m doing, I have a Why, even if sometimes it’s just, “I want to see what happens,” or, “I want to see if I can.”
I revisit my Why often. For larger goals, I revisit my Why every single day. Sometimes, I can tell you why I’m doing something better than I can tell you what I’m doing. Internalizing, loving, and living your Why is the key to more determination and drive than you can imagine.
Along with my Why, I also revisit my goals often. I schedule time every Monday to look back at my 5-4-3-2-1, figure out which of those goals I’ve met or made progress toward, and set new ones as necessary. I also revisit my life audit every Monday as well to make sure nothing falls by the wayside.
Writing down and revisiting your goals is one of the best things you can do for yourself if you want to make them happen. It’s essential to stay focused. With the busy lives that so many of us lead, our personal goals often end up on the back burner when others demand our time and attention. Don’t forget about yourself.
As I’m working toward my goals, I often take time to reflect on how things are going so far. I ask myself what is and isn’t working. It’s important to be flexible, and pivot when something isn’t working. When things aren’t going well, find another way forward, but I don’t quit.
I also take the time to figure out my roadblocks. Do I keep getting distracted when I’m working toward my goal? Why? Is there a way that I can eliminate that distraction? More often than you realize, there’s a simple solution to a lot of the things standing in our way if we take the time to consider the roadblock objectively.
Last, and most importantly, I enjoy the journey. As much as I love that feeling of accomplishment that comes with achieving something I’ve been working toward for months or years, the most important lessons and growth happen during the journey. Those goals are just my reason for embarking down the path I’ve chosen.