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7 Tips for Setting Goals

It’s common for people to come up with resolutions as a new year approaches, everything from losing weight (a perpetual favorite) to starting a business. 

But to really make positive change happen in your life, you don’t need resolutions. You need goals.

What is a goal?

“A goal is a desired result that you plan and commit to achieving,” says occupational health psychologist Erin Eatough, PhD, of BetterUp.com, a coaching website. “Put simply, a goal is a dream with a deadline.”

Why should you set goals?

“Taking the time to think about what you want in life gives you a sense of purpose,” says Eatough. “Setting goals helps us take a step back and get some perspective on what’s really important in life. It’s the first step toward creating a life full of meaning.”

Here are seven steps to help you create the life you want.

Ask Yourself Why

In a world where the people around you—to say nothing of media sources, social and otherwise—are constantly presenting possible goals for you to pursue, it’s important to examine your own motivations.

“Make sure that the goals that you have set are ones that you genuinely want to achieve, not ones that your parents, family or employers might want,” says the team at MindTools.com, a site that offers resources for personal and professional development.

There will be more give and take when it comes to a life partner because you will both have goals, but MindTools urges you to still “remain true to yourself.”

“Take some time to really think about what you’d like your life to look like,” advises Eatough. She gives setting career goals as an example: “How much money do you ideally want to earn? Do you want to work for yourself? How many hours do you want to commit to on a daily basis?”

Look at the Big Picture—Then Narrow Your Focus

The first step in setting goals is to focus a wide-angle lens on the life you’d like to lead.

“Setting lifetime goals gives you the overall perspective that shapes all other aspects of your decision making,” says MindTools. The idea is to set goals in all areas of your life, including artistic, career, education, family, financial, physical and public service.

VeryWellMind.com, a site that offers mental health advice, cites five principles of goal-setting:

  • Clarity: Set goals that are clear and well-defined.
  • Challenge: Set goals that you can achieve, but that also challenge you.
  • Commitment: Set goals that you will fully commit to.
  • Feedback: Set goals that you can evaluate and reflect on regularly.
  • Task complexity: Feel free to set goals complex enough that they will require some time to accomplish.

Overall goals won’t get you where you want to go until you break them down into smaller steps.

“Once you have set your lifetime goals, set a five-year plan of smaller goals that you need to complete if you are to reach your lifetime plan,” advises MindTools. “Then create a one-year plan, a six-month plan and a one-month plan of progressively smaller goals.” These will provide the basis of to-do lists that will help you stay on track day by day.

The idea, says MindTools, is to wind up with “a small number of really significant goals that you can focus on.”

Keep in mind that “a goal is not an objective,” notes Eatough. “While goals describe what you want to achieve, objectives are the steps taken to reach the goal.”

For example, your goal may be, “I want to lose 20 pounds.” An objective for that goal might be, “In the next two weeks, I will find and set an appointment with a nutritionist to develop an eating plan I can stick with.”

Set SMART Goals—In Writing

One guideline commonly used in goal-setting is SMART:

  • Specific: Fuzzy, general goals—”I want to live a healthier life,” for example—aren’t helpful. “Consider answering who, what, where, when, which and why when getting specific about your goal,” advises VeryWellMind.
  • Measurable: You need to have identifiable benchmarks in order to mark your progress. In the example of living a healthier life, identify signs of progress such as weight loss, stamina gains, improvements in bloodwork values and so forth.
  • Attainable: Make sure you can actually reach the goals you set. If you’d like to improve your health at age 55, setting benchmarks more readily attainable at age 20 may not be realistic.
  • Relevant: This aspect of goal-setting is closely related to attainability. VeryWellMind suggests asking yourself, “Is your goal relevant to your life, and can you realistically achieve it, based on your current circumstances?”
  • Timely: Goals without timelines are meaningless. For example, if you want to lose 20 pounds, a timeline of three weeks is way too short...while a timeline of three years is like having no timeline at all. (In case you were wondering, a goal of losing one to two pounds per week is reasonable.)

When setting goals, don’t try to keep everything in your head.

“Put pen to paper and write them down,” says Eatough (or use some electronic equivalent). “This crystallizes them and gives them more force. As you work your way through each step of your plan, cross it off so you can see how much further you have to go.”

Stay Positive and Visualize Success

Everyone runs into obstacles in life. Achieving goals in the face of roadblocks requires three things: motivation to make a change, willingness to monitor your progress and sufficient willpower.

The best way to keep pushing forward is to “state each goal as a positive statement,” says MindTools. “‘Execute this technique well’ is a much better goal than ‘Don't make this stupid mistake.’”

You should also put the power of visualization to work for you. At some set time each day, perhaps just before going to sleep, imagine yourself taking the actions needed to achieve a particular goal in order to strengthen your resolve.

For instance, if you want to increase your lean body mass, visualize yourself getting up and going to the gym first thing in the morning—no matter how warm and comfy the bed feels.

Focus on Performance, Not Outcome

Overcoming obstacles is one thing, but “if your goal is based on something outside of your control, you won’t be able to control whether or not you actually achieve it,” says Eatough. For example, a goal may not be achievable if it depends on other people doing what you want them to do.

That’s why you should “set performance goals, not outcome goals,” says MindTools. “If you base your goals on personal performance, then you can keep control over your achievement.”

Hold Yourself Accountable

Taking a “maybe later” approach to goal attainment is a recipe for failure; it’s also a very common human trait. The key to overcoming this tendency lies in accountability.

First, “put your written goals somewhere you’ll see them,” suggests Eatough. “It should be a place you visit regularly so that you’re constantly reminded of where you want to be.”

VeryWellMind recommends making “a contract with yourself” and seeking the support of others in honoring that contract: “Tell a few friends or family members of your plans so they can encourage you and provide feedback when needed to help you stay on track toward your goal.”

As Eatough puts it, “Trying to accomplish a goal entirely by yourself can be lonely and overwhelming. Accountability helps you make consistent, steady progress.”

Reassess and Recalibrate

Every once in a while, you need to step back and review your goals, including what you’ve learned in achieving them.

You should first take time to savor your accomplishments. “If the goal was a significant one, reward yourself appropriately,” says MindTools. “This helps you build the self-confidence you deserve.”

Once you’ve patted yourself on the back, it’s time for a lessons-learned evaluation. MindTools offers the following suggestions:

  • If you achieved the goal too easily, make your next goal harder.
  • If the goal took a dispiriting length of time to achieve, make the next goal a little easier.
  • If you learned something that would lead you to change other goals, do so.
  • If you noticed a deficit in your skills despite achieving the goal, decide whether to set goals to fix this.

You should be doing such evaluations on a regular basis. “You can set this up as weekly, bi-weekly, monthly or bi-monthly,” says VeryWellMind. “The most important thing is that you assess whether your goals—and the steps you’re taking—are still relevant and realistic.”

Finally, Eatough recommends maintaining a sense of perspective.

“It can be easy to become obsessed with achieving your goals,” she says. “But this can lead to burnout; avoid burnout by living a balanced life. Practice kindness toward yourself and give yourself time.”

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**These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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