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How to set realistic goals

Last updated on
January 9, 2019

Goal setting isn't just something you do once at the start of the year and forget about—nor is it the property of managers and business owners. Setting goals is one of the best things we can do to motivate ourselves, deliver effectively and stay accountable for our performance. Used effectively, goals help us to achieve our best work, yet too often they can fall by the wayside, or become a source of stress and unhealthy pressure. So how do you set goals that actually stick?

The value of setting goals

Goals allow us to set expectations for ourselves and provide a sense of progress. They are effectively a mindfulness tool—helping us declare how we intend to apply ourselves. From using the fresh start effect to the time scarcity of deadlines, goal setting leverages a multitude of psychological techniques to help manage and direct our focus.

There are a ton of different ways to use goals to motivate you and provide a sense of purpose. Some goal setting methods are highly structured, intentionally stretching and focused on long-term deliverables—like the practise of OKRs. But goals can really be as informal and short-term as you like—like setting yourself a daily to-do list or committing to do a certain number of deep work a week.

How to set goals and deliver against them

However you dress it up, goal setting is ultimately just an exercise in setting an intention and delivering against it, yet meeting goals is rarely that straightforward. Often, that can be because we haven't structured our goals correctly in the first place. Try using this template to ensure you set goals you actually stick to:

1. Make your goal specific

It’s all very well looking at your career and saying “I want to do better”, but how will you measure this? Do you want a pay rise or a promotion, to branch into a new specialism or develop a new skill, or set a new job course entirely? Goals should never be vague. Set yourself clearly defined objectives using the framework: “I want to achieve X by X” (using lead measures over lag measures). Only once you have clarity and a vision of what success looks like can you begin mapping out the path to that goal. Uncertain goals lead to uncertain results, and undeveloped goals only lead to undeveloped futures.

2. Give your goals a time frame

Almost all goals require deadlines or time frames. Why? Because if you don’t have an end-point in mind, you won’t be able measure the effectiveness of your progress. Setting time frames also allows you to work towards your goal more efficiently; if you know there are only three months until your self-imposed deadline, you’ll know you must work that bit harder to achieve your goal. It gives you structure, allows you to plan and boosts your sense of urgency, which can be key to hitting your goals.

Without a time frame – or any aspect you can measure – it’s harder to define success. If your goal is to “Make more money” then how will you know when you’ve accomplished this? In two months’ time, if you’ve earned an extra few hundred dollars? Or by the end of the year, if you’ve earned an extra few thousands?

3. Always aim high...

There’s general consensus that goals should be attainable and realistic. This is true to a point; setting yourself a goal that’s entirely unattainable is not only a waste of time, it will also be a major blow to your self-esteem when you fail to hit your targets—or even come close.

The whole point of goals is that they challenge and inspire you. If you set the bar too low and aim to accomplish something you know is reasonable, you won’t have the drive and motivation to push yourself further. Think about what you really want to achieve: what have you dreamed of since you were young? Where do you see your future self? Where do you definitely not want to be?

4. ...But not too high

Obviously, there should be some limit to what you’re trying to achieve. Some goals just aren’t ever realistic, no matter how hard you push yourself. For example, if you’re not a naturally fast runner you’ll never win a 100 meter race, let alone set a record; likewise, if you’re 70 years old without any political experience, you’ll never become the President of the US (wait… scratch that last one). But how do you differentiate between a goal that’s ambitious-yet-still-achievable and a goal that’s entirely outlandish?

To decide this, you need to consider your plans for success. How are you going make this dream a reality? What steps will you take? You can have a goal that on the surface seems unworkable, but if you can clearly document every step you’ll need to take for it to happen, then it’s still achievable. Goals should be realistic, but also ambitious.

5. Draw up a proper plan of action

Don’t make the mistake of being so focused on the outcome of your goal that you neglect the steps you must take to achieve it. Take the time to write out a detailed plan of action – the very act of writing it down will make it appear more substantial. Lay out the individual steps you’ll take, then cross them off once you achieve them (few things are as satisfactory!).

Look into any tools to help you measure them, so you actually know you’re progressing. Time blocking is an excellent tool for mapping our time to achieve your goals. Keeping a productivity planners can also be useful, but it can get time-consuming, so consider using tools which help you understand what you’ve already put into your goal without the extra effort. Trello boards and automatic time tracking are a great place to start! As you do this, you’ll know that you’re getting closer to your end goal—something that in itself is a powerful aid.

6. Publicize your goals and make yourself accountable

When it comes to setting and achieving goals, don’t be shy. Tell people about what you’re trying to achieve—by stating it publicly you’re making yourself accountable for achieving it. If you set a goal and don’t tell anyone, the power of the goal is vastly minimized. There’s nobody to hold you accountable, to ask you how you’re doing or where you are on your journey. Establish a public commitment to your goal by sharing your vision with people around you—and celebrate it when you finally get there!

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