There are some people in this world who love goals and seem to always achieve what they set out to do. Meanwhile, most of us struggle to keep our goals. This goal setting season, as you think about what personal or professional goals you want to set, start thinking about how you want to achieve it. Achieving goals is not as hard as it may seem, as long as you know the not-so-secret formula.
Throughout this article, we’ll use one of the most common New Year’s goals to illustrate how this all works: being healthier. But all of these steps apply to any goal you may have in mind.
First, pick something feasible.
Often when New Year’s is around the corner and we’re feeling motivated to make some changes in our life we tend to over commit ourselves. We may suddenly decide to become a pro-guitar player, or lose 200 pounds, or get four new professional certifications, or suddenly get all A’s when we’ve been averaging C’s this year. Although these are all worthy goals worth pursuing, the chances of you being able to make such dramatic changes to your habits is less than likely to happen. That’s why so many goals die away in January. We bite off more than we can chew because when everything is theoretical, anything is possible. But when it comes to doing the work, we falter.
It takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days to form a new habit. And unlike popular believe, the average time it takes to form any habit isn’t 21 days, but 66. That’s because habits are hard to form and even harder to break. So if your goal this next year is to be healthier, you have to start by knowing where you are. You can’t make a change if you don’t know where you’re starting from. Maybe you eat out a few times a week. Maybe you want to lose some weight or gain some muscle. Maybe you exercise about once a month. Maybe you eat a very healthy diet, but you smoke or drink alcohol regularly. Once you’ve made an inventory of where you are right now, pick one or two (never pick more than two) ways that you want to improve. In this example, let’s say that you decide that you want to lose some weight and you want to eat healthier. Great! Now onto the planning phase. This is the phase that will help make your goal possible. The more planning, and the more realistic the planning, the better chance you have of achieving your goal.
Second, make a simple plan
The easiest formula for planning your goal is to use the SMART method. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time Bound.
Step one was picking a specific goal. Instead of “be healthier” we decided to “lose some weight and eat healthier”. That’s a great start. Now let’s make it even more specific.
Specific, Measurable and Achievable:
We are going to achieve all three of these elements in one go. See if you can find each element in the following examples.
Specific, Measurable and Achievable:
How much weight do you want to lose? Be specific, but be kind to yourself. Think about losing weight in terms of pounds per month, instead of an end of the year goal. Something like 5 pounds a month will be 60 pounds by the end of the year. Even one pound a month is 12 by the end of the year! It’s easy to achieve in the short-term and will help keep you from becoming discouraged as the year goes on. In this example, we’re going to say we want to lose 3 pounds each month this year.
How are you going to lose that weight? We are going to work on losing that weight by exercising three times a week right after work.
So our goal is: lose 3 pounds each month by exercising 3 times a week right after work.
Eating healthy is still a little vague. It can mean eating out less or eating more vegetables. Many people make the mistake of taking eating healthy to mean doing an extreme diet for a short time. Although diets can be effective in the short-term, they fail to produce long-term effects. So instead of jumping on the diet train, find something easy you can change in your current lifestyle that will have a long-term affect.
For example, if you’re like the average American, you’re probably eating out 2-3 times a week, and the most popular places to eat out are fast food. We all know how unhealthy that food can be. One way to improve your healthy eating goal would be to only eat out half as much as you do now. So instead of twice a week, you only eat out once a week.
Another example, maybe you don’t eat out much, but you eat a lot of pasta, rice, fried food, frozen food or boxed foods. Although these aren’t the worst things to eat, there is definitely room for improvement. One way to improve your eating in this case would be to find a cooking website you like and try a new fresh, vegetable heavy recipe each week. As you find new healthy recipes you like, you’ll begin to eat more healthy food more often. In this hypothetical example, we’re going to say that we decide to try a new healthy recipe each week. That means by the end of the year we will have tried 56 new recipes!
So our goal for healthy eating is: Find and cook one new, vegetable heavy recipe each week.
In a moment of motivated excitement, we may sign ourselves up for something we aren’t really interested in. Next week, will you still be interested in trying to achieve this goal? Were you interested in it last week? An easy way to know if the goal is relevant to you is trying to remember how long you’ve wanted it. Have you been thinking about getting a guitar for the last month? Have you been worried about your health for the last year? Have you only been thinking about becoming a pro surfer for the last hour? If it hasn’t been on your mind much, chances are it won’t be there in the short time to come. So whatever you pick, pick something that matters to you and has mattered for at least more than a week.
New Year goals do not have to last the whole year! Pick how long you want to work on your goal and be specific. Even if you goal is bound by numbers, such as how much weight you want to lose, make sure to also put a date on it. That can be the end of the year or 6 months from now or by your birthday. Just make sure the time frame you set for yourself is still achievable and relevant.
Now that you have a goal and a plan, you’re ready to make it happen. This is the hardest part of goal setting.
Third, make it hard to forget.
Goals are often abandoned because we just forget about them. With so much going on in our lives it’s easy to see why we might forget or may be too tired to do it. That’s why making the goal hard to forget is the best way to keep you on track.
Making a goal hard to forget means making it something you see and interact with regularly. Some people use an app on their phone to send reminders and track their progress. We recommend creating a poster or just taping pieces of paper to your wall that outline your goal, your timeline, and what reward you get after each milestone. Having something on your wall, in a place where you will see it every day, will make sure you never forget.
Although apps can be very helpful, many of us are used to ignoring notifications and that in itself can become a habit. So make it physical and leave the app notifications as a back-up or supplement to help remind you when you need it.
Here is an example of a goal wall. This one has multiple goals on it at once. Each has a specific goal, the time table and a way to measure progress as they achieve the goal.
Fourth, habit stack.
The best way to keep a habit is to find a place for it in your routine. This is called habit stacking. When something becomes a habit, it’s like muscle memory to your brain. And your brain knows when to perform that action because it remembers a series of actions that precedes it. This is what makes habit stacking so effective.