How To Set Your Goals Up For Success

A blue planner and pen sit under an open planner with several goals written on the first page.

“Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.” —Pablo Picasso

The new year is an inspiring time, all about the coming year’s big plans, goals, and resolutions. A fresh calendar and a fresh perspective can go a long way in goal planning. 

Unfortunately, by the time March rolls around, around 80 percent of people have already abandoned their start-of-the-year resolutions. Setting goals that are actually attainable can be daunting. In a way, it’s easier to dream big -- it’s actually harder to set your goals in a realistic way that takes into account the regular challenges of daily life and asks you to make slow, steady progress.

Don’t let that extra challenge stop you, though! 

If you’re serious about success, you need to set your goals in a way that will allow you to succeed. Here is how you create a goal plan that is realistic, but still allows you to grow and become a more amazing version of yourself.

Be specific but flexible

Picasso’s philosophy was that the only sure way to reach a goal is to make a plan. That’s a good start. Don’t dream; be practical. 

What do you want to achieve? How will you get there? What will you do each day to actually make progress?

Spend some time thinking through your goals. It might be that “improving fitness” is too broad to be attainable. How do you define “improving your fitness”? It’s likely that your definition is actually a better goal. 

One person might define improving their fitness as being able to run 5 miles; another person might define it as losing 15 pounds. Knowing specifically what will mean success to you is critical! You can’t plan to achieve your goal if you aren’t 100% sure what it is you are trying to achieve.

Setting a goal that is too general allows you more room for excuses, but narrowing the target forces you to set goalposts that you will clearly achieve or not achieve.

As you work on your goal, you might discover that it needs reworking or that there are challenges you didn’t expect. This is all part of the process and doesn’t mean you are doomed to fail. It just means you need to be prepared to be flexible.

Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer-prize winning reporter and the author of “The Power of Habit”, says recovery plans are crucial to success because hiccups are bound to happen. “The question isn’t ‘Are you going to be able to avoid that?’” Duhigg told the New York Times. “The question is ‘What are you going to do next?’”

You will inevitably have an off week, no matter the goal. Build some buffer into your plan, so that you won’t feel absolutely defeated to the point of quitting when things don’t go perfectly. 

Decide how you will measure progress 

One of the main reasons why goals or resolutions can be so easy to give up is that results, whatever they may be, aren’t immediate or evident, even when we know we shouldn’t expect them to be. Like anything, it’s hard to put in work and not immediately see the fruits of our labor. 

A 2016 study from the University of Chicago found that getting immediate rewards is a major indicator in whether people stick with their long term goals. 

Find ways to measure progress or set benchmarks to your big goal. Most importantly, remember to celebrate the small wins as you reach the benchmarks along the way. It gives you a reason to keep going, especially early on.

James Clear, author of “Atomic Habits”, encourages mastering the “art of showing up.” Do things slowly and reward yourself for even trying, like adding a lunchtime walk or skipping morning coffee once a week.

When you’re working on a big goal, it’s easy to always focus on what’s coming up next, and to ignore the progress you’ve already made because there’s so much left to do. To help counteract this mindset, plan in advance how you’ll reward yourself at different milestones along the way.

Create accountability 

When you’re a grownup, no one is checking to make sure you did your homework. It is all up to you.

Being accountable is crucial with achieving goals. If you let yourself slide, there is no one there who will help you get back on track. As a result, you need to set your goals in a way that makes accountability part of your process.

Can you include a friend on your journey and do a weekly accountability check-in? Will it motivate you to go exercise if you’re paying for a gym membership, as opposed to just running outside?

How can you make it painful (even just slightly) to not make progress on your goal? Avoiding even minor pain or embarrassment can be a huge motivator.

When author Jedidiah Jenkins feared he’d back down from a trans-continental cycling trip, he put his plan on social media. In his book “To Shake the Sleeping Self,” he describes the humiliation that he believed he would feel if he didn’t achieve, or at least attempt, the cycling trip from Portland to Patagonia. 

He did the entire 14,000 miles with a little help from his cycling partner, lots of people along the way, and the little push he gave himself by telling people about his goal.

Researchers have found that we’re more likely to keep our word to ourselves if we tell another person, so don’t feel the pressure to achieve it all on your own. A little help or motivation can go a long way.

Be patient with yourself

Just a warning, this might be the toughest part. Sorry! It’s going to take some time to figure out how to make a new habit stick or the best path to achieving a goal, and you will not always feel happy about the growth you’re working on.

You might hit times where you want to quit. Don’t feel bad about yourself for this -- it does not mean you are weak or dumb. It just means you are human. Growth is hard and uncomfortable. 

What matters most is what you decide to do next.

A good way to avoid inevitable burnout is to make time for check-ins with yourself. Allow yourself to evaluate how you’re doing and be honest about it. Maybe you weren’t so great at saving money this week. What was the cause of that? How can you make it work better next week?

Set yourself reminders to evaluate your goal, put it on your calendar if you have to. 

Part of patience is knowing when to be flexible or give yourself some leeway. A demanding, rigid plan is a recipe for failure, because it doesn’t allow for the fact that life happens. We get tired, kids get sick, work demands extra time… We are not always able to be our best selves every single day.

Give yourself a reasonable timeline for when you should hit small milestones and the big goal. Build space into your plan for things not to go well. Don’t plan your day down to the hour; instead, block off time for progress and be prepared that, some days, that time will get interrupted. 

Think of goals in terms of the big picture but also in the small steps. When you’re not seeing the results you want as quickly as you want, remember the plan you’ve set forth. Slow and steady, you set your goals with success in mind. With the right plan, you can’t help but reach the finish line.

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