Setting Realistic Goals: 7 Keys To Set Goals You Can Actually Achieve

“The victory of success is half won when one gains the habit of setting goals and achieving them.

Even the most tedious chore will become endurable as you parade through each day convinced that every task, no matter how menial or boring, brings you closer to fulfilling your dreams.”
– Og Mandino

It has taken me a long time to learn how to effectively set realistic goals.  As I made mistakes and figured out what worked for me, I thought I was unusual – I thought everyone easily set goals except for me. Over the years as I’ve worked with and mentored people, however, I’ve learned my situation was not that unusual – in fact, it’s far more common than we think.

(Here’s a Free Goal Setting Cheat Sheet you can use to follow along)

We’ve all been told that we should set goals, and we assume that we can – but most of us have never been taught how to set goals effectively so they are realistic and achievable.

One of the most sobering goal setting statistics I learned in my research on setting New Year’s resolutions was that 25% of resolutions were broken in the first week.  And the odds didn’t get much better for the first couple months – among gym goers, 80% drop out within eight weeks.

I think a large part of this is due to not having realistic goals – without something to shoot towards, it’s easy to get discouraged and give up.  It’s hard enough to make changes in our life and accomplish what we desire – if your goal is unrealistic, or not well defined, then you’re starting out with an immediate handicap.

So, what can you do to keep your goals on track? Here are seven keys for setting realistic goals.

Key #1 – Write Your Goals Down

Studies and surveys have shown that you are far more likely to achieve your goals if you write it down.  I personally like to write my goals down and refer to them daily to keep them at the front of my mind.

Writing down our goals also helps make them real to us.  If we just think about a goal, it’s not physically real – and it’s easy for us to change our minds.  When we write it down however, the very act of writing helps us commit to the goals – and also gives us something we can visually see and reflect on.

For more about written goals, see the article I wrote about a written goal setting study – and it wasn’t done at Yale or Harvard.

Key #2 – Set Short Term Milestones

Goals that are far out of reach are easy to procrastinate on and put off. It’s fine to have long term dreams – but in the short run, you should have regular mile stones as well.

For example, if your goal is to write a novel, rather than just saying you’ll write a novel this year and leave it at that, instead commit to a certain number of pages or words a month – these short term milestones will help you stay on track, and will make your long term goal much more manageable.

Key #3 – Be Specific

If your goal is to “lose weight” – how will you know when you’re done?  Going along with the above of setting short term mile stones, even if your long term goal is “get in better shape” – you can still be specific such as “be in good enough shape to play football for two hours twice a week.”

The more specific you are, the better motivated you’ll be as you get closer to achieving your goal. With vague goals, it’s very easy to get discouraged, because you may not feel like you’re getting closer to due to having no clear end in sight.

Use specific, tangible words in your goals such as measurements and (if applicable) a date by which they will be accomplished.

Key #4 – Measure Actions as Well As Progress

Sticking with the theme of setting fitness goals, many people I know get frustrated when they set a specific goal such as “lose 20 pounds by summer” – and then fall short of their goal. While it’s good to have aggressive goals, in some situations it may be better to measure your actions instead of your progress.

So for example, instead of setting fitness goals based on pounds lost, you could set goals for the amount of cardio you do every week and whether you keep your calories below a certain threshold.

This is also good for vague goals that may be difficult to measure, such as achieving proficiency playing a sport or playing an instrument. Setting goals based on perhaps 1 or 2 hours of practice a day may be more helpful than simply saying “get better before school starts.”

Key #5 – Start With Just One Goal

A classic mistake that I see over and over, and that I’ve made many times myself, is to be overzealous and try to change too many things at one time.  You may decide you want to turn your life around and set out to accomplish a laundry list of goals at once.

Unfortunately, trying to accomplish too many things at once is frequently a recipe for failure.  For most people, changing too many aspects of their lives requires an overwhelming amount of willpower, and ends up being unrealistic.

I prefer the approach advocated in Zen To Done – set one goal at a time, and then as you get that goal under control, slowly add more goals into the mix.

Key #6 – Schedule In Time For Your Goals

If you don’t make time for your goals, you’ll never accomplish them – it’s as simple as that.  Along those sames lines, generally speaking, the more time you allocate per day to your goal, the faster you’ll achieve it.

Rather than leave it to chance, I recommend scheduling a specific time every day for your goal. I think this is part of the reason why organized sports and personal trainers are so effective for people looking to improve their fitness – the activity has a set block of time on their schedule, and so people attend regularly.

My bias is towards working on goals first thing in the morning – but find the schedule that works for you.

Key #7 – Set Goals You Actually Want To Achieve

Rumor has it that a philosopher in Europe once posted this message on his telephone answering machine:

“This device is programmed to ask two simple questions:

Who are you and what do you want?

Most people live their entire lives without ever answering either one.”
– from The Magic Lamp: Goal Setting For People Who Hate Setting Goals

This last key took me a long time to learn, and I think really is the most important on the list.  Don’t set goals because you think you “should” or because they “sound good.”

Look at your life and the direction you want it to take – set goals that you realistically can achieve, but more important – pick goals you want to achieve.

What Now?

Here’s a Free Goal Setting Cheat Sheet you can use.

Further Reading:

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