It happens every year at about this time. We look back at the months that have passed and try to sort out what went right, what went wrong, what surprised us, what bored us, and what we wish we could do again.
From that simple assessment, we start looking ahead to a fresh, new start. We jot down a handful of New Year’s resolutions that say to others (but mostly to ourselves): These are the goals I’m going to achieve this year.
Most goals involve self-improvement. We vow to start the year by replacing unhealthy habits with healthy ones. Or we identify our shortcomings and want to erase them in favor of becoming someone we perceive as “better.” We want fitter bodies, cleaner houses, larger bank accounts, stronger skills, sharper minds, and happier families—and, by the way, we don’t want to wait until February to see a difference.
Of course, we don’t need a new year to turn over a new leaf and start working toward a goal. All we really need is that one moment when we make a decision or a choice that is different from the decision or choice we’ve always made before. However, with a new year in front of us, let’s be old-school and set the timer to begin on January 1.
Goal setting has become a business. Experts help ordinary people identify, articulate, and attain what they want. They offer theories and systems and templates and blogs and articles and seminars and books and coaches to nudge you toward achievement. Some methods are sensible and straightforward, some are trendy and complex. Just google “setting goals” and you’ll see what I mean.
here doesn’t seem to be just one right way. If you look at the many resources out there and compare the advice of different experts, there are a lot of similarities across methods and theories. Setting goals doesn’t have to be complicated. Start by thinking about these simple questions.
Whose Goal Is It?
Is it something you really want? Something you’ve been thinking about for a while? Are you the one who will benefit the most when you achieve the goal? Completing a marathon could be fun, but not if you hate running and you’re training in response to your spouse or significant other suggesting it would be a nice thing to do together.
Does It Make Sense?
Volunteering at a food pantry is definitely worthwhile
unless the nearest one is on the other side of town and you come to resent having to squeeze that time in around your work schedule, your kids’ homework and extra-curriculars, and your spouse’s business trips. Maybe the time to set this goal is next year when you know it might be more attainable.
Is It Realistic?
Studies have shown that people don’t follow through with their goals when they’re broad, intimidating, and have difficult parameters. Losing 20 pounds by pool season, finding a new job, saving $500 a month—all of them make you think, “Where do I even start?” and could require dramatic day-to-day lifestyle changes. And imagine setting all three of these goals at the same time.
Once you decide on something you truly want and you know it’s achievable, how do you actually make something happen?
Make a List of Smaller Steps
Not surprisingly, the key to accomplishing goals is in the actions you take. Start by working backwards. Break down the result you want into small, manageable tasks that will get you there. You can think of it as a to-do list consisting of separate actions that, when completed, get crossed off and move you forward. Depending on the goal you’re trying to achieve, every item on the list might be different or building on the one before it, or the tasks might be nearly the same and progress will be seen through repeated behavior over time.
Here is an example when tasks are different and build on each other. The goal of finding a new job might have to start with actions like: Update your resume, think about the pros and cons of your current job, list your career aspirations, or edit your LinkedIn profile. Depending on how busy you are, those could be completed in a day or over the course of a week and then you’re ready to move to tasks like: Attend one networking event, send an introductory email to one headhunter, or contact someone you know in your field of interest.
Here’s a different example when a repeated action, over time, creates the results you want. The goal of losing weight might start with steps like: Replace every soda with a glass of water, take a sandwich and a piece of fruit to work instead of eating lunch out, or find recipes for dinners you can cook at home. Next steps might be: Plan a week’s worth of homemade meals and buy what you need for those meals at the grocery store, park farther away wherever you go and walk to the door, or stroll for 15 minutes every day—around your office, through your house, in your neighborhood, just stay moving.
Nothing makes people procrastinate more than knowing there’s a big project to be done and realizing that it can’t be completed in one sitting, or one day, or one weekend. You have to be mentally prepared and highly determined to begin something that will take time. Sometimes, all it takes is a reward to get you started or keep you going.
If you’ve been getting up early to walk, reward yourself by sleeping in a bit on the weekend. If you’ve been preparing meals at home all week, treat yourself and your family to a pizza or ice cream over the weekend. It won’t undo all the good you’ve done and going forward that reward can be a strong motivating factor. If you’ve taken steps to get your name and resume seen by potential employers, set the job search aside for a day to clear your mind. If you’ve attended a networking event or communicated with a consultant or former colleague, you may find inherent reward in having made new contacts or having established leads to an interview.
Here’s one more thing to keep in mind. It is possible to make your goal for the new year be, simply, to set no goals. If you beat yourself up every year because you make New Year’s resolutions and give up by the second week of January, don’t make any resolutions this year. You can still form a new habit or two that will have a positive impact on your life.
It’s not easy to attain the seemingly unattainable. It takes patience, planning, and energy—you have to really want it. But everyone can take one small step that on its own appears to be just another task on a to-do list. Cross off task after task after task and pretty soon you’ll see that you’ve inched, or jumped, forward toward achieving your goal.