Handling Out-of-Reach Goals

A few weeks ago, I put out a call on Twitter and on Facebook for detailed posts that people would like to see. I got enough great responses that I’m going to fill the entire month of July – one post per day – addressing these ideas.

On Facebook, Joan wondered “What do you do when your financial goal seems out of reach?”

Goals that feel too out of reach are certainly a challenge. They can leave the goal-setter demoralized and feeling as though the goal will never really be accomplished, so why try at all.

I’ve fallen into this trap myself, often with fiction writing. I’ll have some great ideas for a fictional story, but when I sit down to write it, the story feels too big and the writing task just too immense to really tackle it at all. The sheer scope of it scares me away from even starting.

For others, goals such as eliminating all of their debt, starting a business, or having and raising a child can take on that particular flavor of out-of-reach hopelessness. I’ve found that there are seven techniques that really help me in dealing with my out-of-reach goals (and have helped me make some amazing progress on my fiction writing).

I’ll talk about these goals with the perspective of a recent goal-oriented experience of mine: working on my fantasy novel.

Embed yourself deeply with people who have achieved what you wish to achieve
Make friends with them. Spend time with them. Read their books and their blogs. Listen to their audiobooks and radio shows. Know their experience of succeeding in this area as deeply as you can. This not only will help you to believe that it’s possible, but also give you an abundance of techniques for making it possible.

Over the years, I’ve read countless books on the art of novel writing and follow the blogs and Twitter feeds of many of my favorite fiction writers, including Neil Gaiman and George R. R. Martin. They provide a constant reminder that it is certainly possible to take the dreams and ideas and world you’ve conceived in your head and convert it to the printed page.

Shrink the goal down to a milestone that’s not quite so immense
Instead of focusing on paying off all of your debts, focus solely and exclusively on paying off whatever debt comes first in your debt snowball. If you’re focused on saving for a down payment, focus instead on the next thousand dollar milestone – $1,000, $2,000, etc. Using smaller milestones as your focus point makes it all seem that much more reachable.

For my writing, by focusing on a plot outline or a single chapter at a time, the entire project started to become more manageable. It moved me from simply thinking that the project was too big to really embark on to actually creating something, and simply by doing that, I put myself and the project in a better place.

Take baby steps every day
A goal is made up of thousands of little actions. You don’t get in shape without making the choice to exercise every day. You don’t improve your finances without choosing to minimize your spending every day. You don’t build a better career without doing your best at work each day.

For me, it was mostly a matter of committing to writing a small number of words each day (1,000 – but that’s a small number in the grand scheme of things for me). It didn’t have to be on the novel itself; that many words in character outlines and other materials are perfectly acceptable.

Reaffirm why you’re doing this
A goal without motivation is a hard one to achieve. There needs to be some sort of motivation, whether internal or external, to keep you moving toward your big goal. Without it, it’s easy to get distracted by immediate and short-term temptations. For my financial goals, I use my family as a motivator and I still usually keep a picture of my children wrapped around my credit card.

For my writing, I really get a lot of joy out of just getting into that “zone” where time seems to stand still. I try to get into that state as often as possible because I produce great material when I’m in that state and I feel great when I snap back to “reality.”

Be obsessed
It’s a lot easier to achieve a giant goal if you become obsessed (or nearly so) with it. If you’re enjoying the progress, there’s no reason not to allow it to fill up your spare time. Use your spare hours to cut your spending through frugality projects like air sealing your home. Use those spare hours to exercise or to prepare healthy meals. Use those spare hours to learn.

Whenever I find a spare hour, I usually try to either write or to read something that will inspire me to write. An open book and/or my Kindle are constant companions, as is a notebook of some kind.

Use reasonable metrics
Measuring your idea of success or failure against an incredibly long measuring stick is a recipe for failure. If the only way you can feel successful about your financial goal is if you achieve something that adds up to more than your annual income, you’re asking to fail. Instead, measure yourself by simpler things. Instead of focusing on the mountain of debt, focus instead on measuring how much less you spend than you bring in each month. By measuring this (and using previous months for comparison), you push yourself into actions that naturally move you toward the giant goal you want to achieve while also keeping things real.

My reasonable metric is word count for a month versus earlier months. I try very hard to exceed the word count of the previous month by just a few, which keeps pushing me to put my pen to paper (or my hands to the keyboard). I don’t worry about completing a novel or anything, as I know that if I keep up with the word count, I’ll get there eventually.

Remember that the only success that really matters is internal success
In the end, what really matters is that you’re internally happy with what you’re achieving or have achieved. If you don’t feel good about the way things are going, it’s going to be impossible to keep going. You have to have a deep positive sense both about the goal and about the steps you’re taking toward that goal.

I really, really enjoy writing and I really, really enjoy looking back at and re-reading what I’ve already written. That positive feeling is strong enough that it often pulls me along to continued future progress.

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  1. krantcents says:

    It seems everything I do is impossible! I usually take these impossible goals and break them down into much smaller tasks where they are more likely possible than not. I then work at it daily, monitor it weekly and adjust my efforts. I usually succeed.

  2. lurker carl says:

    All goals, by definition, are out of reach. No one strives for something they can easily obtain. Perhaps the real issue is expecting instant gratification.

  3. Adam P says:

    The pursuit of obtainable goals is what brings happiness (together with social bonds to share these victories with). More so than love, money, fame or power.

  4. MoneyNing says:

    Breaking it down into smaller tasks is definitely a very important process. It not only helps you track and make an out-of-reach goal manageable but it also can help motivate you as you meet milestone after milestone, not to mention that it can help you better understand how to accomplish often complex tasks.

  5. Ginger says:

    I make minigoals and that helps a lot. I have found myself making larger and larger goals as time passes and maybe I need reconsider doing that and start making small goals again.

  6. Dan W. says:

    I definitely agree with you on internal success as the only type worth pursuing. I guess what success really is is something internal, something that can only be validated by you.

  7. valleycat1 says:

    Since the original question was about financial goals, not goals in general:

    You have to totally ‘own’ an audacious financial goal & be willing to make whatever changes in your current lifestyle are needed in order to reach it. So, first, make sure this is your goal, not just something you’ve heard you ought to be doing or aiming for. Second, spend a little bit of time doing the math to see whether it truly is obtainable or is actually out of reach given your circumstances. Do you need to scale back a little or take a more indirect approach (in the past, people would buy starter houses and then trade up, instead of buying their dream house right off the bat). Brainstorm and research all your options on how to make it work. If you’ve got a savings or investment goal, be sure to factor in the earnings on the account. Do you need to cut more expenses and/or make more income? How big a lifestyle change would it take, and how much of a lifestyle change are you willing to make? Extreme measures should be for a defined amount of time and have the buy-in of everyone affected if you are in a relationship or have a family.

  8. Joan says:

    Trent, thank you so much – this was my topic suggestion and everything you said was exactly what I needed to hear.

    Our goal will be to pay off $89,000 in credit-card debt. We don’t have a “time limit” per se, though our charts show it’ll be done in less than 5 years. It just seems SO out of reach sometimes; in fact, we’ve tried before and somehow we always have “fallen off the wagon.” (We’re not charging anything new and haven’t been for years, but with balances that high, it’s hard to make much of a dent paying $100 extra a month!)

    This year seems different. We’ve knocked it down by more than $10,000 since January, which is almost certainly our largest amount of progess ever. Now, just to keep it up – and I think the first thing I’ll do is figure out what my next smaller goal is, now that we’ve crossed the $10K mark.

    Thanks again!

  9. Johanna says:

    If your financial goal is to pay off a ton of high-interest debt, and “out of reach” means that you’re barely covering the interest or minimum payments despite doing everything you can do, then maybe it’s time to look into declaring bankruptcy. This might not be the best bet in Joan’s case – it sounds like she has a lot of disposable income, so she might not be eligible for Chapter 7 bankruptcy – but for others in similar situations, it might.

  10. Joan says:

    Oh, gosh, I wish we had a lot of disposable income. My husband and I have a total of six jobs between us, and while it’s fine as a short-term way to attack the debt, it’s NOT something we’d continue long-term; it’s heck on our family.

    We have talked about bankruptcy, but for various reasons it’s not a good fit for us. So we’re slowly and steadily knocking it down. Our problem is that much of the debt came from medical expenses, so we didn’t exactly go buy a lot of stuff that we could then turn around and sell to repay at least part of the debt. Kind of stinks! But we’re still plugging away. My needs are, like Trent described, the “mind-game tricks.” How can I make sure we continue to WANT to work all those extra jobs to make these above-minimum payments, when it seems like forever ’til it’s done? (Without the extra income, we were always behind on something, even with paying minimums.) And Trent’s advice was spot-on: Smaller/more manageable goals, and reaffirming our “why!”

  11. Johanna says:

    I meant that if you’ve paid down $10K in debt in six months, you’re not all that close to the “edge,” and you might not be eligible to declare bankruptcy according to the various formulas they use to determine that. But I’m not an expert, and anyway, you know your situation better than I do.

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