Amy writes in:
I have no problem setting goals for myself. I follow the steps you suggest: make them realistic, make them numerical so I can keep track of them, write them down, and so on.
The problem is that when I come up with a plan to reach them, that plan completely falls apart within a week, every single time. I’ll have a four day run of working out at the gym, then a crisis will happen at work or my son will get sick and then I miss a day and once that chain is broken, I feel like such a failure that I don’t go back. I do the same thing with financial goals. I will do good for a while, then an emergency happens and I just give up.
What can I do? Help me achieve some goals here!
This happens to be a very common problem for motivated people who set strong goals for themselves. I usually find that when something like this happens to me, it’s a sign of one of three different basic problems, each of which has a different solution.
So let’s look at each one.
For examples throughout this post, I’m going to stick with the example Amy used of exercise goals, since it’s something many of us are familiar with. The same principles hold true for any sort of self-improvement goal, whether it’s financial or relationship-based or anything else.
Unrealistic or inflexible schedule
Your goal is to get into better shape. In order to do that, you decide that you’ll work out every day, perhaps using a system like P90X. For several days, you stick to it, but inevitably your life hands you some complexity that makes it impossible to work out for a day. Boom – you’ve fallen off your schedule and you feel like a failure.
The problem here isn’t your goal or your general idea for getting there. The problem is that your plan for getting there is so strict and tight that ordinary life will inevitably prevent you from getting there.
My suggestion is simple. Rather than saying “I will exercise every day” and feeling like a failure when you miss a day, say “I will exercise four times a week.” When you’ve set that goal, front load your week so that you have a good chance of knocking out those required four sessions right off the bat, then you can even shoot for exceeding that.
In short, give yourself a bit of room for flexibility. Assume that there are going to be times and days where things are going to keep you from executing your exact plan for that day. What kind of plan can you develop that takes that into account?
Poor measurements of success
As I’ve mentioned before, a good goal is one that offers a very clear way to describe success, often a numerical description, and completion of that goal often leads to the effect you want. “I want to lose weight” isn’t a good goal, for example, because it doesn’t describe what success is. Is it one pound? Is it a lot of pounds?
Of course, at the same time, “I want to lose 50 pounds” isn’t a good goal either, because pure weight loss is a rather poor metric for what you’re likely wanting to achieve.
What is it that you do want to achieve? Do you want to feel healthier? Do you want to look better? Do you want to live longer? Each of these has different things associated with it that you’d want to make happen, from diet to exercise.
Talk to people who understand these issues who can help you figure out what you should be aiming for with regards to success in those areas. These discussions should help you to have a much deeper understanding of what kinds of things you should actually be shooting for and provide you with some reasonable guidance for setting meaningful goals that will get you what you want.
Lack of external motivation
Another problem with many such goals is that they’re entirely internal. If you’re the only person involved with the goal, you’re the only person you let down if you fail to achieve the goal.
One way to break through this is to find a “buddy” who is working on the same (or a similar) goal as you are. This gives you someone to exchange tips and advice and motivation with as well as someone to actually participate in activities with. The key benefit, though, is that you’re no longer the only person involved with your goal. You’ve got another person who’s on the line with regards to your success. If you fail, you’re letting your buddy down, and that can be a huge motivator for people.
If you don’t have any sort of “buddy,” another method is to simply tell people about your goal and your plan to get there and ask them to keep you on your toes about it. When you know your close circle is going to be watching for your success, suddenly the motivation for your goal changes. Others are involved and the stakes are raised.
In the end, nothing can make you achieve a goal if you simply refuse to make progress towards it. However, just a few tweaks can turn something that feels insurmountable and pointless and not important to anyone else to something that feels reachable, vital, and valuable to people around you. That’s a drastic change in the nature of your goal and it can certainly make the difference between failure and success, whether you’re talking about financial goals, fitness goals, or any other type of personal goal.