Updated on 03.19.09

A Step-By-Step Guide to Making Big Goals Achievable

Trent Hamm

Here are a few recent emails I’ve received. From Connie:

Over the last few years, I’ve taught myself to play acoustic guitar and lately I’ve started writing a lot of songs. I’d like to record them and share them with others and maybe eventually start playing concerts, but every time I think about it, I want to do something else. It just seems so big.

And Andy:

I liked your article on emergency funds. I want to get started on my own, but I really don’t know where to start. It seems like I spend all of my money before I get around to saving it.

And Zelda:

Could you write a step-by-step post about how to get a garden started? I’d love to have a big vegetable garden and I even have the spot picked out, but I don’t know where to start. It seems like a HUGE task.

I started writing responses to each of these emails, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that most of the points I was making in my responses were the same from person to person. In each of these cases, the reader is intrigued with a big goal, but the big goal seems too big and thus out of reach.

There are a few keys to unlocking any big goal you might face in life. Let’s walk through these key steps, using Connie and Andy and Zelda – and myself – as examples.

Define That Goal Clearly!
Most people have big dreams. I know I certainly do. I have dreams about publishing a series of novels, seeing them in bookstores, signing copies regularly, and seeing a short story of mine published in The New Yorker. Zelda wants to have a big garden. Andy wants to build a six month emergency fund. Connie wants to record an album and play a concert.

While it’s fun to daydream about these things, they’ll never happen unless you establish what exactly it is that you want. The key is to get started, and getting started means knowing clearly where you’re going.

I’ll start off with my goal. I want to write fiction. But what exactly does that mean? What I really want to do is tell a long-form story that really touches people. That, in the end, means writing and publishing a well-promoted novel that has a chance of being read by a wide audience. Doing that fulfills many of my wandering daydreams. Since I have little control over the publishing process, my main focus should be on writing a great novel and preparing for publication by getting other, shorter pieces published.

Zelda’s goal is to have a big garden. But what does that mean? Does she want vegetables? Herbs? Flowers? From her description of the situation, she likely wants a vegetable-focused garden. Where will it go? She has a spot picked out for it. What plants will she plant? That’s a decision Zelda needs to make – what grows well in her area, for starters, and what vegetables does she most enjoy?

Andy wants a big emergency fund. The key here is to define a dollar amount. How much does Andy spend each month? How many months’ worth of living expenses does Andy actually need? Also, where will Andy be saving the money?

Connie wants to record an album’s worth of music and play a concert. What exactly does that mean? Is Connie shooting to self-release an album? Does she want to play a concert in a small coffee shop or is she dreaming of a big arena? The best goals rely mostly on you for success, so Connie might want to shoot for recording her own album and playing a very small show in a local venue – perhaps any concert will do, or perhaps she can set a goal of an audience of fifty people. She could easily converge the two goals – perform a show with fifty people there and have copies of her CD on hand to sell to the audience.

The key is to change your dreams into something specific and something that relies mostly on your own behavior and not on the behavior of others. Connie, Andy, and Zelda (and me) should spend some time adding details to the big goal, making it as clear as possible what that goal entails (and thus making the steps to get there that much clearer).

What is your goal? You’re dreaming about something right now. Write it down. Tear out the pieces that require reliance on someone else. Then, make it specific – what exactly are you dreaming about?

Figure Out the Big Steps
Once the goal is concrete, it’s time to figure out a plan to get there.

For my goal of writing a novel and some short stories, I need to bone up on my fiction writing. This means prescribing to a steady diet of two things: reading good fiction (to learn technique and style) and practicing my own writing. Thus, my plan should revolve around a steady diet of reading good fiction each day along with focused fiction writing, starting with short stories and later growing into longer pieces.

Zelda needs to start off by developing a garden plan (what will she plant and when), then developing a calendar of the tasks that need to be done over the spring, summer, and fall months.

Andy needs to open an account for his emergency fund and set a specific target for saving each week or month. I recommend making each saving target lower than planned, simply because it’s easier to get into a routine of clearing small hurdles than to struggle at big hurdles, fail, and get discouraged.

Connie needs to get into a routine of writing new music and performing it, building towards a collection of songs that she’s satisfied with which she can record. Home recording is probably the best option here, as it only requires a microphone and recording software.

What is your plan? What steps go into achieving the big thing you want to achieve? Start breaking down the big dream into smaller and smaller pieces until they begin to feel like things you can handle.

Figure Out the First Step
When starting a big project, I often find it useful to set aside a block of time to accomplish a big first step. This way, you can feel an immediate sense of accomplishment as well as some personal investment in the big goal.

For me, this could mean spending a Saturday afternoon churning out a complete short story and reading a certain number of short stories written by others. I’ve been reading quite a few short stories as of late by swapping for short story compilations on PaperBackSwap and hitting the library.

Zelda might want to spend a Saturday afternoon preparing her selected area for gardening. This means calling a few days in advance to make sure she can till there, renting or borrowing a tiller, then turning over the land. She might also spend some time developing her plans as to what she intends to plant, as well as making a stop at the local gardening store to pick up seedlings.

Andy can get started by gathering up his receipts and statements and figuring out exactly how much he spends in a month – and what he can easily afford to save each week or each month. Then, he can open up a high-interest online savings account and then set up an automatic savings plan with that account, automating his savings in that account.

Connie might simply want to seek out a venue where she could play for free or for a low fee (like a local coffee shop) in order to get her feet wet with performing. Then, she could devote some time to developing a set list of what she considers her best songs and practice running through them several times to get the butterflies out.

What is your first step? What could you do on a Saturday afternoon to really get your feet wet with your big goal? Think about it, then pick a day where you can devote several hours to making a real start.

Make Microgoals
Once the ball is rolling, it’s vital that you give your project the regular upkeep that it deserves. One effective way of doing that is to set microgoals – very simple goals that you can accomplish in a few days or a week that move you ever closer to your bigger goal.

For my goal of writing, I’ll commit to a diet of reading ten short stories a week, writing a strong first draft of one, editing an old one to bring it into better shape, and sharing some of those edited stories with friends and family who can provide some solid feedback.

Zelda can set her microgoals by simply making a detailed gardening calendar and sticking to it. Each milestone of planting, watering, weeding, and harvesting is a small goal in itself.

Andy has ready-made microgoals with his automated savings plan, but he could push himself harder by making microgoals of finding additional ways to save a certain amount each month – say, $100. This encourages him to focus on clever ways of saving money and living a bit more frugally.

Connie should make it her goal to run through her complete set list in front of at least one audience member each week, then gather feedback when she can. She should also devote at least a bit of time each day to practicing those songs and developing new ones, with a goal of a certain amount of practice and song development each week.

What are your little steps? What can you do each day to move you closer to that big dream, now that you have a nice start? It only takes a little step to get further along on your journey, after all.

Set Aside the Time
Many people tend to fall behind on such big goals because they can’t seem to find the time for them. My feeling is that if this big dream really is a priority in your life, then it’s easy to find a way to free up half an hour or an hour each day to devote to that project.

For me, I’ve simply set aside half an hour each day to read a short story and half an hour to write a new one or prod an old one. I found that hour by simply getting more focused in my reading. On a normal day, I would spend two hours or so simply reading for pleasure – now I just have one hour of free reading and an hour devoted to making myself into a good fiction writer.

Zelda might find that her gardening project is well served by devoting a few hours each weekend to maintaining her garden. This can easily be found in many people’s lives.

Andy should consider doing much the same as Zelda – spending a few hours each weekend seeking out ways to reduce spending. One great way Andy could do this is by completing a few one hour projects each weekend for a few months, keeping track of what those projects actually save, then increasing his automatic savings by that amount.

Connie should just set aside practice sessions a few times a week, then devote some time on the weekend to playing a full set – perhaps on Saturday afternoon at a coffee shop or on Saturday evening at a local music establishment. One good place to harvest extra time is from entertainment sources – turn off the television, play fewer video games, or stop going out quite as much.

When will you do it? Look for places in your own life where you can free up a few hours on the weekends and/or a half an hour or an hour each day. Cut back on the television intake. Don’t go out after work as often. Reduce your involvement in some activities and friendships that aren’t really fulfilling to you. It’s easy to find that time if you want it.

A Few Final Tips
Here are a few additional little things to help you along.

Let the project provide the joy – don’t reward yourself. When you achieve a microgoal or reach a little milestone, it will feel very good. Enjoy it, but let the joy flow from the project, not from some artificial reward you give yourself. Don’t buy yourself something or do something out of the ordinary because you’ve made it this far – instead, simply revel in what you’ve accomplished to this point.

Share what you’re doing. Start a blog about it. Send emails to your friends about it. Talk about it in conversation. The more you share it, the more support you’ll get from the people around you, the more you’ll think about the progress you’re making, and the more inspired you’ll be to stick with it.

Failure should result in changing your plan, not quitting. Everyone fails on the journey to a big success. The winners are the ones that don’t use it as an excuse to quit. Instead, they use a failure as a tool – an indication that the game plan may be a bit off, that more practice is needed, or something else. When you fail, don’t blame it on the “impossibility” of the big goal. Instead, look for a different route up the mountain.

Good luck!

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  1. I like the idea of Micro Goals. Smaller goals that fit into the bigger scheme. It’s often easier to envision accomplishing these goals than it is to envision accomplishing bigger ones.


  2. paula d. says:

    Great post Trent. I know I have abandoned big projects because I was overwhelmed by the enormity of it. By breaking it into more manageable bites, it is more likely to happen!

  3. Breanne says:

    Another good way to figure out the way from “here” to “there” is to work backwards. It’s how I often figure out what my micro goals should be (sometimes it’s hard to identify them).

    Start with your goal, and ask yourself…

    1) Ask yourself “Can I do this tomorrow?”
    2) If the answer is no, ask yourself “What would I have to get done first?” This could be info you need, or things that need doing, etc. Take that response, and repeat step #1 with that new subgoal. Repeat this process until you get a yes, I could do this tomorrow.

    That yes is your first actionable step — and once you’ve completed that step, you’ll already know the next one, and the next one, and the next one after that.

    Barbara Sher calls this technique “bridge building” and she’s got all sorts of diagrams and examples starting on page 25 of http://wishcraft.com/wishcraft_ch6.pdf

  4. savvy says:

    Great post. I know, I too, have fallen prey to not knowing where to start. Setting microgoals is definitely going on my to do list this week.

  5. Interesting set of goals to reach your fiction goals, but do you ever think of devoting more time to fiction than an hour a day?

  6. viola says:

    Well written. Failure to plan is planning to fail.

  7. Great post. My wife and I made a list of dreams and goals when we got married. We go over this list once every few months to evaluate where we are in life. We’ll check off ones that we’ve achieved and add new ones we have thought of. Reviewing it every so often keeps the goals and dreams fresh in our mind and excited to one day check them off. Recently we checked off “See a Wild Whale Breach.” If we hadn’t created the goal, we wouldn’t have spent countless hours on both the Oregon and Alaskan coastlines making sure our dream came true!

  8. Jennifer says:

    I have to agree with this article. In the past we have always set the goal to save more. It didn’t really happen. This year we set 3 goals. Save $3000 for a new roof, save $2000 for a beach vacation and save $10,000 for a new car. We are well on our way to meeting these goals. Roof – done. Beach – 1/2 way there. Car – 1/4 way there. Not only did we set specific goals, but we made a list of exactly how we were going to reach them. It worked!

  9. Joy says:

    Excellent post! Zelda might begin her gardening project by contacting her local state University Extension Office. They usually have loads of excellent how to information, as well as advice on growing seasons and what will do well in the particular area.

  10. DB Cooper says:

    As a coach, I strongly advocate S.M.A.R.T. goals:

    Timely (or Tangible)

    Check out the website at http://www.topachievement.com/smart.html

    Really, I believe these are the only goals worth striving for. General, vague, unmeasurable, unrealistic, open-ended, intangible goals cannot really be realized, which leads the athlete (or anyone else) feeling like a failure.

  11. Kim says:

    I loved this article Trent. I’m great at seeing the big picture, but terrible at breaking things down in to action tasks. I’m starting a business in six months. This article gave me great inspiration to sit down tomorrow and break the process into small chunks with due dates.

  12. Keith says:

    Reading this article really got me excited. I am excited that you wrote so well on this subject. It seems many times we accept the fact that we start something only to never follow through. Why? We should never accept that as normal! I have been writing about just this sort of thing and it was great to read your approach to it. Great job! I’ll definitely recommend this article to others I know. Keep ’em coming!

  13. Michael says:

    Like the others, I agree that this is well written. I agree with Breanne. Working backward is how I usually determine the steps to follow.

    With my goal to start blogging, I thought about it and thought about it for a long time and about the type of material I would blog about. Finally, I set a wrote down a date. I worked on getting the site ready for a while. Then the day of my goal came. I decided I didn’t like the design at all found something new and dove in with the plan to write at least one post a week. I’m still slowly getting the blog design the way I want it and slowly developing Flash pieces for the posts but I’m glad to have started. I am at least making progress.

    The micro goals are an important key.

  14. Jason says:

    Small things are generally so much easier to surmount, so when there is a collection of these things which add up to a larger whole, then the little things really do seem large!

  15. Dave says:

    Insightful post, Trent. :-)

    As they say, the toughest part is in the starting. Your sharing on Figure Out the First Step hits the nail on the head.

    Btw, I don’t read nor write fiction. But I realize I’m telling “stories” somehow in my blog. Those are accounts from our travels though.

    All the best for your dream penning the novel! Thanks for inspiring!

  16. Like other readers, I really like these tips. My husband and I have been talking about our savings goals, but we really need to break them down into specific items. An “emergency fund” is too broad for us. We need to get specific about what kinds of emergencies we’re expecting that fund to cover.

  17. Trent, Great post. The one thing I’d consider adding, which has been particularly effective for me in both financial and financial life matters, is the power of visualization. Whether it be seeing your foul shot go in before you release the ball or imagining the feeling of knowing you have money in your emergency fund to pay an unexpected bill, picturing your success dramatically increases the odds it will actually occur.

  18. Benjamin says:

    I agree, especially with the point about starting a blog about your goal! Blogs are a great way to capture and share your ideas and helps keep you accountable (to a degree) throughout your progress.

  19. Jessica says:

    This was a very good article. For some reason I can tackle financial goals with ease, but other goals, such as decluttering and organizing my house, seem too overwhelming and get pushed off. Now that I feel like I’m drowning in clutter, I know I’ve got to do something about it, but I wasn’t sure where to start b/c it seemed to be so far out of hand. Thanks for putting things into perspective and reminding me it can be done! :o)

  20. I just wanted to share a link to a post I wrote on CHUTZPAH Goals, since it relates directly to figuring out what your big goal looks like. Here’s the short version:

    C is for Celebration.
    H is for Honesty.
    U is for Unique.
    T is for Timely.
    Z is for Zest.
    P is for Precise.
    A is for Assessable.
    H is for Honor.

    Yeah, I know, it’s a lot of steps – but I promise if you clarify each step it’ll make accomplishing that goal a lot clearer, easier, and funner! (I know funner isn’t a word, but it’s funner than “more fun”). You can find the post here:

  21. Sharon says:

    Trent, I have a couple of additional resources for your fiction writing ambitions.
    1. go to your library and look at the back issues of Writers Digest. They have a wealth of articles on the how-to’s of fiction writing. You might even want to invest in a subscription.

    2. Go to Writers Weekly, an on-line newsletter by Angela Hoy. She has contests for short stories and lots of information on the business of publishing, as well as a section warning about scam artists in the field.

  22. Cheryl Morris says:

    For Zelda who wants to start a veggie garden: There’s a great book called, “The New Victory Garden,” written by Bob Thomson. It might be available at your library or Barnes and Noble.
    I bought it ($25) many years ago. It gives a wonderful step-by-step guide to growing vegetables. I used this when I started my garden and it answers all your questions and details when to plant, how to prepare, etc. the land for different vegetables. It was my Bible and well worth the cost, if you have to buy it. I had never done any vegetable gardening before, and it was just great!
    From Cheryl

  23. tammy says:

    Ten years ago, I started writing a book about the music business. As time wore on, I realized I would never get it finished and if I did, and by some miracle found a publisher, that I would be most likely not of this world anymore! I decided to publish the tome as small booklets (20-40 pages)dealing with one or two subjects pertaining to music and business. The breaking of a huge project into managable pieces helped me write THREE booklets last year and now I have tons of material for more booklets in the future.
    Sometimes, just trying to do ONE thing is better than not doing ANYTHING at all.
    Clean ONE drawer – write ONE great paragraph-save pennies in a jar. The intention in the effort builds positive emotional energy!
    LOVE this post and all the comments. I am so glad I found The Simple Dollar!

  24. Sharon says:

    Tammy, you should also go to Writers Weekly. I think you will find that if your content is worthy, Angela Hoy will help with publication.

  25. TStrump says:

    I’m wondering if you can have too many goals?
    I used to have something like 20 or 30 goals at any given time and I would carry them in my PDA for instant reference.
    The problem was, nothing got done.
    I’ve now paired them down to a few ‘priority’ goals and I focus on them first.

  26. I’m with you– break it down.

    I say chunk it and make a game of it– and you will get it done.

    You’ve Got to Start Somewhere, So Chunk It! http://divorceddadfrugaldad.com/2009/02/03/youve-got-to-start-somewhere-so-chunk-it.aspx
    Play Games, Get Things Done http://divorceddadfrugaldad.com/2009/01/10/play-games-get-things-done.aspx

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