Goals have been a central part of my personal, professional, and financial successes for as long as I can remember. I remember setting personal goals even as a child, such as personal summer reading challenges and savings goals, and that initiative has continued into adulthood. Goal-setting was a major part of how Sarah and I were able to bring about our financial turnaround, for example, and goal-setting was also a major part in building The Simple Dollar.
As I’ve continued in my life’s journey, however, I’ve discovered a few things when it comes to how I set goals.
First, I’m much more likely to succeed at goals that I view as fun. I set a reading challenge of some kind for myself pretty much every year – this coming year is no different – and I almost always succeed at them. This year’s challenge is centered around reading a certain number of what I consider to be challenging books, ones that are going to stretch my thinking, and I’m really excited about it. I view that goal as incredibly fun, even though I know it’s also good for my mind.
Second, I’m also much more likely to succeed at goals if I feel as though my back is to the wall in some fashion. Our financial turnaround was centered around the really big goal of debt freedom, but I don’t think I would have chased it with the same intensity if it weren’t for the fact that Sarah and I had put ourselves in a real financial pickle.
If those two factors aren’t true, I often have a hard time succeeding at goals. Goals where the philosophy is that I want to improve some aspect of my life but I don’t feel as though I need to do so are challenging because there’s a day-to-day motivation lacking behind those goals.
Today, I’m not going to talk about the easy goals. I’m going to talk about those hard goals, the ones that don’t seem fun and don’t represent something that you feel like you have to do, but you deeply want to. Financial independence falls into that category, as does weight loss for many people, to name two examples. They’re challenging goals. They’re often goals that people deeply want. But, at the same time, people often aren’t in a situation where they have to do it.
Many people like to use the turning of the calendar year as a time to start a major personal goal, and that makes a lot of sense. A fresh calendar year often feels like a fresh start.
Break It Down Into Daily Bits
The biggest problem with giant goals is that they tend to lack immediacy. They often feel so big and so distant that it doesn’t feel like you can really make significant progress toward that goal any time soon, which leaves you feeling helpless and hopeless and thus abandoning the goal.
The trick is to break that giant goal down into small little steps, things that you can do today that will inevitably lead to the completion of your big goal and the success that you desire.
I personally like the method presented by Gary Keller in his book The One Thing, in which he specifically goes through breaking down a “big idea” goal into daily bits.
Let’s say you have a big five year goal in mind. What’s the one thing you can do in the next year to make it happen?
Now, you’ve got this big singular thing you can do this year. What’s the one thing you can do in the next month to make that happen?
Now, you’ve got this big singular goal for this month. What’s the one thing you can do in the next week to make that happen?
Now, you’ve got a singular goal for this week. What’s the one thing you can do today to make that happen?
The answer to that last question is the most important one, because it focuses solely on today. It centers you on something you can manage to accomplish today, not some big pie-in-the-sky challenge.
For example, let’s say your five year goal is to get your master’s degree.
The one thing you can do this year to move toward that master’s degree is get into a master’s program and be ready for the start of your classes.
The one thing you can do this month to move toward getting into a master’s program is to prepare application materials for the master’s program at three target schools.
The one thing you can do this week toward preparing those materials is to figure out what materials you need to submit to those schools.
The one thing you can do this today toward figuring out what materials to submit toward your target program is to find schools with strong master’s programs in your field.
So, right there, you have something you can do today to get you started. It’s something tangible you can do right now. You can find a few schools that you might want to apply to. To achieve that one thing for the week, you’ll have to find the application and admission requirements for those schools and find ones that you’re likely to get into, and then during the rest of the month, you’ll be preparing those applications and getting them ready to submit. The rest of this year can be filled with other steps for getting ready, such as making temporary career changes to make room for this new initiative, and then you’ll move on in subsequent years to nailing that master’s degree.
Let’s take another one – let’s say it’s a weight loss goal. In one year, you want to lose a significant amount of weight.
The one thing you can do this month toward losing weight is adapt yourself to a healthier diet.
The one thing you can do this week toward adapting yourself to a healthier diet is to build a manageable long-term routine of healthy eating that you can stick with in subsequent weeks.
The one thing you can do this week toward building a healthier eating routine is to eat healthy meals today and avoid unhealthy snacks.
This breaks the focus down to today. Your focus is solely on eating better today, nothing else. You’ll use the results from that routine over the course of a week to identify what works and build up an eating routine that really works for you through a bit of trial and error. At the end of the month, you should have a better routine in place that you can stick to, and if you focus on sticking to that routine and then gradually adding in some exercise (with later focused goals for a month), achieving that goal becomes inevitable.
Let’s use one more example. Let’s say your goal is to achieve debt freedom in, say, five years.
The one thing you can do this year to move towards debt freedom is to pay off your two biggest credit cards.
The one thing you can do this month toward paying off your two biggest credit cards is to make a big extra payment on the credit card with the highest interest rate.
The one thing you can do this week toward making a big extra payment on a credit card is to trim your food spending significantly. (Yes, of course you could do other things, but the idea here is to pick a singular focus and this is a pretty good one.)
The one thing you can do today toward cutting your food spending is to make a meal plan for the whole week from the grocery store flyer and the contents of your pantry, make a grocery list from that meal plan, and go on your single shopping trip of the week. (This is effectively one thing.)
Right there, you have a singular action to focus on that will move you directly toward your overall goal. The key is to keep going with step after step after step, but the advantage here is that you have one single thing you can do today to make it happen.
Focus on Actions Rather Than Immediate Results
Many people get caught up on the results end of the equation when they’re working toward the big goals or the big resolutions they’ve set for themselves. They’re focused on losing 75 pounds above all else.
The problem is that by making that number the focus of the goal, you’re de-emphasizing what it takes to get there. It also sets you up for failure because you often won’t make nice linear progress toward your goal. Often, the biggest gains toward a goal take place once you have some great habits established.
Plus, there’s the separate issue of a goal sometimes relying on the actions and choices of other people, which is outside of your control. It is always a good idea to minimize the impact outside forces can have on your goal and maximize the impact your own good choices can have on that goal.
So, rather than setting a goal that’s all about results, instead set a goal that’s oriented toward the actions you can take to achieve that goal.
Let’s stick with our examples above, starting with the master’s degree goal. That’s a very solid goal, but it’s still judged by the end result, not by the actions to get there. You might consider something like “I’ll complete every necessary step under my control to finish a master’s degree in five years.” The weight loss goal is another awesome goal, but rather than orienting it toward the weight, focus instead on something like “I’ll eat 1,500 calories per day for 300 days this year.” You can do something similar with the debt payoff goal, simply making your goal something along the lines of “I will take a positive frugal step every day this year and channel every dime of the proceeds toward paying off debt.”
For shorthand’s sake, you can certainly look at your goal as a weight loss goal or a debt repayment goal, but know that your true goal is centered not around results, but around your actions that will inevitably lead to the results you want.
Put a Few Minutes Aside Each Morning to Focus
One of the biggest obstacles for many people in terms of maintaining a daily goal or a daily focus is that it gets lost in the busy nature of our everyday lives. We have this great intention, but it resides in the mental background and we often lose track of it.
If our goal is weight loss through improved diet, for instance, we’ll succumb to eating an unhealthy quick meal, not intentionally, but because the weight loss goal is shoved in the back of our mind and made secondary to other, more urgent matters.
If our goal is spending less money, we’ll buy something without thinking of the financial consequence of it, again, not because we’ve lost that goal, but because other thoughts crowd our mind.
What’s the solution to this? So far, I’ve really only found one thing (well, two things, but we’ll get to that other one in a minute) that has helped me to keep a goal in my mind throughout my busy day, and that’s a morning routine that forces me to think about that goal head-on.
Each morning, I spend about ten minutes thinking about my daily goal. I envision how exactly I’m going to achieve it, how I’m going to overcome potential obstacles that might stand in my way, and how I’m going to feel at the end of the day having achieved my objective. I usually do this while I’m taking my morning shower, so that’s what’s going on in my head as I clean myself up. I usually follow that with ten minutes of meditation/prayer, which is proven to help greatly with mental clarity and focus, and then just a couple of minutes spent writing down five things I’m grateful for in my life, which brings me joy and keeps my ego in check.
I find that this little routine helps a lot when it comes to keeping the big goal for the day present in my mind even when things are busy. It almost feels like a little alarm going off in the back of my head if I’m about to do something that’s not in line with that daily goal.
Put a Few Minutes Aside Each Evening for Review
On the flip side of that morning focus session, there is enormous value in taking a few minutes to review the day in the evening, where you can look back at the successes of the day with pride and look back at the missteps with a fresh eye to ask yourself what you could have done better.
This simple act of an evening review, which I often do just after putting my children to bed, is perhaps the most valuable tool I have for finding problems in my routines and plans before they sprout into real crises. For example, this session is almost always invaluable in terms of identifying temptations before they grow into mistakes. When I identify a temptation, I actually think about that temptation directly, think about how the thing I’m tempted by isn’t really helping me with my big goal, and consider ways to eliminate that temptation going forward, usually through a minor alteration of my normal routines.
A great example of this comes from the debt repayment goal. You might spend this routine feeling proud of the fact that you took your lunch to work and ate all of your meals at home, but you might also want to consider that you were really tempted to buy a new book for your Kindle. Maybe you could get the book from your local library instead?
I often do this while physically writing in a journal, something I try to do both in the mornings and the evenings. I usually reflect on the day’s three biggest successes and one or two biggest mistakes and I find that those reflections almost always help me build a better day tomorrow.
Build a “Streak” in a Very Visual Way
There’s one other thing I do each evening when I’m chasing a specific focused goal: I continue my “streak” on my whiteboard.
I have a little whiteboard in my office that I keep in a place where I see it quite often. That whiteboard is blank except for a bunch of rows of Xs. At the end of each day when I achieve my daily goal for whatever my main focus is at the moment, I put an X on that board. At the end of a day when I don’t achieve that goal, I erase all of the Xs.
So let’s say I’ve been working hard at a goal and I have a row of 15 Xs. That looks pretty good to me, as it visually shows me that I’ve been nailing my goal and making real progress. On that sixteenth day, even if I’m really tempted to not achieve whatever my daily milestone is, that row of Xs provides a sort of additional mental boost to get things done.
To tell the truth, I usually have two and sometimes even three rows of Xs going, in different colors, because I’m often pursuing a personal and a professional goal at the same time. I just note what the goal is at the top and then follow it with rows of Xs.
This “streak” idea isn’t mine; it’s actually stolen from the comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who used this exact same technique to hone his joke writing skills.
Right now, I have two streaks going. One is a daily writing target in terms of word count, and the other is in preparation for a different professional project where I want to produce a lot of content before I launch. I’m going to start a third streak soon for a personal goal in the coming year.
Don’t Give Up Over Small Failures
It is really easy to become devastated by a small failure. You’re trying to watch what you eat and you unthinkingly eat a fast food meal. You’re trying to be so careful with your money and then you make a spending mistake.
A step backwards can feel incredibly painful, even if it comes after a long sequence of steps forward. It can feel like your progress has been utterly undone, even if that’s not true at all, and many people use that initial mistake to essentially give up on their goal.
First of all, it’s vital to remember that you’re human and that humans make mistakes. No one is perfect, no matter how perfect they try to make their lives look on social media.
Second, recognizing that you’ve made a mistake is incredibly important and a valuable step on its own. You recognize what you did. You recognize that it was not the right move. You have a negative emotional response to it. All of those things are good things. All of those things are indicative of positive progress.
Third, there is nothing in the world stopping you from moving forward again. Sure, you took a step backward, but it likely came at the end of a long run of steps forward, and you can easily start moving forward again. This is a bump in the road. This is not the end of the road.
Fourth, it’s usually a learning opportunity. You can step back and ask yourself why you made that mistake, because that mistake is usually a symptom of a flaw in your plan. This is the perfect food for reflection, as it will almost always help you build a better path forward.
Look at a misstep not as a disaster, but as an opportunity to build a better plan and become a stronger person who is better equipped to drive this goal forward to the big success that it’s destined to become.
When you’re thinking about your big goals or your resolutions for the coming year, take these strategies to heart. Break those goals down into something you can do today that moves you clearly forward with that goal. Get yourself in the right mindset each morning, and look at your mistakes and successes each evening. Make that your routine and you’ll find far more success than you ever imagined!