Five Elements of a Successful Goal (From My Experience)

A little over five years ago, I set a tremendous goal for myself. I wanted to completely overhaul my financial life. I was in a pile of debt. I was working at a job that I enjoyed, but it often felt like it was pulling me both from my family and from my dream career. My goal was to eliminate my debts and put my finances in a position so that I could switch careers.

I achieved that goal, and in achieving it, I transformed my life.

Since that experience discovering the power of goals, I’ve set many different goals in my life. I’ve achieved some of them, while others have been complete failures.

Through this repeated experience of setting goals followed by success or failure, I’ve come to notice that there are a few specific traits that my successful goals have in common that are often lacking from my unsuccessful goals. I thought I’d share these with you so that you may find greater success with your own goals.

1. Extract a goal from your most painful experiences.
When I reached my “financial bottom” and realized that something had to change financially in my life, I felt very deeply ashamed. I spent a long night sitting in the baby room, rocking my son and just feeling horrible. I had this strong sense that I was wrecking this baby’s life through my own childishness and inability to manage my own finances and behavior.

It was through that strong sense of failure that I was able to push my goals forward. Whenever I was tempted to backslide, I could draw on the pain of that moment to keep me on the right path.

This is a big reason why exercise-related goals have been difficult for me. I have not had a strong emotionally resonant experience that involves my physical shape to this point, so I’ve not had that emotional pool to draw from for physical fitness goals.

2. Bury yourself in reading about the goal.
In truth, what I mean here is that I’m filling my leisure time with learning more about the goal. In my life, that means reading a big pile of books on the subject.

When I first decided to turn my financial life around, I didn’t know the first thing about good personal finance practice. So, I went to Amazon, made up a list of some of the highest rated personal finance books, and headed to the library. I came home with a pile of them: The Total Money Makeover, Your Money or Your Life, The Millionaire Next Door, and so on. At that point, I spent all of my free time focused on these books for a good two weeks.

During that period, I got a good grasp of the things that worked and the things that didn’t. I also received a huge pile of motivation to go out there and actually do this thing. Perhaps most importantly, I got a sense of what makes a good personal finance goal and what types of realistic steps I need to take to get there from an informed standpoint.

Every time I want to succeed at a goal, I’ve found that the best first move is to learn as much as I can about it.

3. Develop a plan that includes a series of very simple actions that will take you to that goal.
All plans revolve around a goal and steps taken to achieve that goal. However, I’ve found that the more abstract and complicated the plan, the less likely I am to follow it. If it’s difficult at all to understand and articulate the next step in my plan, I’m much more likely to blow it off.

My early steps in my personal finance plan were easy. “Spend nothing today” or “Spend nothing that’s not related to a need today.” Those were the steps I took on most of my early days of financial recovery.

Getting in physical shape, for one, often involves more convoluted steps. “Spend an hour at the gym,” huh? Doing what? Often, the exercise plans would become needlessly complicated and that in itself would push me away. The simpler I make my exercise plans, the easier it is to stick with them.

When improving my diet, the “simple step” issue came up again. “Don’t eat meat today.”

Simplicity is better than perfection, I’ve found.

4. Take your first action within a day of coming up with the plan.
It’s easy to think up an excuse or to postpone the start of a plan. “I’ll start next week because this week is really stressful.” “I’ll start on the first so that the calendar can guide me.”

Those moves are silly and often self-defeating. Why? During that period between now and whenever you think you should start your goal, you burn off a lot of the fervor and motivation you have for getting started. That rush of excitement you get when you’re really into an idea is something that you should capitalize on by starting immediately.

Don’t wait for doubts to catch up. Don’t wait for the “perfect” time to start. There is no more perfect time than right this moment.

5. Keep a very visible record of your actions and share that record with others.
This, right here, is why I started The Simple Dollar. I wanted a venue for tracking my own progress, sharing it with others, and talking about finances with my friends in an indirect fashion.

It was the process of journaling it that kept it so front and center in my mind. Creating articles every day for The Simple Dollar kept finances in the forefront of my mind (and it still does), which encourages my own good financial behavior.

It wash the process of sharing it that added social pressure to the equation. My friends could see what I was doing. Some of them even started doing it themselves. The Simple Dollar comes up quite often in conversations with my friends and family, and that’s a real social force keeping me on the right track.

I share some of my other goals with my friends and family even now, but in a less public fashion (I don’t want millions of people to hear my fumbling at the piano, for example).

These five tactics play into every successful goal I’ve had over the last several years. The more of these tactics I’ve put into play, the more likely the goal has been to be successful.