Updated on 06.06.11

Five Elements of a Successful Goal (From My Experience)

Trent Hamm

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.

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  1. Johanna says:

    You and I could not be more different regarding #1. Dwelling on my most painful experiences does not make me want to “push my goals forward.” It makes me want to give up.

    Focusing on my most pleasurable moments, on the other hand, drives me forward like nothing else. When I get a little taste of success – cheers from an audience at an open mic, to give my most recent example – I find myself wanting more of that same feeling, and I will do anything it takes to get it.

  2. Steven says:

    Didn’t your doctor tell you that you had reason for concern with your health, which is why you’ve changed your diet? Not sure I’d want to hit rock bottom with my health before trying to find the motivation to fix it.

  3. Gretchen says:

    Didn’t you just do a post the other day about not reading too many books, do just do it already?

    Excercise programs don’t have to be complicated and good ones provide great results.

  4. valleycat1 says:

    I agree with Johanna in that I don’t think that only negative “strong emotionally resonant experience” leads to success at meeting goals. Positive experiences can also lead one to investing in achieving goals.

  5. chuck says:

    i’m a smoker and am wondering if these tips could be used to try and quit. not sure about a painful experience cause i enjoy smoking and i don’t really want to read about quitting cause it makes me want to smoke. i guess smoking is kind of like weight loss in that it doesnt really fit with this?

  6. Jon says:

    Often with smoking and weight loss/fitness the first very painful experience will be too late. Why wait until you have cancer to quit. Why wait until you have heart problems from weight/poor fitness. Poor health and smoking really inhibit you getting full enjoyment out of life. If you like living you need to correct both.

    If you are in a hurry to die then carry on!

  7. #3 is the one that resonates most with me. In fact it’s been a revelation–start with small steps, take one or more each day no matter how insignificant it may seem, and keep going every day. It’s about creating forward momentum, which I think is that “X factor” that seems so elusive anytime we try something new. Nothing changes or happens until we get momentum behind us.

    I think one of the biggest mistakes we can make is to hit it too hard when we begin pursuing a goal. Think about working out–if you haven’t done it in a long time but you hit it hard the first day in the gym, you’ll be in so much pain that you’ll have a tangible reason not to do it again. Radical change is seriously overrated!

    What ever we take on has to be doable from where we are right now, otherwise the effort will be abandoned. In the end, it’s about creating habits, and that will take time and applied effort. Maybe patience should be #6?

  8. Geoff Hart says:

    Large goals can seem awfully intimidating, so in my experience, it’s useful to see them as a series of smaller and more achievable goals. Like hiking up a mountain (which I’ve done many times, as opposed to “climbing”, which I’ve never done), the trick is to keep the top in mind, but focus on the small achievements along the way — and remember to stop to enjoy the view from each new height you achieve.

    This isn’t just theory; it really works. In my case, the specific example (other than mountains) is writing a novel: seen from the perspective of 500 manuscript pages, it’s awfully intimidating, and many people give up then and there. But seen from the perspective of 20 chapters, each only 25 pages long, the intimidation factor decreases enormously. I now have 3 novels completed (all available for free reading on my Web site), and am hoping to steal time from work (I freelance) this summer to start work on a 4th.

    After enough practice, you stop needing this kind of psychological aid. But particularly during the early stages of tackling a formidable goal, breaking problems into manageable chunks and then applying Trent’s advice is a powerful way to increase the likelihood of success.

  9. Julia says:

    This is a great post! I’ve read so many articles about goals and how to make them work, I expected this to be more of the same. I was pleasantly surprised to see a couple tricks I never heard of or thought about before.


  10. This is pretty much the route I’m going with my healthier lifestyle. I bought a book about the GI diet and need to make a visual account of it. It’s going to help me stay accountable.

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