Goal-setting plays a pretty major role in my life. Over the last several years, setting and sticking with goals eliminated all of our debts, bought a home, and enabled a career switch – and those are just the financial goals.
At the same time, I’ve failed at more goals than I’ve ever achieved. I’ve tried to achieve countless things over the years but found myself falling short. Exercise goals. Writing goals. Weight loss goals. Personal growth goals. All of these have fallen by the wayside over the years.
This mixture of success and failure has taught me a few things about what it takes to actually achieve a big goal, and one lesson rises above all of them.
Goals are won or lost during the “dog days.”
I’ve talked about the idea of a goal having “dog days” before. A few months ago, I wrote an article entitled The Emotional Cycle of Change that dealt with that very idea. In that article, I referred to some research that describes how our mindset changes as time passes when we’re working on a major life change:
Psychologists Don Kelley and Daryl Conner actually mapped this phenomenon out very well in a sequence that they call “The Emotional Cycle of Change.” In it, they identify five distinct phases that people go through as they implement major changes in their life:
Stage 1: Uninformed optimism.
Stage 2: Informed pessimism.
Stage 3: Hopeful realism.
Stage 4: Informed optimism.
Stage 5: Completion.
Every single time, my goals have died during the “uninformed pessimism” part of this cycle.
If you’ve ever tried to achieve a goal, you know what that part is. It’s when the “honeymoon” of making a big change starts to wear off and you’re realizing that there’s still a lot of work ahead of you. You start hearing those little whispers in your head telling you to take the easy road, to splurge, to take a break today.
That’s the point at which a goal either succeeds or fails.
I’ve tried many, many approaches for getting past that point. The only times I’ve found success is when I’ve used some combination of the approaches below. Success usually comes when you stack up these approaches, creating a wall of motivation that keeps you from making a dumb mistake and forces you to stay on the better path no matter what that little devil on your shoulder might be saying.
I have never achieved any sort of lasting success with a goal that wasn’t clearly defined.
“Getting my money into better shape” never cut it. “Paying off every debt I have within five years” was a much better goal – and one that worked (I did it from 2006 to 2011).
“Becoming a writer” never cut it. “Writing 2,000 words every single day and sharing or selling everything I complete until I can do this for a living” was a much better goal – and one that worked (I did it from 2003 to 2008 and I still keep up the writing habit).
A sensible, achievable goal has these three components.
One, it’s extremely clear in terms of what you want to achieve. There’s no grey area with a great goal. It’s either black or white. You’ve either done it or you haven’t.
Two, it sets some sort of timeline for achievement. There’s a deadline, whether it’s a short-term one or a long-term one. You need to achieve something by some time.
Three, it gives you some flexibility in terms of how to get there. The first methods you try for achieving that goal probably won’t work perfectly. You’ll refine them over time. A good goal gives you breathing room for that refinement, letting you figure out better methods for paying off debt or a better routine for getting that daily writing done.
Without those components in your goal, you’re already off to a rough start. It’s going to be hard to have that goal providing any central guidance to you along the path because it leaves you without clarity, flexibility, or a timeline. You need those things to achieve.
Your goal should set up better daily choices for you – and one of the best tactics for success is to just focus on executing those better daily choices.
A good goal requires you to make better choices on a very routine basis – usually a daily basis. That big goal makes it clear what direction those choices should be pointing compared to your normal behavior. If you’re going to pay off debt, it’s clear that your daily choices should revolve around spending less and earning more. If you’re going to switch careers, it’s clear that your daily choices should revolve around getting education and building professional contacts.
Whenever the going gets tough, stop thinking about tomorrow. Stop thinking about yesterday. Think about nothing but today.
What can you do today to bring that goal closer? Can you make good spending decisions all day? Can you put in a few hours of work on your big project? Can you hit the gym? Can you choose to eat a little better today?
A successful day that’s in line with your big goal leaves you feeling pretty good at the end of the day. Your head will hit the pillow and you’ll be proud of the fact that you stayed on track, even when it seemed tough. That experience will make the next day seem a little easier.
You are successful at your goal if you take positive action toward that goal today (without overshadowing it with negative action). Simply put, if you do that one thing over and over, you will achieve almost every well-defined goal you could possibly have.
The strategy of focusing on today is somewhat linked with strategy #4, using smaller “sub-goals.”
A “buddy” is someone who is striving to achieve a similar goal as you. That “buddy” provides several advantages
One, a “buddy” gives you someone to participate in goal-related activities with. If you have an exercise goal, a “buddy” is someone to exercise with. If it’s a cost-cutting goal, a “buddy” is someone to participate in frugal activities with. It turns achieving your goal into a social bond.
Two, a “buddy” provides inherent motivation. Knowing that a “buddy” is expecting you to exercise with him or her provides motivation to get up and actually do it. Knowing that a “buddy” is planning on making a ton of make-ahead meals with you this weekend convinces you to get it done.
Three, a “buddy” can help you through the low points. When you’re feeling low, a good “buddy” can help talk you through the challenge and help keep you focused on the big goal.
Finally, a “buddy” can help you plot strategy. When you’re struggling with a particular issue, like finding the right kind of running shoe or figuring out novel ways to cut your energy bill, your “buddy” can help. Not only that, you might also be driven to digging into information and ideas when your “buddy” needs help.
One great way of finding a “buddy” is to look for someone in your already-existing social circle that is working on a similar goal as your own. Is there someone you know working hard on paying off debt? Is there someone you know that’s taking a serious interest in investing? What about someone who’s newly committed to exercise? Talk to that person. Buddy up with that person. Make an effort to motivate that person. Find ways to share activities with that person.
You’ll both benefit.
This strategy of having a “buddy “is somewhat linked with strategy #8, restructuring your social circle.
One of the best strategies you can apply to a large goal is to break it down into a set of increasingly smaller “sub-goals.” Ideally, you’re able to break them down into goals that can be achieved in a week or two.
I like to use a jogging analogy. When I’m jogging, it’s often tempting to slow down to a very slow walk or even to completely stop. My strategy for getting past that is to set a small goal. I’ll look ahead and spot a tree or a parked car and agree that I can slow down once I’m past that. Usually, I can convince myself to repeat that “little” goal several times, finding new markers that indicate where I can slow down.
You can use that same idea for almost any goal. Instead of focusing on “paying off all of your debt in five years,” focus instead on something like “minimize food spending this week by making a meal plan and a grocery list and sticking to them.” Achieving that goal will free up money that you could then use for an extra debt payment.
I find that whenever I’m intimidated by a really big goal, breaking it down into a smaller goal like that makes it seem far less intimidating and far more approachable.
Here are three techniques for developing smaller “sub-goals.”
One, the smaller goal should be able to be finished within a week or so. It needs to be within a timeframe that you can really grasp so that you don’t feel as though it’s so far off that it doesn’t matter. Immediacy is vital.
Two, the smaller goal should directly relate to daily action. It should inform you exactly what you should and should not be doing for the next few days.
Three, the smaller goal’s result should feed directly into the big goal. If you complete this small goal, it should help the big goal in some way. It’s just like setting a short distance when jogging – when you achieve that little distance, it means you’re a little closer to that big goal.
This strategy of having smaller “sub-goals” is somewhat linked to strategy #2, focusing on today.
Our lives are filled with distractions. When we’re dieting, the food in our cupboard and our refrigerator can be a big distraction. When we’re exercising, having to find our shoes and our workout gear can be a little obstacle that can push us over the top in terms of not taking action.
The best way to make a goal keep moving forward is to minimize the resistance against it.
First, take notice of what takes you off the path. What reason do you use to not get up in the morning for exercise? What’s the logic you use when deciding to stop at a store and spend money? Spend time thinking about those reasons. If it’s an obstacle, ask yourself how you can reduce or eliminate that obstacle. If it’s a temptation or distraction, ask yourself how you can stick an obstacle in the way of that temptation.
Second, get rid of easy-to-access distractions or temptations. If you’re trying to diet, cookies and chips in the cupboard are not helping you. Give them away. If you’re trying to save money, having “one-click” access to ordering things online is not helping you. Cut your credit card info out of those websites.
Finally, plan a routine that eliminates those little obstacles. If you want to exercise in the morning, have all of your necessary gear right beside your bed before you go to sleep at night. If you want to cook every meal at home this week, have as much of the prep work done in the morning as you possibly can so you have less resistance toward making that meal for supper this evening.
Distractions and obstacles are just little things that are surprisingly effective at convincing you to take your eye off the ball. Don’t let that happen.
This strategy of minimizing and eliminating distractions is somewhat linked to strategy #8, restructuring your social circle.
This is a technique that’s helped me a lot when it comes to goals.
When I first began to turn around my finances, I took a picture of my infant son and literally wrapped up my credit card in it. I made it so that I would have to unfold that picture and look at it to gain access to my card.
On that picture, I wrote in big letters, “DOES THIS PURCHASE HELP HIM?”
Every time I pulled out the plastic, I saw that picture and that question and it made me think. It almost always pushed me to reconsider the purchase and, quite often, it convinced me to just walk away entirely.
That visual reminder did an amazing job of trimming my spending at a time when I really needed it.
You can use lots of visual reminders like this. Take a picture of you at your heaviest and put it on the refrigerator door with a slogan that says “REMEMBER THIS PICTURE WHEN YOU CHOOSE WHAT TO EAT!” Tape a picture of your dream home to your rear view mirror.
Whatever the visual indicator of your goal or your motivation is, use it. Put pictures of that motivator wherever you can. It will constantly help you make the better choice.
If you’ve chosen a goal that’s so tight that you have no room for a minor setback and no room for a mistake, you’re guaranteeing the failure of that goal. It’s as simple as that.
You’re going to sometimes have days where life interferes with your progress. You can’t go on a jog in the middle of a whiteout blizzard. You can’t make a giant debt payment when the transmission in your car suddenly fails. Bad things sometimes happen – it’s life.
A good goal pushes you but not in an unrealistic way. Here are a few ways to achieve that.
One strategy is to give yourself some off days. For example, my usual exercise routine occurs on five out of seven days of the week. I get to choose which days. If I really need to work one day or get some extra tasks done, then I can take care of things that day and simply exercise the next two or three days without letting my goal down.
Another strategy is to give yourself a small allowance. This is something I still do with my finances. I allot myself a certain amount for hobby and entertainment spending each month. Within that money, I can spend it however I want, but that’s my limit for the month. If you want to translate that to exercise, give yourself a bonus day off once a month; if you’re dieting, give yourself two meals a week to eat what you wish.
I find that goals that allow me a little bit of breathing room along my path to success tend to work better because I don’t feel that sense of complete failure if life hands me an unexpected situation. I don’t want my goal requirements to stand in the way of going out to dinner with an old friend, for example.
Jim Rohn once said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” While that’s not wholly true, it’s a pretty accurate rule of thumb for the broad choices we make in life.
If you surround yourself with people who are dedicated to fitness, you’re more likely to add fitness to your daily routine. If you surround yourself with people who are dedicated to frugality, you’re much more likely to feel that frugal choices are normal and good.
On the other hand, it’s awfully hard to be the one person who constantly exercises in your social circle and it’s pretty hard to be a cheapskate in a group of big spenders.
If you’re trying to make a change in your life, one big step you can take is to alter your social circle a little bit. Seek out friends that are focused on the things you’re currently focused on so that your choices mutually rub off on each other. At the same time, cut back on the time spent with friends who are making choices that are in opposition to your goals. You don’t have to cut anyone out of your life; just choose carefully who you spend time with.
This can give you the opportunity to cultivate new friendships while also keeping your eye on the big goal in your life.
It’s really easy to blame forces outside of our control for our failure in achieving goals.
It’s “the weather” that keeps you from exercising.
It’s “your boss” that keeps you from improving your career situation.
It’s “Obama” that keeps you from saving money.
All of those things have nothing to do with the individual choices you make each day. You’re the one that decides how to spend your time. You’re the one that can make the choice to go to the gym or exercise in the basement. You’re the one that can make the choice to spend some evenings getting additional career training or working toward a certification. You’re the one who chooses whether or not to buy silly things or put that money away for the future.
Focus entirely on your own actions, not the people or things around you. If you truly want to spend less money, you can always make that choice. You can exercise any time and in almost any space.
The action you take next is entirely under your control. Why not choose an action that moves you closer to the big goal you want to achieve?
One final strategy is to use numbers to continually motivate yourself toward achieving a goal.
For example, when I first started our financial turnaround, I calculated our net worth every week. I used the change in our net worth as direct evidence that the choices we were making were actually improving our financial state.
Another example: when you’re trying to lose weight, use your waist measurement or your weight over time to show you whether or not you’re making progress. Check it regularly – say, every week – and watch the overall trend of the numbers.
While it’s unrealistic to expect improvement every single week, the average of the last few numbers should be lower than the average of the few numbers before that. I usually compare the most recent month’s average (the last four weeks) to the month before that (the average of those four weeks).
The ability to add a nice new number to your tabulation can feel incredible. When you can add a new low weight to your calculation or when you can jot down a new record high net worth, you can see right there in the numbers that all of your efforts are paying off and that you’re headed in the right direction.
For some – myself included – that can be incredibly powerful.
Goal setting and goal achievement is a major part of personal finance. Without the process of setting goals, figuring out how to work toward them, and then moving in that direction, it can be very hard to find a better way through life.
Of course, goals also usually mean life changes, and life changes can be difficult. It takes dedication to stick with a big goal.
These strategies can help with that dedication. Whether it’s altering your social circle or simply setting up a big visual reminder of your goal, giving yourself a little something extra toward achieving a goal never hurts – and sometimes it can make all the difference.