Do you wish something in your life were different? Is there a change you would like to make? From time to time, people encounter this common experience. The recognition that something is not as you would like it to be is accompanied by the desire for something different to happen, for something to change. You decide you will make a change, but it doesn’t happen. Maybe, you didn’t engage in effective goal setting.
In setting goals, you need to understand the difference between a desire and a goal. Desires are thoughts, often accompanied by strong feelings, that you would like something but have no plan to make it happen. A desire becomes a goal when you decide to put effort into getting that thing that you want. This is often the easiest part, but people can get stuck here because they have not set effective goals.
Effective or successful goal setting has actually been written about and researched quite extensively. Before looking into what makes a successful goal, the first question to ask is: “Why?” Why do you desire to set this goal?
You might desire a change and want to set a goal for many possible areas of your life, including health, career, education, finances, and personal development. Once you identify an area where you would like something to be different, ask yourself the “why” question. This question gets at the motivation and gives clarity on your reason for the goal.
Motivation will provide the energy to propel you through the hard work and difficult times as you pursue your goal. Write down specific factors that are motivating this goal. Is this your goal, or is it someone else’s goal for you? Maybe the change needs to happen for some very good objective reasons, yet you aren’t motivated to pursue it. This is a common occurrence. Common blocks toward setting a goal can include:
Lack of Clarity — Do you have clarity on what the change would be? Is the reason for it compelling? You might make a list of as many positive reasons for the change as possible.
Fear of Failure — You may have a fear of what others, or maybe you, will think about you if you don’t succeed. Is your identity too tied to your goal? Remember, you are not what you do. Rather, it is your character and your humanity that define you.
Lack of Resources — Goals often involve time, money, or energy. It is true that sometimes to make a change, other things need to go permanently or temporarily in order to achieve your goal. Achieving a goal will often cost you something. Is your goal worth the cost?
One of the more popular strategies for effective goal setting is to use the SMART Goals technique. SMART is an acronym for the following five characteristics of effective goals:
Specific — Make the goal as specific as possible. An example of a specific goal is to “exercise five times per week and eliminate junk food.” A nonspecific goal would be to “get in better shape and eat better.”
Measurable — State the goal in quantifiable terms such as amount, frequency, times, places, and dates. Often a large goal can be broken down into smaller objectives and measurable tasks that will lead to the overall goal.
Attainable — What can be attained will differ for everyone depending upon their resources and capabilities. It is okay for the goal to be a little bit of a stretch, but it must be within reach to keep you motivated.
Realistic — The goal must be relevant to your life and something that you can realistically achieve. Realistic goals will be important to you and will fit within your current circumstances.
Time Bound — These goals have deadlines for measurement. Deadlines can be adjusted during the process. Do not be discouraged if you do not have full completion by the deadline. Deadlines are estimates of what you think can be accomplished in the future.
The use of the SMART goal technique is one way to set goals that increase the likelihood of success. Another tip to help you set successful goals is to list the potential rewards and consequences. What do you stand to gain from the goal? Be specific about the benefit to you in accomplishing the goal. The goal itself needs to have meaning to you on some level. Stating your goals in positive language will be more motivating, i.e., what you want to do, as opposed to what you won’t do.
It can be helpful to make an agreement or contract with yourself to pursue the goal.
You can also help your process by visualizing your goals coming to fruition, which prepares your mind for achieving your goals and can also be motivating. List the consequences of not pursuing and obtaining the goal. While rewards and consequences can both be powerful motivators, the reward and personal benefit to you will be the most powerful motivator. What will get in the way of you achieving your goal?
Making plans to address the expected and unexpected obstacles that may occur is an important part of successful goal setting. Identifying the obstacles also helps to prevent discouragement when you encounter them as you are prepared for them. Sometimes addressing obstacles can become goals themselves.
A common obstacle can be regrets. Forgive yourself for what you haven’t accomplished in the past. Reflect on what you have accomplished. Live in the present for it is all you really have. Clear the clutter caused by negative thinking from your mind so that you can have a positive attitude about your goal.
You will find it helpful to involve others in your process. Yes, the goals are your goals, but often others want to be of help. They too may get excited about your goal and benefit from merely watching you pursue it and even from helping. Involving others can also provide some much-needed accountability. The reality is that losing motivation at times is normal.
Having others who believe in you, who are watching you, and who can encourage you can be a big help to achieving your goal. You will want to set times for evaluation of your progress, beginning with making a specific plan. The goal can be broken down into smaller tasks. Assess your progress along the way at preset time intervals, which will help you to stay on track. It can also help you to identify and resolve further unexpected obstacles.
Be careful not to think about any lack in progress as failure. Struggles may simply be suggesting a course correction is needed. As you evaluate your progress, be sure to celebrate your achievements. Setting a goal and moving toward it is a worthy endeavor. Progress toward it is a result of your effort, requiring courage and dedication. You may want to consider planning to reward yourself for steps taken toward your goal.
As a general principle of life, we all live with limited resources, such as time, energy, and money. Sometimes pursuing a goal will mean having to say no to some other things, even good things. At times, temporarily saying no to good things is necessary. Most successful people in life understand this reality. Success often means making hard choices to focus your resources on the most important areas, which could be difficult for you if you have a hard time disappointing others. Ultimately, the best thing you can do for others is to be the best version of yourself.
Having realistic and meaningful goals doesn’t guarantee success. Some common obstacles and blocks can derail your progress. The first is setting a goal that is a “should” or “ought to” rather than something that you really want in your life. Should and ought to rarely provide the motivation needed for success. Even when pursuing a necessary goal that you want to achieve, find a positive outcome to help your motivation.
Similarly, not having strong enough motivation can hinder you from accomplishing your goal. Some have called this a “compelling vision.” Are you clear on what you want to accomplish and why?
Thirdly, don’t fall into the trap of living in the regret and negative energy of past failed goals. Mistakes and failures are a part of life. Think through and release your regret. Be willing to learn from your mistakes. Failure to celebrate past accomplishments can also be an obstacle. A positive mindset and the confidence of noting past accomplishments can propel you to your next goal. Avoid self-defeating thinking.
Examples include “People like me aren’t good at this,” and “I just don’t think I can do this.” Self-defeating thinking focuses on all the reasons why you can’t accomplish your goal. Don’t have unrealistic expectations and time frames. This adds pressure and a potential for discouragement.
Life is not static. It is always changing. Everyone faces an ongoing need to make changes, some small and some quite large. When you have a goal, don’t procrastinate, putting it off until “someday.” Resist the urge to wait until you “feel” ready. Anticipate that pursuing your goal may be hard. Don’t give up before you see the results. When you struggle or make mistakes, resist the urge to see them as failure and to give up. Learn from your mistakes.
Remember, life is not a destination. It is a journey. You will set many goals or destinations in life, and these are important. But it is the journey of life, the process that often brings the most enjoyment. Savor the journey. Even when working hard at pursuing worthy goals, try to live in the moment and enjoy the process of progressing toward something meaningful in your life. The unexpected reality is that the more that you enjoy the process of pursuing the goal, the more likely you are to accomplish it.
Dr. Thomas Barbian is the executive director for the Christian Counseling Center of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia. He received his doctorate in clinical psychology from the Cambridge Graduate School of Psychology and Counseling in Los Angeles. He also holds a master’s degree in marriage, family, and child counseling and a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies.