How to Set Goals to Keep Them
New Years Resolutions. We make them. We break them. We rinse and repeat. In fact, this process happens so consistently, it’s almost a running joke for many.
The thing is, resolutions don’t have to be impossible. Or impractical. They’re simply choosing a goal and going after it. So why do we tend to give up on them year after year?
When we continually miss our goals, often, it has to do with our mindset. How we think, how we plan, and how we execute those plans are all dependent on the mindset we’ve adopted from the outset of our goal.
2020 was a difficult year for many of us. And changing our mindset after such a turbulent year may feel impossible. After all, we’re grieving, worried, anxious, and stressed. All of that can add up to feeling trepidation and caution towards even trying to figure out what 2021 might bring. But that makes finding the right mindset even more important.
Review our success
When we think about what we want in the new year, we tend to focus on the things we didn’t do or achieve in the previous one. This is the year we get that promotion or learn that hobby or lose that weight. This is a natural inclination for most of us. I didn’t get the things I wanted last year, so I will try twice as hard to focus on attaining them this year. The problem with this strategy is that what we’re actually doing is focusing on failure as our path to success.
It’s possible to turn failure into success, and we’ll talk about that in a minute. But if we haven’t gone through the steps to change how we’re thinking about these failures, it’s going to be difficult to overcome the obstacles we already encountered that resulted in failure the first time. One way to change the way our brain interprets the year is to actually focus on everything we succeeded at as our starting point.
This is actually a powerful exercise in changing our mindset and for this exercise, no success is too small. Write down personal accomplishments and professional achievements. Did we give a roll of toilet paper to a neighbor? Write it down. Managed to do laundry before we ran out of underwear? Write it down. Helped keep our kids on track during Zoom class? Write it down. Finally figured out how to make a killer loaf of sourdough? You got it, write it down.
One of the most powerful systems in our brain is our reward system. This is the system responsible for how good we feel whenever we accomplish something. And that same system is triggered simply by remembering reward events. That means by focusing on our successes, we are reminding ourselves of these reward events and getting the powerful release of dopamine with every item we list. By deliberately focusing on our success, we can use this system to harness optimism and joy, which will help us look at the upcoming year with the same emotions.
Change our focus
While we’re riding the joy of success, this is the time to reflect on what didn’t work. This may seem like following our positive thought process with a negative one, but we don’t want to simply list our failures. Instead, we want to think about what didn’t work and why. This is where we open ourselves to the lessons and this is how we can turn failure into success.
Emily Fletcher from Ziva Meditation encourages us to change the question from “Why is this happening to me?” to “Why is this happening for me?”. It’s changing one word, but that word changes our mindset from a negative to a positive. It tells our brain the event isn’t what matters. It’s the lessons we can learn from it.
Our brain doesn’t like an open loop. If we ask ourselves why things happen to us, it will seek out examples to uphold this assertion. Have you ever bought a new car and suddenly noticed the same make and model as you drive around? Our brain is attuned to notice the things we tell it are important, so if we love dogs, we’re going to notice dogs. This same principle works here. By changing the question we ask ourselves, our brain will then seek out everything it can learn and gain from each event we examine, both in past events and the present.
There’s always something we can learn in every event, both good and bad. Instead of focusing on the events themselves and asking why those events happened to us, we can change the way we see the event. This changes our mindset from one where we always see the downside to one where we are always seeking out the lessons and opportunities.
Find the goal
Now we open our dreams and put them on paper. Write down everything we want to accomplish. And we mean everything. This list isn’t limited to things we think are possible or realistic. Instead, this is a list of every single thing we want for the year. And like we did with our success, write down the small goals, the big goals, and everything in between.
Focusing on a long list of potential goals may feel overwhelming, but if we open ourselves to exploring what we want without limit, we may end up being surprised what lands on that list. Often, we choose goals that we think are achievable or that we think others want us to achieve. These aren’t bad goals, but they may not be the right goals for us.
There are certain reactions we should have that tell us if a goal is right for pursuing. First, it should be a stretch. Wait, what about all those small goals we wrote down? We still pursue those. But those probably aren’t the goals holding us back or that we give up on. So those aren’t the ones we’re going to talk about right now. We’re talking about the goals that are going to make us work for a victory.
Beyond being a goal we need to work towards, a goal should make us nervous. When we feel just a little afraid, our brain shifts out of the comfortable habit loop and moves into active executive functioning. We are alert, ready to take action, observing details we would have otherwise overlooked. This change from passive to active helps keep us in a readiness mindset, which is imperative when we’re working towards a goal. If we move back to complacency, we’re unlikely to feel motivated enough to take action which leads to us abandoning our goals.
All of this becomes obvious when we write down all our possible goals. We’ll know what stands out, what makes us nervous, what excites us. And this tells us what we really want in that moment. Making a goal for something we don’t feel passionate about isn’t likely to reap success. Maybe we want to learn a language but what we’re really passionate about is traveling to that country. Learning the language can be an action step within the goal we actually want to pursue. Once we discover what is driving our motivations, we can identify the goal that ignites us, making it much more likely we’ll be successful in the end.
Make a plan
It’s normal to think of setting a goal as a finite thing. We want to lose weight, so we’ll go on a diet and go to the gym every day. We want to learn a foreign language, so we’ll buy a program and practice every day while we commute. We want to write a book, so we’ll sit down and write 1,000 words every day. Sound familiar?
But this is the problem. The plan is actually so much more important than the goal. These are the action steps we need to take in order to reach the goal. If we want to win a race, we can’t say my goal is to win and expect to win. We need to train, and training is a multi-layered process that requires us to know where we’re at, where we need to be, and what we need to do in order to get there. So what does that mean?
First, write down where we’re at. If we want to learn a new language, do we have any experience or knowledge at all of the language? Next, break the goal down into small bites. We won’t become fluent in a day. Or a month. Maybe not even a year. Having a goal that is too big, or too broad will actually make it more likely we’ll quit. Remember the reward system in our brain? It needs wins in order to solidify a behavior into a habit. That means we need to give it benchmarks to celebrate small success in order to reach the bigger success. For our language goal, this might mean celebrating when we finish a module. Or can say and define one hundred words. It doesn’t matter what the milestone is, just that we have them and they’re in manageable increments.
At this point in our plan we have the following:
- Our goal
- Where we’re at in terms of our goal
- Bite-size mini goals
- Defined rewards/celebration for reaching each mini goal
- Scheduled check-ins
This is a good start to our roadmap to success, but we still aren’t ready to dive into action. Now we need to examine what can go wrong and what we can do to make it go right.
Obviously we want to envision success. But part of envisioning success is knowing that things will go wrong. We’ll have bad days or bad weeks. Work will be stressful, making our energy levels drop. We’ll fight with our partners or go through a difficult time with our kids. Finances may get tight. And that’s not counting the thousands of little things that can build up and drain our energy and motivation daily. In order to make sure we can fight through these obstacles and difficult times, we need to think about them when we’re in a calm, focused state of mind.
Divide a piece of paper in half and write down everything that we can think of going wrong on one side. It doesn’t matter how trivial or how gigantic. And leave a space for unknowns. Because unknowns will happen too. On the other side, write a solution. What will we do when we get home from work exhausted with zero motivation to finish that language module? Do we take a break? Do we finish five minutes? Ten minutes? Do we meditate or do some yoga and evaluate on a case by case basis? Or maybe we simply use that day to test ourselves on previous lessons. It doesn’t matter what the action is, as long as we have an action.
Finally, we need to identify who and what our resources will be, and when we’ll need to use them. Some of this will be in the beginning. We’ll need to purchase a language program or enroll in a class. What are the action steps involved? Do we need a textbook, workbook, or language dictionary? Is there a tutor we can hire either now or when we’re stuck? Who are they? What are their rates? Do we need to save for this? What about when we’re feeling low? Do we have someone who can give us a pep talk when we desperately need it? Maybe our best friend can commit to checking in once a month. Or maybe we need to look for an accountability coach for weekly or even daily check ins.
Making a plan for success is trying to answer as many questions as we can about the reality of executing our goal. The more questions we can ask ourselves, the more detailed our plan is and the easier it will be for us to gain momentum when we need it most. One of the main reasons we fail to reach our goals is because we didn’t have a plan. Or we only had half a plan. Remember, our brain loves organization. Writing down as much detail as possible means we don’t have to struggle for that information at a time when we don’t have the tools or resources to come up with it. It reminds our brain here’s the plan, which relieves stress while giving us a sense of direction, purpose, and control. We don’t have to stop moving forward so we don’t lose our momentum.
Once we have our plan in place, we begin. Do the first action step. Get to the first milestone. Celebrate and do your check-in.
A check-in is our re-evaluation. Remember when we said things will go wrong? They probably haven’t by our first check-in, but it’s more than likely that our reality is a little less glamorous than our dream. What does that mean? Well, it means that envisioning success rarely includes the downright feeling of drudgery actually achieving that dream involves. Training for a race? There’s going to be a lot of sweat. And sore muscles. And blisters. Learning a new language? There’s a lot of repetition. And mistakes. Reality is often far more dreary than we imagine success will be.
Use your check-in to imagine the dream again. Add the sparkles back. Remember why we want this and what it will mean to succeed. If we reach a check-in at a time when we missed our milestone, celebrate the progress we’ve made. We’re in a different place than when we began, and that’s amazing. But we also need to evaluate why we missed our bite-size goal. Maybe we hit a roadblock. Or we came up against an obstacle. This is when we open up our plan and figure out what’s going wrong. And how to fix it. Failure is never the end, it’s simply an opportunity to evaluate what went wrong so we can adapt our next steps.
Even if things are going right we need our check-ins. Maybe we’re hitting our milestones but they aren’t motivating us the way we thought. This is when we want to ask ourselves the same questions we asked when setting our goal. What do we want? Why is success in this thing important? What does success look like? It could be that maybe our passion changed. Or that we thought learning a language was how we would get a promotion but a new department opened up instead. In order to get to the heart of these questions, we need to look at our resources and ask ourselves if we need a pep talk or to bounce our frustrations off of a different perspective.
We want to be flexible in adjusting our goal but we want to be sure we’re doing it for the right reasons. That we aren’t quitting when reality gets dull, chasing only the initial spark of excitement. Because while change happens and things will always go wrong, passion will also wane. And that’s completely normal. It isn’t a sign to quit, in fact, a lot of time it’s a sign to keep going.
Our brain is incredible at adapting. And when we get good at something, it tends to want to create habits. These are routines it does without active thought. We don’t think about brushing our teeth, we just do it. But when we’re striving for a goal, a lot of the action steps become routine. Except we are keeping it active. Which means it can feel excruciating to do. One. More. Time. It’s hard. And it’s supposed to be hard. We chose the goal that was going to push us. Challenge us. And this is part of it.
Finding this distinction between shifting goals in a productive way versus giving up at the wrong time for the wrong reasons can be incredibly difficult to discern. Especially when we’re in it. We’ve heard the saying, we can’t see the forest for the trees. It’s appropriate here. And this is the value of regular check-ins. We can determine the problem and decide how to move forward.
Maybe the goal stays the same but the action steps were missing one or more factors. Or aren’t working any more. We’ve already accepted that we have unknowns standing in our way, so while we won’t have the answer written down, we’ll have the time to problem solve accounted for along with a list of resources to utilize. Flexibility means we give ourselves permission to ask questions, to evaluate change, and make adjustments to our action steps so we are always moving forward.
Setting a goal or resolution isn’t a set it and forget it process. It requires changing our mindset and planning our success. No matter how passionate we are, things will get hard and things will go wrong. The key to setting a goal so we can reach them every time is having a plan. Taking the time to prepare for both the small wins and minor failures helps ensure we don’t lose our momentum, no matter what happens along the way.