How To Set Achievable Goals

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Goals are a part of defining success.  Because the concept of success is so highly personal, goals are a better marker of success than comparison.  For example, a person whose goal it is to achieve work life balance, when compared to a person whose goal it is to climb the corporate ladder – if we compare just the outcome, and not the intention and motivation behind the outcome, we may have very different perspectives.  Despite the highly personal aspect of goals, there are some universal truths to goal-setting that can help us realize our goals.

Two key aspects are articulation, and accountability of the goals.  When goals are more nebulous and unformed, abstract and poorly defined, it can be difficult to grasp what steps are necessary, what supports would help, and what progress has been made.  Whereas research has suggested that simply writing down a goal – forming the words provide shape and definition to the goal, is associated with goal achievement.

One popular acronym related to goals is to have a SMART goal, which stands for: Specific, Measurable, Action-Oriented/Achievable, Realistic/Relevant, and Time-Bound.  Let’s break that down:

  • S – Specific: This references the need for a goal to be concrete, and not abstract.  A goal of “Do better” is much harder to quantify and therefore achieve versus the goal of “Improve customer satisfaction ratings by 30%.”
  • M – Measurable: It is difficult for us to know if we are making progress on a goal if we cannot measure it.  Should your goal be related to fitness, perhaps measuring the distance with which you are able to sustain a comfortable running pace.  Can that distance be increased?  Can the time be faster?  These are measurement techniques that help us see if we are making progress towards our goals.
  • A – Action – Oriented / Achievable:  What steps can you take towards the goal?  Is this a goal that is within your power and control? Remember that we cannot control others actions, and so a goal of “Make Susan like me,” is probably not an action – oriented / achievable goal.  However, if the goal is “Get to know Susan better,” the action steps that can be taken include setting aside time to talk with Susan, to learn about her interests.
  • R – Realistic / Relevant: We tend to be motivated by things that matter!  A goal of ending world pollution is certainly admirable – but it isn’t realistic.  To make it more relevant to your own life, perhaps a goal of cleaning up a neighborhood park, or picking up pieces of litter that you pass by.
  • T – Time-Bound: Deadlines help.  The purpose of the time-binding is not to create unnecessary anxiety and angst about a looming deadline, but rather to help provide more shape to the goal.  When will we know that the goal has been met?  If a goal is related to reducing a fear of flying, is there a trip coming up that makes this time-bound?  What chronological markers can be applied to help track progress?

With regards to accountability, it helps to keep talking about our goals.  Therapy is a great place to explore goals, maintain accountability and progress, and redefine goals as they become less applicable.  Having a friend know about our goals, and asking loved ones to check in on our progress helps, too.  We become invested in the things that we communicate to others, and talking about your goals helps to reinforce the commitment.  Along the way to your goals, set small rewards and incentives to keep going.  Use technology to help track your progress, or write about the process of achieving the goals in a journal.

Success is a personal construct, and goals are the individualized stepping stones along the way towards success.  With the right definition, supports, and accountability, goals can become reality.

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