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Guide to How to Set Achieveable Goals

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
"We tend to set goals that are unreasonable, perfectionistic, and unachievable."

Often people state "I'm just lazy" or "I'm unmotivated" when they are unsuccessful. Yet, most of the time, the problem isn't laziness, but lack of understanding about how to achieve goals. For instance, I believe that much of the problem the American people have with weight control is related to inability to set goals. Oh, we can set goals alright! We can set them until the cows come home. But if we don't set goals properly we are unlikely to be successful. For instance, I hear people all the time "I'm going to lose 10 pounds in the next two weeks" or "I'm going to exercise an hour a day" or "I'm going to limit myself to 1200 calories a day" or some combination of these statements in attempts to manage weight. However, even though they might achieve these goals over the short-term, any long-term change is unlikely. They will revert to old habits with resignation sighing, "I'm unmotivated. I'll never be able to lose weight."

The same problem can occur in the work setting: "If only I could get organized, I would be more successful at work." Or in sports: "I just don't stick with things. I give up too easily." Again, the problem is likely to be problems with setting goals. We tend to set goals that are unreasonable, perfectionistic, and unachievable. You may question this statement, "What do you mean unachievable? I see people achieving these goals all the time." Which is true. However, most likely they achieved their goals by following some of the principles I discuss below.


Dream goal

First allow yourself to fully imagine what you would like to achieve. When you imagine your goal, try to imagine it as fully as possible. Allow yourself to picture what it would be like when you achieve it. What does it look like? What are the differences in your life? How will you feel? What will others see? In fact, write down what you imagine. If your goal is to start a business, imagine opening the door to your new business and looking around at what you see. If your goal is to perform well in a tournament, imagine your performance fully, what your body feels like, what you notice around you. Write these things down.

1) Realistic but challenging. However, even though this is your "dream" it needs to be within reason. For instance, it may be reasonable to lose weight and to feel healthier, but is it reasonable to "look like a supermodel?" Unless you already have the genetic makeup for it, you are setting yourself up for failure. Or, you might dream about developing your own business, but to expect that you should be as successful as Bill Gates within 10 years is unrealistic. Besides, from what I have read about Bill Gates, I don't think that is the sort of goal he set for himself. He focused upon the more immediate goal of developing a personal computer that was within the ability of most people to own. The business and financial success came later.

At the same time you want to make the goal challenging. If the goal is too ridiculously easy, it won't have any meaning for you. Beyond that, you may not even achieve too easy of a goal because there is no point in it. We need some challenge for us to be motivated, but the challenge can't overwhelm us, and thereby decrease ability to follow through. One mistake people frequently make when setting goals is to set too many goals at one time as a way of making the goal challenging. However, you want to be challenged by specific, manageable goals.

2) Performance goals rather than outcome goals. The most achievable goals are personal performance goals rather than outcome-oriented goals. A goal of winning a competition, for instance, is an outcome goal. One problem with an outcome-oriented goal is that we have less control over outcome than we do over performance. For instance, another competitor may have an outstanding day or you might be suffering from a virus that diminishes performance. In addition, sometimes there are outside factors that influence outcomes such as umpires or audience behavior.

Performance-oriented goals allow us to evaluate ourselves independently of these other factors. I know when I competed in martial arts, I had times when I thought I had just done my best performance in kata competition yet I didn't win, and other times I won when I thought it was a poorer performance. Therefore, I found I could maintain more consistency by evaluating myself independently of the outcome based on specific goals I set for my performance.

In the work setting, an outcome-oriented goal may be a goal of obtaining a promotion or increased salary whereas a performance-oriented goal may focus on specific activities to improve the work environment or productivity. The interesting thing about this type of goal is a person may be more likely to achieve the desired outcome as well. For instance, I once had a client who had not been promoted at work in years. He felt he did a good job but he never focused on how he could improve upon his job or performance. As we discussed the situation, he showed a great deal of insight into the problems at his place of employment. We developed the goal of being assertive and communicating about the problems he observed. Within weeks of a long discussion with his supervisor about his observations, he was promoted to a supervisory position.

Develop specific goals

If goals are vague and unclear, they are not reachable. However, you also don't want to become discouraged by a goal that is too specific. Sometimes this may be based upon personality. One person may set a goal and if they don't achieve it in the specified time they just change the goal using what they learned from the process to improve the goal, whereas another person may set the same goal but become discouraged if they don't meet it in the specified time. Therefore, be as specific as your personality allows. For instance, it may be better in a weight loss plan to specify "I'm going to reduce the amount of sweets I eat" rather than specify a certain amount of weight to lose.

1) Long-term goals. Identify specific long-term goals. These are usually similar to the dream goal you imagined but they may be more specific. For instance, if your dream goal is to open a retail shop, your long-term goals may involve finding and renting the space, finishing the interior, purchasing the products, and hiring and training the employees.

2) Short-term goals.Once you have identified the long-term goals you can develop short-term goals to help you achieve each long-term goal. Using the retail shop example above, you may have short-term goals of researching the area where you want to open the shop to determine the competition, the availability of space, and the need or interest for your product.

3) Practice goals and competition goals. In sports and other activities involving competition, you want to develop goals for practice that will help you to meet your competition goals. For instance, I am currently training for a local stair-climb competition that raises money for the American Lung Association. My competition goal is to climb the 42 flights in less than 10 minutes this year (last year was 11:34). My practice goals involve gradually increasing the number of stairs I run in an allotted amount of time (usually 20 minutes).

Set target dates

For us to be able to progress in the achievement of goals, it is best to have target dates set for each goal. These target dates may need to be changed at times if you don't meet the goal, but having the date specified, preferably in writing, keeps you more focused.

Develop strategies for achieving goals

Once you have developed the goals, you need to create a specific, concrete plan for achieving those goals. These strategies are a specific description of what you are going to do to achieve the goals as well as to evaluate the goals. The specific strategies should include daily tasks as well as longer-term plans.

If your goal is to reduce the amount of sweets you eat, what are the specific methods you will you to do that? Perhaps, you plan to write down all the sweets you eat so that you are aware of how much you eat which may, in turn, reduce the amount of sweets you consume. Or you may choose to remove sweets from your immediate vicinity so that it's more difficult to find them.

Develop support network for achieving goals

When I taught smoking cessation classes for the American Heart Association we instructed our classes to develop a goal with a quit date that they shared with other people they knew would be supportive. By sharing the goal, they developed a support network of people who were likely to check with them about their progress. This increased the likelihood of them quitting cigarettes. However, if your support network is critical and negative, you may find that sharing reduces motivation and success.

Develop plan for goal evaluation

Finally, you need a method to help you evaluate the goals you have set. The plan may keep track of progress, or it may need to determine if the strategies actually work towards accomplishing the goals, or it may need to examine what factors block the goal achievement. This part of the process becomes easier if you set measurable goals initially. The more comprehensive the evaluation, the more it allows you to modify goals or change strategies to achieve the desired outcome. One thing I always loved about behavior therapy that I tell my clients "There is no such thing as failure. There are so many different ways to achieve your goals, that each time something doesn't work it just gives us information to develop strategies that are more likely to work."

Example of implementing this procedure

I have the goal of developing my website. Currently, approximately 2500 people a month visit this site. My long-term goal is to attract 20,000 people a month within the next year. To achieve that goal I have developed short-term goals. One of my strategies for achieving this goal became one of my short-term goals which is to write two articles each week so that in a year I will have over 100 articles posted on this site. To write that many articles I needed to delineate particular times for me to write. I chose times during which I typically am most alert and motivated so as to increase the likelihood that I would follow the plan. Now the strategy I chose of writing two articles a week to increase traffic to my site might not work. So I've developed another short-term goal of examining Google Analytics monthly to determine if the number of visitors is increasing as the number of articles increase. If I find that the strategy doesn't work, I can then develop different goals or modify my goals and strategies for them to become more effective. I'll tell you in 2011 whether this worked.

Addendum: Didn't quite make the goal by 2011, but did achieve it by 2012 by changing strategies and developing Android apps. This example demonstrates that we also need flexibility in pursuing our goals.


Kindle Books by
Dr. Monica Frank

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