How to set (realistic) goals and stick to them
Psychologist Dr Samantha Clarke shares her insights
There are so many reasons to set goals and intentions. Not only do goals help us to move towards what we really care about, but also the striving for goals enhances our sense of health, vitality, and emotional and psychological wellbeing.
So, if you want to create a significant change in your life or you want to reach for that goal you’ve always dreamed of, the following 9 evidence-based tips will help you succeed in setting an effective goal and stick to it.
1. Ensure the goal you set is linked to what really matters to you.
Researchers have found, the goals we are most likely to achieve need to be internally driven. This means the goal needs to be either pleasant and enjoyable for you to work toward or they are linked to a deeply held belief or value (e.g. it’s important for me to be kind and compassionate to my elderly parents).
External goals are goals that we work towards to attain some type of reward (e.g. money or status) or to avoid a consequence or difficult feeling (e.g. I will feel guilty if I don’t). These types of goals can often lead to short-term pleasure or relief, yet do not actually lead to long-term vitality. Further, they will also not help you to sustain motivation, so ultimately your goal is likely to fizzle out after while.
Spend a week or two getting clear on your values. Consider the different areas of your life – relationships, family, health, career, recreation, etc. and reflect on the questions “when I am being the me I really want to be in this area of my life, what types of qualities am I enacting?” Create a list of values for each area by selecting your top 5-10 qualities. Values are wonderful, they help us become clear of the direction in which we want to head so then we can use these values to ensure the goals we set are in alignment.
2. Set goals that are in your control.
Too often when we set goals we focus on outcomes we cannot control (e.g. weight loss, sell my house) rather than the actions that we can (e.g. to join a gym and attend 50% of days this month, to put my house on the market).
As humans, we believe we have control of all the variables, but we don’t!
By focusing on what you can control you aim to build self-efficacy, maintain motivation and also persistence if barriers do get in the way that impact goal attainment.
3. Set only 1-3 goals at a time.
You might find that after you have become clear on your values you want to set a number of goals in each domain, but hold up! Motivation research has shown that to ensure we have the greatest resources for our goal pursuits we should only aim for 1-3 goals at a time. This ensures we keep these goals in mind and of course once we complete these goals we can set future goals in the same value domain or new areas.
4. Set goals that have a timeframe.
One reason some goals fail is because the timeframe is too long. We need to work on goals that can sustain our focus of concentration; between 1-3 months is an effective time-frame. This means that if you have a longer-term goal e.g. to complete my first year of university, you can break this goal down into smaller goals e.g. to complete my first term at university.
5. Check how confident you are.
Often when we set a goal there is a voice in our head that says, “Seriously…are you really going to do that?” “That goal is way too big, too hard or is so out of my reach”. Guess what happens next, this goal never even gets another thought, because before we have followed the steps to help us get there we have put it in the too hard basket.
Take some time to consider your self-efficacy. Once you have set your goal, ask yourself “How confident am I that I can achieve this goal?”. If the answer is less than 7 out of 10, rework the goal. Make the goal a little smaller until you are at least you feel 70% confident you can achieve it.
6. Share your goals with your tribe.
We tend to do better achieving our goals when we have the support of our friends and loved ones. Share your values and also your specific goals with people you know will support you.
Ask your tribe if they will support you and let them know what they could do that might assist you in moving towards your goal. Sometimes it can be as simples as them asking you “How are you going with…?” Not everyone will be supportive of your choices, which is ok, but choose to share your goals with those in your tribe who you feel genuinely support your vision.
7. Set a plan.
Even the greatest of goals are only achieved by small steps. Take time to visualize all the steps that are involved in achieving your specific goals. Plot out each step as a task and then schedule when, where and how each of these steps will take place.
Also, create and schedule time for review periods along the way so you can see how you are traveling with your goal. Are barriers coming up that need to be addressed? Problem solve each barrier so you can keep moving towards what you want. This area of planning, reviewing and problem-solving is often the area that is not addressed which leads unobtained goals. We set the intention but never consider planning out the steps or reviewing our progress. These are fundamental elements to achieving our goals.
8. Create reminders for your values, goals and tasks.
It is so important to hold our values in mind as this will assist with maintaining motivation and protecting our goals. Creating a visual picture of your values and goals that you see every day can be one way of keeping these in the forefront. Also using scheduling and diaries can ensure steps of our action plan are achieved and reviewed daily. Scheduling in when we are going to review our goals is also essential.
9. Be mindful of the internal barriers that take us off track.
Being human means having a chattering mind. Often when we are moving towards a new goal and stretching out of our comfort zone, it’s normal to feel fearful. Yet, when we are scared our mind likes to go into protection mode, even if what we are afraid of is not physically dangerous.
Remember your mind wants to avoid the possibility of failure or rejection, but in the long term we need to risk the chance of these things if we want to grow and evolve. This is part and parcel of goal attainment.
The best thing you can do is to start to notice the stories that your mind likes to tell at these times. They might be fearful thoughts like “ What if you fail? You can’t cope with that”. Your mind also has more tricky ways of avoiding these feared consequences like making excuses such as “You can’t make that call to that potential networker today you are too busy” and convincing you that this goal is not really what you want anyway.
Rather than spending time arguing with your mind, see if you can be mindful and observant when the story arises and label it. “Ah, here is my mind trying to protect me again, thank you mind” and then come back to your task. The aim to take your difficult thoughts and feelings with you on this journey, rather than allowing them to derail you from what matters most. The more you can move forwards with these difficult internal experiences the more skillful at it you will become.
These tips will help you set goals and values whenever you feel ready to make the commitment to move towards the life you want.
About Your Guest Blogger: Dr Samantha Clarke (PhD) is a Clinical Psychologist, Personal Trainer and Director of a psychology practice on the Sunshine Coast. Samantha incorporates a holistic approach to healthcare, placing emphasis on helping each individual move towards a more fulfilling and meaningful life. Samantha’s work has a strong foundation in providing Mindfulness-based interventions and she is particularly interested in assisting people with addressing lifestyle difficulties and overall wellness.