Many of us are great at creating goals—New Year’s resolutions anyone? And yet, when it comes to actually doing the work – the work needed to help us get closer to our goals – we often fall flat on our faces. Why is that? Why do so many of us struggle to follow through with our goals even when we know they will genuinely benefit our lives? Are there tips and tricks that can help us create achievable and realistic goals? And if so, what are they? Let’s explore.
What is a goal?
Before we dive in, I thought it would be helpful to define the term “goal” as I’ll be using it throughout this post.
In his report, The Neuroscience of Goals and Behavior Change, Dr. Eliot T. Berkman, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon and Associate Managing Director of the Center for Translational Neuroscience, writes:
“Formally, a goal is a desired future state (an end) coupled with a set of antecedent acts that promote the attainment of that end state. , . . In practice, we set goals in cases where we need to do something that hasn’t happened yet and isn’t likely to happen on its own.”
Basically, goals are things we want but have difficulty achieving. They often require effort, persistence, and motivation . . . and above all else – behavior changes.
The biggest obstacle to accomplishing realistic goals?
In the world of successfully accomplishing goals, behavior change is usually the biggest obstacle we face. And, if you look at the science, this isn’t surprising. Creating new behaviors takes time, persistence, work, and a desire (“the will”) to truly want to disrupt old habits with new patterns.
I think most of us can attest that behavior change is rarely a straight-forward or simple process. Not to mention, life is busy, messy, stressful, and packed with other pressing obligations. So, while we may set out to accomplish goals with pure and good intentions, there’s no denying that “old habits die hard.”
Why? For starters, behavior change often requires that we step out of our comfort zone and into uncharted territory, opening up the doors for possible failures, disappointments, fears, and setbacks.
Setbacks are Inevitable
Setbacks, regardless of how big or small, are discouraging and, one of the biggest reasons most of us “give up” on new resolutions and habits after just a few short weeks. When we “fall off the bandwagon,” many of us start experiencing feelings of failure, doubt, frustration, and disappointment.
In fact, when setting out to accomplish a new behavior or habit, many of us will experience a sense of emotional friction (tug of war within ourselves which often results in stress, doubt, and self-sabotage) or a feeling of shame around our lack of self-discipline (willpower). We allow our harsh inner critic to take the spotlight and start thinking things such as, “I knew I couldn’t do it,” “I have no willpower,” or “why even bother!?”
While we may believe these things, they’re simply not true. The reality is that – no matter how hard we try to avoid them – we are all going to face setbacks of some sort. You may get sick, lose your job, have a new baby, face relationship issues, struggle with self-doubt, etc. As mentioned above, life is messy and complex.
Be gracious with yourself. Remember, creating new behaviors takes time, self-discipline, and perseverance. And as shared in The Science of Setting Goals: “Your task is not to avoid failures, but to plan for them.”
So rather than berating yourself for “failing,” ask yourself: What’s my plan for overcoming setbacks as they arise? Because, no doubt about it, they’re going to arise.
How to overcome setbacks and establish realistic goals
The good news? There are a few science-backed tricks that can help you more effectively achieve realistic goals, overcome setbacks, and form new behavior patterns, both on a personal and professional level.
1. Create a SMART goal.
A SMART goal is one that is:
S (Specific): a specific goal is one that is clear and well defined.
M (Measurable ): a measurable goal is one you can easily track as you progress.
A (Attainable/Achievable): an attainable goal is one that you can realistically achieve.
R (Relatable/realistic to your life): a relatable goal is one that works (is feasible) for you during this moment in life.
T (Timeframe): a goal that has a clear beginning and end. Meaning, your goal should have a deadline.
2. Create an implementation plan.
While purposefully writing down a goal is helpful, studies have found that those who write (and sign) an implementation plan (aka, implementation intention) are more likely to successfully achieve their goals than those who don’t.
What’s an implementation plan? An implementation plan is one that forces you to get really specific about the what, when, how, and where of your goal.
For example: During the next month, I will partake in ______ [goal] on____ [day] at _____ [time] in_____ [place].
This could look like: During the next month I will meditate 10 minutes every night at 9:45pm in my bedroom.
But it doesn’t end there.
Remember those setbacks we talked about above? One way to help overcome setbacks is to create a “contingency plan.” This will help you overcome the setbacks that are undoubtedly going to arise.
A contingency plan could include something along the lines of “If this happens, then I will do this….”
James Clear, author of Atomic Habits calls this the If-Then Technique.
“All you need to do is complete this phrase: “If [something unexpected], then [your response].”
3. Find an accountability partner.
We do better when someone else is holding us accountable, i.e., checking in on our progress and helping to keep us motivated.
If you’re just starting off, I recommend finding a supportive friend or family member who you know and trust to hold you accountable and keep you on track. Consider developing a goal tracking plan together – what days will you check in on each other, how will you help keep each other accountable, etc.
4. Keep your goals visible!
Write down your goal and implementation plan and place it in a location where you’ll see it every day!
5. Measure, record, and track your goals.
Personally, I’ve also found it really helpful to measure and track my daily progress using a habit/goal tracker. Click here to download and use my Monthly Habit Trackers and Implementation Plan. I keep this habit tracker on my nightstand and at the end of each day, once my goal/task for that day has been accomplished, I check it off! To me, there’s nothing more satisfying than recording and measuring my progress.
6. Break down your large goal into smaller actionable steps.
If you try to establish too many lofty goals, or even one huge goal, all at once you’re more likely to feel discouraged and give up. Rather, break down your big goal into smaller steps. Starting small helps you to prioritize, focus, and to build momentum towards achieving your larger goals. Not to mention, each time you check off your smaller goal your confidence increases.
Tip: Remember, it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing approach. If you’re too busy to get your 45 minute workout in, go for a 10 min walk around your neighborhood. Remember, doing something in the direction of your goal is better than nothing.
And of course, don’t forget to celebrate each and every milestone. I think it’s often really easy to forget that we’re actually progressing, especially if you’re a perfectionist. Take time each week to celebrate your wins and progress.
I think it’s important to remember that goals and the plans we create to achieve those goals are there to serve us – to give us a system and structure that will help us grow into the best version of ourselves. If at some point you realize the goals you set out to achieve aren’t serving you then remember, it’s OK to adjust and pivot. This doesn’t mean you’re a failure, it just means you’re readjusting and making space to make a new plan and goal.