It’s Not About Self-Discipline: 10 Tips for Reaching Your Goals

The other day, I wrote a post about how you should Never Set Another Resolution, Again — and about how a simple change in focus (from resolutions to goals) can make you more likely to succeed. It seems to be a popular theme in the past couple of days; when I looked through my feed reader, I found a whole bunch of posts about goal setting as opposed to resolution setting.

This Could Be Your Lucky Day in Hell

Photo by Thomas Hawk

But, like I said, simply changing your vocabulary from resolution to goal on its own isn’t going to help you lose that weight, stop smoking, exercise more, or whatever other changes you might want to see in your life. Even when you phrase your goals as SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound) ones, you aren’t guaranteed success. There still is the matter of actually following-through on said goal, and that’s where a lot of people get stuck.

Goals Aren’t That Mysterious

Reaching goals is actually very simple — far more so than people let themselves believe. The key to success in reaching your goals is to make good goals, and then take action on them.

Now you may read that, and feel like closing your browser and walking away. After all, that key includes no magic bullet, no wonder pill, no switch to flip. Yes, reaching goals is as simple as making them and then acting upon them. No, there isn’t any other way to fulfil your goals. But there are ways to make it easier.

So, regardless of the situation, here are some practical tips that you can use to help you get the most out of your goals (New Years, or otherwise).

Tip #1: Make the Choice

If you’ve read some of my recent musings on psychology, happiness and choice, you’ll know that a key to making effective change in your life is to just go out, and choose to do it. The process of making a committed decision is what a lot of people confuse with “self-discipline” — they think that they have to have self-discipline to go out running every day, but in reality, they just need to make a choice to do so.

if you make a decision to achieve a goal, then make it. Don’t waffle back and forth, or you undermine your ability to complete the goal. Similarly, when it comes to actually following through on your goal, don’t let yourself wonder if you want to or not. Just realize that you made a choice to do it, and as a result, not following through is not an option. Don’t give yourself an out; just make the irreversible choice. You’ll be happier that way, too.

Tip #2: Get Clear

Getting clear about your goal is not only about making sure you know what your goal is, but also being clear on why you want it. What’s your motivation? When you care about your goal, and you are motivated by reasons that have huge importance to you, it will be easier to follow through.

One of the best stories I’ve heard that demonstrates this is from Trent at The Simple Dollar (link to story). You really do have to read the story in his own words, but to bring the point back here — Trent made a huge financial turnaround, and the reason he was able to do it was because he was and is extremely clear on the why:

I went into my son’s room, closed the door behind me, and sat down in the rocking chair across from his crib. He was so tiny laying there, less than six months old, and he was sleeping so peacefully there without a worry in the world…

I started trying everything I could get my hands on to see what would work, and every time I was tempted to spend money, I thought about my son.

It was not easy. It still isn’t. But all I have to do is remember the pain of that day – and then think about the promises I made to my son during that long night – and I realize what decisions are really the right ones.

What are your reasons for desiring the goals you want? If you feel in your heart that your goals are worth pursuing and you’re clear on your why, your reasons will be enough to keep you going.

Tip #3: Create a Now-Goal

One of the reasons that goals feel so hard to reach is that the focus is almost always on the end result. Lose ten pounds, stop smoking, spend more time with the kids… all of these things are measured by an end result.

The problem is that we don’t live in the future. We can imagine the future all we want, but you still have to live in the present. This is why people yo-yo on and off of diets. They eat food that they hate in order to drop weight, but as soon as they do (or maybe even before), they get tired of delaying their gratification and cave — and grab the nearest piece of chocolate cake.

Take a health-related example: a “future-goal” would be “eat healthier,” and the diet “de jour” might involve eating brussel sprouts, or whatever your least favorite food might be. How likely are you to realize that goal? But what if you transformed your goal into a goal that you can feel good about both in the future and the present: a “now-goal” could be to “have a serving of fruit with breakfast because I really do like the way that fruit tastes, and I have more energy when I eat fruit to start the day.”

If you create now-goals and focus on things that have an impact on the way you feel right now — you’ll be more likely to continue, because you’re enjoying the process of the goal. Instant gratification doesn’t have to be a bad thing!

The easiest goals are often those which not only have a positive ultimate outcome, but which also have a positive impact on the present moment. Creating goals that feel good while you’re in the process of completing them will succeed, because you’ll want to continue doing them.

Tip #4: Build Your Plan — Backwards

A military squad that goes into battle without plans and tactics will be defeated. A sports team that doesn’t strategize will lose. We know the value of planning ahead, but for some reason when it comes to goals, we often forget to do so.

Part of the problem is that many of us have a hard time making plans, and when we do make plans, they’re so full of holes that we wonder why we even bothered. But if you want to make plans that will actually get you from A to B without all the difficulty, start with the end point and work backwards.

In other words, start from your goal. Ask yourself, “could I achieve this right now, this very moment?” If the answer is no, then ask yourself “what do I need in order to be able to achieve that?”  Then repeat, until the answer to the first question is “yes”.

By doing working backwards from your goal to where you’re at now, you’ll have created an actionable plan. You will know that after the completion of each step, you will have everything you need to immediately start in on the next. Since you have no excuse to delay and no reason to stop and say “now what”, you’ll be able to take advantage of the forward momentum and press ever onward toward your goal.

Tip #5: Keep It Manageable

If you’re anything like me, you tend to go through cycles when it comes to personal develoment. For me, I’ll get absolutely on-fire when I read a book or a great post. And I’ll start to think of all the aspects of my life that could stand to see some growth (truthfully, all of them, but I think that’s true for everyone if we really are honest with ourselves). But the problem is that I get so fired up about so many different things, that I’ll end up not really doing any of them.

What I’ve learned is that the old adage really is true: don’t bite off more than you can chew. Making goals a couple at a time will be far more effective over the long haul than making dozens simultaneously.

Making smaller goals is also a key to being successful in reaching your goals, for a couple of reasons. First, small goals give you confidence and strengthen your goal-achieving “muscle”. Second, small goals give you momentum because they’re over quickly and can snowball into bigger goals. Creating sub-goals, as described in Tip #4, is a great way to get started on this process.

Don’t feel bad, or like you’re not doing enough, if you only make one goal at a time and its something really small. There are no such thing as goals too small or too few; after all, even if you only complete one small goal, that’s still one more than you would have completed otherwise.

Tip #6: Use the Power of Habits

Setting a goal that’s contrary to your habits won’t get you very far. You’re much better off if you work at things the other way around, and empower yourself by creating new habits that support your goals.

You probably don’t have to stop and think very much when it comes time to read something; “how to read” has become so engrained in your brain that you don’t have to stop and think about it. You see some words written and you habitually and automatically read them. (A note: doing something habitually isn’t the same as doing it mindlessly. See Tip #3 :-))

Now consider if eating better, or working out, or not smoking, or spending time with your loved ones, or whatever else was something you did habitually. Wouldn’t it be easier to be in the habit of preparing and eating a serving of veggies with dinner every day, than trying to force yourself to eat those carrots every day?

The best thing about creating new habits is that it only takes about 28 days to do it. So you can try something new for a month, which is much easier than trying to make a huge change “forever”; it’s easier to keep going, for example, if you can say “just 15 days to go!” Then when the month is done, you can either quit (if it didn’t work for you) or enjoy your new habit.

Tip #7: Enlist the Support of Community

A lot of reasons people have a hard time reaching their goals is because they’re trying to make significant life changes alone, when their lives aren’t spent alone. Think of how many people you encounter on a daily basis, and how much they influence you (and vice versa!)

Smoking is a great example of this — if you still go out on your coffee breaks with your smoking buddies, you’re going to find it a whole lot more tempting to have a cigarette. And if your buddies keep inviting you to come out with them, it can be really tempting to go out. You’re far better off to tell your friends what you’re doing. Good friends will help keep you honest and on track.

Even just telling people about your goal — even if you’re not relying on them for help, and even if you don’t really know them — can be empowering as well. There’s something about sharing something with others, either by verbalizing it or by putting it in writing for others to read, that keeps us more accountable.

Whatever your method, it will be much easier to keep on track if you don’t try to do it alone.

Tip #8: Don’t Save It All for New Year’s Day

It’s December 29th, you’ve got a pile of goodies and cookies sitting in front of you, but your body has been asking for a reprieve from the sweets. But… January 1st is right around the corner, so you eat the cookies and spend half the night wondering why you did. Does this sound familiar?

Goal setting ought not be a once-per-year endeavour. For one, it encourages large goals that are too unwieldy and impractical (see Tip #5). By waiting until some auspicious occasion like the beginning of a new year, the natural tendency is to make big goals with big impact. On January 1, the problem is compounded, since we tend to look at the coming year.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with setting a focus for the upcoming year, or even with having a high-level overview of some directions you’d like to take. But those aren’t going to make the best goals — it would be far better to make a series of smaller goals that match up with that focus or overview, instead.

The other problem with waiting for a particular date is that it basically encourages lying to yourself. By saying that you want something to be true in your life, but only after a certain day, you’re saying that you don’t really want it that badly. And if a goal doesn’t excite you, you won’t be encouraged to work towards it.

Tip #9: Evaluate and Re-Evaluate

Just like anything else, you get better at reaching goals the more you practice. As you become increasingly successful at reaching your goals, you’ll find things that work for you (as well as those that don’t). As they say, “practice makes perfect”.

A great tool for reflection is a change journal, in which you write down your goal, and then every day make a note of how you are progressing toward your goal and how the pursuit of your goal made you feel that day. Once your goal has been reached, you can reflect on the whole process, and note any things that you might do differently in the future.

There is great value to be had in evaluating goals while you’re striving for them. Sometimes, you may be partway through your action plan when you realize that your goal has shifted, or that you have uncovered something more important. Other times, you may realize that you’re trying to force yourself to do something that’s not really a good fit for you — something that you thought would benefit you is actually harming you.

Throughout your goal-reaching journey, it’s important to keep in touch with yourself (Tip #3). You ought not use it as an excuse to give up when things don’t immediately go your way — remember that you made the choice to strive for this goal (Tip #1) — but noting how you feel while you’re in the process of working toward your goal can be a great way to identify things you might try differently in the future.

It can also be very encouraging to look back and reflect upon all the goals you’ve successfully completed — when you realize what you’ve been able to accomplish, you also realize how much potential you have to accomplish more. Even goals that you don’t reach (or that you don’t reach in the way you expected) can be opportunities for reflection. Evaluation of your previous goals, successful and not, can be a valuable tool in your goal-reaching toolkit, as you’ll learn more and more about yourself.

Tip #10: Nike Has It Right: Just Do It

The last tip is perhaps the simplest, and I won’t belabour the point by writing on it at length. To butcher a saying, you miss 100% of the goals you don’t make. So just make the goal, and then work towards it.

Make the decision. Be clear about what you’re aiming for. And then go do it.

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