The recipe for successful goal setting? Thoughtful planning and reviewing.
New Year’s Eve can be like a bad date: Too much champagne and pricey food, followed by regret and disappointment. You didn't get off on the right foot, and as the winter drags on, resolutions fall away fast, making 2015 feel like 2014 on repeat. Sound familiar? This year, banish the post-New Year's disenchantment by learning the right way to set goals. Goal setting is an art, and being successful at it requires more than some quaint exercises like creating a vision board.
As a psychologist who regularly works with clients to set and achieve goals, I have seen lots of mistakes and a few wins, so you're not alone in your struggle to keep your resolutions. Yet, having been in the goal-setting kitchen a long time, I've learned that the recipe for successful goal fulfillment only has six key steps:
Step 1: Identify what gives you meaning and purpose. The New England Journal of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences both report that having a purpose in life is actually associated with better health and greater longevity. Meaning and purpose are big questions, but they're the most important because no goal can be achieved without being honest and clear about these issues. In fact, your first New Year's resolution may be to figure out what moments in your life are the most meaningful and what actions give you the greatest sense of purpose.
Step 2: Decide on a big-ticket goal and put it out there. This could be anything from losing 60 pounds or getting a graduate degree to a bucket-list item like hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, starting a non-profit or writing a book. Many people are too afraid to fail to generate a goal of this magnitude, or they put it out there without a plan, which can also spell failure. The big-ticket goal may feel unreachable, especially within a year, but it can become your North Star.
Step 3: Map out the small steps or sub-goals to get there. When you attempt to make too many changes at once, you fail. Diets are a great example of this—quitting sugar cold turkey and subsisting on kale and bottled water will only last about three days. Break down your big-ticket goal into tasks, tools and times. You want to lose that 60 pounds? Then create reachable sub-goals, like stocking up on healthy snacks, cooking more at home and exercising three times a week.
Step 4: Commit to the “Promise of One.” Do one thing each day in the service of that big-ticket resolution. If the goal is to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, maybe the small goal each day is to train for it, whether at the gym or on your treadmill at home. You could even take a walk around the block or do half of a yoga video, even if it’s for just 15 minutes. Promise yourself one small step per day, and integrate it into your lifestyle to make it manageable.
Step 5: Record your progress. Nothing feels better than looking at progress, so jot down the small steps you've completed each day. In six weeks you'll feel a sense of accomplishment when you see that you ate fruits and vegetables more days than not, or switched out those sodas for water. Tracking how close you are to your sub-goals—or how far you are from them—is motivating, and it lets you see what works and what doesn’t.
Step 6: Review your sub-goals once a month. We view New Year’s resolutions as fixed, but they’re not. Successful goals are dynamic and evolve as what is meaningful to you changes. As you lose weight, the new goal may involve training for a marathon. Goal setting is a trial and error process, so tweak the sub-goals after seeing what works. Find one day a month (for example the fifth of the month) to review your progress, and modify your steps based on what you’ve accomplished so far.
Goals aren’t boxes to be checked off a list–they are the story of you and should reflect your past, your present and your future. When your goals become your story and reflect your purpose, you don’t just achieve them, you live them.