How to Set Goals and Actually Achieve Them
Every December, people get the New Year Buzz, the short-lived but wonderful burst of inspiration in which life is re-evaluated and goals are set. People rush to the stores to grab journals and agendas, on a mission to change their life. Fired up, they want to lose weight, date again, start a business, and more. They reflect on the twelve months that have happened and they feel a burst of strength and clarity, knowing that they can do better. They tell themselves, "This year, I am going to do it all!"
I feel a sense of excitement yet dread when I hear the words, "New Year's Resolutions." Excitement because the future has so much to offer, if only we were committed to the path of chipping at our goals, little by little. Dread because so many people have such beautiful visions for their lives, yet give up after a month or two. You know what I’m talking about. For those who are fitness junkies like me, it means walking into the gym in January and finding it packed, as people take on the calling of better health. As February rolls by, many newcomers fall by the wayside, deterred by the long journey they have ahead of them. Suddenly, the gym returns to normal as a testament to how difficult it can be to have goals AND achieve them.
So what separates the people who achieve from the people who don't? Systems. Ask any successful professional or entrepreneur, and what you'll find is there is a well-oiled, reliable system behind them, a series of behaviours that have turned into habits. Achieving things is easy when life is good, when everything (e.g. relationships, work, finances, etc.) is going your way. The true test is when you're having a terrible week, when the environment around you is chaos, yet you stay committed to your journey. Like any good book where the hero sets off on a grueling but worth quest (think Frodo Baggins or Harry Potter), goals are the same way. Treasure lies at the end, but only for those brave enough to venture forth.
The Problem with 21st Century Goal Setting
We have a problem. We live in a society of doing, where our success is often measured by what we have achieved.
We are a society that values the results, but not the journey.
The problem? It is a mindset for losing. Think about your most important goal. I bet it will take months, maybe even years, to achieve it. If it was so simple to achieve, you would have done it already. Now think about how we spend our time. Enjoying the results comes at the very end, like the Happily Ever After scene of a movie, but what fills the rest of the story? That's right, the journey.
As a Department Head for Executive Functions, one of my favourite units to teach in middle school is Goal Setting. Growing up, I had the typical school experience: a huge focus on language and math, but little attention on the "soft" skills, the street smarts. What they don't tell you in schools is that these skills matter the most. When you get your first job, what will matter is if you are creative, resourceful, and organized, not if you can recall the periodic table. (Besides, that's why there's Google for searching, right?)
Unfortunately, most students never get the chance to learn goal setting in school. Instead, it gets landed on them as a trial-by-fire challenge in university, when there is so much to do that you need to plan just to get through it. It is a tragedy because so many of us have this potential inside of us, if only we could unleash it. Let's break this trend by being intentional about our goals, right here, right now.
4 Steps to Setting Goals and Achieving Them
With the start of 2017, I felt called to share what has worked for me. When I was running startups, I had to wear many hats (e.g. product, sales, operations, etc). It forced me to become efficient and to develop systems: structures and routines for achieving my goals day by day. These are my four steps for creating and implementing an excellent system:
(1) Review patterns. I spent the last two weeks of 2016 reading my year's journals in chronological order. I also looked at calendars, agendas, and texts to get a feel for how I spent my year. What behaviours did I repeat over and over? Which patterns should I keep? Which patterns should I ditch?
This step, like all the other ones, is mandatory! If you aren't aware of your patterns, especially those holding you back, you will just repeat the same mistakes. For example, my 2016 review allowed me to see these unhealthy patterns...
- Taking on too many things
- Sacrificing self-care for work
- Holding onto things that aren't for me
- Keeping my needs to myself
...and by being aware of these patterns, I have let them go.
(2) Ask why. When you have identified for new goals, don't just plan them out right away. Stop and ask yourself if it's what you actually want. A pattern from my history was that for long-term goals (3+ years), I gave up many of them easily. It showed me that I didn't want those things as much as I thought. Many of us love to create, but hate to vet. We need to vet our ideas before we throw our energy at them. If a goal doesn't light you up inside, wave it goodbye. Focus on what you really want.
(3) Simple works. People fall things short of their goals because they have stayed as these enormous, abstract things that are hard to implement. Goals are only achieve by living a lifestyle (each day!) that allows them to happen, the simpler, the better.
For example, one of my two goals is to reach 25,000 monthly visitors on this blog by December 31, 2017. To achieve this vision, I have created a 60-minute morning routine that includes 15 minutes of blogging (writing a post) and 15 minutes of creating (publishing a quote that inspires readers for the day). This routine has allowed me to produce shorter daily content through Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, and longer weekly content through this blog. If I didn't have this routine, creation would be a monumental task. Chip a bit at your goals each day!
(4) Show up. Many people create systems, but that only gets you halfway there. The other half? Living by your systems. The reason why we have systems is that action becomes difficult when you're stressed, when life is showering you with lemons. The successful are where they are because they're still moving forward, even when the storm hits. Systems, especially ones that become habits, are second nature. Just like brushing your teeth, your daily actions towards goals should be effortless. Test the system, make it something that gives you value AND joy. Choose to show up each day, even when you don't feel like it. Remember, showing up is half the battle.
There you go; that's my system in a nutshell. What's so beautiful about goal setting is that it's a puzzle; you're constantly testing and finding the best solution. In the world of speed cubing (solving Rubik's Cubes as fast as possible), competitors memorize and create algorithms to shorten their time, to achieve what they call a personal best. How can you create a system of personal bests? What strategies or systems have worked for you? Comment below and have fun!