Experts describe strategies for setting goals — and making sure you achieve them.
We all have goals. What are yours? To lose 20 pounds? Get in shape? Buy a new house? Make more money? Having a goal is the easy part. Reaching it? Well, that’s something else entirely. If you’re frustrated because you feel like you keep coming up short when it comes to realizing your dreams, maybe it’s time to try a different approach.
When setting a goal, ask yourself first of all if your goals are realistic and if you are really ready to make the changes in your life necessary to reach those goals.
“Most people don’t take into consideration whether they’re ready to do what it takes to achieve their goals,” says Steven Rosenberg, PhD. Rosenberg is a behavior therapist, the team psychotherapist for the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team, and author of I Hope the Hell I WIN! Turning Hope into Reality…How Winners Win! If you’re going through a stressful time at work, for example, this may not be the best time to start a weight loss program; maybe you’d do better to wait a few months and start on, say, your birthday.
Be realistic as well, says Rosenberg. You can’t lose 40 pounds in two weeks, or even a month. Set an achievable objective, such as 1 to 2 pounds a week; by the end of the year, you will have lost the 40 pounds.
“Goals that get reached are those that are firm, well-defined, and to which the individual is truly and completely committed,” says Susan Schachterle, director of the Denver-based Ahimsa Group, which provides consulting and coaching services to individuals and organizations worldwide. “Without that commitment, trying to reach goals is like grabbing Jell-O — you think maybe you have it, but there’s really nothing to hang on to.”
Schachterle suggests that you check your commitment. Ask yourself why you want to achieve that particular goal. What will that do for you? Why is it important? What will your life be like when you have reached it? How will achieving your goal change things for you?
“If you’re having trouble making a strong commitment,” says Schachterle, “make sure it’s the right goal and the right time for you.”
The Art of Saying ‘No’
Another reason many people don’t reach their goals is that they just can’t say no — to everyone else. “Many of us, especially women, put other things and people first,” says Susan Newman, PhD, a social psychologist at Rutgers University and author of The Book of NO: 250 Ways to Say It-and Mean It and Stop People-Pleasing Forever. We’re unable to refuse when asked for our time, our talent, our expertise, or merely our presence.
“Saying yes is a habit we’re not even aware of,” says Newman. “Think ‘no’ before you think ‘yes’ (not the other way around). By adding the word ‘no’ to your vocabulary, you open up vistas of time, not only to work toward a goal but also to think about how to reach it,” Newman says. “In short, you put boundaries in place and establish priorities in the correct order [for you].”
If you haven’t mastered the art of saying “no” and you think that’s derailing your efforts to reach your goals, Newman suggests taking these steps:
- Make a list of how many times a day you say ‘yes.’ “You’ll be startled,” says Newman.
- Pay attention to how you parcel out your time. “For most of us, it just disappears. … Who’s monopolizing the time you could otherwise spend on reaching your goals?”
- Set priorities. Who has first dibs on you and your time?
- Look at your limitations. When do you start to lose your stamina? “Don’t keep pushing until you run out of steam and collapse altogether,” Newman advises.
- Let go of control. You don’t have to do it all yourself. “If you’re doing everything else, there’s no time for you to get back to your goal.”
There are two tricks to properly setting your goals, says University of Alabama at Birmingham clinical psychologist Joshua Klapow, PhD. Klapow is co-author of Stop Telling Me What-Tell Me How: The Simple Answer to Better Health.
First, turn goals into specific behaviors, says Klapow. “To say that you are going to exercise doesn’t tell you which exercise to do, for how long and how frequently. If you don’t know what to do, you are less likely to do the behavior. Be specific. Saying that you plan to walk five minutes a day — and increase the time by one minute each week until you are walking 30 minutes per day — is better than just saying that you plan to exercise.”
Klapow’s second tip is to make sure you are successful at reaching your goals right from the start. “Resolutions need to be things you can actually do,” he says. “This is important because you are more likely to repeat the behaviors in which you are successful. Set short- and long-term target goals and make the short-term goals easy to reach.”
At this time of year, when many of us are making New Year’s resolutions, Klapow reminds us that resolutions are basically a set of new behaviors. Because the behaviors are new, and not learned habits, we have a tendency to slip back into our old behavior patterns.
“The best way to keep track of what you are doing every day,” says Klapow, “is to get a calendar and write down every time you perform your new habit. Don’t leave it up to your mind because your mind can play tricks on you. Three days without performing your new habit is your sign that you may be slipping.”
The Benefits of Intuition
Using your intuition can also help you reach your goals, says Lynn A. Robinson, MEd, author of Real Prosperity: Using the Power of Intuition to Create Financial and Spiritual Abundance. Robinson offers three tips for achieving a specific goal:
- Stay focused on the positive. Pay attention to what is working, not what isn’t. Perhaps a friend called to cheer you up, or your child got off to school this morning without a major tantrum, or you had a really nice lunch with a colleague. “Find those precious slivers of appreciation in each day.”
- Take small steps. There is a two-part trick of working toward a goal: No. 1, just begin, and No. 2, start small. Take a first step toward what you feel excited about and then take another one, and then another one. “Remain centered in the present.”
- Make your intuition your ally. Intuition is “quick and ready insight” and it’s one of the most helpful tools to use when faced with any kind of decision making. It’s also a skill that can be developed. The more you practice it the better you get at it. How does your intuition speak to you? Do you receive information in words, feelings, a flash of insight, a body sensation? Do you just know? “Intuition is the secret weapon of many successful people who describe it as knowing something directly without going through a long analytical process,” says Robinson.
The Benefits of Intuition continued…
Getting your friends and family involved can also help you reach your goals, says Sandra Beckwith, leader of “Finding the Courage to Change” workshops. “You need someone who will reject your usual excuses — ‘I can’t afford it,’ ‘I don’t know how,’ etc. — and help you see that there’s a way around every obstacle,” says Beckwith. “He or she can brainstorm with you. … This allows you to see a situation from a different perspective, through fresh eyes.”
Actually seeing your goal written down can also help you keep it in the forefront of your mind, adds Newman. “Tape reminders all over the house so your goal will always be in front of you — literally.”
Visualization and mindfulness (including approaches such as meditation and hypnosis) are also ways to help you achieve your goals. Mindfulness trainer Maya Talisman Frost explains that goal-setting is only one aspect of getting what you want. “It’s the intention that gets us where we want to go,” says Frost.
Goals tend to be arbitrary and number-oriented, says Frost, such as the number of pounds lost, amount of money earned, number of hours spent in the gym, and so on. Intentions, on the other hand, are “big-picture” statements about what fulfills you.
Yes, your goal is to lose 20 pounds in six months, but what’s your intention? How about, “I feel strong, healthy, fit, confident, attractive, and sexy,” says Frost. “The number on the scale isn’t what matters most — it’s how you feel each day.”
Positive thinking is often more effective than negative thinking when it comes to changing health behaviors. For example, people quit smoking more readily when the positive aspects of health are emphasized, rather than the negative side.
“Intentions allow us to picture ourselves — and how we’ll feel — when we are successful,” says Frost. “There’s no room for failure in the picture. We focus on the positive and powerful feelings we’ll have.”
The most effective way to change our beliefs is to create a mental story of success, Frost says. We need to picture ourselves as we want to be, and we need to talk about it. Her basic formula: See it. Say it. Hear it.
- See yourself in the circumstances you desire. Picture it perfectly.
- Craft a one-sentence story that you would like to be true, and say it in the present tense, as though you are describing your life right now.
- Keep repeating yourself. Demand to hear that same story every night before you go to sleep.
“When it comes to achieving your goals, being positive is so important,” agrees Rosenberg. “When you see in your mind’s eye what you want to achieve, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
By Carol Sorgen
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD