How to set goals (and actually achieve them)

Want to know the secret to achieving your goals? Start with SMART objectives.

Whether you dream of one day becoming a chartered accountant (no shame in that), or you have big plans to revolutionize the world of dance with your bold and innovative new take on the ChaChaCha, (again, no shame in that), we all have ambitions of one sort or another. The nature of ambitions, though, is that they tend to be a bit vague, distant, far off. So how do we pin them down and come up with a solid plan of attack, one that increases our chances of making them a reality? Where do we start on our journey towards our ambitions? Well, the answer is simple: goals.

You might like to think of goals as the individual steps on the road towards your ambition. Setting goals is really just a matter of working out what those individual steps should be. Let’s say your ambition is to feel happier, healthier and more energetic – something most of us aspire to. Your list of goals could include: help people more by doing some volunteering or charity work (to feel happier), complete a Couch to 5k within 9 weeks (to feel healthier), and eat at least five gut-healthy foods each day (to feel happier, healthier and more energetic)… and so on. Not only will breaking down your ambition into smaller chunks help you to formulate a water-tight plan, often it makes the prospect of tackling your big ambition a lot less daunting, too.

Choosing the right goals

There’s a really useful tool for making sure you choose the right goals and that’s a technique known as SMART. The thinking here is that a good goal is one that’s Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. Let’s look at these one by one.

Be as specific  as you can

Vague goals, like “drink water” or “eat better”, aren’t particularly helpful. How do you know precisely what you’re aiming for? And how will you know when you’ve achieved it? Well-defined goals on the other hand give a very clear direction of travel. Thinking about each goal in terms of why, what, where, when and who can help you to nail the detail – and if you nail the detail, you’re far more likely to nail the goal.

Make sure your goals are measurable

Being able to measure your progress is super handy as it will help you to know if you’re on the right track. It can work as a brilliant motivator, too. If you’re able to put some numbers against your goal, all the better. Changing “drink water” to “drink 3 liters a day” or going from “eat better” to “eat five gut- friendly foods each day” will make you far more likely to succeed.

Choose goals that are achievable

 Your ultimate ambition can be as aspirational or crazy as you like (fly to the moon, run for president, recreate entire episodes of Friends with some cats and an iPhone), so long as the goals that you need to achieve along the way are in fact achievable. Dream big, but start small. Goals should be challenging, yes, but not so challenging that you’re highly unlikely ever to reach them. The best goals are tough, but still within your grasp.

Set relevant goals

Each goal you set should be a stepping stone towards your wider ambition. This is why it’s a good idea to determine your ambition first, and then work backwards to establish the individual steps you’ll need to take in order to get where you need to be. Goals that aren’t strictly relevant to your wider ambitions can be at best a distraction and at worst can set you off in completely the wrong direction.

Make sure your goals are time-bound

Embrace the deadline, for it is your friend. Seriously, though, it can be really tough to nail any type of goal without some sort of time limit. Deadlines can help you to work more purposefully, to get down to the business of prioritizing your tasks, and they can act as a brilliant source of motivation.

How to achieve your goals

OK, so now you know how to choose and set your goals. Now for the minor detail of how to actually achieve them. Whatever your ambition, here are some tips that could help you to make slow but steady progress towards it.

Early to bed, early to rise

Let’s face it, modern life can be a little on the hectic side, and carving out some quiet time to devote to our chosen goals may not always be easy. One handy tip is to bring your sleeping pattern forward by a couple of hours – if you go to bed earlier, you can get up earlier too. That way you’ll have a slot of reliably quiet time each day to dedicate to planning, writing, exercising, whatever your goal entails, before your kids/partner/flatmates are up and about. You’ll probably be a bit bleary-eyed on the first two or three mornings, but as long as you’re still getting the right quota of sleep, your body clock will adjust and you’ll soon be up with the larks – bright, breezy and ready for action.

Enjoy the journey

As vital as goals are for setting our direction and tracking our progress, it’s really important to enjoy the journey, too. Think about it: the time spent basking in the warm glow of a recent success is dwarfed by the time it takes to actually achieve it. Not only does enjoying the process make our daily lives a lot more fun, it leaves us more open to opportunities that present themselves along the way, and ultimately it means we’re far less likely to give up. (Learn more about this here.)

Tell everyone

Sharing the details of your goals with friends and family can be really useful for a couple of reasons. Not only will you benefit from help and support when things go wrong, you’ll get a pat on the back when things go right. Both are indispensable.

Keep moving forward

Always bear in mind that positive action, however small, moves you closer to achieving your goal. If you do get to a point where you’re dreading starting work on your next task and you’re thinking of jumping ship, try this simple trick. Decide to do the thing you’ve been avoiding for just 30 minutes, telling yourself that if it’s really that bad, you can go and do something else for a while. Nine times out of 10 you’ll find that the thing you’ve been avoiding isn’t anywhere near as bad as you thought, and by that time you’ll have built up enough momentum to carry on. Sneaky! Give it a try.

Turn your goals into habits

It’s no exaggeration to say that our future health, wealth and happiness are largely determined by the stuff we do every day. Doing the occasional shimmy when Like a Virgin comes on the radio isn’t, on its own, going to turn you into the next Madonna. But if you start with a list of clear, well-set goals, and you’re able to turn these into daily habits, just imagine what you could achieve.