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How to Set Goals (And Actually Achieve Them)

Abigail Endsley
Abigail Endsley

December 30, 2017

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Runner with her eye on the goal

It’s the new year, and you’re rested from your well-deserved Christmas break. You’ve been sleeping in, haven’t had to think about deadlines once, and have a good feeling about your upcoming semester. You can take on the world! Time to set some goals for the rest of the year, right?

Wrong. Setting long-term goals on this euphoric high of invincibility lends itself to aiming high… and crashing hard.

Short term goals like passing a CLEP or cramming for College Algebra work great with this kind of enthusiasm. But true long-term goals are more like habits—they take a little bit of consistent effort every day for weeks, months, or even years to really develop. Sheer enthusiasm isn’t going to cut it on day 247 of your exercise plan.

This is why planning with your best self in mind is a blueprint for disaster for long-term goals like these; it becomes impossible to keep up consistency. Why?

Because you’re human. You have bad days. You get sick, depressed, and tired. Sometimes you’re on vacation. Sometimes you’re swamped with homework. Sometimes you’re just treading water until the crazy ends.

Building your daily goals around a “perfect” you means that even the smallest misstep can knock you off balance, sometimes for weeks at a time. And there goes the consistency.

It’s incredibly difficult to get back on the horse once you’ve fallen off, especially when that horse was too big for you to ride in the first place.

If you want to actually achieve your long-term goals this year, aim for consistency, not perfection.

This means setting goals which help you build that consistency. Goals you can hit every single day, both your off days and your days off. Here are some ways to get started.

How to Set Consistent Long-Term Goals

1. Identify which long-term goals are important to you (and why).

Identify those things in your life that are important to you, but you won’t naturally attend to without reminders. Things that, when set on autopilot, allow you the time and energy to go after the projects you’re excited about. Things that you’ll pay for down the road if you don’t do now. Exercise, eating well, sleeping, and work/study hours are common candidates for this.

While you’re doing this, ignore anything that may seem like a good goal, but is something you don’t need added structure to maintain. For example, “keep up with household chores” isn’t one of my long-term goals. I’m a naturally clean person and actually enjoy doing chores to relax. So there’s no reason to clutter my limited brainspace tracking a “goal” I’m already great at.

Here are some prompts to help:

  • What is important to your overall routine?
  • What habits will help you achieve your short-term goals?
  • What is important to your mental or physical health?
  • What do you want to make sure you complete daily (or weekly—as the case may be with some goals)?
  • What’s important to continue doing even on your bad days?
  • Which things are important to you, but you aren’t naturally inclined to keep up with?

2. Decide your minimum required effort for each goal.

Now, take the list of goals you just created and start breaking it down into daily or weekly habits. “Study regularly” is a great goal to shoot for, but what does that actually look like? 4 hours of study a day? 5 hours? You could probably squeeze in 5 hours a day, right? You did it yesterday, and that felt great!

Here’s where it’s tempting to overplan, projecting your best effort in every category. Don’t give in. When you’re honest with yourself, you realize it’s unlikely you’ll actually be able to study for 5 straight hours every day. In fact, some days your brain may be so tired, you have trouble figuring out where your homework even is.

Remember that your objective is consistency. Success here means setting a goal you have a high chance of completing every single day. This means you need to plan around what you can reasonably accomplish even on your worst days.

For me, this was a refreshing way to look at things, and broke my long-term goals down to some very simple daily habits:

  • Exercise consistently - Complete the daily fitness goals on my Apple Watch (about 30 minutes of activity a day)
  • Eat well - Track my calories eaten, make sure I’m staying within 200 calories of my calories burned, and allow myself up to 3 “treats” a day (foods with no nutritional value)
  • Pray/meditate daily - Use my Headspace app 1 time per day and pray when going to bed
  • Work projects - Log into my project management dashboard every day and complete or reschedule tasks accordingly

As you can see, I’m not asking that much of myself. If I completed this list and only this list every day, I could not be classified as an “achiever.” But I would still be classified as “productive.” Your list may be far more ambitious than mine, or it may be more modest. Individual capacity is going to vary, but what’s important is it’s something that you have the ability to complete each and every day without running yourself ragged.

Most importantly, this list isn’t supposed to challenge you to your full potential or accomplish the big dreams you’re working toward. This list is supposed to be a foundation that will inspire you go after those big dreams when you’re feeling your best. But it also allows you grace and a sense of accomplishment on the days when you’re drowning in homework and barely have time to remember you even set goals, let alone overachieve them. This list will help you keep up your momentum and consistency no matter what.

3. Implement your plan, one goal at a time.

As excited as you may be now, it’s important to start small. Implementing several new habits at one time—even when you’re feeling like Captain America—can be just as disastrous as asking too much of yourself from a single habit. Your brain kind of hates sudden change, so you’ll need to allow it some time to adjust and catch up.

Pick one goal from your list and implement it. Do it today, tomorrow, and every day for the next month. Make it your mission to never miss a day. If you do miss a day, don’t beat yourself up. You didn’t fail. Just hit it again tomorrow and you’ll be right back on track. This is about your daily progress and nothing else.

Once you’ve been working on that goal for a month, and it’s starting to feel more like a habit than a goal, choose your second goal to implement alongside the first.

By setting and achieving one goal, one habit at a time, you’re allowing your brain the time and energy it needs to recenter itself and properly adapt to the new routine.

Slowing down your implementation this way may mean it takes all year to implement your full list of goals. But when you consider you’ll be keeping up these habits for the rest of your life, one year doesn’t seem so long.

The Rest of Your Life

During the implementation process, you will learn more about yourself and how you work. You may find that you don’t enjoy a particular exercise, that “OMG DON’T MISS DUE DATES” isn’t a great motivator, or that you set a particular goal too high or low.

Use these these findings to your advantage.

Add, remove, and tweak your goals as you find what works. This will allow you to slowly create the lifestyle that keeps you happy, healthy, and excited to achieve those big dreams of yours. Just remember to give yourself time to adjust. Like how implementing a habit takes time, iterating it does too. But so long as you’re open and honest with yourself, things will keep changing for the better.

In the end, remember, you’re not perfect and you never will be. You won’t ever have the perfect schedule figured out; there will always be ways to improve and adjust it to better fit your life. That’s okay.

As I’ve said many times in this post, it’s not about being perfect. It’s about being consistent.

Enjoyed this post? You may also like Is This Fear Holding You Back from Success?

Abigail Endsley
Abigail Endsley

A former student counselor and Unbound student, Abigail is passionate about empowering others to achieve their goals. When she’s not dreaming with her friends, you can find her reading or singing Broadway songs. Loudly.

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