How to reach your goals in four simple steps
A 4 minute read • Alan A
Part of our life hacks series. So you want to make some changes? Perhaps you’ve decided to get fitter or lose a little weight. Maybe you would like to make new friends in the year ahead. Or to take better control of your finances or career. Whatever you want to achieve, how can you reach your goals?
Achieving your goals is about using your finite willpower to form positive habits that become routine and more effortless – it is these habits that will carry you on to your goals2.
Step 1 – Decide on your priority goals
My first tip is it to set priorities ruthlessly. Decide which are your most important couple of goals and focus on those first. Perhaps even focus on a single goal. It doesn’t mean you are abandoning your other goals – just that you’re going to concentrate on one thing at once. Trying to change too many things at the same time can set you up for failure3.
Step 2 – Set a range of targets
This technique is sometimes used by sports psychologists and I find it works well. The idea is to define your goal in a way that gives you several levels of achievement to aim for. I like to think of these as gold, silver and bronze.
Let’s say you want to lose weight. You could define your gold target as being able to tighten your belt (comfortably!) by three notches. Silver could be two notches; and bronze just one. This gives you a sequence of achievements to look forward to.
If your aim is to get fit, you could define gold as being able to run 5 miles at a brisk pace; silver could be three miles – and bronze one.
The advantages of this approach are:
- you have just broken your goal into phases
- your bronze goal should feel within relatively close reach
- you can get to experience a real sense of achievement several times over!
- even if you can’t achieve gold (for now), you can still achieve bronze or silver: so it’s not “all or nothing”
Step 3 – Decide on your specific actions
Next, I suggest deciding on the specific actions that will lead you to your goal. For example, if your goal is to get control of your finances, perhaps your first action would be to review and understand your spending over the last few months. Incidentally, if this really is your main goal, our article on how to manage a home budget is a great place to start.
If your goal is to lose weight, perhaps you would decide to reduce the portion sizes you eat, as well as increasing the amount of walking you do each day. Smaller portions and walking more become your goal actions. In this case, your first specific actions might be to buy smaller dinner plates – to help you serve out less food – and a fitness tracker to count steps. Incidentally, both of these ideas worked wonders for me.
If you can identify several specific actions, each one being something you can get stuck into either sequentially or in parallel, then you are off on the right track. It is these actions that will help form the habits that will carry you on to the finish line.
Step 4 – Form positive habits
This is where many of us slip up – if we have bitten off more than we can chew – or when we go off track.
If there’s one piece of wisdom that has helped me more than any other; it’s this:
“Make sure your actions are sustainable and become part of your routine”
In other words, doing something little and often, and building it into your lifestyle until it becomes routine, will work much better than drastic changes that you just can’t keep up. Remember that once each lifestyle change you make has become ingrained, you can move on to the next thing. That way you’ll make more progress over time (even if you feel you are off to a slower start).
I’d like to leave you with another thought. When you go off track, it’s important to realise that you have not failed. Eating a cream cake when you’re on a no-cake diet may feel like a guilty failure. But actually it’s just a mis-step. Be forgiving: pick yourself up as quickly as you can and carry on with the actions that will take you to bronze, silver and gold.
“Never allow a mis-step to become an excuse to give up”
Here’s a helpful image to have in mind when thinking about goals. A flywheel is a heavy wheel that is hard to turn because of its mass. You can give it a push and it starts to rotate only very slowly. The second push is easier and it goes a little faster. After the tenth push, it’s spinning faster than you imagined possible and needs little effort to keep it going. And at this point – it keeps on turning under its own momentum and is very hard to slow down or stop. It’s sometimes called the flywheel effect.
If you think of the flywheel as you work towards your goals, you will always be reminded that lots of little pushes build up into something powerful. So take heart in each little push.
I wish you all the best in achieving your goals. If you do want to try out a fitness tracker, there are many on the market but the one I use and love is the Fitbit Charge 2. It has all the features I want without being over-complicated, and I never forget to carry it as it’s strapped to my wrist …
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1Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, Tice (1998). Ego depletion: is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
2Wood & Neal (2007). A new look at habits and the habit-goal interface. Psychological Review
3Dalton & Spiller (2012). Too much of a good thing: The benefits of implementation intentions depend on the number of goals. Journal of Consumer Research
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