I’ve made a lot of big life changes over the last few years. A number of my friends ask me about it from time to time when they decide they too want to grow their money, shrink their waist or complete a challenging project. So I thought I’d share a bit of what I’ve learned about goal setting over the last few years…
First, define it. “I want to lose weight” is not a goal; it’s a dream. “I’m going to lose 15 lbs” is the start of a good goal. You need to be specific. “I want to read more” similarly, is not a goal; it’s a non-action statement that will be forgotten before the end of the week. “I’m going to read four books per month”, on the other hand, presents you with the challenge fresh every month.
Second, map it. It’s not enough to define WHAT you want to do; you also need to define HOW you’re going to do it. “I’m going to lose 15 lbs by cutting out soda, exercising for 30 minutes at least three times every week, and taking the stairs instead of the elevator at work.” Fantastic, now you not only know exactly WHAT you want to do, but also, exactly HOW you’re going to do it. You should spend some time on this step, doing a bit of research. If your goal is to pay off debt quickly, learn everything you can about compound interest, emergency funds and making a budget. If your goal is to lose weight, you should read about nutrition, the difference between cardio and strength training, how much protein to eat after a workout, and things of that nature. There’s some amazing information out there once you get past the “miracle” and “secrets” self-help garbage books.
Next, track it. Now that you’ve defined your goal, you can easily track your progress and your setbacks. You don’t need anything fancier than a google docs spreadsheet. If your goal is weightloss, weigh yourself every Saturday and plot your weight over the course of a few weeks. Your new diet and exercise habits will show you a downward trend until you hit your goal. If your goal is debt repayment, track your monthly balances, again, you will see a downward trend until all of your debts are repaid. If you don’t track your progress, you won’t be re-energized by the mini-wins you have along the way to your ultimate goal, and those mini-wins are important motivators. (Side note: other motivators may come in the form of an accountability partner (someone trying to hit a similar goal), or blogging about your progress for public accountability.)
Also, time it. You already know the What and the How, now set the When… give yourself a deadline. Whether you’re saving more money, reading more books, losing weight or quitting smoking, if you don’t set a deadline for yourself, every step in obtaining that goal will be put off for tomorrow. Make sure, however, to be realistic with your timeframe. No one safely loses 15 lbs in a week. No one goes from making $9/hour to $40/hour in one pay period. Make sure you don’t set yourself up for failure before you’ve even begun.
Finally, and this is probably the most important point, learn to use and honor the word “until”. “I won’t eat another cookie UNTIL I lose 5 more lbs.” “I won’t buy another CD UNTIL I’ve paid off my VISA card.” “I won’t stop working overtime UNTIL I’ve got that promotion.” If you start using, and honoring, the word “until”, there is no more failing or cheating or giving up. It just means you haven’t hit your target YET, but you’re still working on it, and that’s a powerful idea.
Now, a note on failure. Something is always better than nothing. If your goal was to lose 5 lbs in a month and you ended up losing 4lbs, did you really fail? Are you not 4lbs lighter and healthier than you were four weeks ago? Even hitting 80% of your goal is better than not trying or giving up. Don’t let small setbacks derail your entire plan, don’t get discouraged if you do dishonor your “until” promises to yourself. Just get back on track, shake it off, and remember it isn’t about being perfect, it’s about changing your lifestyle. Being healthy, being wealthy, being educated. These are not unlockable achievements; these are lifelong, fluid pursuits. And I wish you good luck with all of them.