How to Create Goals You Can Actually Succeed At

Good tips on creating goals you can actually REACH. (Because it's all well and good to say things like 'I want to get my finances in order' or 'I want to get healthy', but it's another thing to DO IT.)It’s the beginning of February as I write this, which means that hoards of new gym members are starting to stay home.

Other well-intentioned resolutions-masquerading-as-goals are also falling by the wayside in droves right about now.


Because it’s all well and good to say things like “I want to get healthy” or “I want to get my finances in order”, but it’s another thing to do it.

Here’s how to create SMART goals you can succeed at.

Motivation matters

Achieving your dreams means creating a goal you can actually be successful at — not because the goal is so easy that a monkey could do it, but because you’ve set yourself up to succeed at a goal that is important to you.

And that’s the first key: the goal has to be important to you. It can’t be something you’re doing because you feel you “should” do it or because someone else keeps urging you to do it. The goal has to be something that you really, really WANT to achieve deep down inside, for a reason that matters to you.

There’s a world of difference between someone who tries to get a handle on their finances because they feel like they “ought” to, and someone who gets a handle on their finances because they have a newborn they absolutely want to provide a good life for.

Clearly define your desired outcome

Creating a goal you can succeed at means being very clear about what your goal really is. So what IS the something that you really, really want to achieve? While “I want to get my finances in order” is not a goal, it is a very broad desire, and that’s the place to start.

But go beyond that. What will your life look like when your finances are in order?

Imagine it and describe it. Are you out of debt? Are your bills paid in full and early? Do you own a house? Do you travel without worry or guilt? Or maybe it just means that you’ll no longer wake up to see a pile of paperwork on your desk every day. If you’re not sure, describe the life of someone who looks like they already have what you want.

Then write the results as an initial goal: I will be debt free, own a house in the suburbs, have money in the bank, and be able to take a vacation every year.

Narrow it down

As you’ve probably noticed, the example goal is enormous. Overwhelming, in fact once you’ve written it out like that — much more so than “I want to get my finances in order.” But it’s also more achievable, although it may not seem like it at first glance, because it’s more specific.

Now you need to narrow it down into steps that are doable (if it’s a single goal like “I want to get out of debt”) or sub-goals (if it’s an enormous, over-arching goal like the example.)

Narrowing down our example goal of “I will be debt free, own a house in the suburbs, have money in the bank, and be able to take a vacation every year” would break down into a list like this:

  1. Get my debts paid off
  2. Save up an emergency fund
  3. Save for a down payment on a house
  4. Buy a house
  5. Set aside money monthly for an annual vacation

Make it achievable

This is the part where we make the goal achievable and much more specific. Since the above items are still too many to tackle at once, we’ll focus on the first one on the list and break it down even further into the steps that are necessary to reach it. So “get my debts paid off” becomes:

  1. Stop borrowing money
  2. Continue making minimum payments on all debts
  3. Look for extra money in my budget
  4. Look for ways to make extra money to use for debt reduction
  5. Call my creditors to see if they will reduce the interest rates
  6. Decide what debt to pay off first
  7. Send all extra money to that debt until it is paid
  8. Repeat the last two steps until all debts are gone

If your first big goal was part of a larger plan, once it’s completed you can go back and create the remaining sub-goals using the same process.

Add a time limit

You’ll also want to add a time limit to your goal, and a deadline to complete each of the individual steps within the goal. Suppose you add up all of your debts and the amount you’re able to pay, and figure out that it will take you 2 years to be completely debt-free. That would become your new goal: I will be debt free by January 2013.

You would then add deadlines with specific dates to each of the steps. So, for example, “Add up how much debt I have and look at the total” becomes “Add up how much debt I have and look at the total today” or “Add up how much debt I have and look at the total by Friday”.

Take action

Finally, of course, comes the doing of each of the individual steps. If one of them still seems overwhelming, or you have a lot of reluctance to do it, break that step down into even smaller steps.

The great thing about breaking things down like this is that you experience a whole series of successes, which turns into a positive cycle. Once you’ve achieved one small step, you’re more likely to achieve the next step. And once you’ve achieved one big goal that’s a part of a larger desire, you can move on to create goals for the next big goal that will help get you to where you want to be.

And before you know it, you’ll have achieved the things that really matter to you.


  • Very good approach, making manageable goals as milestones to your larger goal is a great way to exponentially increase your chances of success.

  • Good explanation of the framework. SMART goals are a business concept that translate wonderfully over to your personal life. Without dates and amounts, the goals are just dreams!

    Once I started writing down my personal finance goals in a way that made them achievable, we started making trememdous progress.

  • Setting goals with the outcome in mind is crucial if you are to accomplish any goal. Simply having a goal of getting out of debt without a timeline can jeopardize that goal. If the goal is to payoff a credit card in 12 months there should be sub-goals built in to have a percentage of the debt paid off at regular intervals. This helps to focus your efforts on day to day decisions that affect the sub-goal and in turn that provides immediate feedback on your progress.