How to Set Goals You’ll Actually Reach

It’s that goal-setting time of year. But goals aren’t usually “set it and forget it” kind of things. Here’s how to set goals you’ll reach.

It’s got to matter

The most important thing is that they have to really matter to you. You can’t be setting a goal because you think you should — for example, because it’s New Year’s time and everyone else seems to be making a resolution.

In fact, resolutions aren’t goals at all. They’re just intentions. You could just as easily “resolve” to go to the store tonight, and then get busy or sidetracked and not go at all. (Which is what happens to many so-called goals.)

So instead of resolving to do something, or making a list of things that you want to accomplish, question yourself. What’s really important to you? What would you be overjoyed to accomplish? What do you not want to leave this earth without having done? What’s critical in your life? Go with your gut.

Define it, and then check against reality

If what’s really important to you is making sure you’ve got an adequate emergency fund, start by identifying what “adequate” means to you. Maybe you’ll decide that you want to have $10,000 saved up by the end of the year.

Ok, great!

Now think about how you’re going to do that, and whether or not it’s doable. If you make $15,000 a year and spend $400 a month on rent, it’s probably not — unless you first make some major changes to your income.

Don’t get side tracked

It could be tempting to change our example goal to “make more money” — but that would just be a means to an end. And it wasn’t your burning desire, right? So stick with the original goal. Sure, making more money can be a great idea, but focus on setting your real goal in a way that you’re going to see regular progress on each week or month for sure.

In this case, that means setting a smaller number to start with, or a longer time frame. If you made $15,000 a year, maybe you could save up $500 for your emergency fund by the end of the year. Even that’s a pretty big stretch goal. $10 a week is a lot of money when you don’t make a ton. But it’s a lot more realistic than $192.31 a week.

Have a plan

The next step in figuring out how to set goals you’ll reach is to make sure you’ve got a plan. Real goals are almost always smart. (Check out these SMART goal examples to see what I mean.)

So break it down. What would it take for you to set aside that $10 every week and then not touch it? Could you bring in additional income? Cut expenses further? Or do both in one fell swoop, maybe by getting a roommate?

Use the SMART goal method.

Get hyper-focused, and get help

Once you’ve got a plan, making sure you set goals that are doable becomes a matter of focusing on the small things. Instead of worrying about the whole year, worry about today or this week. What little thing can you do right now that will bring you closer to your goal?

When I was in junior high, I played the clarinet and decided I wanted to be first chair. Instead of last. There were 13 people ahead of me, so I had a ways to go.

I talked to my music teacher about what I needed to do. He explained how challenges worked, and what I’d need to do to prepare. So that first week, I focused on becoming just good enough to beat the person right next to me so I could move up one chair. We were allowed to do one challenge per week.

Carry out your plan, one step at a time

Luckily, that was the way it worked. I wasn’t allowed to jump right ahead to challenging the first chair, skipping the other 12 people. If I had been able to, I probably would have tried it — and almost certainly failed. Instead, I was forced to focus on one step at a time, gradually making my way toward my goal. (I ended up as 2nd chair — because the school year ran out before I could challenge the first chair.)

Setting a goal you can reach and then hyper-focusing on the steps along the way will get you to where you want to be. (Or at least pretty darn close.)

Go for it.