I’m a huge goal-setter. My journal is filled with pages upon pages of things I hope to accomplish, neatly divided into a few little categories that I somewhat obsessively color-code and look at regularly. Okay, so I’m a total planner-and-journal nerd anyway, but there’s been a lot of research done, and being obsessive about your goals pretty much makes you more likely to achieve them. There are a few other steps along the way, of course, but simply putting pen to paper is a really important first step.
1. It forces you to be more specific.
“I want to lose weight” is nowhere near as solid of a goal as “I will lose 30 pounds before my next birthday”. Those super-simplified goals don’t help you too much, because they don’t give you any framework. Imagine going on a road trip, to nowhere in particular. How would you know what to pack? When would you know you’re going the right way? How would you decide when you’ve got there?
By focusing on who you want to be, instead of what you want to do, you push yourself to become that person. Visualizing the goals you set, as if you’d already achieved them, helps show you what you need to do. And, it gives you a chance to work on your handwriting, too – which is something most of us could do with a little more of (and the rest of us love to do anyway).
2. It motivates you to take action.
Seeing your goal written down on paper shows you an idea of what you want to do, and starts to paint the picture of what you want to see when you look in the mirror. Your handwriting has personalized it and soaked its way in, so your brain associates it with something you want. But writing it down is only the beginning – you’ve got to read it, too.
Looking over your handwritten goals on a regular basis gets you thinking about action, which helps you to understand what steps you need to take next. It will still take a bit of thought on your part, but you’ll be more prepared to make the right decision.
3. It helps you filter through your life choices.
When you have a specific goal in mind, you can compare other choices in life against that goal, to determine whether they’re worth your time or not. Got a job offer on the other side of the country, and you have a goal to travel in the next year? Maybe you’ll be just a little more inclined to take the job. On the other hand, if you got a job offer from some unsavory individuals, and you had an eventual goal to lead your country, you might pass on the less-than-legal offer.
Naturally, your circumstances are going to be way different than the ones I’ve set up, but it’s a good place to start. What you need to realize is that all your goals are likely to connect, in some way, and you may find that crossing off one or two goals actually puts you closer to achieving several others. Looking over your goals regularly also gives you room to change your goals, if a better opportunity comes along.
4. It helps you overcome the obstacles.
Nothing worth having comes easy – and your goals aren’t going to fall in your lap (most likely). Focusing on the things standing in your way can distract you from the things you need to do, and you can quickly become overwhelmed with the less-than-awesome parts of the process. But being able to see your goal, in writing, helps you focus on what you want, instead of what you need to overcome.
Focusing on the resistance is damaging to all of your life goals, not just the one you’re actively working on. If you let yourself become overwhelmed and downtrodden with the things that stand in your way, it’s going to be so much harder to pick up the pieces and get started a second time. Following through and picking yourself back up every time you fall is the only way to move forward and get better.
5. It lets you track your progress.
A lot of my personal goals are kept next to a “tracker”, so I can check off how many days in a row I’ve worked toward that overall goal. For example, I’ve committed to eating three small meals and working out for at least 15 minutes per day. These belong to my bigger goal of “get in shape by my birthday.” (I have more specific numbers written down, but I don’t want to share them.) Seeing every day that I make progress is inspiring, and it boosts my confidence to keep moving forward.
However, just tracking things isn’t enough – you have to actually look over your progress regularly, too. It doesn’t make much sense to track something you’re not paying any attention to. Identifying trends in your progress helps you customize your plan of action; for example, I know the days I don’t eat three meals, I tend to forget to exercise, too. I try to accommodate this by eating a small meal first thing when I wake up – that way I’m more likely to work out that afternoon.
6. It gives you a chance to break it down.
When we set goals, we tend to set them way too huge to maintain. We might start with, I’ll work out 5 days a week, for at least 40 minutes a day. Then, after a few weeks, we’ve completely lost control of our workout routines, because we tried to change too much at once. With perfect practice and dedication, you can hope to improve about 1% per day – but, as you might have guessed, that 1% is going to seem like a lot less in a month than it does right now. It can get overwhelming, even if you’re doing perfectly.
While still thinking of your big long-term goal, you can break it down into smaller chunks – each of which is a little closer to that 1% total, and lets you know that you’ve made progress toward the goal. If you want to eventually work out 5 days a week for 40 minutes at a time, start with a smaller goal first, like work out twice a week for 20 minutes. Over time, you can increase it – but wait until it becomes closer to habit.
7. It makes you more likely to remember it.
The physical act of putting pen to paper actually helps commit things to your brain, because it involves so many more muscles than typing does. When we write on paper, we feel the sensations that vibrate through the pen, even if we don’t always notice them. Our brain does, and it takes a little note that, hey, this thing is important.
This simple step can be repeated to increase the benefits you get from doing it, too. The more frequently you read and write your goal, the more ingrained it’ll become in your mind. (Within reason, of course – once every week or two should be fine.)