For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a reflector. I look back at the things from the past and analyze how things could have been different. I reflect on the future, taking an inventory of my goals and anticipating their outcomes. (OK, I overanalyze this one sometimes – I’ve got to get better about my self-confidence!)
With all this analyzing and over-analyzing, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. I start reflecting on every mistake I’ve made – even the imaginary ones. The end of the year is an especially momentous time of reflection – after all, it signals the end of a huge block of time. It’s one of our easiest units of time measurement as it pertains to goals. There’s even an entire culture dedicated to the idea of making new goals at the end of every year – this magical promise we make to ourselves that legally binds us to our word.
(That last part is an obvious lie.)
Even though so many make new year’s resolutions, the actual practice of keeping them is rare. This is because many people don’t understand how to set effective goals, and take action to achieve them. I’d like to help you change that.
Step One: Set specific goals.
A lot of people think that, if they set a general goal (such as “I will lose weight this year”), they’ll be more successful, because the definition of success is so much looser. The only problem is that it’s not measurable. How will you know when you’ve met your goal? If your goal is to “lose weight”, does that mean you’re done the first time the numbers on the scale go down?
If you want to set the absolute most-likely-to-succeed goals, you’ll need to be specific. I have a goal that I will get down to a size 11 by the end of the year – I’m currently about a size 16. This is an actionable goal, because I can measure when I have met my goal.
If you find that your new year’s resolutions are very generalized, I invite you to take a look at them and see if you can’t clarify them a little. You want to read more? Or do you want to read two books a month? Do you really want to get a job, or do you want to start a career working with animals? The more specific you are, the higher the chances you’ll be successful.
Step Two: Break them down into smaller goals.
Fact: The biggest reason for procrastination is a fear of failure. When a task seems too difficult, our brain won’t let us do it. But the good news is you can trick your brain by breaking your goals into smaller pieces. Then, you’ll be able to focus on the smaller task, with more confidence – because it doesn’t seem insurmountable anymore.
Personally, I have a goal to publish three of my own books next year. Looking at that on a piece of paper is intimidating, because a book is so much work. So instead, I have a board with sticky notes on it, and each sticky note describes a single chapter of a single book. By breaking down what would be one giant task into about thirty smaller tasks, I have gotten rid of the pressure.
If your goals for the year seem gigantic and hard to handle, brainstorm ways you can break them down into smaller goals – and make sure this is what you see every day. If you want to start a new job, for example, consider setting smaller goals such as “put in an application at ten places”, “update my resume and cover letter,” and “get an interview with a hiring manager”. These smaller goals don’t have to be as specific as your overall goal.
Step Three: Give yourself deadlines.
Most people work better when there’s a clear-cut definition of failure, and sometimes the easiest way to know you’ve failed (or are in danger of failing) is to set a timeline for yourself. If you have actionable points on your timeline, you’ll be able to keep track of when you’re falling behind schedule.
With my books, I often try to give a specific turnaround time – whether I’m writing it for myself or for a client. If the deadline from the client is in three weeks, I know I need to have 1/3 of the book done every week or I’m falling behind schedule. Catching these little slips early is essential in making sure you have time to catch up.
Some people think that you have no power to set deadlines for yourself, especially if you’re a procrastinator. Quite frankly, that’s not true. Even a self-imposed deadline will give you the framework necessary to get your projects done quicker – and if you are an effective deadline planner, your deadlines will add just the right amount of stress to inspire you to work on things.
How do you know if your deadline is effective? Well, it should be tight enough to keep you from procrastinating, but loose enough to be possible. Make sure you factor in everything else you have going on; getting burnt out on something you want to do is easily ten times worse than getting burnt out on something you didn’t want to do in the first place!
Step Four: Take action every day.
If you want to succeed with your goals, you need to actually make a little progress every day. It might seem like more work, and you’ll definitely want to skip some days – but you can’t. You want to make this goal a habit, ingrained in your mind in such a way that you can’t fail. And besides, how much faster could you reach your goals if you actually worked on them every day?
This step is particularly hard if your goal is something that doesn’t come naturally to you, or if you find it unpleasant (such as my goal to grow one of my businesses). There are things that I don’t want to do, but I know I need to do if I’m going to be successful in the coming years.
I will schedule one task from my business’s to-do list every day, and push myself to work on it. Since I find this dull, I break it up a little – one day I might be interviewing new team members, another day I might be promoting, and another day I might be coming up with sales material. No matter what it is, I have to work on something every day.
The funny thing about this one is, usually it’s not as bad once you get started as you had feared it would be – so you spend more time working on it than you anticipated. After all, your brain is programmed to recognize the benefits of a long-term investment, and getting started is the hardest part.
Step Five: Reward your successes.
Whenever you take positive action toward your goal, you should have a reward defined. This could be something as simple as watch half an hour of trashy TV. It’s not a lot, but it will help you start associating your goal planning with a positive experience. Just make sure you stay honest with yourself and don’t reward yourself if you didn’t meet your goal that day. Any time you do, you are removing the association of the reward with the task.
Over time, you will be able to train yourself to enjoy the tasks you don’t like, because you associate them with the reward you’ll get after. You’ll need to be consistent with your efforts, and you’ll need to reserve the reward for that particular task from here on out. You’ll also need to make sure your reward isn’t something that’s going to jeopardize your progress.
For example, if your reward for running a mile every day was to eat a piece of cake, this would be pretty counter-productive, as a mile of running doesn’t burn off nearly the calories that the cake puts in. I like to reward myself for finishing a specific project with music or horror movies, or reward an hour of work with a quick walk. (If you can find a way to incorporate a “happier” goal as the reward for a “less happy” goal, that’s even better because you’ll be multi-tasking!)
Step Six: Hold yourself accountable.
I know we all get irritated with those people who post every time they go to the gym, or they Instagram every healthy meal they cooked at home. They seem like they’re showing off how healthy they are, when you know them in real life and they are not usually like that. We think they’re being fake. But really, they might be practicing self-accountability.
This practice involves posting regular updates to your progress, whether in a journal, on social media, or anywhere else you have room to reflect on it. It seems like an unnecessary extra step, but the truth is that holding yourself accountable for your actions makes you more likely to repeat good actions and less likely to repeat bad actions.
Even when we mess up, it’s important that we reflect on how and why we messed up. Think about the end of a relationship. You know how we’re always saying you need time to think about what happened before you’re ready to move forward? This applies to pretty much every aspect of your life. If you don’t acknowledge your mistakes, and even call attention to them sometimes, you’re setting yourself up to repeat them.
You might associate this practice with self-shaming, and that’s exactly what it is. If you feel a sense of shame when you haven’t met your goals, that’s exactly why you should be announcing that you didn’t meet your goals that day. Shame prevents us from repeating things. Not that you should feel ashamed of everything you do, but if it goes against the person you want to be, that’s the type of action you need to have guilt over.
Step Seven: Have someone else hold you accountable.
This one is a little harder to do, and it’s why so many people take to posting their goals to social media. It’s hard to find someone who actually wants to see you succeed, and that’s why it’s so important to be your biggest supporter. But being accountable to someone else means that there’s someone else you’re going to disappoint – and we don’t like letting other people down. (It doesn’t really feel so good.
I have a few “accountabili-buddies” for my goals, and I think it’s important that you do, too. For my business, I report progress to two people whose opinions I respect. They give me their insight (sometimes without me asking) and I do my best to take it constructively. Sometimes, I feel like I’ve let them down anyway, but I remind myself that if someone gives you advice, it’s because they think you have potential. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be wasting their time!
For the rest of my work, I hold myself accountable to my mother. I tell her about the progress I’m making with work – whenever I get a raise, any time there’s a project I’m excited about, and even any time I miss out on something I was looking forward to. I tell her when I’m falling behind schedule, and I tell her about my future plans – because I know she’ll hold me to them.
The best people to hold you accountable are those who are more experienced than you, because they will be able to offer you advice – but in some cases, that’s not a practical option. For my personal books, I discuss ideas with a few friends and acquaintances, and I tell expected finish dates. Not only do I get some new ideas, but I also get people interested – people who will expect it to be finished by the time I said it would.
Step Eight: Reflect often.
In my journal, I review my goals on a regular basis – this helps me to see what I’m staying on track with, and what I’m falling behind on. I recently bought a goal-oriented planner that prompts me to do this more often than I do. I recap with my accountability buddies at least a couple times a week, and I set goals for the beginning of the week, as well as a specific to-do list for each day.
I know that not everyone is as obsessive-compulsive and detail oriented as I am, and believe it or not, that’s ok. You don’t have to be. You don’t even have to keep your reflections organized – just the simple act of writing it down can help seal it into your brain, whether you read back over it or not. Those who prefer a little more organization, there are thousands of tools available to help you get your thoughts more organized – just check your phone’s app store or the organization section of your favorite online retailer.
When you reflect on your goals, you should be taking an honest inventory of all the struggles, pleasures, pains, and every little detail that happened along the road since your last reflection. Not everything needs to make it onto the page or into the conversation, but you’ll need to be honest in your thought process and make sure you’re counting all the “important stuff”.
If your reflection tells you that you’re slipping from your goals, you’ll need to re-evaluate, re-prioritize, and possibly dedicate a little more schedule time to the goals. Maybe you’ll realize that something isn’t as important to you as you thought it was before – it’s perfectly OK to scrap a goal that doesn’t make sense anymore. If you’ve met all of your goals ahead of your deadline, maybe it’s time to add in some new challenges. Don’t stop learning and growing – and especially never stop trying!