Guide to Goal Setting

If you’re reading this, you probably feel stuck. You have ideas of the grand tasks you want to accomplish, like writing a book or starting up a business, and you can’t seem to make the habit stick after the first few motivated days. You try, fail, and try again, but nothing works. Your goals seem distant and far away.

Sound like you? Then keep reading this article. We’re going to give you tips on how to set a goal and actually accomplish it.

Change Your Mindset on Goals

We’re going to use “gain ten pounds of muscle” as the example goal for this article, but as a reminder, the tips in this article will apply to any goal you have.

Because the best way to set goals isn’t to actually look forward to the deadline — it’s to make systems of habits that make achieving that goal a symptom of its success.

What does that mean? Stop thinking about goals altogether. Goals create a disjointed growth mindset. Mark Sanborn explains this concept best on his blog.

“What happens if you achieve your goals for the year by the middle of the year? What do you do for the rest of the year? There is something about the security of the achieved goal and human nature that causes us to relax a bit and lift off the gas pedal of achievement. In that funny way, goals can limit our achievement: we stop at goal achievement without achieving our true potential” (Emphasis added).

So let’s say you work hard to gain those ten pounds of muscle by obsessively going to the gym for as long as you can for as many days as you can. Achieving the goal motivates you, but you’re not weaving in accomplishing that goal into a balanced lifestyle. You’re trying to cross it off your to-do list as quickly as possible.

And once you reach that goal, what else is there to do? Add on another five pounds of muscle? Since you worked hard to get those initial pounds of muscle, you already feel accomplished and successful in reaching that first goal. You feel like you can take a break. You earned it, right?

That’s the problem with goals — they’re a surface-level way to succeed without forcing you to change your lifestyle to achieve goals. In essence, goals are superficial, but that’s not the only issue with them.

Here are more problems with goals:

  • Goals impact your happiness. You’ve probably felt that you won’t be happy until you get that promotion or a new job, that you won’t feel attractive until you’ve lost weight and changed your appearance in some way. Once you reach your goal, you’ll be happy.

But that belief that “if X, then I’ll be happy” is what psychologists call the arrival fallacy. Arriving at your desired outcome won’t actually make you happy, but goal setting prevents you from making the lifestyle or psychological shifts to improve your happiness.

Goals keep you wanting, and until you’ve accomplished your goals you won’t be happy. That’s a lot of pressure to put on your goals, which can further dissuade you from accomplishing them.

  • Goals rely on willpower and self-discipline. Ever had a New Years Resolution? Yeah, how did that go?

Goals go against human psychology. We are wired to be lazy. It’s evolutionary. Our brains will choose the walk, lifestyle, and daily choices that require the least amount of energy.

But the idea of a goal, even if you break it up into smaller goals, is to put your brain on a sprint. Try to accomplish the parts of the goal as efficiently as quickly as possible, putting the goal at the forefront of free time or building relationships.

Just like with a sprint, you’ll lose stamina and have to take a break. And once life creeps back in, it’s hard to exert the same amount of energy you once did on that goal.

Instead, you’ll have to hack your goal-setting system into a habit building one instead.

How the Best Goals Act Like Habits

Angela Duckworth was a managing-consultant turned middle school teacher. She knew the business world was obsessed with goal management and incremental improvements, but she wondered what would determine success for her seventh-graders.

It wasn’t brains and it wasn’t the ability to learn quickly. It was grit.

“Grit is stamina,” according to Duckworth. “Grit is sticking with your future day in and day out – not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

You can’t keep sprinting towards your goals, as that will never work out. Like a marathon runner, you have to build habits into your life that allow you to achieve the goals you’ve wanted.

Duckworth eventually became a psychologist who studied how people achieve success. From watching middle-schoolers, she learned that there are key takeaways that students do to not only have a successful academic career but a successful life as well.

Have a Growth Mindset

A growth mindset will set the fire under your butt to keep pursuing your goals and habits.

The reason you want to set goals is because you’re not happy with your current quality of life. You want to gain muscle, lose weight, exercise more, write more, build more, make a business, whatever. You want your life to include these things.

But here’s how mindset plays a role in your success: if you think you’re not naturally talented in building muscle, writing, being an entrepreneur, etc, you’ll either forgo ever trying to accomplish these goals or sabotage yourself when you start making progress. You think that achieving this success is outside your scope of possibility, so you don’t pursue further.

As psychologist Carol Dweck writes in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, believing your abilities are not fixed and that you can achieve your goals through persistence and perseverance is the crux to success.

Because of your growth mindset, you give yourself permission to work hard and build the necessary habits for success.

Never Underestimating the Importance of Positivity

Once altering their mental state into a growth mindset, the middle schoolers who achieved their goals were the ones who didn’t take failure personally. They didn’t chastise themselves for failing to keep up progress with their goals.

Instead, they metaphorically dusted themselves off and tried again. They didn’t get in a negative feedback loop self-doubt and uncertainty. They took small failures as the necessary preliminary for success.

Ask yourself: do you get caught up with negative thoughts? Are you too hard on yourself when you fail to achieve your goal? If your stamina wanes? Not only is it important to receive outside positivity from supportive friends and peers but internally as well.

Who would have thought we could learn how to succeed from middle-schoolers? While grit lets you succeed in your goals, it’s the power of habits that make them stick and make self-improvement easier.

How Habits Work

The best ways to build habits is to figure out how they work.

According to Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habits, habits work like a loop in the following way: cue, routine, and reward.

  • There’s a stimulus that triggers your desire to accomplish that habit.

Let’s use a bad habit as an example here. Let’s say you’re a smoker. As you’re walking down the street, you see someone pull a pack of cigarettes out their pocket and take one out. This cue — the sight of a cigarette — spurs your desire to smoke too, which leads you to…

  • This would be the act of pulling out your own cigarette carton or going to a store to buy one, taking out a cigarette, lighting it, and inhaling. The routine is what makes the habit the habit, and can be mental, physical, or emotional.

Fulfilling the routine leads you to the…

  • You get a rush of dopamine from the nicotine. You feel good, relaxed, buzzed. Though smoking is terrible for you, it’s the pleasure from the act that makes puffing on the toxic stick so fulfilling. And because the act brings you joy, you’re likely to continue the habit at the sight or feeling of a cue again.

In essence, habits are about how pleasurable the reward is. That’s why smokers are willing to spend so much money on cigarettes — the brain is designed to chase pleasure, which leads to cravings for that pleasure, which leads to internal cues, and the cycle goes on.

The best part about habits is that they play into the brain’s inclination for laziness. Once you feel the cue, you don’t think about the routine because it occurs outside of consciousness.

Scientifically, the reason habits happen non-autonomously is because habit information is stored in the basal ganglia, which isn’t associated with consciousness. When the basal ganglia kicks in, the rest of the brain can go to sleep while the habit is performed.

This is why you can zone out on your morning commute. The habit of driving to work is so ingrained, you don’t have to think about it.

It takes about 66 days for habits to become autonomous, though, so it will take some life-engineering to achieve blissful unconscious achievement of your habits. But there are ways to get the ball rolling and make getting to 66 days much easier.

How to Make and Keep Habits

Start Ridiculously Easy

We really mean “ridiculously.” You should laugh at yourself and feel ashamed if you can’t achieve this small goal.

For example, instead of doing 50 push-ups every morning, start with five every Saturday. Unless some horrible circumstances prevent you from doing so, there should be no reason why you can’t do those five push-ups one day a week.

Once you’ve done those five pushups, you could increase the number of pushups you do or increase the number of days you do it for. Either way, you incrementally increase your habit so that you don’t have to rely on your willpower to begin it. Starting your habit should be within the means of your willpower already.

Gamify Your Habits

Wanna know why Pokemon is one of the most popular games on this planet? It’s all about gamification.

In Pokemon, you start off as a regular kid — until you get your first Pokemon. Features in the game allow you to slowly build the strength of your Pokemon, leveling up and receiving rewards for doing so. You further the plot the harder you work in the game.

After habitual incremental increase with expanding rewards and achievements, you are a far more powerful Pokemon trainer with level 70, 80, 90 Pokemon who can defeat anyone. Getting there wasn’t easy, but it’s surprisingly pleasurable.

But you can’t go from 0 to 90 overnight, and you can’t do it without the process being enjoyable either. The reason why gamification popularized Pokemon is that gamification makes habitual actions like playing the video game fun, and you can apply the same principles to make building habits fun too.

The four tenets of gamification include:

  • Voluntary cooperation.
  • Clearly spelled-out goals with rewards.
  • Rules on how to achieve those goals and rewards.
  • Some sort of feedback on how your status in achieving those goals.

So let’s say every time you go to the gym, you allow yourself to play five minutes of your favorite mindless phone game. Let’s say it’s Candy Crush. Achieving your goal (going to the gym that day) gave you a pleasurable reward, so you can slowly increase the span of the goal to increase the pleasurable reward depending on your tastes and interests.

Make a roadmap for the goals and rewards you will receive. Once you go to the gym for a certain amount of days for a certain amount of time, you will receive X. After that, you’ll increase by a certain amount and reach Y, later Z.

Once you have your guide, you’ll know what to expect down the road and look forward to it. This also keeps you from feeling like you have no guidance in your goals.

Set Up Accountability

Accountability holds you responsible for your obligations.

Ways to have accountability:

  • Have an accountability partner. Find a physical friend who either supports your goal or is trying to accomplish your goal too. Personal accountability means you can’t run, you can’t hide. You have to report your progress to your friend or face the shame of not having done so.
  • Make your goal public. Even if you don’t have a friend you can meet in person with to help you accomplish your goal, you can have your whole friend group be your accountability partners. You’ll feel responsible to not go back on your word after making a public announcement about what you’re going to do, so you’re more likely to do it.
  • Put your money where your mouth is. By far the most powerful way to hold yourself accountable is to place a bet with yourself. Tell yourself that if you don’t do something to get your habit started (go to the gym, write X amount of words a day, etc), then you will give your money to another entity.

You can choose to be charitable and donate it, or you can straight up burn your dollar bills. Whatever you decide to do, the pain of losing money will spur you to not fail your bet and to thus accomplish your goal.

Try to set up accountability in some way, especially in the early stages of habit development. It’s better to have someone know you should be working on your habit rather than telling no one and feeling no remorse if you slip.

What to Do If You’re Too Lazy to Build Habits

The biggest bane of habit builders is pure laziness. It’s that familiar feeling of “I’m too comfortable now, I’ll get to the habit later.” We’ve all been there.

But we haven’t done what Thomas Frank suggests doing for lazy habit-builders. It’s to pair new habits into the habits we already do every day.

For example, you most likely brush your teeth in the morning. If you want to incorporate more exercises into your day, you could do lunges or squats as you brush your teeth. The cue to exercise, then, would be to brush your teeth, which you already do. But the routine would be to do two things (brushing your teeth and exercising) instead of just one.

Try to find more ways to tack on new habits to existing ones. Be creative, such as when every time you turn off your alarm clock, you do five sit ups. We have more habits in our day than we realize, so there’s an infinite amount of ways to incorporate new habits into our daily life.

Engineering the Environment

No, this doesn’t mean building windmills or solar panels. Engineer your work and home space to remove as much mental friction from your new habit as possible.

Mental friction is the amount of energy it takes to do something. This is why we feel such resistance to getting out of bed in the morning, or why we don’t want to get up to get a drink when we’ve already sat down. Just getting up and out of our comfortable position is too much energy for our energy-stingy brain and bodies.

And since habits require much energy from our brains, we’re averse to doing them. So you have to engineer your environment to make performing that habit as easy as possible.

For example, you probably keep your gym shoes in one room, perhaps in the living room by the front door, and your gym clothes in a dresser in your bedroom.

If you wanted to exercise in the morning, you would have to go into the living room to get your shoes, then come back to your bedroom, open your dressers, decide what clothes to wear, unfold your clothes, then put them on.

While this doesn’t sound like much effort, it’s like climbing up Mount Everest when you’re tired, groggy, and wholly unwilling to go to the gym so early.

But if you decide the outfit you’re going to wear and lay each article of clothing flat on a chair in your room, all you have to do in the morning is strip then put on the clothes. Boom, you’re done. You’ve designed your home environment to make facilitating the habit as easy as possible so all you have to do is actually do the habit.

What do you do if, even after engineering your environment and finding accountability, you still don’t want to build the habit?

Follow the 10/10/10 Rule

Often times, we get so focused on instilling a habit that we forget why we’re building that habit in the first place, but the 10/10/10 rule will help you out.

When it’s 6:24 am and you’re deciding to go to the gym that morning, ask yourself this: how will you feel in 10 minutes if you do this? What about 10 months? 10 years?

In 10 minutes, you’ll get over the mental friction and be on your way to the gym, where you’ll have no choice but to do the exercises you’ve set out for yourself to make the ride there and the gym membership worth it.

If you keep up going to the gym every morning for 10 months, you’ll feel much better than you started. And in 10 years, you’ll be in much better physical and mental shape, prolonging your life and staving off diseases because you made the daily decision to go to the gym.

That’s the beauty of the 10/10/10 rule — it forces you to consider the livelihood of your future self over your immediately tangible present emotions.

Think about it: the current you will fade into the past. The person you are right now is fleeting. But you have an infinite number of future selves, but you only get that self if you work hard in the present, before you slip into the past. So by sacrificing the comfort of your present self in those first 10 minutes, you make 10 months older you and 10 years older you much happier.

Example Habit Schedule

Now that we’ve given you a bunch of tips on how to make habit systems that will help you achieve your goal, let’s actually see some in action.

Taylor wants to gain 10 pounds of muscle. He never really worked out before except for doing the occasional pushup or sit up, but that’s rare for him. He decides to make building the habit of going to the gym much easier by just going for one hour a week every Sunday. In addition, he does 10 pushups in the morning every day when he turns off his alarm clock.

After three weeks, he feels he has a solid grip of going to the gym, and it’s not that hard for him to go for one hour, so he decides to go every Thursday in addition to Sunday for 1.5 hours.  After three more weeks, those two days become easier as well.

However, he hit a hump the first week he added his third day of gym-going. It was the morning. He was exhausted and felt defeated. He wanted to sleep in and forgo going to the gym. Snuggling further in his warm sheets, his snoozed his alarm clock for 10 more minutes. He was about to fall asleep when he remembered the 10/10/10 rule.

“I’m comfortable now, but in 10 minutes I’ll be used to being awake,” he thinks. “I need to go to the gym. I told my friend I would, and I don’t want her to be disappointed.” He sits up, rubs his eyes. “Besides, I’m doing this because I don’t like how I look, and it 10 months I could feel a whole lot better about my body.”

He gets up, goes to the gym. After getting past the mental resistance of one of his harder days, Taylor feels going to the gym has gotten much easier. After seven or eight weeks of his habit, he doesn’t think about his routine anymore — he just gets to the gym nearly every morning for two hours a day.

At 10 weeks, he surpassed 66 days of the habit and feels it is fully ingrained in his brain. Taylor successfully goes to the gym every day and has gained more than 10 pounds of muscle.

He looks and feels much better than he felt starting the habit. Even if life comes up and he’s unable to attend the gym for a few days, he knows that he’ll have this habit of exercising for the rest of his life — and his body will thank him for it.

In Conclusion

The brain doesn’t like changing its routine, but you’re lucky enough to understand how habits work and sculpt them for your advantage. By implementing habit changes the right way, you can set out to achieve goals the right way and make lasting changes in your life.

Remember this: the key to achieving goals is to not set goals. It’s to set habits instead and reap the benefits that come from them.

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