Goal setting is no easy task. Achieving a goal is even harder. In a study by Statistic Brain, only 8% of people who set New Year’s goals attain them. The study also claimed that only 45% of Americans usually develop New Year’s goals and a staggering 38% never set goals for themselves. About 25% of people who declare a New Year’s resolution never make it past week one.
Where do you fit in? You may not set New Year’s resolutions, but odds are you’ve set some goals for your life. Are you one of those people who rarely make it past week one of your plans, or do you achieve each goal you set your mind to?
What Happens in Your Brain When You Set Goals?
Goal-setting has a powerful effect on the human mind. Scientists have revealed several things that happen in your brain when you set a goal, whether short term or long term. Understanding each of these factors can help you set stronger, more measurable goals for yourself.
Setting a Goal Changes How You See Yourself
When you set a goal, you create a shift in your identity. Your brain doesn’t know the difference between what you want and what you already have, so it takes your desired outcome and immediately adds it to your self-identity. This makes that outcome part of who you are as a person, even if the goal is still out of reach.
Assuming you haven’t achieved your goal, this newly established self-image conflicts with reality. This creates tension, and your brain starts trying to figure out how to attain your goal to re-establish harmony in your mind. So, what does this tell us about goal setting? Don’t take it lightly. Odds are when you set a goal in writing, your brain will already be halfway to the finish line. If you’re serious about achieving that goal, make sure it’s well thought-out and concrete.
Your Brain Rewards You
Every human’s brain has a reward system in place for those moments when you’ve accomplished one of your goals, even if it’s a small one. When this happens, your body releases dopamine into your brain, and you feel a rush of happiness and pride. This helps motivate you to stay focused and keep moving towards your ultimate goal.
It’s important to break down your bigger goals into smaller, short-term goals. Doing so allows for multiple steps, and therefore multiple opportunities to succeed and be rewarded. Keeping the reward system in your brain running will ultimately help you stay motivated to achieve your long-term goals.
Your Brain Punishes You Too
Not only is the brain good at rewarding you for your accomplishments, but it’s also equally good at punishing you when you fail. Failure to complete a goal cuts off your supply of dopamine and triggers feelings of loss, anxiety, fear, and sadness. It’s important for you to be aware that missing a goal may harm your psyche. You’ll have to take extra care to use the failure as a learning experience and continue moving forward.
In a 2010 Ted Talk, Derek Sivers explains how telling others about your goals before you start working towards them can make you feel really good. The high you receive might even make you feel like you’re already well on your way to achieving those goals (even though you haven’t started yet). However, this can also backfire on you. “You should have kept your mouth shut because that good feeling now will make you less likely to do it,” Sivers says.
Psychologists warn that receiving praise for simply having goals presents false reassurance and creates a new “social reality.” This lulls your brain into thinking it’s already achieved the goal, and your motivation decreases. If your goals are measurable, you’ll be able to counter that feeling of completion if you choose to tell others about your progress and your brain gets lazy. This way, the praise will be backed up by actual data, and you’ll be less likely to give up.
There Are 3 Types of Goals
Goals can be broken down into a few different types and are not mutually exclusive. For instance, some goals are long-term while others are short-term. Long-term goals are future-focused and therefore take a bit longer to achieve than short-term goals. People often break long-term goals down into shorter-term goals to create measurable steps that when completed allow for that feeling of accomplishment and the associated dopamine rush. Goals can be subdivided into three different types based on time, focus, or topic.
- Time goals can be defined by how long it will take you to achieve them. Perhaps you have a long-term goal of losing 60 pounds in the next year. You would then break down your long-term goal into smaller chunks to make it more achievable. For instance, you might seek to lose 5 pounds per month, resulting in a total of 60 pounds for the year. Each of these examples is time-based.
- Focus goals are usually big goals that will require a lot of work and may impact many of your decisions for a while. An example might be starting and running a successful new business. This goal will take an undetermined amount of time to get off the ground and require much of your daily focus.
- Topic-based goals are important in certain aspects of your life. As an example, you might choose to set your sites on a new career. Other topic-based goals include:
- Health and Fitness
- Relationships and Family
- Fun and Hobbies
Start with a BIG Goal
To begin thinking about monthly goals, you’ll want to start with a big (perhaps yearly) goal. Breaking your big goals down into smaller steps will make the act of achieving them much more realistic. If you’ve been focusing on random small goals without an overriding theme (or big goal), you’re going about goal-setting all wrong.
It may seem counterproductive, but to begin the planning process, you’ll need to work through your to-do list backward. Begin with a big goal that will take you more than a couple of months to achieve. It can fall into any of the three categories mentioned above, but it needs to be BIG. Writing an entire book in a year is a big goal. Writing one chapter of a book in a year is not so big.
It’s critical to begin at the beginning when determining your goals. Taking the time to write down your long-term goals will help you get started. Be specific about what you want to accomplish. Don’t worry about how you’ll accomplish this goal just yet. For the time being, simply focus on what that goal is.
Use Mind-Mapping to Better Define Your Goals
It may help you to use mind-mapping to define your monthly and ultimate goals. A mind map is a simple way to brainstorm thoughts related to a central topic without worrying about order or structure. To create your mind map, write your goal in the center of a piece of paper. All around it, record activities, ideas, opportunities, and thoughts that relate to that idea.
For example, if your BIG goal is to get a new job, you might write down the following:
- In a year
- With better pay
- With a boss who’s not a micromanager
- With room for advancement
- In town
- No overtime
- Good benefits
- Reputable company
The next step would be to summarize these thoughts into a specific goal:
“I want to get a new job in the next year with a reputable company that respects me and provides excellent pay, benefits, and room for advancement.”
In many cases, the things you write down around your central goal will become steps in the process of achieving that goal (a.k.a. monthly goals). For example, searching for “reputable companies” could become a goal for the first month of your new job hunt. You could research the companies that hire people with your credentials and determine which ones you might like to work for in the future, thus creating a starting point for your next monthly goal of sending out prospecting letters to those companies.
Your Goals Should be SMART
All of your goals, from big to little, should be SMART goals. Even your monthly goals should follow this step-by-step process. The mind-mapping experiment above will help you develop SMART goals. Each goal you set for yourself must be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-sensitive.
- SMART Goals Are Specific. Simply stating you want to lose some weight this year isn’t a very specific goal. Instead, identify how much weight you want to lose and set a deadline. By identifying things that might get in your way of achieving your goal, you will be more specific and much more likely to follow through with your plan.
- SMART Goals Are Measurable. Once you’ve determined your overall goal, it’s time to start breaking it down and find ways to measure your success with each step. In the example above, saying you want to lose some weight in an undetermined amount of time is not only non-specific but also not measurable in the least. Instead, break it down into smaller, monthly goals. Determine how much weight you want to lose each month, such as five pounds, and work towards each monthly goal.
- SMART Goals Are Achievable. Are your goals attainable? Do you have the tools or skills you’ll need to accomplish them? If not, you’ll need to add a few more steps to your plan to get to that point. Creating achievable goals is certainly important, but don’t make your goals too easy. If you do, there’s no challenge in it. You’ll find yourself bored with the goal, the process, and the results.
- SMART Goals Are Relevant. Are your goals realistic for where you are in your life right now? If you want to lose 60 pounds in a year, are you healthy enough to do so? Are you in the right emotional state to focus on this goal? Whatever your goals, identifying why they are important to you at this particular point in your life is essential. If you can’t answer the “why” question, you need to reconsider your goals.
- SMART Goals Are Time-Sensitive. A goal without an end date is not a goal. Losing 60 pounds in one year versus losing 60 pounds in the future are two very different goals. Setting a deadline for your goals will make them measurable and specific. It will also help you develop a clear plan with definitive start and end points for each of the steps involved in achieving your goals.
Develop Monthly Goals That Support Your BIG Goal
Now that you have both a SMART and a BIG goal, it’s time to take it to the next level of planning. Developing monthly goals that support your ultimate goal will help you break the process down into smaller, bite-size bits. This will make those small victories that result in the release of dopamine into your system more attainable.
A monthly goal should take 30 days or less to complete. You’ll be achieving these goals in line with all your other monthly commitments, including work, family, social activities, housework, eating, and sleeping, so don’t make them too lofty. If you can’t manage your time effectively around each monthly goal, you’ve likely bitten off more than you can chew. Remember, the point of developing monthly goals is to spread things out to make your ultimate goal easier to achieve.
As you begin working on your monthly goals, be sure to take some time at the beginning of each month to consider your successes and failures. How are you progressing? Are the goals you set for each month supportive of your ultimate goal? If not, it’s time to reverse engineer your plan to get back on track.
Define Your Plan of Attack
Creating and following a plan for your BIG goal can be a challenge. At first, the idea of completing this task may seem difficult, but you’ll also likely feel a rush of excitement as well. Your enthusiasm in the early phases of the planning process will drive your motivation to succeed…at least for a while. It won’t be long before life takes over, so you’ll need to develop a strong plan of attack with time built into your schedule to complete your monthly goals. To design a plan, follow these steps:
Set Milestones for Each Month
You already have a BIG goal, and it should be SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-sensitive. Now it’s time to take a look back at your mind map for ideas on the milestones you will set for each month. Create a list of these milestones in the order in which they should be accomplished. You’ll likely tweak this order multiple times, but for now, just get the monthly goals down on paper.
As an example, let’s say your BIG goal is to design and create a successful blog that makes you a minimum of $500 per month within the 18 months. You already have a topic for your blog, and you’ve been thinking about starting it for a while now. Here are a few ideas for monthly goals for this example:
- Research website/blog hosting platforms and choose one.
- Choose a domain name and register it. Determine categories for your blog articles.
- Choose a website/blog theme and begin designing the basic pages.
- Complete your website’s initial design.
- Write four blog articles and post them on your site.
- Write four more blog articles and post them on your site. Go live! (end of month 6)
What Needs to Happen to Reach Your Monthly Goals?
Working off the example above, if your first month’s goal is to research website or blog hosting platforms and choose one, you’ll want to determine a few things first. How much money are you willing to spend? In other words, determining your budget is something that needs to happen to achieve this first monthly goal.
Ask this question of each of your monthly goals and write down the answers. These will become mini-goals (weekly or daily) that you’ll want to add to your list of to-dos. The next step will help you sort those out into actionable steps for each month.
Scheduling time to complete each of the items on your to-do list is a good way to hold yourself accountable. Set aside blocks of time during the month to work on these steps. Use a calendar or planner to keep track of everything. The more organized you are, the less likely you will be to forget an important step. If you do miss something, adjust your plan and keep going. Remember, that dopamine release only comes with small victories.
This is probably the most important part of the planning process. You must follow through with each step. Complete the tasks you assign yourself and check them off your list when you do. If you find yourself slowing down or you get too busy to finish a task one particular day, don’t give up. Find a way to motivate yourself. Find some additional time to catch up. Just don’t stop working towards your goals.
The moment you give up on one small task is the moment you begin losing momentum. Many people fail at achieving their goals in life because they give up too quickly. Some fail because they don’t develop a plan that includes a specific schedule that keeps them working on and thinking about their goals every day. Once you make a plan, follow through.
How Can You Stay Motivated to Achieve Your Monthly Goals?
For some, the simple act of creating a plan and organizing the steps required to accomplish their BIG goal is motivation enough. For others, especially those whose goals require several months or even years to complete, motivation is difficult to sustain. Here are a few tips that will help you keep going when you’re thinking about quitting:
Track Your Accomplishments
It’s important to check each step off your list as you complete it. The set aside some time at the end of each month to look back at what you’ve accomplished. How well is your plan working? Do you need to tweak a few things here or there now that you know more? Remember where you started, and consider how far you’ve come. In many cases, the simple act of reviewing your accomplishments is enough to motivate people to continue pushing forward.
If you’re feeling a bit low and looking for some motivation, the easiest way to elevate your spirits again is to reward yourself for the work you’ve done. Take a look at your list of to-dos. Choose one task you’ve checked off the list that week and celebrate! Go out for a special dinner, take in a movie, or go shopping. Do something that makes you feel special and remember that you’re doing that special thing because of the success you’ve had so far in completing your goals.
Take a Little Time to Recharge
If you get stuck in a rut, you may need to take a break to focus and center yourself on your goals again. Life can get in the way, and sometimes the blocks of time you had planned to use for working on one of your goals must be reassigned to another task. Or maybe you just get too overwhelmed with all the things you have to do that month and need a break. It’s perfectly fine to schedule some time away from your planner for a while. Just remember to come back to it.
Hire a Coach
If you know you’ll struggle with keeping your commitments when it comes to monthly goals, it might be advantageous to hire a coach. A life coach’s job is to hold you accountable, provide encouragement, and offer feedback as you progress month by month toward your ultimate goal. If this is something you think you want to do, be sure to add “hire a coach” onto your list of to-dos. While it’s not a monumental task, it will still take some time and research to find the right person.
Lean on Your Friends and Family
There is no better support system when you’re working towards a lofty goal than your friends and family. Choose a couple of friends or family members and tell them about your BIG goal, your monthly goals, and all the to-dos in between. Ask them to check in with you periodically to see how things are going. Tell them you may need to lean on them for encouragement and advice.
If you’re lucky enough to know someone who has expertise in your subject area, get together with that person periodically to share your goals and accomplishments. Ask for insight and advice that will help you attain your goals. Using an earlier example, if your goal was to start a blog, you might call on a friend who already has an established blog to help you out. Not only will that person’s knowledge be invaluable, but they’ll also be able to guide you through the rough patches since they’ve likely already been there.
You’ve probably heard people at work define themselves as excellent multitaskers. Unfortunately, research has shown that’s not necessarily a good thing. In fact, it can be quite damaging to your mind if you’re not careful. You may find yourself splitting your focus over too many tasks, which will ultimately result in the loss of focus. That lowers your quality of work and means it will take you even longer to achieve your goal that month.
If you want to stay motivated and don’t want to get burnt out, make sure your tasks don’t overlap too much. Instead, schedule one task at a time. If you get ahead of schedule, shift things up a bit, but don’t try to do more than you can handle.
Don’t Quit Until the Job’s Done
Only a staggering 8% of people who set New Year’s goals actually accomplish them. These are people who want something badly and are strongly motivated to achieve every monthly goal to get to the finish line. Simply put, they are doing “whatever it takes.” Does that describe you too?
When you start thinking about a BIG goal, you should check your level of commitment before you get too far down the path. Are you all in, or are you afraid you’ll give up halfway through? Will small failures get you down or rile you up? Take a moment to check in with yourself and make sure you’re doing the right thing at the right moment in your life.
Remember that 25% of people that declare a New Year’s resolution never get past the first week. That means if you make it to the end of the second week, it’s time to celebrate! Keep your enthusiasm up and remember what excites you most when you think about your goals. Above all, keep your eye on the finish line and don’t quit until the job’s done.