Goal Setting Part I: A Few Hints for a Crucial Life Skill

August 24, 2009 at 3:43 am | Posted in Goal Progress | 1 Comment

I pride myself in my ability to set goals. I ponder them carefully, type them up neatly, post them here and there … and then promptly forget about them. The exception is work, where we enter our goals into an online document, and our annual performance rating is directly tied to whether we succeed in reaching them.

I have been doing better with my most recent goal of saving for an emergency fund and accelerating payments on my non-mortgage debt. I’ve been using a couple of techniques that I’ve mentioned elsewhere, but I’d like to add a few and pull them all together into a single post.

For me, the first step of the process is start now — right now if you can — and then recalibrate slightly every week. Many people suggest that you start with long-term goals, say, five years, then gradually break them down to a year, six months, a month, and a week, then come up with baby steps that you can take today, tomorrow, and so on. This can definitely work if you know where you want to be in five years. However, it can be just as effective to decide upon a simple 30-Day Challenge. You can use the Zen Habits forum for support, or simply go it on your own, perhaps telling key family members and friends about your plans.

No matter which you choose, you’ll want to set a so-called SMART goal, as illustrated by this handy graphic:

As you can see, goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.

As you can see, goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.

Man, I like that graphic, which I got from that amazing resource, istockphoto.com. No, I don’t get any money from them, and, no, it wasn’t free — just very cheap.

Anyway, let’s start with specific. When you first come up with a goal, it will probably be vague, in my case something like, “Get control of my finances.” The trouble with that is, it’s so nebulous and huge that it’s impossible to come up with concrete steps to get there. “Eat better” and “Exercise more often” are other examples of vague goals. “Start saving money” is more specific, but still not good enough, since it doesn’t say how much I’m going to save or what I’m saving it for. Without that information, I won’t know when I’ve reached the goal, or why I should even pursue it. So the first step of my goal reads: “Save $1,000 for an emergency fund.”

The next criterion is that it be measurable. Thus the $1,000 part. If you want to eat better, you might shoot for a certain number of grams of fiber a day; with exercising, you might choose 20 minutes three days a week. Numbers are crucial here, even though some goals, like “Be more compassionate” may not seem to lend themselves to numbers. The key is to isolate one way in which you can demonstrate compassion — by doing lovingkindness meditation for five minutes daily, perhaps, or by giving an genuine smile to 10 people you see in a day — that is tangible and countable.

Whether a goal is attainable can be difficult to judge. For some people, and in some areas of your life, a stretch goal (to use the corporate buzz term) might be inspiring. I prefer things that I absolutely know I can do, since I find failure tremendously discouraging. I chose $1,000 because Mary Hunt, author of the excellent Debt-Proof Living, suggests that you save 10% of your after-tax income. That strikes me as reasonable, and it means that I will meet my goal in less than six months. That seems like a long time, but I can always accelerate my rate of savings if I find that I can handle 10% with ease. It won’t be easy to meet this goal — I’ll have to change a lot of habits and work hard at it — but it is certainly attainable.

R is for relevant, which simply means, that the goal you’ve chosen aligns with your values and lifetime goals. Only you can know, of course, and it may take a certain amount of journaling and soul-searching to discover the answer. I embraced my current goal because it’s a step on the way to becoming a certified yoga instructor. I could work on this long-term goal with my finances in disorder, but I’d be a lot less likely to succeed, and money would narrow my options. So even though financial goals don’t move me like they should, now that I’ve tied saving for an emergency fund to a valued long-term goal, I find it easier to work towards the former seriously.

If you don’t set a deadline, you’re not really setting a goal; therefore your goal should be time-bound. You can set the deadline more or less arbitrarily (I will eat 35 grams of fiber a day for 30 days, then reevaluate), or you can back into it like I did. In any case, come up with a deadline and record it along with the rest of the goal.

I believe in setting one goal at a time and starting small. My goal right now is to save 10% of my next paycheck — eminently doable, but still difficult for me. Thank God for ING Direct — they make it impossible for me to just snatch money out of my account when I simply must have that thnead — the thnead that will languish on my bookshelf or in a drawer once I’ve acquired it, only to be purged six months hence. One technique that I’m using to reach this goal is an experiment. As of yesterday I’ve decided not to buy anything but absolute necessities for a week. So no prepared foods, no thneads of any sort, no flowers, no essential oils; I am allowed to pay my bills and give money to my church and the Depression and Bipolar Alliance, and I can buy groceries and gas. No paper towels or other paper goods, though, since you can always substitute Kleenex for toilet paper or vice versa. That’s my weird approach, which I will discuss in more detail in an upcoming post.

Goal-setting, right. Having one goal at a time means that you’re less likely to forget it, which is key for those of us with mild cognitive problems. It also pours your energies and time out onto a single object, thus improving your chances of success. I find that meeting goals is a lot like picking up laundry — for every item you try to cram into the bundle, another sock or pair of panties (read discipline) falls. Having a single goal can blunt this effect.

Your goal should be written, posted, and looked at. This last is actually the hardest part for me. Now that I’m advertising to myself, I either have to surprise myself with messages or take a moment to focus and read them, or else they will simply become a taken-for-granted part of my visual background. So stop, look, read, and muse on that sucker.

Other writers suggest going public with your goals so that others can hold you accountable. I’ve always been shy of this because I find it humiliating to admit where I’m starting from. I imagine people thinking, Wait, she wants to be a yoga instructor but she hasn’t practiced for three days? What an unworthy being! This is the first time I’ve posted a goal publicly, and I hope that you will all hold me accountable, particularly by asking for updates every now and then, since silence typically means that I’m slipping.

That’s all for now. I’ll try to return to goal setting later, since there’s still a lot more to be said. I spent an hour exploring the Icarus Project website before coming here, though, so my back is sore and my feet have fallen asleep.

Love to all, and may you find this helpful.

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  1. Excellent post as always! One thing I find helpful in getting back on track with goals is to set the goal and then get some perspective on it by doing something I find meaningful — a long ride on my mountain bike, for example, or a drive down the coast. I managed to finish my dissertation many years ago after having been stalled for a long time, and one of the things that spurred me to do it was a bike ride around the university grounds during which I kept thinking about how it would be to finish up. It was sort of a “Kubla Khan” moment for me — one in which I fancied that I could build what needed “building” almost ex nihilo and with magical celerity. As it turned out, that imaginative experience was what moved me to act on my goal and finish my work.

    As a college instructor, I find that the “going public” idea you mention works well — I always design very detailed course webs (with study questions, syllabus, guides, and all sorts of goodies), and these constitute something of a promise to the students that things will move along like clockwork. Turns out that the sites help keep me focused even aside from the benefits for students.


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