This is it: the in-depth how-to guide to setting a goal you’ll actually accomplish. Even as I say that, there’s no shortcut to actually doing the work. But once you’ve set a goal following this method, you’ll have a set of habits, a list of action steps, a plan for obstacles, and a process for resetting that will truly help you cross that finish line in victory.
Before you start
Tools! Either use your computer, grab a pen and paper, or use a journal. If you go the journal route, I recommend using a journal you’re either already working in or that you plan to use in the immediate future.
Grab whatever is both easiest for setting goals and easiest for keeping them front and center in your life. For setting the goals and going through the exercises, you may find the computer or even your phone faster. But I’d recommend putting your goals down on physical paper at some point!
Step 0: Attitude
Either begin with gratitude or by writing a list of things you’re proud of yourself for accomplishing. This helps you get in a mindset of motivation, courage, and confidence. I’ve called this “step 0” because it should permeate not only everything you do in this exercise, but also the way you approach accomplishing your goal throughout the entire process.
Exercise: Gratitude and Review
Take 5 minutes and write a giant list of everything you’re grateful for. If you’re setting yearly goals, cast out to the entire previous year for gratitude. If you’re setting monthly goals, review the last month.
Take 5 more minutes and write a giant list of everything you’re proud of accomplishing in the last year (or month) – same pattern as above.
Step 1: Dream Big
Next, you’re going to cast a great, big, beautiful dream for the next year. This isn’t the time for realism or action plans. Ask yourself “what do I want to do this year” and “who do I want to be this year” and write down whatever comes to mind.
Exercise: Look Ahead
Set a timer for 5 minutes and answer these questions without any kind of editing or filtering
- What do I want to do this year?
- Who do I want to be this year?
Step 2: Filter
Now that you’ve cast the vision, it’s time to get realistic. You’re going to take that big list and do a few different filters.
Exercise Part 1: Habit vs. Goal
From the list in Step 1, identify what’s a habit and what’s a goal. Habits are repeatable, consistent actions that you do every day or very nearly every day. They don’t have an “end date” because getting consistent with the habit is the goal in itself.
A goal is something that has an end, that can be “checked off a list” if it helps you to think about it that way.
So take your list and either write two new lists, or annotate each item with “H” and “G”.
Exercise Part 2: Choosing Where to Start
While you’ve dreamed big, you have to pick just one place to start. And with this guide, we are going to focus on goals rather than habits. So from your list, choose the goal that is most important, most impactful to you. You can come back to the list later and set more goals, or even decide that some goals will wait until another year. But pick one goal for now.
Step 3: Write It Down
This is simple, but powerful. From Step 1 is just that: a list. You want to mentally set your goal apart as something that you’re committing to.
So start a new page, section, tab, whatever and write down that one most important thing that you want to do in the next year.
Step 4: Make It A Goal
What you have in Step 3 is the idea of a goal, but it’s probably not a goal yet. This step is all about writing your goal in such a way that makes it clear what you’re aiming for and will help you know you’ve accomplished it.
One way to adjust this is using the SMART acronym: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-Based.
Here are some examples of well-written goals:
- I will write and publish a non-fiction book by November.
- I will sign up for and run a 5K by July.
Keep fiddling with the wording until it meets the criteria above. Only then should you move on to the next step.
Step 5: Plan for Action
Setting a goal isn’t enough, you have to make plans. This is the first of three planning steps, and probably the most important. And I’m going to teach you a little secret that has helped me so much with goal setting over the last few years.
Now that you’ve written your goal, you’re going to make two more lists (can you tell that I like lists?)
Bite sized action steps
This first list is every action step you can think of that will help you accomplish your goal. And you will want to break each step into its smallest possible piece. Organize it however you want. But a list of tasks that each take you between twenty and sixty minutes is a lot easier to deal with than a list of tasks that each might take a week or so.
For example, it’s okay to write down “sign up for 5K”. But I’d recommend adding the tasks “research 5Ks in my time frame” and “compare 5K options”. Make it as easy for yourself as possible to grab a task from the list and complete it.
Exercise: Write all the action steps
Make a list of all the individual tasks it will take to accomplish your goal. The smaller the task, the better. Then, put at least one of them on the calendar with a deadline. Ideally, pult as many on the calendar as you can right now.
Here’s the “trick” that’s changed the way I approach goals. Usually, it’s not enough to just create action steps. You have to create new habits as well. If you have a fitness based goal, you need a daily movement habit and probably a daily nutrition habit. If you’re writing a book, you need a daily writing habit.
Either from your list in Step 1 or from the needs of your goal, write down as many habits as you’ll need to create to support your goal. If this list is huge, you may need to push your goal’s deadline out a little bit since you might get burned out trying to create a bunch of new habits all at once.
We will talk about habits more in another series, but for now, let them support your goal.
Exercise: Choose your habits
Identify one or more habits that will support your goal. Write them down. As a bonus, set aside time later to create a habit tracker for yourself.
Step 6: Know Your Why
You may be able to do this step earlier in the process, but I’ve found that having a specific “why” for a specific goal can be very helpful. There’s no right or wrong for this, except that your “why” be strong enough to overcome the obstacles and difficulty of pursuing a goal.
Maybe your “why” for every goal is similar to your broad “why” for your life. For example, my biggest “why” is that my daughter is watching. I pursue many goals because I want her to see in me an example of stewardship and glorifying God.
You can also have a more specific “why” that’s related to your goal. For example, I may set an health goal so that I can have an easier second pregnancy.
Whatever your why, make it personal and make it powerful.
Exercise: Identify your why
Answer this question: Why is it important to me that I accomplish this goal at this time in my life?
Step 7: Plan for Obstacles
This is one of the least fun but most helpful steps. As well as we would like to plan, life rarely goes perfectly. Rather than give up when obstacles try to derail us from accomplishing our goals, we can look out for them ahead of time.
We won’t be able to anticipate everything, but there’s a lot we can plan for. For fitness goals, how will you handle holidays, injuries, or bad weather? For a writing goal, how will you handle lack of motivation, holidays, or distractions?
These plans don’t have to be complex, simply having thought about it ahead of time will usually “solve” the problem.
Exercise: Brainstorm obstacles
Take a few minutes to identify any obstacles that you can think of. Make a quick plan for how to handle each.
Step 8: Plan for Resetting
The last “planning” step: resetting. Similarly to step 6, you need to understand that you’re going to mess up. You’re going to miss a deadline or skip a day of a habit. You’re going to lose motivation and want to give up.
When that happens, you need to have a plan for how you’ll reset. Maybe it’s as simple as reviewing your goal, your dreams for the year, your big “why”. Maybe it’s reaching out to a friend (more on that in the next step). Maybe it’s adjusting your goal to be more accomplishable.
The best thing you can do is not just think about reacting to any of these things, but planning regular check-in’s with yourself to potentially stave them off (especially motivation issues). Whether that’s daily, weekly, or monthly, set aside time to check in on yourself and reset.
Exercise: Make and schedule a reset plan
Schedule regular intervals to check back in on your goal progress and reset. Put these times on the calendar and don’t skip them, even if you “feel fine”.
Step 9: Get Support and Accountability
You are not meant to do big things alone. While the responsibility to do the work lies on your shoulders, you’ll have a lot more fun and be a lot more successful if you let others help you and hold you accountable.
Choose some you trust, someone who has your best interests in mind, and someone who will show you tough love if you need it.
Exercise: Brainstorm obstacles
Identify at least one person you’ll share your goal with to receive encouragement.
Identify at least one additional person you’ll share your goal with to receive accountability.
Reach out to those people sooner rather than later and have a discussion.
So now what?
Take a deep breath. This is hard work but you are called to hard, good work. Your goals matter, your dreams matter, and you can accomplish what you set your mind to.
Use this list whenever you set a new goal, or need to refresh an older goal.
Check out these additional resources for encouragement: