Would you like something in your life to change? Are you hoping for improved communication or a better relationship with your partner, children or parents? For better health? To complete a project? To identify a new focus? To feel more connected to other people or to God? For more motivation?
There are always things in my life that I want to change. Sometimes these are big things, but more often they are smaller day to day aspirations.
I regularly set personal goals to make the changes I hope for. Often I achieve the goals. Sometimes I fail. It is in large part from the failures that I have learned how to set achievable goals.
Here are the steps I use in setting goals for myself, and in setting goals with those who come to me for counseling, whether they seek personal, family or congregational counseling. The basic techniques are the same. Sometimes the time frames are different depending on the situation.
1) Identify what is working well in your life and what you are struggling with. What would you like to be different? It can be helpful to set a goal to overcome a difficulty, but sometimes it can be equally or even more effective to set a goal to expand on aspects of your life that are working well.
2) Choose a goal wisely. But remember if you don’t achieve this particular goal, you may only need to shift the focus of the goal slightly to make it more attainable. I will give examples throughout the article.
3) Make the goal you have chosen specific and realistic. For example, many people at one time or another strive to lose weight. “I want to lose weight” is a vague goal which makes it hard to accomplish. “My goal is to lose 10 pounds in two months,” is specific, and it is not over- or under-ambitious.
The same method can be used with goals that are harder to measure, such as improving a relationship. Imagine what life would be like if that relationship were better and put those specifics into your goal. For example, “Within two months I will feel less stressed in my interactions with (my partner, child, parent, sibling, boss, co-worker) and I will smile more often when I am with him or her.” That’s specific and measurable.
An example of a goal aimed at building on strengths would be: “Within two months I will be spending more time with friends and family whose company I enjoy, and less time with people who trigger negative reactions in me.”
4) Take your goal and identify all the factors that are associated with it. Aim for five factors. For example factors that might be related to weighing too much are: eating too many snacks, being lonely, not exercising, being bored, feeling stressed. Choose three of these factors as subgoals.
5) Pick one of the subgoals to focus on during the first week and write the subgoal in specific terms. Identify three things you can do to meet that subgoal. For example: “I will eat fewer and healthier snacks this week.” To achieve this I will:
- Get rid of the unhealthy snacks in my house.
- Buy healthy snacks that I like to eat.
- Keep a checklist of what snacks I eat and at what time.
- Drink more water or other low fat drinks.
Work on this subgoal for a whole week. At the end of the week assess your progress. Have you achieved this subgoal? Has it helped with your main goal?
If you have been successful, continue with this subgoal and consider adding another subgoal using the same process.
If you have not been successful, or have only been moderately successful don’t get upset with yourself. Sometimes it only takes some modification to make a subgoal work.
- Strategies to achieve this subgoal.
- Time frame. Sometimes smaller time frames lead to more success. For example you could set daily subgoals.
- Measuring system. Often I find it helpful to write up a list of objectives and check off items each day after I accomplish them.
If a subgoal isn’t working at all after two weeks or doesn’t seem to get you any closer to your main goal, move to one of the other subgoals during the third week.
6) Focus on the larger goal only once a week. Focus mostly on the subgoals which are broken down into smaller, achievable actions. Once a week, assess whether this subgoal is indeed a good way to achieve the larger goal.
7) Make sure to congratulate and affirm yourself when you are successful in achieving subgoals even if you have a long way to go before you achieve the main goal.
Here is an example of breaking down a relational problem into achievable subgoals.
Let’s say the main goal is: “Within two months I will be spending more time with friends and family whose company I enjoy, and less time with people who trigger negative reactions in me.”
What are the factors that prevent you from spending time with people whose company you enjoy? You might identify factors as: responsibilities I have involving the negative people, guilt when I don’t spend time with the negative people, the people I enjoy live at a distance or have different schedules than me, feeling like I don’t deserve to be happy….
Achieving some of these subgoals might involve counseling or the use of positive self-talk. Others might involve expanding your thinking and trying to do some things differently. For example, if the people you most enjoy live at a distance, you could try getting involved in an activity you enjoy locally with the goal of meeting people who share your enthusiasm for this activity, or you could try talking by phone more often to the people who live at a distance.
Goals can be achieved in manageable chunks, and it often takes adjusting and reassessing strategies to achieve the subgoals. Don’t give up, just keep thinking of different angles and approaches until you find what works best for you.