4 secrets to goal-setting success


One week into January and for the vast majority of people, the New Year’s resolutions they made with such good intentions have already bitten the dust.

Lack of will power is only part of the problem, your resolutions may be doomed from the start because the way they have been created is a set up for failure.

Whether or not you are in to the whole resolutions thing, new year always seems like a good time to set goals, so here are a few tips to help you come up with some you can actually achieve this year. 

1) Getting down to business

Let’s start by taking a look at how you can apply some of the best practice from the professional world to your personal goals.   In the business world, people often talk about setting SMART goals.  This may sound familiar if you have ever worked at the kind of job where they do annual reviews.

The acronym SMART most commonly stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely.     But this is not the only definition. Others I have come across include “Significant, Meaningful, Agreed Upon and Rewarding and Tangible”  and “Stretching, Motivating, Action-Oriented, Relevant and Trackable”.    You can choose either or combine terms from all three to come up with the set that feels right for you.   What you now have is a tool to test your goals.   Every goal you set should be able to meet these criteria.

Specific and Measurable

Saying you want to get fit is way too vague.   Make the goal very specific and measurable so that you know how long you have to meet it and can say, in an objectively observable way, how you will know you have met it.   For example, if your goal is to lose weight and lead a healthier lifestyle, you could revise it by substituting one or all of these types of goals.

  • By March 31st, I will lose four inches from my hips
  • In six months time, I will be able to run 5k without stopping
  • I will go to the gym at least once a week, at least three weeks each month.

Attainable and Realistic 

One of the most common reasons that resolutions fail so early and so often is that people set unrealistic goals for themselves.   Placing the bar too high is a sure-fire way to set your-self up for an early failure.    By way of example, let’s say that your New Year’s resolution was to give up smoking and that you made it through January second without a cigarette.   Woo Hoo! Then on January 3rd, life throws you one of its crappier curve-balls:  You get some bad news or break up with your girlfriend and in a moment of weakness, you console yourself with a smoke or three.

“Aha!”  Says your self-sabotaging inner critic seizing on the opportunity to kick you when you are down.   “I knew you’d never be able to quit!” he sneers,  “So much for your resolution.  Well, at least that’s over and you can go back to smoking with confidence now.”

Game over, till next New Year’s Eve.   But what if, on the other hand, your resolution had been less black and white.    Say it was to reduce the number of cigarettes smoked by at least 50% in the first month.  Looking at the very same experience, you would have reflected that you had gone cold-turkey for the first 48 hours, fallen off the wagon but been able to get back on again on the 4th, feeling pretty awesome that you had already exceeded your goal.  See what a difference perspective and the way you set up your goals can make?

Timely, Tangible and Trackable

By breaking down the big goal into smaller more easily attainable baby-steps, you build in an early taste of success that will keep the motivation flowing.  Make them as small as you need to, to be certain you can get yourself off to a winning start.  If the idea of quitting smoking seems improbable to impossible, chunk it down.     Can you go a week without smoking?  Then start there.  If you know a week is going to be a struggle, perhaps one day is a better first step.

2) Utilize positive thinking to overcome resistance

Another common failing with New Year’s Resolutions is that they fail to address the complex psychology involved.   Our bad habits are rarely rational. Telling ourselves that smoking or over-eating is not good for us is not usually that helpful.    Telling ourselves that we ought to get fit and exercise is not powerfully motivating.   Throw out the resolutions that included any hint of Should or Ought or those that have a foundation in Shame, guilt or self-criticism.  These are not smart ways to motivate yourself.

Think instead about how you want to feel once the goal is achieved.  Focus on the positives of the desired outcome.    For example, many brides are able to diet successfully for the first time prior to their wedding because they are focused on how they want to feel good about themselves on their wedding day.   Spending all the Saturdays in Spring in your basement is probably not an appealing thought, but imagining the sense of satisfaction once you have got rid of all that clutter, gives you a powerful reason to start organizing. (And I have to tell you, I feel AWESOME about all the organizing, throwing away, donating and selling I have been doing for the last couple of months).

3) Take Baby-steps 

Making and breaking Resolutions can be an emotional minefield.  You can create a very useful map of what lies ahead if you pay attention to your emotions, particularly in terms of your resistance and what motivates you.  What are the perceived and real risks and benefits of any change you are seeking to make?    One of the common obstacles to both quitting smoking and losing weight is the powerful resistance that comes in the form of not wanting to experience a sense of deprivation.    Imagining a life-time of having given up or going without something that may be pleasurable can trigger your inner teenager to throw a toddler worthy tantrum.

A nifty trick in this instance, is to renegotiate the action ahead to a level that is way less threatening to the part of you that doesn’t want to change.   Back to the smoking example, when temptation arises or a craving hits, you can take some of the internal pressure off immediately by reframing the commitment as a choice.    Instead of dealing with whatever comes up when you think about never smoking again – try telling yourself that you are choosing to get through the next fifteen minutes, five minutes or even 60 seconds without having a cigarette.   And at the end of that period, you are going to choose again.

4) Understand what motivates you 

Perhaps the biggest key to success is to figuring out what really motivates you. Perhaps it’s accountability, in which case, you might want to join a group or make your goals public on Facebook or amongst some other people that it would be painful to disappoint.  Add some incentive to accountability and you have the “Biggest Loser”.   I had been trying to lose ten pounds for the longest time but when my workplace put on a Biggest Loser competition and I found out the first prize was over $500, I became more motivated than ever before, lost 15 pounds, and have kept it off for three years.  If you are more into carrots than sticks, what rewards can you promise yourself for goals you achieve?  Perhaps it will be a vacation at the end of the year with money saved?   Perhaps it’s a series of little gifts or treats? A mani-pedi each month that you have met the goals?

Reverse Psychology

At the other end of things, you can use losing money as a motivator.   Perhaps you will set up something like a Swear Jar and pop in $5 every time you curse.     If you really want to raise the stakes, one of the most powerful motivators I have come across is to think of an organization, cause or political party that is most opposed to your views, the more dramatic the better.    This reverse psychology has been researched and found extremely effective, so it might be worth a try if all else fails.

Think of something that would make you absolutely cringe to have your name associated with and then write out a check for a significant amount of money addressed to it or them.   If you can’t come up with a cause, you might be able to think of a person, whom it would really pain you to pay out to.  Once you have written the check you need to get it out of your hands and into safe-keeping with a trusted friend or colleague.    You can even ask me to be that person for you.   Just bear in mind it needs to be someone you can rely on to stand firm no matter how much you might try and persuade them you have changed your mind.   Meet your goal and they tear up the check.   Bail and into the mail it goes.  If you like to do this type of thing more publicly, I just discovered that there is even a website that can do all this for you called Stickk.

Yes, you can

So remember, it doesn’t have to be January 1st for you to set a resolution.  If you are still on track, I hope these tips will help you to keep up the good work.

If things haven’t gone as planned, take heart.   Dust yourself off and and get back up on that horse by reviewing, renewing or redoing your resolutions, setting SMART goals instead and make this the year that counts.   Keep me posted on your progress.