To achieve anything of consequence, we need to set goals. But simply having goals isn't enough: We need plans for achieving those goals and the commitment to follow those plans. We also must acknowledge and accept that to achieve one thing we often have to sacrifice another.
For instance, the busy executive who chooses an ambitious financial goal and neglects his well-being may not understand the price he will pay in broken health until it is too late. The limitation of setting goals can be compounded by a lack of imagination. How do we create big enough goals? Once we realize our limitations in setting goals, our friends, family members and colleagues who stretch our imaginations become incredibly valuable to us.
Goals can also be a referendum on the status quo. If, for example, I set a goal to lose weight, that goal reflects my discontent with my current body shape. That can be hard to admit. Yet everything I’ve learned about making progress with weight loss and fitness indicates that acknowledgment and acceptance are essential if I am to make constructive changes.
Setting goals also has the potential to make us unhappy — if we fail to reach them. Perfectionists in particular fall prey to this trap. Take the woman, for example, who decides to limit herself to 1,500 calories a day to lose weight. On Tuesday, for some reason, she overeats and fails to hit her goal. Since she missed the mark, she decides to overeat the rest of the week and start over on the following Monday.
Still, with all their shortcomings, we need goals. How would we ever reach our destination if we didn’t know where we intended to go? Setting goals is really how we try to define the future; that’s why I express my goals as desired outcomes. Through experience, I’ve discovered that adding this requirement — knowing how to achieve the results — puts a brake on my thinking. Instead, I spend time reflecting on what I truly want to achieve.
The prevailing wisdom about how to articulate goals is summarized by the handy acronym SMART (from MindTools.com):
S = Specific
M = Measurable
A = Attainable
R = Relevant
T = Time-bound
Instead of setting a goal to lose weight and get fit, set a goal to lose 10 pounds by July of next year. This second statement is specific (lose weight), measurable (10 pounds), attainable (a weight loss of two pounds a month), relevant (I really want to do this) and time-bound (July of next year).
Another essential element of successful goal setting is writing down goals and measuring progress. The next critical skill involves tackling the goals and staying on track. I’ll save writing about that for another day. In fact, now that I think about it, I better put that writing assignment on my list!
Carole Carson, author of From Fat to Fit: Turn Yourself into a Weapon of Mass Reduction, serves as the coach for the AARP Fat to Fit online community.