Our first long-term goal is defined and prescribed at birth by US law. Starting in the first grade we are led down a well-defined path with the ultimate goal of an education. Once that education is complete, there is no law that defines our next goal. Freedom from a prescribed path often feels exhilarating, and possibilities for greater success seem just beyond reach. Fast-forward to today. If the success you envisioned for yourself is still just beyond reach, it may be time to consider a more proactive approach to achieving success. Defining clear goals and following a self-designed step-by-step journey to achieve those goals may be the key to the success you desire.
Defining goals may seem like an eye-rolling, frustrating, and even annoying task that appears fruitless. It may bring up memories of sessions with a guidance counselor, your last performance review at work, or those late-night motivational speakers who promise instant success (with the purchase of their book, of course). Before you give up on the idea of defining your goals, ask yourself: when was the last time you left your house to go to a destination without the address? Did you successfully find your way? Defining your goals will not only give you the address to your ultimate destination but also provide the directions to guide you along your journey.
Committing to set a long-term goal only gets you out the door. Understanding how to set goals for success starts you on your journey. Dr. Edwin Locke’s pioneering research and subsequent 1968 paper on goal setting and motivation in the workplace, entitled “Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentives,” found that specific and difficult goals led to better task performance than vague or easy goals. Pause to contemplate how this principle rings true in your own life. Ask yourself if you are more motivated to successfully accomplish the goal of a more healthful life when challenged to, for example, add a green vegetable to your diet every day for the next two weeks, or challenged to try to eat better over the next two weeks. While both challenges have the same goal, the specificity of the action step of adding a green vegetable to your diet makes accomplishing the ultimate goal (a more healthful life) more realistic and attainable.
Your chances for success will increase threefold once you create your road map to reach your long-term goals.
- Define your long-term goal. A long-term goal is the end destination. This goal can be broad or specific. The only requirements for setting your long-term goal are that you feel passionately about it and that you set a reasonable amount of time to achieve it.
- Create a timeline for success. Once your long-term goal is defined, the next step is creating a timeline and working backward to both make the goal achievable and create a road map for you to follow. Set an amount of time within which you wish to achieve your goal. Now divide that time into three to five segments of time. For example, if your goal is to live a more healthful life within a year, break down your goal into four three-month time blocks. Finally, define four mini goals, and make them your focus within each segment of defined time. For example, for months one through three, my mini goal may be to sleep better, for months four through six, my mini goal may be to eat more vegetables, and so on. All the mini goals add up to the long-term goal.
- Break it down. Within each three-month time block defined by your mini goal, make three highly specific action steps that are small and achievable. If the mini goal I committed to for months one through three was better sleep, my action steps may be: (1) Shut down my computer and phone one hour before bed; (2) Create a bedtime ritual like writing a “to do” list for the next day or journaling about any thoughts that may cause me anxiety; and (3) Practice sleep-inducing breathing and relaxation techniques. Write three action steps for each mini goal, and commit to these steps!