5 Ways to Make Sure You Achieve Your Goals This Year (Harvard Business Review)

What separates people who achieve their goals from those who don’t?

In 2002, Charles R. Snyder, an American professor who specialized in positive psychology, suggested in an influential paper that there are two obstacles: 1) not believing we can achieve our goals, and 2) not identifying the pathways to achieve them. Perhaps the greatest example of this is our massive tendency to set and abandon New Year’s resolutions. (We commit, and 80% of the time, cancel on ourselves before February.)

Snyder’s research inspired the next generations of hope scientists, many of whom are still studying these ideas. In addition, having worked with and observed all types of employees for over a decade as a success coach, I can attest to his theory. I’ve never met a high performer who has not used a thoughtful strategy to achieve their goals.

If you’re committed to seeing your goals through to completion, here are four tried and true tactics, inspired by Snyder’s work in positive psychology, that my clients have used over the years.

Connect every goal to a “why.”

Achieving goals becomes easier when they’re meaningful and connected to a reason and purpose — your “why.” When you connect your goal to a “why” a few things happen:

  1. You become hyper-focused on the goal by eliminating distractions or other tasks that are not in alignment with your desired outcome.
  2. Your vision and ideas become easier to outline, understand, and communicate because you’re intentionally focusing on the reason you want to do something and how it will impact you.
  3. It becomes easier to decide what you should and should not be doing because your priorities are connected to a purpose.
  4. You start to understand what’s most important to you in your life and career, which creates clarity and meaning.

To figure out the “why” behind a goal you’ve set, use this simple statement:

“I want to _________ so that I can _______.”

Your statement could look like this:

I want to read more nonfiction books so that I can increase my knowledge and be able to talk to others about various topics(The “why” is increasing knowledge, not simply reading more.)

I want to build a profitable business so I can retire early and spend time doing things I love(The “why” is having the time and resources to do things you love, not earning more money.)

Through this exercise, one of my clients realized that, on the surface, she was working toward a financial target, but below it, she was building a business for her children and the experiences they got to have together as a family. Getting to the “why” was an emotional experience, but once it was clear, her commitment to her goal strengthened and she was able to stick with it.

Your “why” will be unique to you, and identifying it early on will help keep you on track.

Start small and start now.

Chances are, if you are working on a new goal, it’s going to take time, energy, and focus to accomplish it, especially if it’s something outside of the goals you have set for your 9-to-5 job or study hours.

You’re far more likely to succeed if you start by making small behavioral changes now to set you on the right path, as opposed to jumping in all at once and expecting to do things perfectly. Why? Research shows that it can take anywhere between 18 to 66 days to change a habit or create a new one. If you set an unrealistic goal or timeline, you’re setting yourself up to fail, and you may become unmotivated before you even begin.

One of the most common habits I try to create with my clients is dedicating time to work on their goals. Let’s say, for example, that your goal is to read the news every morning before you head out. Achieving this goal will depend on your ability to wake up to make time to read the news. That first step itself can be overwhelming. (You don’t want it to feel like a task to wake up 30 minutes earlier every day.) So, start waking up 10 minutes earlier each day to get yourself to the desired wake-up time. Then, maintain that new habit consistently, every day of the week, even if you’re not working on your goal each day. By incrementally creating a habit now, you’re setting your future self up for success. It’s one less step to navigate as you work on your goal and it will make you much more likely to reach it.

Break your goals down.

I need to read 50 books this year!

I need to read 3 pages every day.

Which one sounds easier to do?

When we’re looking at one major goal, we tend to see it as one action. Often, we become overwhelmed and put it off until a later date. Instead, break that one major goal down into smaller pieces and do one thing every day that gets you closer to it. It will feel much more manageable.

I encourage you to work on a goal in 90-day sprints — that’s 90 opportunities to make it happen!

For instance, let’s go back to the goal of reading ~50 books this year. That’s roughly one book every week. For a 90-day sprint, you would be aiming to complete ~10 books in that time. (Doesn’t 10 books every 90 days already sound better than the original goal?)

Your plan could look like this:

Day 1 – 7: Spend each day picking out the books you want to read or organize how you’re going to identify the books further along in your sprint, so as to save time and be properly organized. Depending on the areas that you want to focus on, you can follow book bloggers on social media, join a book club, or tune into podcasts that do book reviews to build up some excitement.

Day 8 – 90:  If every book has, on average, 15 chapters, commit to reading (or listening) to two chapters a day for the first two weeks. Define the time of day that you will read to make it feel more routine. Depending on how this goes, and whether you’re working well with the timeline you originally set, make adjustments as needed. For instance, maybe you decide that it’s feasible to read three chapters on days when you have more time. Remember, to make this unique to you, take into account everything — from how many books you want to read to the genres of the books to the times of the day you want (or are able) to read, and so on.

Remove obstacles before you begin.

Before starting on a goal, ask yourself, “What could prevent me from accomplishing this goal?” Identify and write down your potential obstacles, excuses, or fears, as well as how you will navigate them. By writing your barriers down, you eliminate much of their power.

There is research in psychological science behind this kind of expressive writing, which notes that when you put “worrisome” or “anxiety-inducing” thoughts on paper, you offload them and free up space in your mind to focus on the positive. Goals, specifically the ones that result in permanent life shifts — such as reading every day, working out, or eating healthier — require intentional adjustments. Writing down the barriers you expect to encounter (I can’t find the time; It’s going to cost a lot!) may also help you recognize which are self-imposed and which are out of your control.

For example, pretend that you want to take a certification course while doing your full-time job. Your obstacles may be budget and time. Start by looking at expenses that you can cut or sacrifice temporarily to free up money to invest in your goal. Can you cut a monthly subscription to a streaming service or publication? Can you hold off on upgrading your cell phone or car for a few months? Next, consider how you might shift your daily routine or ask for help from those around you to free up time in your schedule. Can you, for example, ask your boss to put you on a longer-duration, lower-lift project for the next few weeks?

Celebrate your wins.

Finally, take time to reflect and applaud your efforts. Not everything will go as planned each and every time, but when you pause to evaluate what went well, what didn’t, and how you can improve on your next goal, you’ll learn a lot and be better prepared for the next round.

I can’t stress this enough, but you have to celebrate! Celebrating your accomplishments not only feels great and releases dopamine in your brain, but it also reinforces the behaviors and habits that you need to accomplish the next goal you set for yourself. My clients who celebrate wins not only end up accomplishing more, but they also enjoy the process, which, in turn, helps them create more sustainable goal-setting habits.

You’ve got this!

This article was written by Allison Walsh who is an entrepreneur, speaker, mental health advocate, Miss Florida 2006 and a women’s career coach. She serves as the VP of Brand Development at Advanced Recovery Systems and is the CEO of Allison Walsh Consulting. 

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