How to Set Goals and Actually Achieve Them

With 2014 just around the corner, I bet some of you are thinking about “New Year’s Resolutions”. I myself have utilized this technique of goal-making many times in order to tackle large projects. For example, during 2013, my goal was not to buy any new books and focus on reading books I already own (in all fairness, it was my best friend that came up with this resolution, but I must admit that it was a good one). I’m proud to say that I succeeded in this goal (aside from buying books for school), and I made a decent dent in my to-read list instead of adding to it.

But today, I don’t want to talk about long-term goals. I want to talk about the power of setting goals for yourself every day by creating a to-do list. I have found this strategy to be effective because:

  • It keeps me focused on achieving one task at a time, one day at a time. We all have tons of goals and ways in which we want to improve. If you try to do everything at once, you will get overwhelmed. Taking things day-by-day gives me a sense of accomplishment every day and helps me focus instead of getting lost in several abstract goals.
  • It allows me to track my process. At the end of the week/month, I can look back on the tasks I set for myself. From this I can ask myself: How often did I accomplish everything I set out to do on a given day? What kind of tasks are important to me? What kind of tasks are hard for me? How can I make them easier to accomplish? This reflection keeps me on track and helps me make improvements in everyday life.
  • Writing it down makes it real. On the days that I don’t make my to-do list, I find myself much less motivated to complete tasks. There is nothing holding me accountable and I find it easier to blow things off.

How I do it

I borrowed this idea from Nevblog and tweaked it a bit. I suggest checking out Neville’s post, but here is my version.

Step 1 – Make the big goals, then break them down. Creating long-term goals is something that a lot of people focus on. “Writing a novel” or “seeing all 50 states” are BIG goals that take time to complete. But if you just say, “I want to write a novel” you’re not working toward accomplishing this goal. You need to set smaller goals such as write for one hour every day, contact a different publishing company every week, research self-publishing methods, etc. Likewise, if you want to see every state, you need to take time to research every state, plan trips, and determine when you will go.

Step 2 –  Make month-long goals. At the beginning of every month, think about the long-term projects you’re trying to complete. Then break them down. For example, if you want to get in better shape, make a month-long goal like, “I will run 3 days a week”. The next month you can build off of this goal, and so on until you reach the ultimate goal. I tend to focus on personal goals when making my month long goals, but use this however you want. Tip: Focus on no more than 3 or 4 month long goals. It’s better to fully accomplish 2 goals than to half-accomplish 8.

Step 3 – Make daily to-do lists. There’s tons of to-do list templates and apps for your phone, but I prefer a good old-fashioned notebook. The process of sitting down and writing out my goals keeps me connected to them. Here’s what I do:

  • Plan the night before: As you’re winding down the day, consider what you have to accomplish the next day. Write out tasks like “go to the gym”, “study for my Biology exam”, “edit my resume”, “finish the social media project for my boss”, etc. If you tend to procrastinate, write down the most important goals first so that you will attend to those tasks first. Once you’ve been doing this for a while, you can also reflect on what you accomplished that day while you plan out the next day.
  • Use the list: When you wake up the following morning, you’re already prepared to get started. You have a focus and you know exactly what needs to be done. In the beginning, you might want to consider tracking when you begin/finish every task. This will help you to track how long it takes you to do certain things, when you are at your most productive, etc. This feedback can help you make more effective to-do lists for yourself.
  • Other things to track: I like to track everything that I eat and when I eat at the bottom of my to-do list. This helps me to stay healthy by holding myself accountable for what I eat. If your goal is to workout 4 days a week, consider tracking exactly what you do during your workouts in order to make them more effective. You can do this with anything that you want to track in your life, for example, how long you sleep, how much TV you watch on average, how often you drink coffee, etc.

Daily to-do lists can be a powerful way to motivate yourself and feel accomplished at the end of the day. Play around with different lists to see what is right for you and be sure to share your techniques and tips with me!

81 thoughts on “How to Set Goals and Actually Achieve Them”

  1. Also, it’s important to completely believe in whatever plan you create, or choose to follow. People often don’t follow through on a plan because they are skeptical that it will work. If you are certain that following a regiment will result in what you are trying to achieve, it is much easier to actually follow through on it. You have to be mentally prepared for whatever is ahead!

    1. Thank you! If you’re interested in post updates you can follow me on Twitter at @examinedlife1 or on Facebook at The Examined Life Blog.

      Happy Holidays!


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