5 Steps to Setting Goals You Can Actually Keep

We’ve crossed the threshold and are firmly standing in the new year. At this point, those ambitious goal-setters have already made their resolutions and are well on their way to achieving them this first month of 2020.

Maybe you have some resolutions you want to keep or goals you want to achieve this year but just haven’t put them on paper yet. Don’t worry! It’s never too late to start.

If, so far, your goals aren’t clearly defined or you just don’t know where to start, read on:

In this post, I’ll share the simple 5-step process I followed to brainstorm, narrow down, and plan out my goals for 2020.

How to set goals you can actually keep: 5 steps to setting SMART goals [infographic]

Step 1: The Brain Dump

If you’re an overachiever who wants to do a million things, this part will come easy. In this step, you’re going to brainstorm all the resolutions you could possibly want to keep and goals you could ever want to achieve.

Here’s what you do: 

Grab your favorite writing utensil and a piece of paper, or open a blank document or note on your device. Then write down a list of ALL the things you’d like to accomplish this year—in an ideal world, with no limitations, and in which you have superhuman capabilities.

Now you have what I’ll call a “master list.” It’s a wild and unruly thing. And, of course, you can’t do everything on it.

The point of the brain dump is to give yourself the freedom to be unrealistic, to discover new ideas, and to rediscover old ones.

The next few steps will tame this beastly master list.

Step 2: Categorize the Brain Dump

In this step, you’re going to categorize the items on your master list. If you’re a visual person, you might want to use stickies for this one.

Here’s what you do: 

Get out your sticky notes, set up a Trello board, or use some other system that works for you. Create a category for different spheres of your life, and group the items from your master list under the appropriate category.

Here’s an example of how that might look:

Trello board containing the categories: Physical, Mental, and Social.

Other categories could include: 

Spiritual, Professional, Recreational

Grouping your goals together will reveal areas where you might place too much or too little emphasis. I found that this step helped me strike a balance in my goal-setting.

Step 3: Prioritize Each Category

In this step, you’re going to assign priority to the goals in each of your categories. Priority just means how important the goal is to you.

Here’s what you do: 

Look at each category individually; organize the items in the category according to their priority, putting high-priority goals at the top. If you’re using stickies, you can stick them together to form a “tower.” If you’re using Trello, simply drag and drop.

Now you have your goals separated out into categories and sorted by priority. This makes the next step so much easier!

Step 4: Eliminate Some Goals

Here’s where you bring out the shears. You knew this was coming, right? 

Here’s what you do: 

Since you’ve categorized and prioritized your goals, you can most likely trim one or two goals off the bottom of each category. Crumple that sticky or delete that Trello card.

What if you still have too many goals leftover? This is where you’ll need to be SMART.

Maybe you’ve heard of SMART goals before, but it’s worth reviewing:

“Relevant” will look different, depending on what area of your life the goal pertains to.
Source: FitSmallBusiness.com

Go through each of your remaining goals/resolutions and ask yourself if it meets the SMART criteria. You may discover some of your goals are vague or unrealistic for your current circumstances. Others might simply be drudgery that you don’t need in your life. Get rid of those goals.

I want to make a note here: Some resolutions will look more like daily habits, so they’re not necessarily timebound. That’s fine. Just make sure they’re SMAR.

For the goals that survive the pruning, still apply SMART to them. This helps you hone in on exactly what you want to accomplish and how you’ll accomplish it. 

  • “Work out more often” becomes “Go to Planet Fitness 3X/week”
  • “Get more involved at church” becomes “Attend mid-week classes & summer events”
  • “Be more mindful” becomes “Write a daily entry in my gratitude journal”

Notice how each of these examples is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timebound. 

Don’t stop yet! Just because your goals are SMART doesn’t mean you’ll remember to do them. 

Step 5: Plan, Plan, Plan!

How you plan out the action steps towards your goals will depend on who you are and how you operate. I won’t prescribe a planning strategy but will suggest the one that works for me.

Here’s what you do: 

Monthly goals: In your planner, on a piece of paper, or on your digital calendar, mark out the milestones you need to reach each month to meet your goals. Because your goals are mostly timebound, you’ll have a good idea of when they’ll start and end. Here I recommend that you only write down major milestones and deadlines and save the detailed action steps for the weekly/daily level.

Weekly/daily goals: Some resolutions will be more like a habit that doesn’t have an end date, such as working out 3 times a week. You’ll mark these types of goals down on a weekly or daily level (daily habits, such as keeping a gratitude journal, could be set as a reminder on your phone). You’ll also write down action steps you need to take throughout the weeks to achieve one of your bigger goals or milestones. 

Example: If your goal is to run a 5K, your first month’s goal may be to run 1K. Your weekly action steps would be to run shorter distances to build up endurance.

Goals section in a planner.
Some planners have space dedicated to writing out monthly/weekly/daily goals.

Use whichever tools work best for you. If you can’t stay productive with a physical planner, don’t force yourself to use one. You should use something you look at often, that reminds you of due dates, or that can be put in a prominent place.

Remember to Stay Flexible

The reason I suggested planning in detail only one month at a time is for flexibility. After your first month, you may find that you were too ambitious in one area and not ambitious enough in another. That’s totally fine! You can rebalance your goals and adjust your action steps for the next month. 2020 has just started and I’ve already reconfigured some of my goals and action steps. 

I hope my 5-step approach to setting goals will help you plan out (and, most importantly, keep) your resolutions this year.

Do you have your own method of setting goals and keeping yourself on track? I’d love to hear about it! Please share in the comments below.

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