Productivity

How to Set Achievable Goals: Step by Step Guide

by Intelligent Change — 12 min read

How to Set Achievable Goals: Step by Step Guide

If you really want to make something out of your life, you need to set realistic, achievable goals. We’re not saying you should stop dreaming big, we’re just saying you should start small and be more realistic.

Do you have a five-year plan? Are you clear about where you’re headed in life right now? Do you know how you want to finish this day?

We need goals because they provide us focus and direction. Learning how to set achievable goals gives us more control over our lives and destinies. If we have no goals set, how do we know whether we’re successful or not?

Think of it this way: you’ve earned a lot of money that sits in your bank account now. The sum has as many zeros as you’d like: four, five, six?Does this essentially mean you’re successful? Many people would instinctively say: of course it does!

But they’re wrong. That’s only true if your goal was to get moderately to filthy rich. If your goal was to start a charity foundation, then not really. In this case, you’d be a couple of steps away from becoming successful.

It’s not other people who should tell you whether you’re successful or not. The only metric of your success is you and your achievable goal-list. But be aware that setting achievable goals is a process, not a single step. It takes time, energy, adjustments, mistakes, and an open mind.

If you’d like to learn how to set achievable goals, you’re at the right place. Welcome to our step-by-step guide.


1. Watch Out for the “False Hope” and “This Goal Sucks” Trap

The first step to setting achievable goals is to formulate them. Where do you see yourself in a couple of years? In which areas do you want to improve: work, health, education, relationships, all of these?

Where do you find inspiration for setting your own goals?

Sometimes, we get inspired by other people. Our friend just started their own business and they seem to be doing very well. This might inspire us to do the same thing, however, we should first think it through:

  • Does my profession make me eligible to start a new business?
  • Do I enjoy being in charge?
  • Am I aware of all the responsibilities that come with having your own business?

It’s not uncommon for people to draw inspiration for their goals from the wrong sourc-the one that doesn’t match their true needs.

As Oscar Wilde once said: “In this world, there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it”.

What is the meaning of this quote in our context?

When we decide to pursue our goals, we do it because we expect that achieving that particular goal will make us happy. But, do we know what’s it really like to achieve that goal? Are we sure that we’re addressing the right need?

The False Hope Phenomenon

During the past decades, clinical psychologists have described the phenomenon of “false hope”. It reflects:

  • Having illusion-based rather than reality-based expectations;
  • Setting inappropriate goals;
  • Lacking a strategy for reaching the desired goal.

False hope generates another phenomenon: miswanting.

Here’s an example:

You decide to go on a diet believing that losing a few pounds, eating healthier, and tightening your muscles will make you happier. After two or three months, you’ve reached your goal; your weight is perfect for your height and constitution, you have much more energy, and feel stronger in general. But nothing else is different. You begin to realize that losing weight did not make you a happier person - the diet didn’t address the right need.

Another trap you can fall into is if you’re already working on your goals, but you get bored with routine. Once you realize that going to the gym every other day is no longer interesting to you, or that the challenges of having your own business are not as fun as you thought they’d be, you start thinking: “Maybe I should give up. This goal actually sucks.”

This is the common pitfall for various things we start doing with great enthusiasm:

  • New job;
  • New relationship;
  • Diet plan;
  • Moving to a new city/country, etc.

How to Overcome It

Instead of giving up, you can be aware that this is normal, and prepare for it to happen. How? By having a strategy for “spicing things up”.

In order to avoid false hope, miswanting, and boredom, you need to set goals that truly address your needs. This is not an easy task and requires a lot of introspection and self-reflection. One tool that can be particularly handy for this is a reflective journal.

While thinking and re-thinking your potential goals, you can use your reflective journal to write them down and then analyze:

  • Which needs do I satisfy by achieving this goal?
  • Does achieving this goal bring me closer to being the best possible version of myself?
  • What will I do if I get bored on the way to achieving this goal? What alternative strategies are there?

In our opinion, being aware of these traps and finding strategies to prevent them is the halfway point to getting the job done.

So, step one: reflect, reflect, reflect. Get a pen and paper, write those goals down, and deeply reflect on them. Once you’re sure they’re really your goals, it’s time to move to the next step.


2. SMART Matrix is Your Friend

Setting achievable goals means setting not only smart but also S.M.A.R.T. goals!

What does this neat acronym stand for?

    Specific; Measurable; Attainable; Relevant; Time-bounded.

When you make goals that have all these attributes, your odds for success increase and you can more easily identify the metrics that define your success.

If you just say: “I want to lose weight”, you can lose 1 pound by not eating for two days and say: “Alright! The weight is lost, I’m good, moving on.”

That’s a very poorly defined goal. Wanting to lose weight is like a tendency or a wish, it’s not a goal. Knowing how much weight, by when, and how is a goal.

Let’s discuss S.M.A.R.T.

Specific

A good goal is a specific goal. Be as clear as possible, and use specific vocabulary. Saying “I want to lose weight”, or “My goal is to get better at my job”, or “I want to spend more time with my family” means that you’re expressing a wish you have. In terms of goals, it means nothing.

If you’re not sure how to get more specific, try answering the five Ws:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • Where?
  • When?
  • Why?

What exactly do I want to get better at? How many pounds do I want to lose? How am I going to spend more time with my family? And so on…

“I want to take my family out to the park for 2 hours twice a week.”

“I want to lose 20 pounds by doing these exercises....”

This means getting specific. If your goals are specific enough, it’s easier to track your success at achieving them.

Measurable

The weight-loss example works here as well: including the specific information about how much weight you want to lose makes the goal measurable.

If you’d like to start saving money, it’s not enough to say: “My goal is to save money.”

How much money do you want to have in your bank account? The more quantifiable your goal is, the better!

But, what do you do when your goals are abstract, like improving your relationship with your parents, for example?

The question you need to ask yourself is: how do I know that our relationship is improved?

More open communication? Having conversations about the past, the future, your emotions? Doing more activities together? In this case, these could be your measures!

Attainable

Is flying to space within the next two years a S.M.A.R.T. goal? It’s specific, it’s measurable… but, unless you’re an astronaut, it’s not really attainable.

Perhaps this is a drastic example, but you get the point. If you want to set an achievable goal, you need to account for your current situation and resources. These can have to do with your finances, emotional capacity, time, family circumstances, your position at work, etc.

If you’d like to save $10,000 within a year, but your paycheck is $2000 and you have a bank loan hanging over your head, then this probably isn’t an attainable goal. However, if there’s a promotion coming up, and you have only two loan payments left, then perhaps it is.

Relevant

What does it mean to set a relevant goal? Is there such a thing as an irrelevant goal?

Well, not in terms of importance. You’re the one who decides which goals are important to you. When we say “set relevant goals”, we mean goals that are relevant to you.

If you’re a hairdresser who’d like to expand their business and make it more visible, a relevant goal would be to get your business online, create a marketing campaign, or share posters and flyers.

Time-Bound

Finally, creating a time boundary will help you become more motivated, and will keep you on schedule.

If your plan is to lose weight, but there’s no time boundary, you can keep saying “I’ll start on Monday” every single Tuesday or Friday.

However, if you put it this way: “I’ll lose 20 pounds within the next two months”, you’ll hold yourself accountable to really start working out this time.


3. Get a Productivity Planner

Now that you have a list of S.M.A.R.T. goals, it’s time for taking action.

At this point, you will need smart planning, as you need to divide your goals into tasks and substeps, create time-frames, prioritize, and track your progress.

If you think you’ll be able to keep all the information in your mind - that’s where you’re wrong. Well-organized people use all sorts of planners to get through their busy days, so why don’t give it a try yourself?

The type of planner that we recommend is The Productivity Planner.

Its design is perfect for accomplishing S.M.A.R.T. goals.

At the beginning of each week, you plan your week for success. This means deploying tasks throughout weekdays. At the end of each day and week, you reflect on your success. Why is this important?

Because as humans, we tend to forget. We sometimes cancel out common sense. That’s why we need to reflect. Imagine this:

You’re very ambitious about achieving several important goals. You start working on them at the same time. Although being ambitious is great, it can sometimes take us down the wrong path. Due to your enthusiasm, you might bite off more than you can chew: assigning too many tasks in one day, setting up too short time frames, etc.

You finish each day with maybe half of your to-do list scratched out. If you don’t reflect on this experience, you’ll end up pushing yourself to do more than you can handle and instead of striving for happiness, you’ll be striving for misery.

Another great thing about The Productivity Planner is that it uses the Focus Time technique. What’s that all about?

The Focus Time Technique

The Focus Time technique saves you from long, energy-wasting working sessions that usually end with attention loss and procrastination by forcing you to split your tasks into 20-minute working sessions, followed by 5-minute breaks. Every time you complete 4 Focus Time sessions, you take a longer 20-minute break. See those little dots in the picture? Every dot stands for one 20-minute session. Once you complete it, you color the dot.

The FocusTime technique is one of the best methods for staying on track with your tasks and keeping your attention span in the loop.

Another amazing thing The Productivity Planner has to offer are motivational quotes. Every page starts with one to give you a boost for that day.

The Productivity Planner has it all: weekly, daily, and hourly organization, prioritization, reflection, and motivation!

Productivity Planner
Productivity Planner $24.95 USD

4. Learn to Prioritize

As you’ve probably noticed yourself, prioritization is one of the main characteristics of The Productivity Planner. Although the planner itself holds a special place for the “most important task of the day”, it doesn’t really tell you which one it is.

So, why is prioritization so important?

We’ll try to explain it in a simple way. There are five items on your to-do list and you need to start somewhere. If you don’t choose well, you might end up wasting an awful lot of time and energy on tasks of marginal importance, so by the time you start working on the more important ones, you’re already drained.

So what do you do to avoid this? Here are some tips:

1. Use Steven Covey’s Priority Matrix

Take all of your tasks and assign them to a matrix with 4 cells:

  • Vertical: important/not important
  • Horizontal: urgent/not urgent

So, what’s urgent? Everything that’s due today or tomorrow is urgent. Everything that’s nice to do, or will bring you “bonus steps” towards achieving your goal, is important.

Once you fill out this table, you’ll get a grasp of what to do first. Important and urgent is the first priority, of course. Not important, but urgent could be second. Important, but not urgent takes the third place, while not important and not urgent… well, you get it.

This matrix is great, but if your “urgent and important” cell is full, you need additional strategies.

2. Assign Numbers

This means you need to cut to the chase: assign number one to the most burning task from the most burning category. Continue doing that until you hit 10. One task - one number.

If filing your taxes is due today, then that’s your number 1. If there’s also a presentation for tomorrow, you can break it into substeps: get an outline for the presentation - number two. Finishing the presentation can be number 10, or tomorrow’s number 1.

3. Focus on Your MITs

This method implies you choose a few (usually three or four) most important tasks of the day. Making this choice forces you to prioritize.

As Leo Babauta from Zen Habits recommends, at least one of your MIT’s should be related to one of your goals. He also suggests that you start working on your MIT’s as early as you can - while you’re still strong and full of energy.

When you use the MIT method, you have 1-4 main things and everything else that you do is like a bonus. So, even if you only do your MIT’s, that’s still a very successful day!

4. Pick One Thing

If things are really going downward for you and you’re struggling to get even a single thing done, focusing on one thing could be a great start.

If this tip applies to you, consider getting the Chrome extension called Momentum which is designed to remind you what your focus is every time you open your browser. Moreover, if you’re struggling with distractions and procrastination, consider limiting your time on time-wasting social networks such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, or Twitter by using StayFocusd or Cold Turkey.

5. Ask Yourself 5 Questions

Click here to find out the 5 most powerful questions you need to ask yourself if you want to prioritize better.

These first three tips were all about getting in shape, formulating your goals, taking action, prioritizing… which is all great. However, learning how to set achievable goals is also about flexibility: making adjustments when necessary and dropping the perfectionism.


5. Make Periodical Adjustments

Remember how we said that setting achievable goals is a process and not a step?

Well, throughout the process you may notice how some things simply don’t compute.

The number of tasks for the given day can be unrealistic. The initial time boundary can also unrealistic. Someone from your team dropped out, you need to replace them. And so on.

It would be great if you manage to set some excellent goals by following all the above-mentioned rules and tips. However, you need to keep in mind that life is unpredictable and if you get overly fixated and rigid about achieving your goals, you'll end up disappointed and frustrated.

Marketing expert Marissa Sharif claims that flexibility can be the crucial key to achieving your goals. In one research she conducted she had people download a step-tracking app on their phones. Then, she split them into three groups: the first one had the goal to reach their step target 7 days of the week. The other one had the goal to reach their daily step target five days of the week. The third group had the goal to reach their daily step target 7 days of the week, but they had two emergency skip days in case of need. What do you think: which group had the best performance?

The third one, of course. This was the most motivated group and the participants often completed even more steps than the target required. Flexibility to change the plan if needed is motivating and boosts people’s performance!

So, instead of getting all fired up over being late, consider making an adjustment to your goals: the learning process is endless. Every time you mess up by overestimating or underestimating your capacities, you get to know yourself better.


6. Drop the Perfectionism

Sometimes perfectionism can be associated with positive traits, such as excellent organization, a good eye for details, or persistence in work. Studies have shown that perfectionists are more motivated for work and have higher levels of conscientiousness.

Although this sounds great, the negative side of perfectionism is much more pronounced. Perfectionists are much less flexible and prone to self-criticism. They also experience higher levels of stress, burnout, and anxiety.

Can you imagine a more deadly combination for productivity than being stressed-out, anxious, burnt out from work, and self-critical?

Yes, striving for perfection can motivate you to go higher up the success ladder, but all these accompanying elements seem like pretty substantial obstacles.

Have you ever heard a story about a great student with straight A’s who had that final paper hanging above their head for years before finally submitting it?

What usually underlies these stories is perfectionism. The idea that you have to be flawless, that you’re obliged to deliver only pure excellence can be so burdening that you can’t even start working.

A perfectionist usually has a hard time tolerating mistakes, failures, and uncertainties. That’s because they have a fixed mindset. We’ve mentioned already how important flexibility is for achieving your goals.

Thinking in black-and-white, all-or-nothing won’t take you very far in life. If you struggle with perfectionism, you should start cultivating a growth mindset. How?

By changing the way you see the world:

  • You are not perfect. Nobody is. Get to know yourself better: what are your strengths and weaknesses? What can you do to improve?
  • You’ll make mistakes forever. However, try to avoid repeating the same mistakes over and over again. How? Reflect. Failures are not a reason to drop out from whatever you’re doing. They’re valuable lessons. Negativity and self-criticism are toxic. Try implementing some positive affirmations into your daily routine to boost your motivation. Replace complaints and excuses with a concrete and productive action plan.

Wrapping It Up

Setting achievable goals is a process that requires discipline, practice, making mistakes, and persistence.

You landing at this article is an excellent first step. Now that you’ve learned how to set achievable goals, it’s time for action:

  • Figure out what you want to do with your life: what would you like to achieve within the next year, two, or five years.
  • Make those goals S.M.A.R.T. and fit them into the seven-column spreadsheet.
  • Get yourself The Productivity Planner and start splitting your goals into tasks. Organize them through weeks and days and don’t forget to reflect.
  • If there’s more than one thing on your plate, choose a prioritizing strategy that suits you best.
  • Don’t forget: flexibility is the key. Adjust your goals along the way if necessary, and drop the perfectionism. Being perfect is a made-up concept. Keep calm and follow your own temp.
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