This sounds harsh. Goals are important, and essential to success. I haven't met many people who accidentally became successful - they had to have their eye on the prize for a long time to reach that point. Whether it's a professional athlete, a doctor, a marathon runner...these things don't happen overnight. But those people had more than goals - they had plans. Figuring out both is essential to getting where you want to go. Not sure where you're headed? Make sure you've taken the time to determine your "why" and get your mind right so you're prepared to do what it takes to get where you want to go.
I personally remember, at some point in high school, making a transition from "my dream is to go to medical school" to "I'm going to go to medical school." I noticed a big difference in the way I was regarded. People took me seriously because they knew I meant business. There's no point in fearing failure and hedging your bets to try to save face if things don't work out. Most things in life that are worthwhile are also very difficult...you have to commit 100% and know that if you encounter an obstacle, you're going to find your way around it to reach your end point.
So let's talk through the steps you might take in your daily life to reach one of your goals, say, a new year's resolution-type goal. We'll use the example of weight loss to walk through what a successful goal setting and plan development looks like, and you can apply that to whatever you hope to change in your own life. In medical school, we had to choose something we wanted to improve upon every block, and map out a plan similar to this to document how we were going to accomplish that thing. Now, there's a lot to cover in medical school, so if the administrators at Case Western required us to practice this planning exercise every block, they knew it was vitally important to ensuring our future success.
1) Set a goal that's specific, practical, attainable, and measurable.
Get specific. Goals usually start out like this, "I want to be healthier." That can go in a lot of directions, so you need to ask yourself, "How? In what way do I want to be healthier?" If you're trying to lower your blood sugar, meditation is probably not going to be your first step, but if you're trying to reduce anxiety, making a plan for meditation might be exactly what you're shooting for. For our example, let's say we're hoping to lose weight. Great, that will get us started.
Make it practical and attainable. How many times have you heard someone go down this road and end up with, "I want to lose 60 pounds." Wow, okay, that might be great depending on their particular circumstances, but did you believe them? That goal, despite having the 'wow factor,' probably isn't practical or attainable. If they did some research and referenced their original goal to be healthier, they would actually find that losing 5-10% of body weight for an overweight or obese individual results in significant health benefits. So let's say our fictional person weighs 240 lbs. Sure, it sounds good to say they want to get to 180 lbs, but actually losing 12 lbs would be 5% of their body weight, and would give them the health benefit they seek! In terms of being realistic and attainable, clearly a goal to lose 12 lbs is more likely to result in success than one to lose 60 lbs right out of the gate. While this person can definitely end up losing 60 lbs, it makes sense to start with smaller goals and let the momentum build to reach the bigger goals. Going back to the med school example, there's the big goal of getting into medical school, but along the way there are many more goals to handle: research projects, grades in classes, MCAT testing, etc. Achieving your first goal boosts confidence, but not achieving your big goal can seriously destroy morale.
Make it measurable. To find out if your goal is measurable, ask yourself, "How will I know if I've accomplished my goal?" In the above example, our goal was definitely measurable. If our end weight is 12 lbs less than our starting weight, we nailed it. Now, if you reach this point and your goal is still a little nebulous "I want to lower my blood sugar," for example, now is the time to nail that down to something more along the lines of, "I'm going to reduce my fasting blood sugar to less than 100mg/dL."
2) Develop a plan that breaks down the details and spells out the how, what, where, and when.
So HOW are you going to lose weight? Are you going to eat less, eat differently, exercise more? When are you going to do it and how will you know when you've accomplished your goal?
A solid plan looks like this: "I am going to lose 12 lbs by July 31st by exercising four days a week for at least 30 minutes, and by packing a healthy lunch for myself every day instead of getting take out."
A next-level, fool-proof plan looks like this: "I am going to lose 12 lbs by July 31st by exercising four days a week for at least 30 minutes, and by packing a healthy lunch for myself every day instead of getting take out. I will exercise every day after work from 5-5:30 by doing a walk/run or HIIT workout from the app I use. I will track my workouts on a calendar, and put a checkmark for each day I completed my workout goal, to ensure by the end of the week I have completed the plan of 4 workouts/week. I will plan out 5 healthy lunch options each week, and make sure on the weekend I am purchasing ingredients and pre-packing each lunch for the week. I will know I have met my goal when my weight has gone from 240lbs to 228lbs on July 31st."
There's many ways to do this, but by spelling out your detailed plan and how you're going to accomplish each step, you DRAMATICALLY increase your success rate. It's all well and good to say you're going to exercise and eat better, but it's unlikely to happen unless you make it very straightforward for yourself by spelling out the when and how of your steps.
Important: anticipate potential set backs! If you know you're going on vacation for a week, plan out how you will exercise and plan healthy lunches that week to prevent setting back your progress. If there's a big office luncheon planned, ask about the menu and plan ahead with your healthy choice, so you're not caught off guard at the office party.
3) Reassess, Regroup, Repeat.
So now it's July 31st, and it's time to follow up on your plan and reassess the situation. Did you reach your goal? That part is easy because you've already defined what success is...in this case, it's weighing 228lbs or less.
Now it's time to regroup. If you didn't reach your plan...why? Did you complete the plan? Did those steps result in some weight loss but not enough to reach the goal? You might need to analyze what could have gone wrong. Did you not exercise after work because it turned out you had to take your child to practice at that time every day? Maybe there's a a better time you need to plan for on round #2. Or maybe you packed your lunch, but it was not much healthier than eating out, or the portion size was too big. Or maybe you did everything seemingly right, and you just need to step up your plan for next time.
Repeat the process. Make a new plan, and a new deadline, with new details to spell out how you're going to be successful. If you met your goal, maybe your next plan is to continue the habits you've been developing, and adding a new one. If you're feeling stuck, you can always seek advice from a trusted friend, doctor, nutritionist, coach, personal trainer, etc. Making lots of small changes over time turns into exponential improvement, and that's how the big dreams like, "I want to lose 60lbs" can become reality.
Change isn't easy. It's usually uncomfortable at first. My personal belief is that we’re always changing and improving throughout our lives. You're never "done." There's no shortcut, which is why crazy diets don't produce lasting change. The good news is that everyone can make big, impactful changes: all you need is confidence and determination that you will overcome any obstacles in your way, and a plan.
Need help getting started with a lifestyle change? This is one of my favorite things to help patients with, because it is so rewarding. I love watching people accomplish their goals and bask in their successes. Feel free to reach out to me directly at email@example.com if you need help with weight loss, changing your diet, quitting smoking, or becoming more active.
Further Recommended Reading: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
Atomic Habits by James Cleary