How to set realistic, doable goals

Sarah and I will be recording a mid-year goals check-in Best of Both Worlds episode soon. As part of preparation for that annual episode, I listen to the annual goals episode that tends to air in December.

I’m happy to report that I’m doing pretty well on my 2023 goals. To be sure, none of the goals were overly ambitious…but that is by design! Perhaps various gurus tout the benefits of setting moon-shot type goals, but I tend to find the process more satisfying when the odds are good for success. Here are a few strategies that I personally find helpful.

1. Think process, not outcome. My goals this year are mostly regular actions that are within my ability to make happen. I wanted to do more regular strength training — and I am (working out with a virtual trainer once a week and then generally repeating those exercises on my own another time during the week). I wanted to read through the works of Jane Austen at the pace of approximately ten pages a day…and I am. Outcomes can sometimes happen or not happen regardless of one’s intentions. You may or may not lose ten pounds, but you can hold yourself to eating vegetables regularly, substituting water for soda, getting regular physical activity, and getting enough sleep. You may or may not get an A in a challenging class, but you can commit to studying for five hours a week and going to office hours and such.

2. Aim for easy (no resistance). My two daily ritual goals (reading my Jane Austen and writing two lines in a sonnet daily) are so small as to be almost negligible. Two lines in a sonnet is only twenty syllables! The Jane reading generally doesn’t take that long (and I lowered my requirement to five pages a day given that I’m ahead of the game — though I usually still read ten). Small things are doable, so they actually happen. Back when I was doing my running streak (running at least a mile a day — which I did for 1100 days) the mile-a-day goal was a bit more logistically challenging to pull off, but it was one mile, not six. I never would have stuck with six. Ideally, a goal can be broken down into steps small enough that they inspire no resistance.

3. You have to want to do it. I think it’s wise, when setting goals, to really think about what you’d like to do. Perhaps that sounds obvious, but I think a lot of us set what we view as “good” goals. Just because something sounds good for someone else doesn’t mean you’ll get into it. I like my question of “Would I do this on vacation?” I’m not saying anyone has to maintain the same schedule on vacation by any means, but if you’re thinking it sounds really appealing to not do your goal for a while, that might be an indication that you’re not particularly excited about it.

4. Think through the logistics and tough stretches. Will you still be able to pursue your goal if life gets busy? Should you think about ways to modify it that could still work? I wanted to revise my novel manuscript this spring, and so I set a schedule that had me doing 0-3 chapters per week. If I could see I was traveling for part of a week, I would assign myself one chapter. If the week was free and easy, I could do three. If the week looked impossible, then zero. Maybe I could have revised the thing faster, but that was a pace that worked. Back when I was doing the running streak, my perfect run might be a five mile sunset jaunt along the San Diego coast, but obviously, that could not happen every day. I also figured out that I could run laps around my yard or my basement while a toddler was sleeping and I didn’t have childcare.

5. Track it. Sometimes it’s obvious if you’ve stuck with your goals or not. My sonnets get two lines longer or they don’t. But if it’s less obvious, some sort of habit or goal tracking system can remind you of all you’ve done and provide a little extra incentive to keep going. Even though I do my “daily rituals” every day, I generally still put “rituals” on my daily to-do list so I can cross it off!

How are you doing on any 2023 goals? Do you have any advice for making goals feel doable?

In other news: I was a guest on Dan Harris’s Ten Percent Happier podcast this week! Please check it out.

I also reviewed Bruce Feiler’s new book, The Search, in the Wall Street Journal last week (requires subscription).

10 thoughts on “How to set realistic, doable goals

  1. I love (love, love, love: setting annual goals.

    I aim to only make goals that a) interest me and b) I think I *could* complete. Things are going well in 2023, but even when I don’t meet a goal for a year, I always do a post-mortem ( Sometimes I realized the goal wasn’t something I was passionate about doing, but other times, I just did something in the spirit of the goal. For example, if I listed a goal of seeing a live musical and didn’t actualize that goal, I would write down: went to see a play, or went to the movies 3 times. Last year I had a goal to go out to a nice meal with my brother and his wife when they came to visit; we didn’t end up making that happen, but we went to a cidery and enjoyed a tasting flight sans kids. Same outcome (quality time with my brother involving some form of food), but a different way of getting there.

    1. @Elisabeth – I agree that it’s good to get at the spirit of the goal. I would totally give myself credit for the cider tasting sans kids as a “nice” thing to do with the brother. I probably listed my strength training goal as something like lifting weights at the Y 2x a week but working out with a virtual trainer is probably a better way to do this.

  2. Good timing. I looked at my goals recently and it prompted me to book my ear repiercing for next week when I’m in the city (I was with a heavily pierced pal at a meeting and she made a rec) and order a book on writing (Helen Sword’s book for academics). I’ve been to the theatre 3 times, with 2 more shows booked for the autumn, but I haven’t been to any exhibitions yet, so I’ve made a note to look up what’s on whilst we are in Lisbon. But 5 proper performances for the year seems good going.

    I’m waiting on confirmation from one friend on when she’s coming for a visit, and booking a trip to Paris with another once I get my teaching schedule for the autumn.

    And just plodding on with various articles. Everything has deadlines which is fine, I’m an obliger, I’ll make a deadline (or get close, academic deadlines are never hard and fast) but I can’t write without a deadline.

  3. I just looked at my goals and I’ve made good progress on those goals that do excite and interest me. Where I have struggled is on the ones I need to do but which I find overwhelming, eg. long term financial planning

  4. I think there’s different kinds of goals. There’s ones that will bring more joy into your life (which I totally neglected before reading your work… and it took me a few books to actually do it).

    But I also think that sometimes you have to do a thing you do not like doing before you start to like it. I did not like running at all the beginning. I was training for a charity race for a cause that was important to me and did not want to be the only one in my family who couldn’t make the whole 5K running. But now I like it and want to do it. I think maybe it’s Cal Newport who writes about how passion is not something you necessarily know ahead of time; passion sometimes comes after you get good at it. And you might not like it at first or want to do it. Math was kind of like that for me in high school – it was fine, but nothing that I would do beyond homework or meeting other requirements. Definitely not something I would do on vacation. But in college, when I saw how I could help people through tutoring, I became more motivated and now it is my career and a source of joy in my life. I wish people would stick a little longer with stuff that feels hard. There’s joy on the other side.

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