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How to Set Personal Goals and Achieve Them

black woman writing personal goals

The New Year is upon us, and that means it’s time to re-evaluate and set personal goals for the coming year. Yes, New Year’s resolutions are an annual tradition. But, according to U.S. News and World Report, 80 percent of us give up on our New Year’s resolutions by the second week in February! Wow, that’s fast! How do we feel so determined and optimistic on January 1, but lose every ounce of momentum we have only six weeks later?

The answer has something to do with how we set personal goals and how we go about achieving them. Achieving personal goals involves more than just a strong desire to accomplish something. It also involves strategic planning, self-discipline (yes, I said it), and a hefty dose of psychology. So, let’s get started!

Why Set Personal Goals?

List of Priorities

Personal Goals Help Manage Priorities

Goals are invaluable for running a business. As part of the business’s strategic plan, they keep the business focused on what matters. Similarly, setting personal goals is a way to help us manage our priorities and maintain focus.  

For example, let’s say my goal is to lose 15 pounds and keep it off. That goal governs my choices. Each night, I choose a 45-minute walk over watching my favorite Netflix show. While each day, I select a healthy salad instead of French fries for lunch. Without setting the personal goal of losing and maintaining a 15-pound weight loss, I might not have prioritized the walk and the salad.

Personal Goals Provide a Sense of Purpose

Personal goals also provide a sense of purpose. When we’ve laid out our personal goals, we have something to work toward and look forward to.  

Have you ever gone on vacation for a couple weeks only to crave the structure of the workday? Remember how you couldn’t wait for Summer break as a child, but then looked forward to going back to school?  

That’s because both work and school give us a purpose. Likewise, in midlife, many of us retire or the kids move away, and we’re left struggling to find our purpose. Personal goals give us the purpose we crave.

Achieving Personal Goals Instills a Sense of Accomplishment

The best part about setting goals is the reward we feel when our hard work pays off and we achieve what we set out to do. It’s not as easy as it looks. But these six strategies for how to set personal goals and achieve them will make you much more likely to be in the 20 percent of people who actually stick to their New Year’s resolutions past February.  

6 Strategies to Set Personal Goals and Achieve Them

woman writing in planner

1. Determine Which Personal Goals to Set

Set personal goals for more than one aspect of your life. For example, you may want to be a better friend, a more creative artist, a healthier person, or more accomplished in your career.  Regardless of the goal, visualize it and why you want to achieve it. This guides us toward goals that will make us happier and better off than we were before.  

For example, if I want to get a big promotion and manage more people, I should visualize what that goal will feel like when I accomplish it. I could picture myself feeling stressed by long hours, listening to employee complaints, or dealing with a more difficult boss.  

But I could also envision feeling relieved to be able to pay off my credit cards or remodel my house. How will I feel after six months or a year? Will the stress of the job eventually replace the short-term relief of paying down debt? What are the pros and cons?

Next, frame your goal into something you could do, rather than something you should no longer do, writes Positive Psychology.  For example, instead of deciding to stop drinking, frame your goal as having a healthier, happier life by living sober. This allows you to channel your energy toward positive outcomes and reduces the feelings of failure when you face obstacles along the way.

SMART Goals on chalk board

2. Set SMART Goals

According to Projectsmart, the SMART acronym was first penned by George T. Doran, a consultant and former Director of Corporate Planning for Washington Power Company in 1981.  

SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timebound. What does this mean? Let’s look at one of the most common New Year’s resolutions to illustrate – the goal to get in shape.

Specific – What does it mean to “get in shape?” To make this goal more specific, narrow down what you really want to achieve. Does getting in shape mean you want to be stronger, faster, more energetic, or more toned? Does it mean you want to reduce your weight?

Instead of “I want to get in shape,” a specific goal looks something like “I want to become stronger by doing a full-body strength training workout at home for 25-minutes per day 2-3 times per week.

Measurable – The goal to get in shape isn’t measurable. But neither is the goal to “get stronger.” Although we’ve made the process for getting stronger specific and measurable, how do we know we’ve achieved the goal? 

Narrow this goal down to something like “I want to be able to lift three times the load I currently lift,” or “I want to be able to strengthen my lower back so it doesn’t hurt to lift a box,” or whatever it means to you to be stronger. Having a measurable goal is motivating and gives us a sense of accomplishment when we’ve reached it.

woman performing dumbbell press on bench

Attainable – While our goals should challenge us, they also need to be attainable. If your goal is to win a strong person competition in six months and you’ve never lifted weights in your life, you may want to rethink your goal. 

Relevant – Is the goal to get stronger relevant to your life? Is this the right time to get stronger? The goal to get stronger is probably not a good example of an irrelevant goal. But say your goal was to get a promotion that will take time away from your spouse who has a terminal illness and needs your care. In that instance, your goal probably wouldn’t be relevant to your personal circumstances.

Time-Bound – Deadlines are motivating! Make sure you give yourself a timeframe to accomplish your goal and establish benchmarks along the way. For example, “I want to lift twice the load I currently lift in six months and three times the load I currently lift in a year. I’ll accomplish this goal by working out with weights at home for 25 minutes per day, 2-3 times per week.”

Not every goal meets all the criteria of a SMART goal. For example, becoming a better friend or parent is ongoing, but just as worthy a goal as losing 15 pounds in 60 days. The SMART goal concept is simply intended to create a framework to improve your chances of success.

hand holding "New Habits" sign

3. Establish Small Habits to Achieve Larger Goals

According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, A habit is a conscious pattern of behavior that becomes automatic. In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear describes habits as “the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them.” Clear notes that improving by one percent each day makes you 37 times better after one year. That’s a big improvement! 

So how do we create good habits and break bad ones? Duhigg writes that the phenomenon of habit “is a natural consequence of our neurology. And by understanding how it happens, you can rebuild those patterns in any way you choose.” 

Describing the “habit loop,” Duhigg illustrates how we form habits and how to create new ones. The habit loop consists of: (1) a cue that triggers your brain to go into automatic mode; (2) a routine, which is a physical, emotional, or mental response to the cue; and (3) a reward. Duhigg explains that over time, the habit loop grows more automatic, and the cue and reward are so woven together that anticipation and craving emerge.

chart showing habit loop

Did you know that tooth brushing wasn’t a common habit until the 1920s after Pepsodent launched its first advertising campaign? According to Duhigg, Pepsodent’s ad man, Claude Hopkins, tapped into the habit loop. Hopkins’ ads for Pepsodent focused on a previously unremarkable cue – a yellow film on the teeth. Back then, not many people brushed their teeth so everyone had the film. But they never cared about it until the ad campaign.

 Hopkins suggested brushing with Pepsodent (routine) to get rid of the film (cue) and create a bright smile (reward). Ten years after the first Pepsodent ad campaign, pollsters found that more than half of Americans had a tooth-brushing habit.

black woman brushing teeth

So what does this mean for personal goal-setting? We can establish habits that help us achieve our personal goals by altering the habit loop. Duhigg writes that by changing the routine in between the cue and reward, we can replace habits that inhibit our goals with habits that further them. Here’s how.

Let’s look at the sugar habit loop as an example. The cue is a long, stressful day at work, the routine is eating chocolate, and the reward is a mood boost. All we need to do is change the routine while maintaining the reward, and over time we can replace the old habit.  

So, in response to a long, stressful day at work, we take a walk instead of eating chocolate. At the end of the walk, the reward is the same – a mood boost. Eventually, we grow to rely on the walk instead of the chocolate to boost our mood, and we form a good habit. If our personal goal is related to losing weight, then changing this one small habit, will bring us that much closer to our goal.

The habit loop can be applied to just about any habitual behavior that we want to change. Please note if your habit involves substance abuse, you should also consult a mental health professional.

woman writing in planner

4. Set Both Short- and Long-Term Goals

By setting short-term goals, we allow ourselves some early wins that help us stay motivated for the long haul. Short-term goals also function as benchmarks for progress on larger, more challenging long-term goals.  

Take running a marathon for example. Running a marathon is my long-term goal, but there are several short-term goals and good habits that I must establish before I can accomplish it. 

Long-Term Goal:  Run a Marathon 18 months from now.

Short Term Goals:

  • Four Months – Run a 5k
  • Eight Months – Run a 10K
  • 12 Months – Run a half-marathon

Weekly Habits:

  • Run three-to-five times per week for 30 miles per week consistently for one year
  • Consistently eat a diet optimized for runners
  • After one year, follow an established marathon training program with weekly goals for six months

As you can see from the example, short-term goals offer many opportunities to celebrate success on your journey to a long-term goal. These short-term goals also ensure that you stay focused and on track.

Note: I have no desire to run a marathon and am not an expert in marathon running. These goals are illustrative only and are not intended as a guideline for aspiring marathon runners.


"reward you" sign

5. Reward Yourself

Once you’ve established short-term goals, make sure you reward yourself when you achieve them. If your goal is marathon-running and you’ve completed your first 5K, buy yourself some new running gear. If you’ve managed to reach your weekly running goal for a month, that’s also an opportunity to reward yourself. Remember, rewards reinforce good habits, making it more likely you’ll achieve your goals.

6. Don't Let Goal-Setting Lead to Overwhelm

Although this post may seem overwhelming, it’s really just a summary of suggestions to help you keep the promises you make to yourself. Consider these suggestions as a roadmap to success rather than a recipe for failure.

Remember that even if you don’t accomplish everything you set out to do, simply working toward your goals is success in itself. But if setting goals in this way is counterproductive to other goals like feeling more relaxed and less stressed, then listen to your own voice. We’re all on our own journey, and the path you take is up to you.

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12 thoughts on “How to Set Personal Goals and Achieve Them”

  1. I haven’t solidified my goals for 2021, but this info will surely help me set them up to be successful. Always love to create good SMART goals!

    1. Thank you Lori! I know you’re a reader, so I highly recommend reading the Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I couldn’t put it down! I found it much more engaging than Atomic Habits.

  2. I’ve always looked forward to new beginnings to recharge and make new plans. Not being very good at making resolutions and sticking with them this info you’ve shared makes it more attainable. I’ll certainly give this a try.

    Happy New Year to you!

  3. Great post. My planner has personal goals right up front. So important. And always try to be somewhat measurable with them. Not scientific. Just a bit measurable so you know you are getting there.

  4. I’m in the process of setting some goals for my year, so this is a very timely post for me. I especially liked the examples you gave for the SMART acronym and for breaking down goals into short and long term actions. My biggest challenge is that I’m fine with setting goals, but not good at breaking them into manageable steps. Good inspiration here, Michele!

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