Seven Steps to Creating Effective Goals

So you know where you’re going…now what?

Have you ever been lost, with no way to determine your direction? I mean, really lost. No map. No GPS signal. And to make matters worse, you’re in a foreign country that doesn’t speak English.

It’s a scary feeling to feel that helpless. To not know where you are, or how far away you are from your destination, or what route you need to take to get there.

Most people would never plan a trip without first knowing where they’re going and why. In fact, it’s impossible. You can’t make travel arrangements without knowing some details. Car rentals, plane tickets, hotel reservations—they all require a degree of knowing. But there’s one journey that I see women taking all the time, with virtually no forethought or planning—the journey of life.

I see women who fall into relationships. They fall into jobs or unexpected careers. They fall into circumstances without knowing how or why. Difficult circumstances, painful circumstances. And they feel powerless to do anything about it.

Life just seems to have crept up on them without warning, stealing all the dreams they were once passionate about.

Perhaps they feel that it’s too late, too hard, or too expensive; that it’s impossible to change.  Perhaps they’re fearful of what change will bring. They settle for just meandering along life’s path, being pulled in various directions by forces they can’t control.

Whatever the reason, navigating life without a roadmap is foolish. And dangerous.

It’s dangerous because without a roadmap, you will potentially end up somewhere you never dreamt of going.

A dream is a fantasy. A goal is a dream with a deadline.

We all dream, or we used to. Dreaming allows us to use and stretch our imagination—to create broad, new ideas. Directed, purposeful dreaming helps us form a vision of where we want and need to go), which forms our roadmap for life.

But a dream can only become a future reality if it’s turned into a goal, or a series of goals.

So what do you want?

When you know what you want, then you need to think about how you want to get there. Goals become the milestones you achieve along the way. They give you a starting point, keep you on course, and tell you when you’ve arrived. Goals also help you prioritize so that you can focus on what’s most important. And, they help you take seemingly insurmountable obstacles and turn them into small, achievable steps.

Twelve years ago my ex-husband and I were traveling to Portugal and Spain. I was certain I’d planned the trip well, worked out all the details accurately. I was wrong.

Only three days away from the actual trip I discovered that my passport, which I was so certain was current, had actually expired months before.

I was overwhelmed. How could I have let this happen? How was I ever going to fix this? Was it even doable? It felt monumental, and in that moment I had a choice. I could surrender to the panic I felt, the sure knowledge that I would not be going. Or, I could treat it like an achievable goal. A difficult one, but not impossible. I determined to give it my best shot. But to do that I had to break the goal into small, bite-size steps that I could focus on one at a time, so that I wouldn’t become overwhelmed and just give up.

That’s what small, daily goals do. They take something that may seem impossible to accomplish and move us ever so closer to attaining it. Then, before you know it, you’re a fourth of the way there. Then halfway. Then…finished.

Here’s how to turn your dreams into achievable goals:

1. Pick a dream and write it down

The only way to achieve a dream is to start the process. Pick something you want to do and write it down. Doing this gives you a visual reminder that you can put anywhere, reinforcing your intention and ensuring that it becomes stored in your long-term memory.

2. Make your dream specific and measurable

Specific goals take you on a direct route from point A to point B on your roadmap. No wasting time traveling around in circles. How many times has indecision led you to make the same mistake over and over? Or uncertainty? Or fear? The more defined your goal is, the more you focus on that instead of all the “what if’s. (link to “3 Questions to stop asking”)

3. Define your big goal

Defining your goal means looking at it from every angle. What steps do you need to take to get you to this goal? Why is it important that you accomplish it? Who will benefit from you achieving it? How will you accomplish it? When will you know it’s accomplished? As you do this you will come up with the incremental steps—the daily goals—that give you small successes along the way.

Mind map type image with Big Goal in center and nodes titled Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How

4.  Focus on your own performance

Another way to make your goal achievable and realistic is to focus on what you can accomplish, as opposed to things out of your control.

When I called the Canadian Embassy about renewing my passport, it became quickly evident that they were not thrilled about renewing it with such short notice. They actually tried to deter me, giving me a list of reasons why they might not be able to get it done.

In that moment I had a choice. I could allow their reluctance to override my determination. Or, I could push that aside and commit to the part I had control over. And, after a moment or two of self-pity about my predicament, I chose the latter and got on with it. I turned my goal, not into renewing my passport, but into getting all my documentation together and at the FEDEX office before closing that day. That was all I had control over. The rest was in God’s hands. Only He could persuade the Embassy to show me mercy!

5.  Use intentional language

Your mind does funny things. When you tell yourself to not think about something, or to not do something, your mind tends to focus even more on it.

That’s why, when it comes to goal-setting, it’s important that you use the right language.

How helpful would it have been for me to beat myself up for not checking my passport months earlier? If I had focused on how little time I had, how it was unlikely that I would succeed, would that have given me greater motivation or have created more anxiety instead? For example:

Incorrect wording: “I’ve only got three days to do this and it’s probably impossible, but I’m not going to think about that.”

Wording it this way would only make me worry more! 

Correct wording: “Today I am focusing on getting my documentation together and getting to the FEDEX office before 5:30 pm. That’s my goal, and it’s achievable.”

Another aspect of this is to word your goal and your intentions in a present, action-oriented way.

Notice how I said “I am focusing…” instead of “I will focus…”

The second statement is passive, still waiting to happen. The first implies that I’ve already started, which generates more positive energy and motivation.

Finally, avoid using words of “necessity” like should, have to and must when phrasing your goal. Of course we all have unavoidable tasks that must be completed. However, when turning your dream into a tangible goal statement, the more positive you feel about it the greater your motivation to pursue it. 

Saying you “have to” implies that you don’t really want to. Or, that you see it as an obligation rather than a goal to achieve.

Incorrect wording:

“I have to gather this documentation (but it’s going to be so hard).”

“I must get to the FEDEX office before 5:30 pm (but I don’t know if I can make it).”

Correct wording:

“I am gathering this documentation because it’s an important step for accomplishing my goal.”

“I intend to be at the FEDEX office before 5:30 pm so that I can complete my goal.”

6.  Reward yourself

The key to reinforcing the right behaviors that will help you accomplish your goals is to reward yourself.  Each time you accomplish a step that leads you to your overall performance goal, treat yourself. You want to train your brain to learn that:

Effort = Reward

Each time you do this, your willingness to exert effort increases (because you’re looking forward to that reward when you’re done). 

The time to think of those rewards is while you’re formulating your goal. But be sure to use appropriate rewards that don’t undo your progress. And keep this rule in mind:

Big goal = Big reward

Small goal = Small reward

7. Visualization

How often do you imagine what life will be like once your goal is accomplished? What will change? How will life improve? How will you be different? What will you think, feel and do differently once this goal has been accomplished? 

The more you visualize your goal being accomplished, and associate strong positive emotions with it, the greater your likelihood of success. That’s because it’s a form of mental rehearsal. Every time you go over the process of accomplishing your goal, you are reviewing, refining and practicing success.

I did go to Portugal after all, but it took some perseverance on my part. The story wasn’t over when I rushed into the FEDEX office with minutes to spare that Monday afternoon. I had several more hoops to jump through before flying off three days later. But each day I focused only on what I could realistically accomplish, while always visualizing myself boarding that flight!

At the beginning, the distance between me and my goal seemed daunting. The same may be true for you. Right now the distance between you and your dream might seem impossibly huge. But once you start setting goals you are actively closing that distance. You are drawing your dream toward you.

Doing this changes your perspective! When something seems far away, it’s hard to connect it to your daily life. But when you visualize what it will be like, you allow yourself to experience the dream as your current reality.

Unfortunately, too many of us love to dream, but not much else. We wake up years later, mentally and emotionally, only to find that our lives haven’t turned out at ALL the way we imagined.

Reaching a goal requires more than just imagination. It takes EFFORT!

Don’t be one of those women who wonders why your life hasn’t turned out the way you thought it would. Wherever you’re at, no matter how much time you feel you’ve lost, do something, and start today!


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