How to (Properly) Set a Goal 4

Goals and affirmations don’t work. Here’s why.

The self-help genre is littered with thousands of motivational books about affirmations, goal setting, and vision boards. These three things are kind of like when I wanted to learn French and more than one person told me “Ohhh French is hard. You should learn Latin first so it will be easier.” Actually, NO, I should NOT learn Latin first, for crying out loud! If you want to learn French you should learn FRENCH! Not Latin. Affirmations and goal setting are like that. They are tools, crutches really, to get you to do what you may already know you should be doing: believing in yourself and getting off your butt.

If you do happen to have a self-esteem issue and often use the excuse “I’m not good enough for that” when trying to improve yourself, then sure, do some affirmations. Use them right though – read Beyond Positive Thinking by Robert Anthony for instructions on that topic.

If you set one goal, and you set it SOOO sooooo well, will you achieve it? What if you set 1,000 goals really, really well? Setting goals doesn’t get you there. You need a plan.

Better Than a Goal: A Plan

Having goals is awesome. Having a plan is awesomer! even more awesome! Ever craft the perfect goal and then just let it sit there without getting any closer to it?

Here are some basic steps to make sure you’re always moving towards where you want to be, instead of just walking in circles.

The first part is still setting a goal though. So go ahead.

Set Your Goal

  1. State what you want.
  2. Set a deadline (date).
  3. Set a measurable amount (so you’ll know whether you’re making progress or not).

Define The Benefits

One of the most important and most overlooked parts of goal setting is defining what benefits you want. Yes, goals aren’t just set for the sake of achieving those goals; there are some benefits that we’re trying to get out of them. Otherwise why bother? So, once you have an idea, write down why you want to work towards that goal. For example, if you want to lose 20 pounds then perhaps you’re thinking some of the following.

  • I will feel healthier.
  • I will look more attractive.
  • My clothes will fit me better.
  • I will live longer.
  • I will be sexier than a supermodel.
  • I will be proud of myself.
  • I can play with my kids or grandkids without getting winded.

Writing these things down is motivational. Whenever you may be having trouble you can look at your list to remind yourself what you’re working towards.

Foresee Obstacles

We need to write down what obstacles may be in our way so that we can make sure our plan avoids them or specifically addresses them if needed. Don’t let this part be discouraging, because no matter what obstacles there are, they can’t keep you from achieving your goals. In the end the obstacles won’t stop you for two reasons.

  1. Once you’ve decided to follow the plan, all you have to do is follow it in order for it to work, regardless of what obstacles there are.
  2. Generally, not all obstacles have to be avoided in order to achieve your goal. For example, a few years ago I lost a significant amount of weight (about 30 pounds) while still eating apple slices and Nutella every night, even though my love for it was an apparent obstacle to losing weight. Most obstacles are just minor inconveniences and not show-stoppers.

Write them down. These might be things like the following.

  • There are weekly birthdays in the office and there are always sweets in the break room.
  • After work I’m too tired and lazy to exercise.
  • I don’t have the time to exercise regularly.
  • I feel embarrassed about how I look at the gym.
  • The portion sizes at restaurants always make me overeat.
  • My friends always invite me to unhealthy restaurants.
  • The voices in my head tell me eating an entire bag of chips is okay.
  • I’m bored while exercising.

We’ll get back to these later.

Refine the Long Term Goal

A good goal has certain properties.

  • It’s measurable.
  • It has a deadline.
  • It’s achievable.
  • It’s phrased as a positive action.
Bad Examples Good Examples
I want to lose weight (too vague, no deadline). I will weigh X pounds by June 3.
I want to save more money (too vague, no deadline). I will save $20,000 by Jan 1, 2018.
I will be a millionaire by Jan 1, 2018 (not realistic). By Jan 1, 2018 I will be investing 20% of my income every month.
Stop snacking after dinner. Stop complaining. Stop being stressed. Stop (anything) (not phrased as a positive action). These are habits. Have a look at my post on habits for ideas.

Break Down the Goal

Here’s the problem with goals. Achieving them takes too much time and they’re too hard. So when it’s time to work towards them it’s hard to see where to start, because of the effort required.

Example: I will have $12K in a savings account by Mar 1, 2018 (one year from today).

How can we save $12K? That’s a lot of money to just save. We start by breaking it down. If there are 12 months left then we’ll need to save $1,000 per month. That’s about $250 per week. Saving $12K is impossible. Saving $250 per week may be something reasonable to work at – that’s $36/day.

Now that we’ve broken down our “save $12K in one year” goal to a more reasonable weekly or daily goal, we can look at what we can do to achieve it and consider whether it’s really possible or not. There are lots of ways to save that much money, by the way. Breaking down a savings goal is easy, but the same has to be done with any kind of goal. Losing weight can be pounds per week, writing a book means writing X pages per week, running a marathon means running X times per week to train, etc. All goals can be broken down into daily habits and daily or weekly actions. And they must be. Otherwise, it’s just a goal and not a plan.

If you’re having trouble breaking down your goal then maybe you don’t have a goal. Maybe you have a wish. Does your goal sound something like “Lose weight,” “Stop procrastinating,” or “Be happy?” If so, then your goal is not measurable and has no deadline and is therefore inherently useless. Or as my old boss would say, “That’s not a goal!” It needs some refinement (refer to the refine the goal section above).

Define the Short Term Goals

This is where the magic happens. Your short term goals are the result of you breaking down your larger goal – they’re just daily or weekly. Most people can keep things up and stick to a plan for a day or a week. Defining our short term goals also means we can track our progress from week to week. It makes the plan stick for longer because we can always go back and see what we’ve accomplished so far.

Define exactly what needs to be done each day. Define your new actions (your new habits).

Destroy Your Obstacles

Look at the lady in this picture doing a mud run. When I get to this step, I imagine myself running one of these, hurdling over obstacles, leaving dirt and muck in my wake, vaulting over walls and then rappelling down the other side, landing and becoming Rambo to shoot through people telling me I can’t do it! I’ve never done a mud run, but I bet it feels the same as when I order a salad instead of a pizza.

Now that our goal has been broken down into manageable action steps, it’s the right time to look at our obstacles and see how we can avoid or embrace them.

We can take each obstacle and write an arrow to its solution or just cross it out and write the solution. Here are some examples (we only need one way to combat each item but there are more here for the sake of the example).

  • There are weekly birthdays in the office and there are always sweets in the break room.¬†
    • -> I will suggest designating one of the break rooms as sweets-free.
    • -> I will bring healthy snacks and avoid the break room on days when there are sweets.
  • After work I’m too tired and lazy to exercise.
    • -> I will wake up early to exercise.
  • I don’t have the time to exercise regularly.
    • -> I will wake up early to exercise or I will schedule a specific time to exercise.
  • I feel embarrassed about how I look at the gym.
    • -> I will find an exercise buddy to go with to the gym.
  • The portion sizes at restaurants always make me overeat.
    • -> I will ask for a box when the food is brought out and decide how much to eat before I begin eating.
  • My friends always invite me to unhealthy restaurants to eat.
    • -> I will suggest a healthier restaurant.
    • -> I will find a healthy item on the menu.
    • -> I will make healthier friends.
  • I’m bored while exercising.
    • -> I will listen to music, books, learn a language, or talk to my exercise buddy while working out.

Some obstacles can be embraced. When I decided to eat Nutella every day while losing weight, it was because I knew I needed to have some kind of sweet thing for my eating habits to be sustainable. I can’t and I don’t expect myself to eat healthy food 100% of the time. Since I planned ahead on having the treat, I was more motivated when I exercised and I could more easily say no to sweets throughout the day, because I knew I already had something planned.

Track Your Success

Every time a goal is reached, write it down. Being proud of what’s been accomplished isn’t just about feeling good – it’s the best way to see progress! Imagine trying to lose weight without ever weighing yourself, or trying to save a certain amount of money without having a savings account separate from your checking account. There would be no way to know if the goal were accomplished or not!

Revisit Your Goal

Stuff happens. People have accidents. Injuries happen. We can revisit our goals weekly or monthly to see if we’re on track and whether the original goal is still realistic or not. If it’s not still realistic, it needs to be changed. This does not mean giving up – it means adjusting it. Generally the best way to do this is to move the deadline back slightly. Otherwise I would say see if there are some other ways to make it start working. Improve your obstacles and solutions list, find a cohort to participate in your new habits, adjust your daily activities, etc.


This is the right way to set a goal – don’t. Create a plan instead. I have set tons of goals before, but I never got close to achieving them until I broke them down into manageable pieces. For me, that part is key. Everyone’s different though.

Which part of your plan keeps you going?

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

4 thoughts on “How to (Properly) Set a Goal

  • FinancePatriot

    I have to admit, I prefer a more informal approach to goal setting. I suppose the only goal I even moderately write down at all, is my early retirement planning. Most of this is done on a spreadsheet and I think setting a specific date would take the fun out of it.

    We know the following works, without fail;

    1. Live frugally well below your means
    2. Take advantage of tax deferred accounts
    3. Invest the surplus

    Rinse, repeat, rinse.

  • Mustard Seed Money

    I definitely agree that you need to create a bridge on how you’re going to achieve your goals. It’s not realistic to say I’m going to be a millionaire next year if you haven’t done any of the work to get there. Hope is not a plan and unfortunately I feel like I see that too often with the people I meet. When I talk to them about retirement there is zero interest and usually they say oh I’ll make more money in the future and then put it away. I have a feeling they’re going to be working a long time.

    • Aaron Post author

      Hey Mustard Seed Money! Thanks for stopping by :)
      Yes, yes they will be working a very long time. Unfortunately it’s one of those things that you can’t just leave until the last minute and then just “work harder” at the end. Procrastination is a killer when it comes to money management!