How to set goals you might actually keep…

It’s mid January, do you know where your resolutions are?

A few weeks ago my Facebook newsfeed was awash with posts and articles and memes about New Year’s resolutions. Some make resolutions. Some decrying resolutions they could not keep. Others resolving not to make resolutions. - My New Year's resolution is to stop lying to myself about making lifestyle changes.

I have spent quite a bit of time in my nonprofit career thinking, talking, reading, and learning about goal-setting. While there are a lot of differences between a program and a person, I have found a lot of the ideas in goal setting as a field make a lot of sense for those of us who want to make changes in our personal life. And it’s a lot of these ideas that seem to be missing the traditional “resolutions” I’m seeing crop up all over Facebook.

So here are my two cents on setting goals you might actually keep. (edit: once I got to the bottom of this wicked long post, I realized this is more like my four cents)  The good news is, the more thoughtful you are about the process at the onset, the more likely you are to follow through. And you can do this at any time. Midnight on 12/31, mid-January, or mid-year.

Where to start

Photo courtesy of bonbonbreak online magazine

Photo courtesy of bonbonbreak online magazine

One of the most common missteps I see in goal setting is that people often start with setting a goal. Wait, what? I’ll let you re-read that. Yea, that’s what I said. You can’t actually set goals by starting with a goal. Let me explain, please.

I see many people make resolutions out of any context of reality… I would even go so far as to say that sometimes, they’re arbitrary. It seems like a good idea to say we’re going to be healthier or more mindful or more organized, etc etc… because really, who doesn’t want those things? But what does that really mean for you? Is that even possible or attainable in your actual life as it is today? Or are we just picking a resolution of off Pinterest because it’s new and shiny?

In the nonprofit world, this is calledmission drift.” Mission drift happens when an organization takes on a goal that is a little tangential from its original mission (this usually happens because they’re chasing after money.) They start to blur the boundaries around what it is they actually intend to do until before you know it they’re an animal shelter that is going to end the war in the Middle East.

An organization’s mission reflects it priorities. When we set out to plan goals, we need to first figure out what our priorities are. So for example, my general priorities (in no particular order) are my children, my husband, my career, my well-being (health, mental health, financial), and my personal development (self-care, learning and growing as a person). These are the things that are most important to me – the areas in my life where, when things aren’t going well, it impacts me in a significant way.

Go do this: Write down your top 5 priorities. Think about what each one really means. I would hope that parents would have their children as priorities. That’s obvious. But what does that mean? What about your relationship and role in your child’s life is a priority for you? Is it a priority for you to be a certain kind of figure in your child’s life? You don’t have to go in depth on the page with what each one means, but just be sure when you write down “kids” or “marriage” that there’s more behind those words.

Once you know what your priorities are, you can set goals that are in line with becoming the person and creating the life you intend to. Having goals that are related to the things that are most important to you means you’re more likely to pay attention to them and make the investment to get them done.

So now that you have those priorities straight…

Hop on the scale


Not that scale. So once you know what your general priorities are, you can begin to assess what needs your attention. What are your priorities right now? Because you’re only human and you can only do so much. You are not going to change everything in your life all at once, so don’t even go there.

On a scale (1-5 usually works), how are your priorities going? Do you feel that your relationship with your children and your role as a parent are where you want them to be? How about your marriage? Career? Some things are probably going pretty well. Those don’t really need your immediate attention. What needs your attention is what is a 1-3. Things that aren’t sitting well with you. Those are the areas in which you’re going to focus this year. Because you can’t do it all. I think I already said that. I’ll probably say it a million more times. It’s important. You can’t become a whole new person with a whole new life just because 12/31/13 is over. You need to pick one or two manageable things that are most urgent and run with them. Maybe that’s it for the year. Maybe you can get one of them up to a 4 or 5 in about 6-8 months and then can pick a new one. Goals don’t have to start and end on January 1. So pick one or two and know that the others will come in due time.

Go do this: review your 5 priorities and rate them from 1-5. Thinking about these things can sometimes be tough – it’s not easy to admit that the things that are most important to your life are not going as well as you’d like. Remember that there is no such thing as perfect. You are doing the best that you can with the tools you have and what a great step you’re taking to go through this process to set some real goals for yourself to get moving in the right direction!

I’ve got problems…

photo courtesy of Heroku

photo courtesy of Heroku

Now think about what the problem is. You need to write a sentence that clearly explains what the problem is. It’s not enough to have an icky feeling about a part of your life. You need to know exactly what’s making it a 1 and not a 4 or 5. Here’s a random example:

Bob’s priority is his health. He’s giving his health a 2 right now. The problem is that Bob is overweight, which is giving him various health complications.

Go do this: If any of your priorities have a rating of 1-3, write a problem statement for each one.

So, we know what our priorities are. We know that we feel like we’re doing less than stellar in one of those priority areas. And we know what the problem is that we want to change.

Finding Cause

So we have a problem. Our health is important to us, yet we are overweight and have several health issues as a result. I bet many of us are chomping at the bit to call this a goal right now. We have a problem so the goal is to just stop doing all of that, right? Well, if it were that easy, why didn’t you just not act that way to begin with?

There is a critical step that I think often gets missed here. We need to find the causes for this problem. The only way we can stop the problem is if we stop the things that are making the problem happen.

Let’s look at Bob again. The problem is that he is overweight. I imagine Bob is thinking then that his goal is to lose weight… and the way people lose weight is to exercise and eat healthy. Bob hasn’t read my blog (haha), so his goal is probably going to be to just go do those things. He might even get a gym membership and throw away all the unhealthy foods in his house.

For some, this can work sometimes, especially if the problem is so urgent that we can’t NOT address it (if Bob’s health has deteriorated to the point where if he doesn’t address is NOW there will be dire consequences).  Many times, though, we don’t see Bob at the gym past February. So what’s causing this misalignment between Bob’s priorities and his reality? He may find that he loses steam when he exercises alone.. or maybe he’s not good at self-motivation. Or maybe he eats out a lot so while he doesn’t have a lot of junk food at home, he’s eating big portions of fattening food more often than not during the week. And the reason he eats out a lot is because he’s never plans his meals.

Go do this: I call this the 2 year old test. You know that 2 year old that keeps asking, “Why?” Harness your inner two year old. Why is your problem occurring? And why is that happening? And why is that happening. Keep asking why until you get to your root causes. You might be surprised at what you find.

And finally, you have some goals to work with


Now that you’ve identified what’s causing your life to not match up with your priorities, you can know what needs to change. So, in our scenario about Bob, his priority is his health, which gets a 2 because of his weight issue. The problem is that he is overweight, causing him several ailments. The causes of his weight issue are that he doesn’t exercise because he hates going alone to the gym and doesn’t really feel motivated to keep going. He also eats out more often than not because it’s just him, so why cook for one? He often skips lunch at work because he’s too busy and ends up eating whatever’s around until he can hit the local diner on his way home from work, meaning he’s not able to eat healthy meals, skipping meals entirely and snacking on junk food.

So you can see where some of his goals might be different from just simply saying “go to the gym” and “eat better.” Maybe Bob needs to look at finding a friend or a group activity for exercise – something where he won’t have to do it alone and where others are counting on him to be there so he’ll be more motivated to show up. Perhaps he can set some goals around learning to cook meals for one and packing healthy, portable snacks and bringing dinner leftovers for lunch. Because he’s identified exactly what’s been getting in his way, he can set goals that make sense in his life. Bob from before got a gym membership because “that’s what people who want to lose weight do.”  Bob this time signed up for cooking for one classes at his local library because that’s what causing Bob to not stick to healthy food choices.

Work smarter, not harder

An important note about goals: Goals should be S.M.A.R.T.

Specific: Simply saying “eat healthy” isn’t going to give you something clear to strive for. Be specific about exactly what you’re going to do (eliminate sugar from my diet, limit take out to once per week, add one more serving of veggies to my diet every day, pack healthy snacks in my car so I have something to eat if lunch isn’t available). The more specific you are, the more tangible your goal is, the more likely you are to grab hold and get it done.

Measurable: “healthier” is subjective. If you’re going to do more of something, how much more? If you want to do something less, how much less? Give yourself something to strive for that you can clearly identify as the finish line

Achievable: your goals should be challenging, but feel possible. Look into what can be expected for your goal. Ask around. Set a goal that you feel is manageable.

Realistic: How will your goal fit into your real life? If Bob’s work schedule isn’t going to change any time soon, it’s probably not realistic for him to set a goal that involves sitting down for a formal lunch every day at noon. His goal is to not skip meals and a realistic way for him to do that is to find portable lunches that he can eat somewhere around midday in between appointments. Make sure the goals you set fit into your life and your family and aren’t based on what “should” be.

Time bound: I still haven’t found “Some day” on the calendar, guys. Give yourself some time parameters. By when are you going to do this? Or how often? Sometimes it might make sense to stagger your goals – maybe by March Bob eats lunch most days. By June he’s eating lunch every day. By March he’s playing pick up basketball every weekend and running with his neighbor 3 mornings per week and by June he’s up to 5 mornings per week. Give yourself a deadline and set reminders along the way so that deadline doesn’t sneak up on you.

Go do this: smart step some goals for yourself based on your priorities/problems/causes. Remember to give yourself realistic timelines and set goals that feel doable. Get out your planner and jot down your deadlines and a few reminders along the way. 

Yea, I said reminders. I like to put reminders in my planner to check in on my goals. If I said I was going to do a certain thing by March, I’d write on mid February somewhere in my calendar, “How’s your xyz goal going?” You could also enlist the help of a friend to send you a text message to remind you that you were going to work on your hobby more often or look into photography classes. They don’t need to call you every day to say, “Did you do your hobby today?” but just periodically to remind you that you wanted to make this change. If it’s going well, great! If you haven’t gotten to it, maybe this is just what you need to say, oh yea! I wanted to do that!  (to avoid the age old question, “Just where did the year go? I never got to do x,y,z…”) OR this may be an opportunity for you to go back and reassess what’s realistic and achievable for you at this time. It’s okay to reassess, redo and start again. There’s always plan b, c, d…. just keep picking yourself up so you keep moving in the right direction. Keep asking, “Why?” and reminding yourself of your intentions.

So there ya have it. Goals. Bet you didn’t think I’d take you on such a journey. But taking the time to really think through your intentions will mean greater success in the end. So get a journal or grab your laptop/ipad, a calendar, and a cup of something yummy and hide away for an afternoon and think about your priorities and where you want to be.

Your future self will thank you for it.



2 thoughts on “How to set goals you might actually keep…

  1. Pingback: I could have gotten more done…is junk food for your brain!

    • Thanks for the ping back! This is a great article – it’s so true that we need to re-evaluate how much we tell ourselves we’re actually supposed to get done. When what you get one is in line with your goals and your priorities, it doesn’t matter if it was 1 thing or 100 things – you’ve accomplished something great either way

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