I am obsessive about the goals I set.
Each year, right around Thanksgiving, I start reflecting. I can’t help it. Growing up in the Midwest, this is the time of year when the cold settles in, the trees turn colors, and then bare. The summer tempo of downtown Chicago comes to a screeching halt. Everyone throws their winter coats and hats on and prepares for the long haul ahead–winter is coming.
This is the time of year when it’s most natural to think, “Another year just went by. What happened?”
On the last day of December, with my family up in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin in a snug cabin with a crackling fire, I excuse myself to another room where I finish reading my entire journal from the year before. I look for patterns in my entries–things that worked well, or clearly weren’t working at all. I look for moments of joyful accomplishment, as well as moments where I felt frustrated and stuck.
I see this process as a crucial part of what comes next: setting goals for the year to come.
To effectively set goals for yourself, first you have to understand why you didn’t achieve the goals you had previously set.
As a society, we love setting goals for ourselves.
We love to-do lists and organized calendars. We love motivation journals with sayings at the top that keep us feeling high on our ambitions for all of three days. We love thinking about all the things we want to do and be–but struggle very much with enduring the hours and hours of implementation that process calls for.
What I’ve learned over the years about goal setting–both in studying my own behaviors as well as those of the people around me (who speak so highly of all the things they’re going to do, but never do)–is that it tends to fail because of one reason and one reason only.
When a goal isn’t trackable on a daily basis, it becomes exponentially more difficult to feel as though you’re moving in the right direction.
Let me give you an example.
Let’s say your goal was to go to your local gym and make 10 free throws a day–because you wanted to improve that one skill.
That seems like a very manageable goal, doesn’t it? Ten free throws.
You can show up to the gym. You can stay there for as long as you’d like. But you know what your goal is, you can measure its success, and each day you know whether that goal was achieved.
Now, let’s say your goal was to become one of the greatest basketball players to ever live.
How do you measure that?
Especially when you’re first starting out–let’s say this was a new goal–how would you know where to start? Should you spend your time doing layups? Shooting three-pointers? Maybe you should spend all day dribbling? How many hours should you practice?
You have a much less concrete goal to aim toward, which makes it much harder to gauge whether you’re making progress.
And, as humans, unless we feel like we’re making progress, we tend to give up on our pursuit.
Unfortunately, most people don’t set concrete, measurable goals.
Instead, they set big, overarching, difficult-to-measure goals for themselves, because they’re in love with the idea of the end result.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but if that strategy didn’t pan out very well for you in 2018, then it’s probably not going to fair much better in 2019.
I challenge you to make this one change to the goals you set, and see what happens:
In 2019 (or effective immediately), I challenge you to only set goals you can accomplish within seven days.
Every time you set a goal, ask yourself if you can realistically accomplish it in seven days.
If you can, reverse-engineer what you need to do over the next week to accomplish it. How many hours do you need to devote to it each day? How will you know when you’ve crossed the finish line?
If you can’t accomplish it in seven days, the goal is too big. It’s all right to have a big goal on the horizon, but you’ll never get there if you can’t break it down into actionable steps. So ask yourself, “If my massive goal is all the way over there, what do I need to get done this week to move myself in that direction?”
I have always found the seven-day rule to be the most effective when it comes to goal setting, primarily because a week is always more than enough time to get something substantial done. The problem is, we rarely stay focused on our goals for a week straight. We daydream about the big shiny reward at the end, and then when it comes time to work we say, “Eh, I don’t really have time today–and besides, I have all the time in the world. I’ll do it tomorrow.”
But you don’t have all the time in the world.
You have seven days.
Get it done now. And at the end of next week, reflect again–and ask yourself, “Now that I’ve got that piece done, what’s next?”
And then repeat.