Every year we make resolutions to change something about our lives, or to achieve something new; most of these are at the turn of the New Year or following some kind of significant event or incident that makes us rethink the path we are on.  The problem is that we rush into deciding what that resolution looks like and almost certainly fail to achieve them; as little as 8% of resolutions are fulfilled each year.  So what goes wrong, why are we more likely to fail than succeed?  It’s down to the setting of the resolutions themselves.  The things we want to change, or achieve, are either impossible or we place too many restrictions on ourselves in order to achieve them as quickly as possible so it becomes untenable.  The other thing we do wrong is create all or nothing scenarios.  Either we make the change or we give up entirely.

How to set goals and achieve them with success.

Lynn Davies set himself an ‘all or nothing’ goal at the 1968 Olympic Games which created a self induced barrier he could not overcome.

The long jump event in the 1968 Olympic Games was going to be the most exciting competition.  The current world record holder, Ralph Boston, defending Olympic champion, Lynn Davies, and the season favourite, Bob Beamon, were all going to compete in the final.  The conditions were perfect to generate a good jump, and the athletes were at peak physical condition, the only difference between them were their mindsets.  Relaxed and knowing that he had more jumps to come, Bob Beamon broke the world record by over 55 centimetres on his very first jump.  This devastated the competition, and while some were able to jump well, no-one came close to Beamon.  Lynn Davies, the defending Olympic champion’s next jump was a terrible 6.43m.  What went wrong?  His mindset failed.  He had created an all or nothing scenario in his head that meant he was there to win gold or nothing at all.  He failed to realise that there was a silver and bronze medal up for grabs, as well as the opportunity to break his own personal best.

We do this all too often.  “I’m not touching chocolate this year!”  Then the minute we stumble, we declare it’s over and binge on as much chocolate as we can.  Yet we lose sight of the fact that up until that stumble, we had probably consumed 90% less chocolate than the previous year.  We commit to going to the gym, then after 2 months of regular attendance we miss a day and declare it’s all over and spend the next 6 months sitting on the sofa regretting having ever started.  If you want your resolutions to succeed, you need to look at your goals and your approach to ensuring they succeed, as well as evaluate them for alternatives along the way.

There is a simple formula, created by Sir John Whitmore, that can summarise those factors you need to consider: Performance = Potential + Barriers

In order to maximise your performance, you need to unlock your potential through developing knowledge or skills, whilst simultaneously minimising the barriers to your success by changing the way you think, feel, and behave towards your limitations.  Once you’ve identified what you need to do, and what you need to not do, these can become your goals.

There are traditionally four types of goals:

End State Goals

These are usually long term goals, ultimately where you want to end up in the future, and defines your achievement.  When looking at this goal in the here and now, it can often seem daunting and unachievable.  Imagine when you first started learning to drive.  After your fourth stall on a hill start, I bet most driving functions seemed quite unachievable, yet eventually you passed you test and got your licence.

Progressive Goals

These are small, sequential goals that are used to work towards an end state goal.  These require constant review in order to ensure that you remain on track and are maintaining momentum towards where you ultimately want to be.  These can often add pressure because of the fear of your end state goal failing because of something relatively small.  Using the driving analogy, these would be your manoeuvres, fundamentals of operating a vehicle, even your theory test.  Failing to achieve any of these smaller goals could ultimately prevent you achieving your end state goal of gaining a driving licence.

Mastery Goals

This is where you intend to become an expert in a specific skill or field.  They can easily become obsessive and closed minded as you focus only on the matter at hand and no other superfluous distractions.  There is an emphasis on continual development in order to remain current in that skill or field, but it does lead to a sense of emptiness because once you’ve achieved it, what do you do next?

Performance Goals

These are designed to achieve a set standard.  In order to do x you need to achieve y.  They are short term goals, that can lead up to achieving your mastery goal.  As standards change, your performance goals will need to change too, and because of the transactional nature of them, there is a fear of failure.  If you’re not able to get a job until you get a qualification, there is a fear that if you fail that qualification you will have ruined your life, so why bother risking the money it costs to achieve it?  You resign yourself to not even trying and find an alternative, less risky course of action.

how to set goals and succeed in achieving them

Setting The Goal

Once you’ve identified the type, or types of goal you need to achieve, how do you actually set them?  If you Google it, you’ll literally see thousands of different acronyms suggesting how to set goals, but I would suggest the SMARTER model:

S = Specific.  Your goal needs to be specific.  Wanting to be healthy is a brilliant notion, but how do you define “health”.  I can’t go into a shop and buy some health, nor can go to the gym to work my health, and nor can I eat health.  You need to be far more specific than this.  Something like: I want to reduce my body fat from 40% down to 20% is a much more specific goal to achieve.  This could be a progressive goal that you combine with others in order to achieve a more holistic goal of better health, but when you’re trying to work towards something, the more specific it is the better.

M = Measurable.  If you can’t measure your goal, how will you know when you’ve achieved it?  If it’s a state of mind, that’s incredibly subjective and can differ from one environment to the next.  The body fat goal is an example of a measurable goal.  But this is where your end state and progressive goals come in.  If your end state goal is to have lost 20% body fat, an example of your progressive goal would be to lose 1% per month for 20 months.

A = Achievable.  You need to have a serious look at your life.  Remember the performance equation: performance = potential + barriers.  You need to do a frank and honest appraisal of your environment and identify those barriers to your success.  If I were to say that in 12 months I want to have £100,000 in savings, but only earn £50,000 a year, my goal will be impossible.  If you’ve had chocolate five times a day, every day, for the last 10 years, saying you’ll never eat chocolate again is simply not achievable and will just feel like a punishment.  No success that you have will ever outweigh the feeling of deprivation that you’ve just inflicted on yourself.

R = Relevant.  A lot of models will have realistic here, but that is exactly the same as achievable.  The key thing here is that you need to remain invested in your goal in order to maximise the opportunity for success, it needs to arouse your interest and help motivate you towards success.  If you’re 40% body fat, and are happy being 40% body fat, you wanting to lose 20% body fat simply because the world tells you that you should, will not motivate you.  It’s not relevant to you because it’s a goal that’s forced on you, not one you’ve chosen.  Like wise, if achieving a performance goal is something you’ve chosen, yet you have no interest in doing the activity that it’s a prerequisite for, you will almost certainly fail to achieve it.  You need to decide what’s important to you, and whether it will still be important to you by the time you achieve it.

T = Time Bound.  There’s nothing more motivating than a deadline.  You need to set a time limit on when you want to achieve your goal, but it needs to be achievable and relevant.  If you have 2 years to achieve a standard, why set yourself 1 month to achieve it?  If you want to lose 20% body fat, don’t give yourself a week to lose it.  The end state and progressive goals can work well here.  Give yourself an achievable amount of time to reach your end state, and then break it up into smaller progressive increments.

E = Evaluate.  If you’ve set yourself progressive goals, you need to constantly evaluate your progress.  Are you still on track to achieve your end state by the time you’ve set, does your end state goal need to change because you’ve realised one of your barriers simply cannot be overcome?  If you want to get a 20 inch upper arm, you can train all you like, but if genetics dictates that the largest muscle your bones can hold is 15 inches, you will need to revise your end state goal.

R = Reward.  You need to take ownership of your progress.  You need to remain motivated.  One way of doing this is to generate the sense of satisfaction that achieving your goals, no matter how small, brings.  For every challenge, there needs to be a reward.  The only person that will know what constitutes an effective reward is you.  You know what makes you tick, and this is where you take ownership of your progress.  Get the reward right, and it may spur you on to success, get it wrong and you might wonder what the point of it all is.  The key here is to not reward yourself with what you think you should, but with what you actually want.

how to set goals and succeed in achieving them

So now that you’ve identified the types of goal you need to set, and you’ve actually set your end state goal, and all those smaller progressive goals in order to achieve it, what happens if you lose motivation, how do you reinvigorate your desire for success?  If you’ve set a relevant and achievable goal, and you’re continuously reviewing its validity and currency, and you’re effectively rewarding yourself, this really shouldn’t be a problem.  Your first step is to revise your goal and ask yourself whether, based on your current barriers, is the goal still relevant and achievable.  If not, change it to one that is.  This isn’t failure, this is sensible.  A 10km runner who is constantly winning every event they run, and has nothing left to achieve in that field, may choose to enter marathons.  Then they realise that their physical barriers will not allow them to compete at that distance at the highest level, no matter how long they train for, so decide to go back to 10km.  This isn’t a failure, this is recognising your own limitations and addressing them to make your goals more relevant.  If you are following the SMARTER model, and still don’t feel motivated, there are 3 things you will need to consider:

Vision.  You should remind yourself what you need to do, and more importantly why.  You should take a step back and look at the bigger picture of why you chose that particular goal in the first place.  You may not be motivated to achieve a certain progressive goal, but when you consider the impact that it may have on your end state goal, it should reinvigorate your desire for success.

Support.  It may be the last thing you want to do, but you might want to consider asking for help.  This might be advice from a coach, a mentor, or requesting some feedback from someone sharing your goal.  Exercise caution though when seeking feedback.  Destructive, judgemental, or just poor feedback can have a negative effect.

Challenge.  It has been said that the greater the challenge, the greater the reward.  You should consider whether your goal is challenging enough to peak your interest, or whether you’ve made it too challenging to achieve.

If you follow the SMARTER model, and consider the concept of vision, support, and challenge, you should be able to be in the 8% whose resolutions succeed.

What models have you heard of, and which have worked for you in the past? If you liked this, why not check out Paul’s advice on making SMART goals in 2018 here.

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