Generally, people regard the New Year as a time to set new goals. Poppycock! There is no reason why you should wait all the way until January 1st to set a new goal for yourself. And what happens if you don’t think of your goal until February? Are you supposed to wait 11 months before working at it? There are plenty of other entirely reasonable times to set goals for yourself. For instance your birthday, the start of a new semester, when you relocate, when you start a new job, President’s day, or any day of the week with a vowel in it’s name. Unfortunately, for every completely awesome time of the year that we can establish a new goal, there are just as many ways in which we can fail miserably at achieving our goal.
Why the rambling about goal setting? Simple, young padawan. Because setting goals is critical to financial independence. While it’s possible to achieve financial independence through capitalizing vulture-like on the death of an obscenely rich relative, or acquiring what is commonly known as a sugar-momma (-daddy), most of us will achieve financial independence the hard way. By working, saving, and investing our money.
Why you fail at your achieving your goals
There are a few basic reasons why you may have failed to achieve your previous goals. Some of my favorites include:
- Too visionary - “I’m going to be a better person!” What does that even mean? Are you supposed to start picking up stray dogs off the street or become the CEO? I’m lost, and you’ve already failed.
- Unrealistic expectations - “I’m going to save $30,000 this year!” You only make $40,000 before taxes. Unless you’re planning on getting a major promotion, winning the lotto, or robbing a bank, this goal failed the moment you wrote it down.
- Nebulously defined - “I want to save money this year!” or “I’m going to start exercising!” How much and how often? Laudable goals. But I’m not clear on how much money you want to save, or what exactly you’re going to do to get there.
- Lack of awareness of your existing commitments - “I’m going to become a professional painter!” Your goal of becoming an oil painter who could school Michelangelo is ambitious but likely unobtainable given that you work 10 hour days and are a single mother of two.
- Laziness - “I’m going to do (fill_in_the_blank)!” Unless your goal is to pack on 20 pounds, increase your risk of diabetes, and watch reruns of American Idol, you’ve failed.
So how do you set a goal in such a way that doesn’t set yourself up for failure, but still delivers the goods in the end? Read on.
4 Steps to Achieve Your Goals
Step 1: Establish your vision. What do you want to achieve? Lose weight? Get a new job? What? Step 1 is super easy. It’s what most people do every time they make a New Year’s resolution. They state a vision of where they want some aspect of their life to go. Now actually getting there, that’s what steps 2, 3 and 4 are all about.
Step 2: Break down your visionary goal into Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound (SMART) goals (*). Aren’t acronyms clever? These goals should be much smaller than your actual vision. Let’s walk through the letters of the acronym.
- Specific - Specifically, what are you going to do? I want to achieve financial independence, so I am going to save money. Specifically, I’m going to save at least 50% of my earnings. Maybe I want to get in shape, so specifically I’m going to plan on going to the gym three times per week.
- Measurable - You must have some way to measure your progress towards your goal. If I’m saving money, I can look at my brokerage account value slowly moving up. If I want to get in shape, I can watch my weight decline or my bench-press max increase. An unmeasurable goal is an unachievable goal.
- Achievable - The goal must be something that you could realistically accomplish. If you bench-press 100 pounds, getting up to 150 pounds in a year’s time may be an achievable goal. If you want to save money, saving $1,000 a month may be achievable. Going from a 100 pound bench press to an Olympic power lifter is unlikely, to say the least. Saving $1,000 a month may be out of your reach if you only make $35,000 a year. Set your goals according to what you can do, not what you dream about happening.
- Relevant – Pick goals that matter. If you want to exercise, it doesn’t matter if you join a gym. It matters if you do the exercise. On a bit broader level, try to narrow down your goals to those that will have the biggest impact on your life. It might be nice to have a goal of “learn to build ships in a bottle,” but unless it’s something that you’re really passionate about, your efforts are better spent elsewhere. The sad fact is that there are only so many hours in a day. Use yours wisely.
- Time-bound - You need to accomplish your goals in a certain period of time. For example, exercising three days per week. Or saving $1,000 a month. Note how you’re forcing yourself to do things on a schedule. Time-bound also includes deadlines. For example, “Run a 5K by the end of the year.” If you are serious about setting a goal, be serious about getting it done on time.
Step 3: Track your progress. Make sure that you are keeping track of your progress towards your goal. You must keep track of both how close you are to achieving your vision and how consistent you have been with following your plan to get there. For example, if you want to loose weight, then you should be tracking your weight (obviously) and also your adherence to your exercise schedule.
Step 4: Assess and reassess. Every couple of months (or whenever is appropriate), sit down and make an assessment of your progress towards your goal. Are you moving in the direction that you wanted to go? At the rate you wanted to go? If not, are you following your plan? If you aren’t following your plan, then you’ve found the problem.
I’m going to keep it real with you. Sometimes even the best plans aren’t sufficient to get the job done, or are just bad ideas from the outset. If you’re following your plan through and still not getting anywhere, then it might be time for a new plan. Consider stepping it up a notch or doing something totally different.
So there you have it. Four simple steps to accomplish almost any goal you set your sights on. Be it financial independence, learning a new skill, getting a date, losing weight, growing your career, or even world domination!
(*) Yes, I swiped the idea from the business world. But this shit works. So roll with it.
Readers: How do you make and stick to your goals? Do you use a similar system or something totally different? What do you think leads to success or failure when pursuing goals?