How to Set Goals: 7 Unconventional Tips for Smart Women

[Update: I created a Habits to Goal Worksheet (a free download) that can help you execute the ideas in this article.]

I suspect that many of us have mixed feelings about the summer’s end drawing near. On the one hand, some of us don’t want our vacation to end. We’ll miss the warm weather and having unstructured time to explore, enjoy, or do things we don’t usually get to do. On the other hand, others yearn to get back into a routine. For many parents, the return of their kids to school gives them the time and space to focus on other important priorities.

how to set goals

Amid this ambivalence, some of us will start to feel as though we should set some goals. If you’re feeling the urge to make plans, get organized, or develop new habits, please read the following tips, which I’ve picked up from working with my clients.

  1. Pick one goal to focus on. Though you may be able to manage two goals, one is really best. If you feel you must focus on more than one, stagger the goals so that you’re focusing on only one at a time. That is, when you’ve accomplished one goal, move on to the next. To learn how to weed out goals, see tip No. 2 below.
  2. It’s best to start with a “want to” goal rather than a “have to” or a “should.” Be honest with yourself; pick a goal that will give you satisfaction or pleasure. This may seem counterintuitive, but you’re more likely to succeed and will be in a better position to tackle more challenging goals.If you’re having a hard time figuring out what it is you want to do with your life, it’s even more critical to start with something that can give you joy. If you focus on a goal you think you “should” be working toward instead, you’re likely to get stuck or stay in the rut you want to escape. Doing something enjoyable that holds your interest helps you to learn what it is you want. Doing something reasonably easy lets you feel more confident about pursuing it. I explain why in greater depth, using real-life examples, in my e-book The Lighthouse Method.
  3. Focus on yourself. Don’t try to change the behavior of other people by setting goals for them. If, for example, you want your children to develop better homework habits this fall, or you’d like your partner to do more of the chores you loathe, they aren’t likely to succeed unless they set those goals for themselves. The only thing you can do is ask them to set their own goals, just as only you can set yours.
  4. Recognize the difference between projects and tasks, and choose each wisely. Picking one goal, as suggested in tip No. 1 above, usually means choosing one project, which is a set or a series of smaller tasks. The best tasks to choose are small, observable, and achievable. Let’s say, for example, you rekindled your joy of reading for pleasure this summer and want to continue to read in the fall. Your project or goal is to develop a reading habit. This requires many smaller action steps, such as researching what to read, buying or borrowing books, scheduling time to read, setting an alert or a reminder of when it’s time to read, starting a list of recommended books, and so on. Often, some of your tasks will depend on other ones, so continue to ask yourself, What’s the next action I need to take to move myself forward in my project/goal? Then, focus on that specific task.
  5. Set a check-in point. Many of us have been taught to set a deadline or a target date for our goals. I suggest setting a check-in point instead. About a week or two after you’ve set your goal and done some tasks related to completing it, take a step back and evaluate what you’ve done. If your tasks are measurable, keep track of your work on a piece of paper or in an app such as HabitBull.
  6. Celebrate your successes. Celebrating small wins is not just fun, it’s actually helpful for keeping yourself motivated. Successes remind you that you can get things done. To read more about this, check out an article I wrote earlier this year.
  7. Be flexible. Abandon goals that don’t serve you well. If you find you’ve picked the wrong goal or are having a hard time achieving it, change it. Make the goal easier or move on to another one. Don’t blame yourself, be critical of your willpower, or feel guilty. I give you permission to abandon goal setting altogether if it doesn’t work for you. This may not be the right time for you to set goals or start a new project. When the time comes, you’ll know it.

If you find that you’re beating yourself up about it or feeling miserable, please email me so that I can help you to stop this unproductive behavior. Life is already too short and challenging; don’t make it more so by making yourself feel bad.

I’d love to hear what you think of these tips. If I’ve missed something, or if you have any questions, contact me. If you found one of my tips helpful, please share this with your friends and let me know about your successes.

Happy end of summer!

P. S. Don’t forget to grab your Habits to Goal Worksheet.


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