How to make your goals foolproof

Aim for above average, and never stop

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Source: @vklemen via Unsplash

When you’re growing up, you’re told to dream big and to shoot for the stars. That should never change, but you shouldn’t use the same approach for your goals. Your dreams should be big, but your goals should not.

What’s the difference? Quite a lot. According to dictionary.com, a dream is “ a cherished aspiration, ambition, or ideal.”

A goal, on the other hand, is “the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result.”.

Think about it a little. A goal is something you aim towards, and it’s tangible. It’s that certificate of completion, the target weight, or the ability to walk 5 miles. These are things that are almost entirely within your control, as it’s something you are aiming towards.

A dream, on the other hand, is an ideal. This is the big plan that you’re working towards, or what might be the culmination of your life’s work. These may be the result of your hard work, but may not always be within your control. For example, if your dream is to be published in the New York Times, then you can work to be excellent but an editor still needs to notice you.

The reason why people fail at achieving what they set out to do isn’t because they dream too big: it’s because they set their goals too big.

If my dream was to complete a triathlon but I just had knee surgery, it would be foolish to set my training goal as doing a whole triathlon as practice. When you set your goal that huge, there’s no way you can achieve it at first, so you might get discouraged or forget about it entirely.

If I break up that dream into 25 separate goals, though, I might achieve each one. And it doesn’t matter if a dream consists of 1 goal or a million goals, you still can get there if you achieve each one.

There is a Japanese productivity philosophy called “Kaizen”. Roughly translated, it means “constant, continuous improvement.” You might have encountered this in business settings (i.e. Lean manufacturing), but it’s a good philosophy to use towards goal-setting as well.

If I asked you how to become a billionaire, think about what solutions you might give me (assuming you don’t laugh me off). How many of them are entirely within my control?

On the other hand, if I asked you how I could save $50/month, I’m sure you might be able to give me more solutions. How many of those are things that are entirely within my control?

So what’s a good metric for goal-setting then?

Assume you’re the average, and aim for above average.

That’s usually big enough for a goal, but not so big it starts looking like an ideal. Here’s an simple example.

Let’s say you earn $50,000 a year. There’s two other people who do your job, one who makes $40,000 and one who makes $60,000. If ‘above average’, in this case, is defined as 1 standard deviation, then the goal would be to make an additional $8,165 a year, or $680 a month.

If you want to be above average with pushups, do 10 more pushups than the average.

If you want to aim for above average by weight, lose 15 pounds.

These are not super small goals by any means, but it’s also not so big that you can’t imagine ways of doing it.

There is another purpose of these smaller goals. You get to celebrate, reflect, and feel gratitude.

The world celebrates big wins. The 600 pound man who became a 120 pound bodybuilder. The impoverished single mom who became a billionaire overnight. You losing 10 pounds may not seem a big deal when compared to this.

But accomplishing a goal is accomplishing a goal. You’ve done what you’ve set out to do, and you have something you can point to as improvement over your past self.

What’s more important, though, is that these smaller goals give you a chance to reflect. If you accomplish a huge goal, there might be a period where you feel empty for a bit. Worse yet, you might have spent a lot of time and energy towards pursuing something that don’t care about at this point.

At the end of each small goal, though, you can reconsider if the path you chose is the right path. For example, imagine you absolutely hated the exercise routine you did for those 10 pounds. You worked to the point of collapse, but also noticed that you were still drinking sugary drinks and eating a ton of food. Upon reflection, you still have the same ‘goal’ (losing another 10 pounds), but consider a diet-based approach for your next goal iteration rather than an exercise-based one.

By breaking up your goals into smaller chunks, we can make sure that we’re always on the right path towards our dreams. Aim for the stars, but don’t be afraid to course correct along the way.

Written by

Healthcare-focused UX designer and researcher. Creator of two online courses on design communication and UX research planning: https://tinyurl.com/y5m2j42v

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