One of the key tenants of personal development is how to set effective goals. Over the years I have read countless articles, books, blog posts, listened to podcast, audio books, and even radio shows about the topic and I have learned A LOT. I have decided that, since it is such an important topic, I should break it down for you into the three easy steps.

Okay its not quite that easy, as I am sure you know! It is more like three BIG sections about the science behind goal setting and then my own personal six-step goal break down which has worked great for me and my clients.

For a Free Goal Worksheet Click Here.

Goal setting in six easy steps

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The key to understanding goal setting is understanding that it is all about your mindset.

The thing that allows us to achieve our biggest goals and what keeps us from ever starting on our New Year Resolutions is all in our mind. It thus follows that if you want to set goals and actually achieve them you need to first work on your mindset.

What keeps us from achieving our goals?

First let’s look at the roadblocks we all have set up that keep us from being and doing the Gutsy things in life.

Section One: Willpower and Decision Fatigue

Don’t we all wish we could have more willpower? It turns out that your willpower is not finite. With every decision you are faced to make, especially the ones requiring self-control, your willpower gradually depletes.

The reality is, some days your willpower is like an I Phone battery, where you can’t ever seem to keep it charged, and other days, days when you have probably had good sleep and exercise, you are able to handle difficult situations with grace and ease and stick with the plans you have set for your day and your time. Understanding this and planning accordingly can alleviate this willpower drain and help you to stay the course and achieve your goal.

Willpower and the Brain

Willpower is controlled by the prefrontal cortex, a section of your brain located right behind your forehead. This region is responsible for decision making, self-control, and regulating behavior. To aid your prefrontal cortex you must give it fuel: sleep, good food, exercise, and a break from decision making or you will risk decision fatigue.

Decision fatigue is a term coined by Roy F. Baumeister, a social psychologist, that describes the finite store of mental energy you have in exerting self-control. Once you are mentally depleted you are less likely to consider a trade-off or compromise, you might just pick the easiest, best, or cheapest option for example.

How this could affect achieving your goals is that too much mental energy spent on your day to day activities can mean that by the time you get to working on a step towards your goal you are so mentally depleted that you chose and easier option:

“I’ll just do it tomorrow…”

How to fix this

  1. Eliminate decision fatigue while trying to accomplish your goal by planning the day before the day begins
  2. Make a plan B for the steps necessary in accomplishing your goal. Use an “if ___ then ___” statement. For example: If I don’t make it to the gym, then I will go for a walk instead. If I don’t make a lunch in the morning then I will get a sandwich at the deli instead of the vending machine. Etc.
  3. Do your goal work in the morning when your decision-making skills and your willpower are highest. Plan your day to avoid obstacles specifically at the end of the day when willpower is lowest; example if you need to go to the gym after work, bring the clothes with you in the morning and don’t go home first. If resisting eating out at night is hard prep a meal before you leave in the morning, etc. Or, just get up earlier! I try to get up at 5:30 am to get my exercise and mediation time in because I know that the likelihood of me doing it after baby goes to bed is VERY VERY low!  

You can have more willpower! Just understand how and when!

Gutsy Life goal setting

Section Two: Motivation is a Myth

Your brain is wired for survival, blame it on 200,000 years plus of evolution. Our brain wants to keep us alive and we are thus wired to avoid things that are uncomfortable or scary or difficult.

Here is how it works: When faced with something scary different or uncertain we will hesitate. That hesitation, even just a microsecond, will send a stress signal to our brain causing our brain to start firing, looking for the threat, and then trying to remove us from that threat at all costs.

What this means for you and goal setting is that you are never going to feel like doing something uncomfortable, or scary or hard!

Waiting for that to change is a lost cause because, did I mention you have 200,000 years of evolution working against you? Don’t fight that. Just realize that you are never going to feel like or have the motivation to take the necessary steps to follow or accomplish your goals, you just have to do it. this takes a mental shift.

You are going to have to change the way you think by moving through the hesitation and taking action.

We all know what we need to do to accomplish goals, stick to a diet, quit smoking, change our lives etc. We have a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips with the internet and google, so why can’t we just do it already?

Because you are in your head. Stop thinking about what you need to do and start doing it. Remember your brain is hardwired for survival and to avoid scary, uncertain, difficult situations. You have to learn to move from thinking about doing something to acting.

How to fix this

Change the way your brain is wired using The 5 Second Rule.

In case you don’t know, Mel Robins is a genius! I love her newsletter, her Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook content as well as her incredible book The 5 Second Rule!

If you are not familiar with the 5 Second Rule (not the one where you drop food on the floor and can pick it up in 5 seconds) here is a reap:

The 5 Second Rule is the idea that when you have an impulse to act you have to count backwards from five and then physically move or you will hesitate and your brain will shift to flight mode.

By counting backwards from five you engage your prefrontal cortex (remember that one? Responsible for self-control?) and interrupt your reptilian brain also known as the basal ganglia which is responsible for emotions, habits, behavior, basic instincts etc. This act then interrupts the ‘habit loops’ in your brain or the ingrained behaviors you preform unconsciously.

By counting backwards from five, you hit one and it acts as a prompt to move (if you counted up you could just keep counting!). That prompt acts as a starting ritual which researchers have found to be a proven method of new habit formation. Using the 5 Second Rule will interrupt old subconscious habits and will engage your prefrontal cortex to help you to create new habits such as acting through fear, hesitation, and uncertainty.

Check out this great video where she explains all of this in greater detail and you can also read bestselling book of the same name.

It (the 5 Second Rule) will become a habit that prompts you to have confidence and courage, but in the beginning it interrupts patterns of behavior that you do on autopilot, it helps you assert control and it teaches you how to become the kind of person that moves from thinking about something to actually doing it.

Mel Robins

Section Three: Do it already

Okay, now that we know why it hasn’t worked in the past, how do we set goals that we can actually achieve?

Through all the many goal setting methods I have used and researched, and through all of the goals I have successfully and unsuccessfully accomplished or assisted others to accomplish, I believe I have found the perfect recipe for goal achievement in six easy steps!

Click Here for a Free Printable Goal Worksheet

Goal setting in six steps info graphic

1. Be Specific

goal setting step 1 be specific

You have to get really clear on what your goal is and is not. You need to outline the W’s:

  • What do I want to accomplish?
  • Why is this goal important?
  • Who is involved?
  • Where is it located?
  • Which resources or limits are involved?

Once you are very clear on your goal break it down into manageable chunks. Ask yourself:

  • What will it take to accomplish this goal?
  • What are the tasks that you will need to complete?
  • How can you break it down into steps that are manageable and realistic?

Once this is clear define the W’s for each of these tasks or chunks you just created.

2. Define your WHY and create your Vision

goal setting step 2 define your why

It is so important to understand why you want to accomplish this goal. Ask yourself:

  • What will it feel like to accomplish this goal?
  • Who will I become?
  • How will it change my life?

A good way to get really clear on your WHY is to stream of conscious journal about the goal and the reasons for setting it. Stream of conscious journaling is simply writing for a set amount of time, i suggest five minutes to start, without worrying about grammar or full sentences or making sense, just let it flow. This is a great way to gain clarity on how you really feel about a goal.

Once you truly understand why you want to achieve this goal you need to set about visualizing it. To do this write out a paragraph in the present tense about the who/what/where/when of having already accomplished the goal. Make it very visual, something you can see/feel/smell/hear about accomplishing your goal.

Then, read it out loud and visualize it every day! Feel and express gratitude for already accomplishing your goal! DO THIS, don’t skip this step, it is key to getting your head in the right place. When roadblocks come up, because they will, being able to tap into the why and the vision will help you to continue to move forward. For more on defining your why read this.

3. Make it Measurable

Goal setting step 3 measurable

You need to have a way to tell if you are on track to accomplishing your goal throughout each stage. It is not enough to just have the end point of the goal. You need to have stops along the way that will inform you if you are on track or if you need to recalibrate. And don’t worry, you will likely have to recalibrate several times throughout your goal achieving process and that is okay, normal, and important. You don’t always know at the beginning how hard or easy the steps will be to achieving your goal, if your plan will work, or if you need to make a new plan. Having benchmarks will help you to not veer so far off course that you cannot course correct. Remember those steps or chunks from step 1? Each one needs a benchmark!

Once you have a bench mark for each step create a Plan B for each step. For example: create an “if ___ then ___” statement for each:

“If I don’t make it to the gym today then I will go for a walk this afternoon”

4. Be Realistic and Know your Assumptions

goal setting step 4 realistic

How realistic is the goal and the plan you have created to achieve it? What assumptions are you making about who you have to be and what you have to change in order to accomplish this goal? Also be clear on what may be your roadblocks. What could and will stop or hinder you from moving forward? Is it time? Is it people? Is it moral? What has stopped you in the past? Identify those roadblocks so that you can see them coming!

5. Set a Deadline

Goal setting step 5 time

The goal MUST be time sensitive or else you will not have the fire under you to get it done. Set deadlines for each sub-part of the goal as well as for the completion of the goal itself. It can also be useful to set how much time you want to allot to each task or how much time each week is need to reach your goal. Breaking down the time in this way will help you to understand if your goal is realistic and assure you that if you stick to your plan it will be possible to achieve the goal.

6. Accountability

goal setting step 6 accountability

The final step is Soooo important! Of course, I would say this as a coach and professional butt-kicker right? Even so, trust me, you must have a way to hold yourself accountable. The first step is to write down the goal and the timeline, then say it out loud to yourself, and then tell a friend, tell a loved one, tell the world (via social media?). The more people you tell the more you will feel the burn to get it done because people will be asking you how you are keeping up with your goal.

If you really want to ensure you accomplish the goal, get an accountability partner. Someone who will push you, and maybe scold you a bit, not let you slide. Give them your goal breakdown so they can know your benchmarks and keep tabs on you. Daily or weekly check-ins are a great way to do this.

Or do it together. Your accountability partner could also be striving for a goal as well and you can keep each other in check. This option is usually more fun and less painful 😊

Lastly, reward yourself! You must give yourself wins and make the journey to accomplishing your goals pleasurable (at least a little) by pre-planning rewards for accomplishing certain benchmarks along the way as well as the final goal. Don’t deny yourself, treat yourself!

Okay, now that we have gone through the Six key steps to setting and achieving a goal the last part is the most important. You have written it out on the Goal Sheet (or wherever floats your boat) you have made a plan, gotten mighty real with yourself about why you want this and what you will do to get it, you have told someone, or the world, and now you are ready! WAIT!

First you must DECIDE to do it.

Decide you will achieve your goal and you will. Having a concrete desire and a steadfast belief that the universe has your back, that you are awesome, and an unwavering belief in your vision will make or break you when you hit your first roadblock. And you will hit them!

Things will get scary, people will scoff at you, you will doubt yourself, you will feel bad, and guilty, and like an impostor. But if you have made the Decision to go for it you will stay the course, come hell or high water. Remember, you have done it before, you have set out to do things and accomplished them, you just need to remember that you can do it again.  

Gutsy life

I believe in you!

Need an accountability partner? I love to give people the kick in the butt they need to get to where they want to go. Read more here.

Need more goal setting resources?

Check out this post about the Emotions fueling your Goal.

Check out Your Brain on Fear

Check out Defining you Why

And please leave a comment an let me know what goals are you working on right now? Has this helped? What is working for you?

Be Gutsy! Share the Love!

Amanda Richey