By setting goals, you can pinpoint exactly what you want to achieve, stop yourself from becoming sidetracked, and assess how and where your priorities are changing as you progress. Here’s how to swap spontaneity for structure.
How to plan when you're not a plannerLocking in ambitions for the years ahead may be easy for some, but not everyone’s naturally organised. And preparing for your future – from your finances and relationship status to your happiness and ambitions – is more complex than Googling hotels for your next holiday. Observes clinical psychologist Jo Lamble: “People regret things they didn’t consciously decide to do or not do, such as have a baby. They often wish they’d thought of it at a point in their life when it wasn’t too late.” Ditch the disappointment and make reveries a reality with these tips.
Write down your goals: “Lists are unbelievably powerful ways to stay motivated,” says Dr Anthony Grant, director of the coaching psychology unit at The University of Sydney. So putting pen to paper is the right way to start.
Aim high: A 2011 study from the University of California and New York’s Columbia University revealed that people who set ambitious goals achieved higher levels of satisfaction than those who kept future hopes conservative.
Stick to the five-year format: Break down goals into yearly objectives, advises Lamble: “A 10-year plan is too long and too much can happen. A five-year plan is achievable. You need smaller steps; longer plans make you lose sight of what you want to accomplish.” Before drafting your aspirations, take note of these planning points:
Make goals specific: The most common mistake people make is to set undefined goals. For example, “I want to be slim.” Opt for a tangible, realistic goal, such as, “I’m going to get down to a healthy weight range for my height,” or, “I’m going to lose five kilos.”
Take it one step at a time: Divide your goals into 12-month stages. If, in five years time, you want to be in a senior management job with a six-figure salary, outline a strategy for the next year to help you get closer to it.
Start today: Don’t wait until you get back from holiday – procrastinating won’t get you what you want.
Plan onlineAustralian goal-setting website/application Lifetick.com is a slick, easy-to-use tool that helps you identify, set, monitor and achieve goals that reflect your core values; both in the short and long term.How to prioritise your goals
Start by drawing up a chart that features the key areas of your life – relationships, career, finances, home and health – and list your goals for each section. Then, choose one goal from each category that jumps off the page before listing your categories in order of importance. “You should be putting relationships or health first,” points out Lamble. “For instance, you might decide to sacrifice that promotion, even though it pays well, because it’s only going to increase stress and lead to unhappiness.”
If climbing the corporate ladder does top your list, you might want to reconsider how you look at things long-term. A 2010 study found that people who consistently prioritise altruistic or family goals are more satisfied with life than those who give their careers and material success the number-one spot.
“Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that success and achievement will make you happy,” asserts Lamble. “Personal fulfilment is normally linked to your relationships, and your mental and physical health. So much emphasis is placed on attaining financial success, and though that’s important, it isn’t the key to happiness.”
How to keep your plans in progressMake goals last the distance by doing regular monthly check-ups. “Checking in weekly is a bit like weighing yourself when you’re trying to lose weight – you’re not going to see a huge improvement in that period of time,” remarks Lamble. If your five-year plan is to lead a healthier lifestyle, and you’ve decided to cut back on wine this year, calculate your monthly alcohol consumption. Are you under your quota? Did you drink more this month than last month? If you’re not sticking to the plan, regroup and remind yourself of the light at the end of the tunnel. You should be doing everything you can to reach that goal, says Lamble.
Breaking your goals into mini-objectives and rewarding your successes along the way can also help you stay on track. Acknowledge small victories and you’ll spark motivation, suggests Lamble. Surround yourself with supportive people whom you can talk to about your goals and aspirations to keep you accountable, adds Dr Grant. “Make sure you encourage them to stick to their goals, too,” he says.
If you’re finding it hard to make headway, you may need to redefine your route. “Motivation or progress often wane because our goals are no longer relevant,” says life coach Sandy Forster. This doesn’t make you a failure; in fact, in one US and Canadian study, people who were able to drop unattainable goals and replace them with new strategies reported high levels of wellbeing.
Dr Grant recommends actioning the “If/Then” strategy. “Don’t just have the goal you want to achieve; have a number of ‘If/Then’ options. This prepares you for being flexible,” he explains. “Experts associate rigid goals with concrete thinking, which is linked to anxiety, stress and depression.” By giving yourself options, you can continue to progress without feeling trapped.
Hit a roadblock?Remember these tips:
• You will have setbacks, but don’t use them as an excuse to give up.
• Be kind to yourself: if you make mistakes, accept that you’re human and get on with it.
• Forget the idea of always starting on a Monday – it’s not a magic day. Kick off your plan immediately. The sooner you start, the closer you are to reaching your goal.