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Goals tend to be a “love it or hate it” topic.
It is so rewarding to complete a goal, and yet so depressing to fail at a goal.
Unfortunately, people make some common mistakes when setting their goals that increase the likelihood of failure at the goal.
During my time as a professional working with children with disabilities, my job was to set goals for the children’s progress and goals for the staff to help the child. We gathered input from the parents, the child, and the staff to find out what the child’s needs were. My job was to compile all that information into specific and measurable goals so that each person knew exactly how to help a particular child.
That job gave me a lot of practice in writing goals.
Sometimes, I wrote a goal that didn’t turn out well. I thought it sounded good when I wrote it, but as staff or children tried to carry out the goal, they seemed confused, frustrated, and unwilling to keep up the effort that it took to complete the goal. Parents, staff, and the child were not on the same page. The result was inconsistency and failure to reach the goal.
Sometimes, I would write a well-worded goal for a child or a staff. They seemed to feel confident as they worked on things. Everyone knew what they were supposed to do. Everyone understood the needs of the child and how to help. Parent, child, and staff worked together as a team and achieved the goal much more quickly.
As I experienced success and failures in writing goals, I noticed some common factors in writing goals that seemed to increase the likelihood of success.
Here are some tips in setting goals that will make you more successful.
You’ve all heard of SMART goals. SMART is an acronym to help you remember some things to keep in mind when creating a goal. (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely)
As I wrote goals, I found that this is an excellent rule of thumb. SMART goals are successful goals.
First, the goal should be specific.
When we think about how to improve our parenting, we often use generic phrases, like “I want to be more patient” or “I want to be a better mom.” The problem with these phrases is that achievement of this goal could happen in a million ways- but that also means that there are a million ways to fail.
For example, let’s say I set a goal to be “more patient with my kids”.
-Does that mean I want to yell less?
-Does that mean I want to calmly help my kids when they argue with each other?
-Does that mean I want to get through the grocery store without a meltdown?
-Does that mean I want to think positively about my kids during frustrating situations?
-Does that mean I want to involve my kids in various learning experiences (cooking, budgeting, fixing the car, etc.) even though it’s hard for me to teach these skills?
As you can see, there are many different directions to take this goal.
It might start out well.
-I’m all fresh and ready to succeed at this goal in the morning. I calmly talk to my child when he won’t eat his oatmeal. We discuss it and reach a compromise- he eats five bites of oatmeal and then he can choose something else to eat. Win for me!
-Then I go to the grocery store. I have to be perfect for my goal- but the transition to the store was difficult and I’m feeling a little flustered.
-At the store, I spoke in an agitated tone when my child tried to sneak candy into the cart. I don’t feel successful at being “patient” at the store.
-Then, my kids argue on the drive home. I don’t yell, but I didn’t have the patience to help them work it out. I don’t feel successful at my goal.
-At home, I try to involve my kids in cooking, but it’s just a frustrating situation for everyone. I don’t yell, but we all leave flustered. I don’t feel successful at my goal.
All through the day, I am successful at one aspect of being patient. I am not yelling at my kids. But my goal is much broader than not yelling. My goal is to be patient and I feel like I lost at my goal all day long.
I should feel great about the day, but instead I am discouraged. I am less likely to continue my goal the next day because I feel so far from where I want to be that I don’t even want to try.
What’s the cure?
Begin by thinking of what you want to become. I want to become patient.
But don’t stop there!
Then, think to yourself, “What does patience look like? How does a patient person act? What do they do?”
Make a list of specific behaviors (things you can see) that you could work on to be more patient, then choose one.
Identify when you usually have a tough time with this behavior. For example, if I want to be more patient by yelling less, ask yourself “When do I usually yell at my kids?” In the grocery store, in the car, when they argue….. Knowing when to watch out for will help you be more aware of keeping your goal.
Now your goal looks like this: “I want to become __(Quality)____ BY doing ____(Action) _______ during (Circumstance) .
Imagine how different the scenario would be if my goal was specific- “I want to become more patient BY decreasing yelling at my kids when they argue with each other”.
This is one behavior that I can easily identify through the day. It is easy to think back on my day and say, “Did I yell today when my kids argued?”
It is much more difficult to think to yourself, “Was I patient today?” That’s too subjective.
Be specific in your goal.
Let’s continue the goal “I want to become patient by decreasing yelling at the kids when they argue with each other.”
The next step is to come up with a unit of measurement so that you can tell if you are making progress or not.
Ask yourself, “How often do I yell at kids right now? Twice a day? 5 times a day? 10 times a day?”
Find out a number that you would like to reach without demanding perfection of yourself.
For example, if I currently yell at my kids 10 times per day, I might try to yell at them 7 times per day instead. Once I am successful at yelling only 7 times per day, I will set a new goal to decrease my yelling to 5 times per day. Then decrease that to 2 times per day, etc.
Don’t demand that you change drastically right off the bat.
Trying to complete a goal like that is like trying to quit smoking cold turkey.
If you yell at your kids 10 times per day, a goal of 1 per day might be difficult to attain. You could cause yourself unnecessary frustration by trying to reach a difficult goal.
Make your goal attainable, let yourself feel proud of the progress you are making, and then set a new goal to keep up the good work until you slowly become what you want to be.
Remember that you are human and you will make mistakes. Allow yourself some room to make mistakes and still reach your goal. Rarely, if ever, set a goal that requires you to reach 100% to attain that goal because 100% leaves you no room for human error.
Let’s say I have successfully decreased my yelling at my kids to 1 time per day. The next goal is 0 times per day, right?
A better goal is “I will become more patient by decreasing yelling at my kids when they argue with each other to 2 times per week.” This goal still helps you decrease your yelling from once per day, but it also allows you to make mistakes without feeling like you failed at your goal.
The last piece of completing a goal is to identify a time frame during which you will achieve this goal.
It is better to think of this as a “checkpoint” rather than a “deadline”.
The idea is that you will be accountable for your work rather than just forgetting about the goal altogether. When the specified day arrives, you should assess your progress on the goal. Track your goals using a calendar, like the one below! Click the image!
If you have made any progress at all (even slight progress), you should celebrate your progress.
If you have not made progress, that is a sign that your goal might not be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, or timely. It is a good chance to look at the goal and see if it needs to be adjusted so that you can be successful next time.
This is not an excuse to slack off. Slacking off on your goals only hurts yourself.
The final goal looks like this, “I will become _(Quality)_____ by doing __(Action)____ when __(Circumstance)_____ using ___(Measurement)_____ by ____(Date or Time Period)___.
In our example, “I will become patient by decreasing yelling at my kids when they argue with each other to 5 times a day or less for the next week.”
Boring is Bad
SMART goals help a lot, but there are more lessons I learned in writing goals.
People need variety. If you work on the same goal for too long, you can get sick of it and progress slows down or stops.
If a person has been working on the same thing for a long time without reaching it, I often switched up their goals just to give them a change of scenery. I noticed that this often helped them be more excited about their goals because they had something new to do. The enthusiasm increased their success rates. I found that I could reintroduce the “boring” or mundane goal later on. With their new success, the person would be more interested in trying again and often would progress much faster at the old goal.
But we need more variety than that.
Choose a variety of time periods to achieve your goal.
-Don’t have several long-term goals with zero short-term goals. It is too discouraging to wait that long for any reward. Besides, your short-term goals should be tailored to help you achieve a long-term dream.
-Don’t have zero long-term goals and many short-term goals. Again, the point of short-term goals is to help in your long-term goals. Without a long-term goal, you have no direction. The more short-term goals you have, the more likely you are to fail at them because there is just too much going on. Every failure you have at a goal makes you less likely to try again in the future, so failure at goals should be taken very seriously.
Choose a variety of topics.
Nobody wants to fix everything about their parenting all at once. Nobody wants to fix everything they do wrong at work all at once. Or fix their relationship all at once.
Find categories in your life and make one goal per category. For example, you might have a goal in parenting, a goal at your work, and a goal to play the piano.
This is simple.
Goals are about progress, not about perfection.
It’s ok to mess up and try again.
It’s ok to adjust the goal if it’s too difficult.
Do whatever it takes for you to feel successful at your goal- even if it means setting an easy goal for a while and slowly making it more difficult.
It is more important for you to feel like you can do it. That confidence makes all the difference in your willingness to set and follow through with goals.
When you see progress, celebrate it. Reward yourself. Make it worth your hard work.
One by One
Occasionally, when I asked for parents’ input on what they thought their child needed, they gave me a laundry list a mile long. We do this to ourselves too. When you ask someone what they want to change about themselves, they can usually create an extensive list.
The beauty of goals is that the sky is the limit. You can change any of those things that you really want to change. It’s just not smart to try to fix everything at once.
Goals are slow and steady.
When you make goals, limit yourself to 1-2 things. If your goal involves a major life change, 1 thing is enough. If your goal is smaller, go ahead and work on 2-3 goals if you feel like you are emotionally prepared for that much and if you have time for that much.
I never recommend more than 3 goals. Some people might disagree, but I find that fewer goals correlates with more success. More success means more goals in the future. And that means you get more goals accomplished by spreading them out than you do if you try to lump them all together.
There’s nothing else to say. Hard work is all up to the individual. Go and do whatever it takes to make positive changes in your life! It’ll be worth it!
I am excited for you to set goals for yourself. I hope these tips help you feel more confident in your goals.
Enjoy the success of making the changes in your life that you’ve been waiting for!!