Wishes tend to be shapeless. They have no structure, no form. They lack crucial details like “how,” “when,” and “why.” They lack planning, and they outline no steps to get from “I want” to “I will.” Goals, on the other hand, tend to be much more rigid. They require commitment. They demand organization. And depending on the size of the goal, sometimes having strategic discipline and a lot of patience is a must.
A year ago, I mentioned to a dear friend of mine that I was planning to put an addition on my house. At the time, I didn’t go into a lot of detail with her about my plan, just mentioned it in passing. The same friend and I revisited our original conversation several months later and I told her excitedly that I had had a second meeting with my contractor, and that our next steps were to sketch out the plan for the addition. Once we had done that, we would get an architect involved and contact the city for the necessary building permits. She looked shocked, but quickly smiled, saying, “So, this is actually happening? So many people talk about what they want to do, but nothing ever happens.” I’ve noticed the same thing, and I think I’ve pinpointed the reason why: people have a hard time understanding the difference between a “goal” and a “wish.” Both are driven by desire, but only one makes a solid proclamation. The devil’s in the details. And in my case, failing to mention the details to my friend in our earlier conversation was not a result of having no details to speak of. To the contrary, the details were always there. In fact, they were driving the whole plan. They were the skeleton underlying my goal, each bone thoughtfully connected to the next, and they were marching my plan forward. But too many people forget about the bones underneath their skin, forget that without this framework they would, at best, flop clumsily from place to place. And so it is with setting goals.
When my husband and I decided that we liked our house well enough to add to it rather than simply buying a bigger one, I made an appointment with a general contractor. He came to my home and looked at the space we had available to us, and I described what we wanted and asked for a rough estimate of the project’s cost. Having a clear, concrete number to aim for allowed me to look at our savings realistically and budget my monthly income accordingly. When I set this goal for myself, I went through a process. I didn’t try to tackle the larger goal all at once; instead, I broke the longer-term goal into smaller goals; incremental, sequential steps that I would take towards the larger objective. These “baby steps” helped me feel like I could realistically reach the goal I had set. Through these smaller accomplishments, the end goal began to feel attainable rather than overwhelming. And because I had a specific number to aim for and a specific date in mind for starting the project we had outlined, I could track my progress each month to ensure that I remained on target. And apparently this process works. As it stands right now, we’ll break ground for the addition as soon as the ground thaws in the spring of next year.
I keep pushing the idea that goal-setting is a process. I believe it. When I was younger, I wasted a lot of time “wishing” myself into exactly the same reality. It was only after I discovered that true goals need structure that I was able to change my approach, but it took some time. Setting goals comes naturally to some, but for the rest of us, it’s helpful to have some guidelines. I have identified seven steps that have helped me reach my goals, both large and small, over the years. I hope that you can take this framework and build upon it, making it work the very best for you.
1. Identify your goal, exactly what it is that you want. Make it realistic, personally meaningful, and something within your control. Without passion and possibility, there will be no plan.
2. State your goal in writing. There is something about writing down a goal that solidifies your commitment to it and makes you more accountable for seeing it through.
3. Verify where you are now and where you’d like to be. Place these two positions on a continuum. In the blank space between these two realities, write down all of the things you’ll need to do to get from one place to the other. Don’t skip any steps, even the “obvious” ones.
4. Be realistic about your capabilities and identify any external resources (human or otherwise) you will need in order to reach your goal. Then, gather those resources.
5. Create a timeline for accomplishing each one of the items you identified in step 3. These are your sub-goals, the “baby steps” I mentioned earlier. Be realistic about the time it will take you to complete each one. Make an effort to stay on schedule, but don’t punish yourself if you fall off track. Punishment is self-defeating. Instead of chastising yourself for all of your many failings, just pick yourself back up and start moving forward again.
6. Celebrate each milestone as you reach it. Failing to acknowledge your accomplishments, even the little ones, is discouraging. Each time you experience a success, own it.
7. Impose a deadline for the completion of your goal. Be sure to give yourself enough time to achieve what you desire, but don’t allow your time frame to remain open-ended. Goals without end dates tend to languish, lonely, in the realm of wishes.