Posted by: Michelle Mitton | January 19, 2009

The Science of Setting Goals

Everyone has goals. It may be something as immediate as just “Survive this day” but everyone has something that they’re working for whether it’s long term or short term, concrete or abstract. With all these goals floating around you’d think it would be easier to accomplish things but the irony of life is that while we all have things we want to do–it may be as simple as taking an afternoon nap or making it to the bus on time–so few of us are able to get much done.

It doesn’t matter that the average American has more leisure time than those 50 years ago it seems that everyone sees themselves as busy enough that by time February rolls around all the resolutions for the new year have melted–unlike the pounds or the laundry or the bills which haven’t gone anywhere.

This is because we’ve lost the ability to set and execute goals and believe it or not setting goals isn’t an easy thing because if it’s not done properly they’re nearly guaranteed to fail.

G – Get them on paper

O – One at a time

A – Add the details

L – Lay out a plan

S – Set aside time for review

Let’s take this a step by step and using one of my own goals as an example:

1. G is for “Get them on paper.” Until you physically write down a resolution–I prefer to say goal–it will never be a commitment. Something about recording your objective makes it more tangible and real and having a real, honest-to-goodness copy you can hold in your hand makes it more difficult to ignore.

I don’t care if it’s a 3 x 5 card that you stick to your bathroom mirror or a post you write about your abstinence from sugar until it’s written down it’s nothing more than a vague wish floating around in your head.

As a personal example I’ll use something I’ve had as a goal: Be a better mom. There, I did it. It’s written–though it would be most effective to have it written down in a location where I can see it and remember it frequently rather than having to comb through my archived posts to get to it.

2. O is for “One at a time.” It’s very easy to look at your life stretching out before you and make a list of all the things you’d like to do and accomplish. I want to learn how to ride a horse, I want to travel to Italy, I want to be a better person, I want to learn how to make my own root beer, I want to write a book . . . all of it can be very overwhelming. While it’s good to have a list of long-term goals and short-term goals don’t fall into the trap of working on more than you can handle.

While you may have the desire to tackle bone fishing, ballet and Bulgarian all in the same year hold back and be realistic about what you can tackle then pick one or two to focus on. Yes it’s possible you won’t live to be 120 and you will probably run out of time to accomplish all on your list but taking manageable bites will give you a better shot at finishing the whole sandwich rather than stuffing in the whole thing at once and choking.

While I’d personally love to be able to eradicate all my bad habits and petty imperfections in one year by being a better wife, athlete, mother, artist, sister, friend, church goer, chef, writer and citizen it seems a bit more than I can handle in a mere 365 days. Focusing on one or two areas–such as being a better mom–increases my chances of success by something like 93%. On most days.

3. A is for “Add the details.” “Be a better mom” is about as vague a goal as you can have. While it sounds really nice on paper who’s to say what “better” means? Are we talking about a mom who learns to fix organic and healthy snacks? Or one who speaks only Japanese to her children so they can learn a new language? How about a mom who refuses to go to bed until all the day’s laundry and ironing is completed?

It’s all in the details. As soon as you can fill those in your goal comes down from being a mystical abstraction to a concrete objective.

If you want to lose weight you have to be specific by saying “I want to lose 20 pounds by July.” If you want to graduate from college you have to say, “I want to get my last 7 credits by August.” If you want to improve your blog you have to say, “I want to increase my readership to 100 readers per day by the end of the year.”

These details are usually things that are measurable and quantifiable. A number, a frequency, a deadline, a percentage–something that can be held up as a ruler so you know when you’ve achieved your goal.

For example: In my life being a better mom means a couple of things. First, I recognize that it’s easy for me to focus on the negative things my children do rather than the positive things. Instead of seeing how my kids are falling short I want to see their good qualities and reinforce those to them. Second, I yell too much. I get frustrated and I yell (my, isn’t this turning into a “true confessions” post?)–not every day or even every week necessarily but it happens and when it does I feel horrible.

While it’s possible that many women could completely eradicate these bad habits from their lives for me it is quite a struggle and if I were to say “I’m never going to yell at my kids again” I can guarantee that I’d fail in time for the weekend. So I want to make my goal more specific and measurable by saying “I want to control my temper by not yelling at them–specifically during the next four months during the hours of 4pm to 6pm.”

Why those hours? Because those are the hardest hours in the day for me, the time after the kids get their homework done when they tend to get bored and start picking on each other (oops, I’m being negative again) and I’m trying to get dinner fixed or kids shuttled to activities and praying for Andrew to walk through the door at 6 so I can have another adult in the house.

So while this may seem kind of funny to be so specific, now I have identified exactly what I want to accomplish and the next step is that much easier.

4. L is for “Lay out a plan.” Once you have the specifics of what you’d like to do you must create a plan of action. Take those details you’ve come up with and figure out a way to address them. If you want to lose weight are you going to put together an exercise schedule and menu? If you want to graduate from college are you going to sign up to take those remaining seven credits?

Going back to my own goal, I want to focus on the positive things my children do by making a special effort the next four months to notice when they clean something up, do well in school and are kind to another person. I want to refrain from yelling at them during those hours by not putting off my housework or dinner preparations until the last minute so I’m rushing around during a stressful time. If I can get my work done first then I can set aside time for other things like playing a game or reading with them instead of frantically working on dinner and getting short-tempered.

Please pardon that I’m being so personal but it’s one thing to say “have a plan” and it’s another to give you an example–you’ll have to check back in a few months and see how it goes.

5. S is for “Set aside time for review.” Once you have your plan of attack make another little tiny goal to set aside some time each week to review your progress. For us Sunday night is a good time, there isn’t much going on and we’re gearing up for the coming week and making plans.

Maybe you review your goals with a partner so you can keep each other on track, maybe you review on your blog so you can interact with others who are doing similar things, maybe you are just recording how you did in a notebook or journal or pulling out that index card with your goals on it to refresh them in your mind–whatever you do that review process is critical or you’ll soon forget what it was you’d set out to do.

Setting goals is a little like planning a road trip–you have to know exactly where you want to go, you have to plan how you want to get there and you have to periodically stop along the way to check the map and see if you’re still going the right direction.

It’s the best and most reliable way to get where you want to be.

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