Stop Setting Realistic Goals
And Other Strategies for Smashing the Goals You Set for Yourself
I have to admit: I’m bad at having hobbies. Last December, I went skiing for the first time in my adult life, and I loved it immediately. I picked it up quickly too, and before I even got off the mountain, I was asking myself, “So should I start training for the X Games or the Olympics?”
When I was in high school, my mom bought the Tiger Mom book because the Tiger Mom’s daughter went to my school. My mom never got around to reading the book, so I read it instead. I taught myself how to be my own “tiger parent” by following the book’s advice:
The only hobbies your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal. That medal must be gold.
I wasn’t interested in pursuing skiing “just for fun.” If I’m going to participate in an activity, I prefer there to be something I can strive for. But unlike the philosophy of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, my achievement isn’t motivated by fame, prestige, or college acceptance letters. I set goals because I find joy in mastering skills or accomplishing tasks I never thought I could do.
That’s why I like to set difficult goals. SMART goal setting advises us to reach for goals that are “attainable.” Don’t get me wrong, your goals should be attainable in theory — if you work hard enough and spend enough time on them. However, my biggest accomplishments, like becoming a Division I college athlete or getting a job in Singapore, have all been things people told me I couldn’t do. Everyone else’s discouragement motivated me. Because that’s the thing about world-saving, life-changing, seemingly unachievable goals: they’re exciting.
When I recently upgraded one of my goals from “run a half marathon” to “become a Boston Marathon qualifier,” I started training harder than ever. Not only did I know this would be more difficult to accomplish, but the goal also became much more important to me, excited by the thought of achieving it.
Besides, even if you don’t quite reach your unrealistic goals, you will have progressed farther than if you don’t achieve your realistic goals. Maybe I won’t qualify for Boston, but I will have run a marathon. And that’s twice as far as a half marathon.
My Process for Goal Setting
I believe that one major reason people fail to reach their goals is because they simply write them down and call it a day. My current approach ensures that I revisit my goals monthly, weekly, and daily.
On the first Saturday of every month, I spend some time reassessing the big picture to make sure I continue progressing towards the life I want. Before doing anything else, I get out a sheet of paper and describe the life I hope to have in the future.
In her podcast Before Breakfast, Laura Vanderkam shared a helpful tip for goal setting. She said to envision yourself at an end of year party and ask yourself what updates and accomplishments from the year you hope to share with the other guests. This activity is perfect for beginner goal setters because all you need is your imagination. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t decided how to carry out your list; just figure out where you want to end up.
While I’ve consistently written out my goals for years, there were still a lot of marks that I wasn’t quite hitting. I would learn all the new dives I wanted, but I couldn’t keep my grades up. Or I would keep my grades up, but I never had any time to work on my novel.
One key to reaching your goals is focusing only on a few at a time. Depending on the commitment required for your goals and how busy your life is outside of them, I would recommend choosing the three to five most impactful goals to be your focus.
For each goal, do a little research and determine the procedure you will follow to accomplish it. Make sure you assign deadlines to each step.
Every week, during my planning session, I decide how I am going to make progress for that week. I write in my planner which steps I need to get done or how much time I want to commit to working on a project.
I find that the steps fall into two categories: habits and projects. For example, studying for the MCAT and writing my personal statement are two steps towards my goal of going to medical school. While writing my personal statement is a longer-term project, studying my MCAT flashcards is a habit I should practice every day. Habits are a key component of my goals, and they must be completed every day, or at least a few times a week.
The whole process can seem overwhelming, but I promise it makes the goals themselves less overwhelming. And once you’ve started setting world-saving, life-changing, seemingly unachievable goals, you’re going to need that.