By Hara Estroff Marano, published on July 22, 2003 - last reviewed on November 11, 2010
"Not all who wander are lost," they say, but for the great majority of us, having a road map for the future is a key element to well-being and success, however we choose to define it. This means setting goals for ourselves, and finding ways to achieve them. If you're a wanderer, it might be time to realize the boundless utility of setting goals.
It's simply a fact: when people have goals to guide them, they are happier and achieve more than they would without having them. It's a brain thing. Achieving a goal you've set produces dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of pleasure. Reciprocally, dopamine activates neural circuitry that makes you eager to pursue new challenges.
Goals provide focus. With no guiding vision or plan, people tend to drift. Goals provide a measuring stick for progress. Goals enhance productivity. They bolster self-esteem. And most of all, goals increase commitment, so you're more likely to achieve whatever you set out to conquer.
While it's not a good idea to try to change everything at once, you can set goals in virtually any domain of your life, from your wardrobe to your church to your workplace.
Of course, a thousand mile journey starts with the first small step. And whether we're embarking on the long trek of a mid-life career switch or the walk to the bedroom to finally organize that closet, it can be hard to gather up the motivation to make that initial step. While setting goals is in itself motivating, sometimes it's just not enough. Here are some tried-and-true ways you can begin to move toward achieving your goals, and maintain resolve when the going gets rough.
The act of writing down what you are going to do is a strong motivator. Writing down goals prevents you from leaving your goals vague. Be specific. Use action verbs. Let your goals have measurable outcomes. Specify completion dates. Also record what your reward will be for achieving the goal. Make a contract with yourself, then read it each morning and night. This will help you to be more committed your goal as each day passes. And while you've got the pen in your hand...
Think of everything that might stand in your way. Then decide what you can do about each obstacle. Design a plan to reduce the influence of each obstacle and increase the chances that you will be successful in reaching your goal.
Knowing exactly what you will gain from reaching your goal is a strong motivator. Keeping my checkbook balanced will give me more spending money on the weekends. Walking a mile every morning will help me stay focused at work.
Break down complicated plans into manageable chunks. Be specific about what has to be accomplished. Decide what you are going to do, and when. Make sure each step is challenging but achievable, and that you have a complete plan of action. Then write it on your calendar and review it regularly.
If information or skill is keeping you from achieving your goals, determine ways to fill in the gaps, and build this into your action plan. Be willing to study and work hard to reach your goals. Think about how much time and effort will be required, and ask yourself whether you are really willing and able to do what is necessary. It is better to adjust your goals or your timetable than to proceed with a plan that is unrealistic.
Find someone, a coworker or friend, with whom you share a common goal. Get someone to go to the gym with you, or to quit smoking with you, or to share healthy meals with you. A partner can help you stay committed and motivated. Look for role models, people who have already achieved the goals you seek to reach. Ask them for advice and suggestions. Find how they got where they are, and incorporate what you learn into your plan.
The more real you can make your visualization, the better. Find a quiet place, visualize, write down your experiences afterward. Go through magazines and cut out pictures that represent your goal, then put them around the house. Provide constant reminders to yourself about what you're working towards. Describe your ideal life in the future. Write a few paragraphs describing what you have accomplished, and how your life is better as a result. Use the present tense as if it is happening right here, right now. This is another way of making your vision real.
When you are prepared and organized, you will feel better about your ability to reach your goals. Having information scattered in too many places makes you feel out of control and undermines motivation. Set up a filing system, set aside your workout clothes.
Let yourself feel good about progress you've made. Treat yourself to rewards that will give you a lift as you accomplish each subgoal on your road to success.