The Only Way to Eat an Elephant

How we set our goals has everything to do with whether or not we achieve them.

Posted Apr 24, 2018

Desmond Tutu once wisely said that “there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.” What he meant by this is that everything in life that seems daunting, overwhelming, and even impossible can be accomplished gradually by taking on just a little at a time. If you’ve ever wanted to accomplish something major, you know that getting started can be a bit of a challenge. Maybe you have some vague idea about what you want but not clue how to get it. Or perhaps you sit down to think about everything you have to do and get completely intimidated, freezing up and feeling incapable of taking the first step. This is a common experience, and it’s the reason so many people fall short of turning their dreams into reality. They try to eat the whole elephant in a single bite.

One very important key to eating the elephant as it’s meant to be eaten is setting goals. People who know me personally or have worked with me in therapy know that I’m a big fan of goals. My life and work have provided me with enough evidence to confirm that human beings are capable of far more than we can even imagine. But in order to tap into our limitless potential, we have to know what it is we want to accomplish. Setting goals is an important practice for creating a meaningful, satisfying, successful life. And while the practice of goalsetting, in general, is important, there are certain ways to set goals that further increase the likelihood of success.

A particularly powerful method of goal-setting uses the clever acronym SMART to guide the process of turning big dreams into reality. Once you’ve come up with a goal, check to be sure it meets the following criteria:

Specific - Be clear and concrete about what you want to accomplish. It’s much easier to work toward a specific goal (lose 12 pounds) than it is to work toward a vague one (get in shape). When working on this aspect of your goal, visualize what you and what your life will look like once you’ve accomplished it. That will help you to define exactly what you want to achieve.

Measurable - Set a goal that allows you to measure your progress toward achieving it. Ask yourself the following question: How will I know that I’ve accomplished my goal? Some people find it helpful to break the main goal down into small, measurable objectives. For example, if your main goal is to start a business, you can break that down into all the progressive steps you’ll take along the way: create a business name, register the business, set up the tax ID, etc. Making your goal measurable is an important way to keep yourself on track. The bonus is that you can celebrate along the way as you attain each of the objectives that brings you closer to success!

Attainable - Make your goals realistic. One of the biggest pitfalls to success is making the goal too big. You don’t want to bite off more than you can chew, so take some time to think carefully about your goal and be sure it’s reasonable and realistic. If you’re in your mid-30s and have a passion for baseball, it’ll make much more sense to set a goal of becoming a little league coach than aiming to become a star MLB player. Improve your chances of making your dreams come true by factoring reality into your plans.

Relevant - Set a goal that means something to you. Working toward your goals, no matter how big or small, takes work. By setting a goal that you’re passionate about and truly want to achieve, you’ll be more likely to stay motivated along the way. When the going gets tough, you can remind yourself of how much you want to reach the finish life and find the energy to keep going.  

Time-Bound: Set a deadline, and commit to it! Putting time stamps on your goals is a way of holding yourself accountable and making sure you stay focused and on task. You may need to do some research to find out how long you can reasonably expect to have to work on your goal before you can accomplish it. If you don’t set a deadline, you won’t be nearly as likely to stay committed and keep the wheels in motion. Check in with your deadline every now and again to be sure it remains realistic, and use it as a way to stay motivated.

Motivational coach Zig Ziglar reminds us that “a goal properly set is halfway reached.” Setting a goal is just like eating an elephant. Bit by bit, bite by bite, you make possible what at first seemed impossible. You get a little bit closer to living your best life. You’ve got what it takes; now get SMART and turn those dreams into reality! 

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