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Hope Is Not a Plan

Set realistic goals to achieve your dreams.

Source: Markus Winkler/Unsplash
Source: Markus Winkler/Unsplash

Over the past few months, as the reality of this pandemic has set in, so has the reality of how long many of us might find ourselves cooped up at home, managing work and life and caretaking and a host of other challenges. At the same time, some of us have also entertained a bit of dreaming: I’m finally going to learn Italian! I’m going to start that side business I keep talking about! I’m going to write the great American novel! There’s even been a less-than-helpful reminder going around on Twitter that Shakespeare managed to write King Lear during a plague—as if to suggest that you, too, should be so inspired and so productive. Personally, I’m a bit tired of the social media suggestions that we are all, suddenly, gifted with a bunch of “free” time that should be put to good use. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had less time than I have right now, and the time that I do have is best put to use in rest.

But no matter how you might feel about this moment and how you are using it, it’s worth noting: there is a big difference between dreaming about something and actually doing it. Dreams are important. Aspirations and ideas and hope for the future are part of what gives purpose to our lives and keeps us moving forward. We especially need hope in a moment like the present one. If we don’t have hope and a positive mindset that we will end up somewhere different and better than we are, right now, then we might as well just pack it in and succumb to this pandemic. While I certainly can’t speak for everyone, I assume if you’re still reading this that you’re not someone who wants to do that. Nor am I.

How, then, do you make your dreams and hopes a reality? It’s quite simple, really. You stop dreaming and you create a plan and take action. You set realistic goals and action steps that help you to move forward, little by little, until you get to where you want to be. It’s simple, but it’s not without work, and that’s the difference between people who achieve their goals and those who don’t. It’s not magic. The ones who get to where they want to be are willing to put in the work. Full stop.

In my experience, people don’t like setting goals. There probably are various reasons for this. For starters, if we never set any goals, we never have to make any forward progress towards achieving them, which gives us an easy excuse for not actually living out our dreams. We all, to some extent, suffer a bit of the impostor syndrome, wondering who we are to dare to imagine a different life than the one we have now. Or we put up obstacles that don’t actually exist, playing out all the what-if’s that might pop up in a bit of analysis-paralysis. What if I start that side business and I can’t manage the number of customers it generates? What if I take that Italian class and realize I’m not any good at it? What if I write a novel and no one wants to publish it? What if, what if, what if. We have to get out of the business of telling ourselves no before others do.

One of my favorite quotes comes from John Maxwell in his book, Mentoring 101. There, he notes, “The greatest achievers in life are people who set goals for themselves and then work hard to reach them. What they get by reaching the goals is not nearly as important as what they become by reaching them.” It can be so easy to focus on the end goal and to forget about the process and the journey. But as Maxwell notes, there is something truly transformative that happens to people who actively set goals and do the work of achieving them. That’s where the real magic happens.

There is interesting research on goal-setting and neuroplasticity that finds that the act of setting goals actually changes your brain. In fact, the more ambitious the goal, and the more motivated you are to achieve it, the more change that happens, which in turn makes you more likely to succeed. You still want to create realistic goals. For example, for me, stating that I have a goal to play the violin on stage at the Kennedy Center is a pretty unrealistic goal for someone who has never touched a violin in her life. Stating that I want to learn to play the violin, on the other hand, is both a stretch goal for me and realistic. I can take classes and learn to play an instrument I’ve never picked up before. Will I be great? Hard to say. Can I do it? Absolutely.

The motivation part of the equation is also something interesting to consider since a big chunk of our lives is spent working on goals that have been given to us by someone else. A syllabus and grading rubric is basically a goal-setting document that outlines what you will be expected to learn over the course of a semester, what tasks you will accomplish in order to achieve that learning goal, and how you will be evaluated. Similarly, at work, we are often presented with a set of goals or OKRs or KPIs to achieve, which have been developed by someone other than ourselves and may not remotely align with our motivation to work. The smart educator and manager would give thought to incorporating the student and employee into this process.

Speaking of process, another stumbling block to effective goal-setting is the actual process of writing effective goal statements. I once heard someone say that most time management courses are taught by people who are strong J’s on the Myers-Briggs and taken by people who are strong P’s. No matter how you feel about the Myers-Briggs as a tool, the point is this: things like time management and goal-setting work well for people who like to-do lists and order and structure. Not so much for those who find their brains are wired a little differently. But whether you love a to-do list or not, there is value in creating a plan. Indeed, research by Wake Forest professor E.J. Masicampo and others has found that during times like the present moment, when there are a lot of interests and needs competing for your attention, the simple act of creating a plan can help not only achieve your goals but also to lessen some of the cognitive load, thus freeing up space to focus on those other needs.

So, whether you’re trying to write the great American novel or start a side business or learn Italian, here’s a process, as written by one of those strong J’s who absolutely loves a to-do list. If this one doesn’t work for you, figure out what does work, and follow that, instead:

  • Where do you want to be, six months or a year from now? Write out a vision or overarching goal statement that describes the future state you would like to see. It’s important to keep it to no more than six months to a year. Don’t set yourself up for failure.
  • What are your challenges, obstacles, or gaps? Before you move on to goal-setting, take a moment to do a realistic assessment of what may stand in your way. Don’t get hung up here on the what if’s! But acknowledge what challenges in terms of time, money, or other resources may hinder your progress.
  • What are three goals you can set to get you closer to your vision? I like a SMART goal model. What are SMART goals? They are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timebound. An example of a SMART goal would be: Complete a first draft of a novel by the end of the year. This goal statement is specific and action-oriented, measurable (what will you do? Complete a draft), achievable and realistic (you have the ability and the resources to accomplish the goal), and timebound (by when? End of the year). Like any good to-do list, your goals should progress over time: first I will do this, then I will do this, then I will do this.
  • What are the three action steps you can set for each goal? In a similar fashion, write several concrete action steps that will help you do the work to complete the goal. This is the actual to-do list part. You should be able to check these items off as you progress towards accomplishing your goal.

Hope is not a plan. Your dreams are not a strategy. But they are important first steps. Where do you want to be, and then what’s going to help you get there? Most of us stop with the first part of that equation. We know where we want to be. But the people who turn their dreams into reality are the ones who complete the sentence. Set some goals. Make a plan. And little by little you can make your dreams come true.

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