Creating effective goals

With the new year fast approaching, it’s a common experience to have friends, acquaintances, and family posting on social media about all the new goals they will be conquering in 2018.

Every January, the familiar goals pop up: lose a stone, go to the gym three times a week, eat healthier, be better.

But by February appears (or even by the end of January!), we are back to the old ways and name ourselves a “failure”.

  • “I should have more willpower”
  • “I should be better”
  • “I need to get my life together”

Goal setting seems to be ingrained into Western society. Even at work, we are set goals and success is based on how well you meet those targets. It becomes a normal part of everyday life and a tool many people use to determine their success.

I’ve set so many goals in my life. Some I’ve failed at, some are ongoing, some I’ve achieved. Yet throughout them all, there is a low-level hum of anxiety around them. What if I don’t meet my expectations?

I explored a little more around the psychology of goal setting…

Problem 1: potential Lack of flexibility

Ineffective goals are inflexible. Sometimes the common practise of S.M.A.R.T. goals – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound – can become too specific. Examples of S.M.A.R.T. goals are:

  • “I want to lose one stone in two months.”
  • “I want to earn an extra £2,000 in income in six months.”
  • “I need to drop one dress size by my brother’s wedding in April.”

Although this is one possible goal structure, it also misses the bigger picture. Via Afford Anything, I found the example of Ford Motor Company.

They started to notice in the 1960’s that smaller and less expensive cars had started growing in popularity, and wanted to follow suit.

The CEO created the ambitious goal of producing a vehicle “under 2,000 pounds and under $2,000” ($12,559 in today’s dollars) by 1970.

This goal soon started to make progress and by September 1970, the Ford Pinto had been put into production.

However, by being really specific on two factors, this goal overlooked things like quality and safety. The company’s management overlooked a huge design flaw in the positioning of the fuel tank. This meant that the Pinto could burst into flames on impact.

At least 53 people died as a result of these fires. In 1977, Ford recalled the car from the market. Management had blinkered the goal in and had missed the larger picture.

However, it’s not all bad for a S.M.A.R.T. goal! They have the huge benefit of having  a clear ending and a deadline.

Without deadlines and restrictions I just tend to become preoccupied with other things. — Val Kilmer


Problem 2: Fear

It’s a great feeling setting a goal that makes you really excited. Maybe you want to be fluent in Spanish in six months, learn how to ski, or start a business on something that you are really passionate in.

As you start, it’s great, wonderful, exciting: you are making real steps towards achieving your goal!

Then procrastination sets in.

I’ve just managed to set up an Instagram account for Become Moneywise, something that took me two months. In that time, I could have learnt to tango like a pro or become a sushi expert.

In all honesty, behind the procrastination was fear.

  • What if I set up the account and my friends find out?
  • What if no one follows me?
  • What if I can’t deal with having to look after another ‘responsibility’?

The fear gets in the way of the goal. You stop, become stuck.

As Hara Estroff Marano writes in Psychology Today:

Achieving lasting change, and getting what you reallywant in life, takes a sustained vision of the future. That vision serves not just as an ongoing source of motivation to get there, it helps you identify and tackle the obstacles that have held you back until now.

These include fear of failure, such as doubts about your own worthiness for success […] And if you’re like most people, they also involve fear of achieving the very things you want.

Goals trigger fear, which then gets in the way of achieving your goals.

Take my example:

  • I created a goal: reach a new audience via Instagram
  • I developed a fear around any possible outcome: what if it’s not very good/I can’t manage it/it is not loved
  • Procrastination is borne out of the fear
  • And it takes 2 months to do something that took 10 minutes.

However, if I had focused on the incredible benefits – reaching and interacting with new people, being able to express my views in photos – the fear would be less of an issue.


I’m a fan of goals and it’s very interesting exploring ideas around why ineffective goals can be counterproductive. How do we go from the objections above and create better alternatives? I’ve done some research and…


Alternative 1: Make small steps a part of your life

It’s on every self-help website: make your goals part a habit and you’ll be soaring!

The challenge comes in the process of the habits forming. Once the habits are there, it takes no effort to keep them going! Taking small steps to build them up and putting processes into place to keep the habit going supports you when the motivation decreases.

For example, at the beginning of 2017, I decided that I wanted to drink more water. 2 litres minimum a day. To make sure I integrated this goal into my life, I bought a 2 litre water bottle to work. At the beginning of the day, I fill it up. Throughout the day, I top up a glass and sip from it.

It’s now surprisingly easy how much water I can drink without fully realising! It’s a part of my day and my body now expects to be drinking that much water.


Let’s take the example of adding something into a morning routine, such as five minutes of meditation. How can you integrate this into your day?

You could start off by deciding when you want to do it: when you first wake up? After dressing? Cleaning your teeth? Once decided, start small. Really small. Set your timer for one minute and do that for a week. Then increase it to two minutes and so on.

Building it into your routine also means that the step before triggers the next move.

For example: wake up – go to the toilet – make up – get dressed – meditate – breakfast

Your body and mind soon expect you to take a couple of minutes out to meditate after getting dressed. The goal becomes easier and easier to achieve. Before you know it, you are meditating for five minutes no problem, and can even do more if you decided to!


Alternative 2: Changing the factors you can influence

There are some things we can change, and some that we  can’t. Some actions you personally can do to reach certain goals (such as eating healthier) and some that you have less influence over (like world peace).

Getting worked up over factors you can’t influence can reduce the chances of you meeting your goal as you are focusing on the wrong things.

This is quite nicely explained by the circle of concern and influence (thanks to Paula Pant for the inspiration!).

Circle of Concern

This is the level of time and focus we have on concerns on things we have no control over: the weather. Everything you put within this circle is a concern and matters to you. Everything outside the circle is of little concern to you.

Some of the things inside your circle you can influence, and some are outside your control. For example, you may be concerned about the health of a friend, but what can you actually do about it?

This is why it is good  to identify the Circle of Influence within your Circle of Concern:

Circle of Influence

These are the things you are concerned about that you can influence. By focusing on what you can do something about, the more proactive you can become. In turn, this increases your circle of influence.

When setting goals, it may be helpful to identify what you can and can’t influence. Especially when looking at the steps needed to reach the goal. You can then change your perspective or actions to focus on what you can change.

So in conclusion…

Goals can be a very powerful tool if used effectively. How can we set more effective goals?

You could replace: My goal is to meditate everyday.
With: As part of my morning routine, I take 10 minutes out before breakfast to reflect on the day ahead.

You could replace: My goal is to write a blog post every week.
With: Every Tuesday evening from 8-10pm, I will read and write about topics that interest me.

You now just need to act on them! How are you going to action your goals to live the life you want?

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