5 Steps to Accomplishing your Goals by Dave Cheong

Most of the time I think we can cruise through life without having any major goals. However, for things that are truly worth accomplishing, specifying the ins and outs of a goal is pretty important. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a few simple steps we can follow to describe how we can approach our goals and ensure we accomplish them?

Well, here’s my attempt at defining a nice simple 5 step framework anyone can follow. In this post, I’ll use losing weight, getting fit and going to the gym as one concrete example. However, you can apply it to any goal you have as the steps are equally as relevant.

1. Define your goal and give it shape

The very first thing you need to do is to define your goal. After all, without knowing what the goal actually is, how can you go about accomplishing it?
Goal setting is an art form. It is about articulating what your goal is about, being realistic in whether you can accomplish it or not and providing the metrics to track your progress. I’ve written about the characteristics of a good goal before, so read that post first if you haven’t yet done so.

To give your goal shape, I find it is helpful to actually write it down. Get a fresh piece of paper and describe each of the following characteristics for your goal.

In my example of losing weight and getting fit:
  • Conceivable: I intend to lose 24 kgs within 12 months and be capable of running 3 kms in 10 mins. 
  • Achievable: I am able to commit to two 90 min sessions. With a proper training program and commitment, I am assured by various fitness instructors that this is achievable.
  • Measurable: I will track how many kgs I lose each month. In the simpliest scenario, I must lose 2 kgs per month to attain my goal.
  • Aligned: Losing weight and getting fit is congruent to my other goals in life which is about being happy about who I am and how I look.
  • Worthwhile: I acknowledge this is a challenging task, but it is something worth accomplishing. I would like to live a healthy life so I can watch my kids grow up and get married.
  • Desirable: This is something I truly wish to accomplish and will do everything I can to attain it. I desire this more than eating fried chickens and carrot cakes.
2. Identify the next few tasks

Once you have your goal properly defined and shaped, identify the next few tasks you need to do in relation to your goal. Unlike traditional project management where you define all the tasks, dependencies and contingencies, this step is about identifying the next few tasks only.
Why the next few only? There are a couple of reasons: Firstly, unless you are used to planning or have a crystal ball, there is no way you can accurately plan every single action you need to take to accomplish your goal. Secondly, you can only work on a few things at a time, so all you need is a few actions to start the ball rolling.

In my example, the next tasks to being fit and healthy are:
  • Assess the equipment, staff and pricing for all local gyms.
  • Buy two sets of appropriate gym wear.
  • Get some good headphones to plug into the gym’s music system.
  • Free up all after work commitments for Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Although there are possibly a myriad of other tasks I would have to act on to accomplish this goal, they are not essentially the next tasks. For example, getting a trainer and an exercise program are tasks I can only perform after signing up with a particular gym so I don’t bother writing these down now.
Try it for yourself. First write down the definition of your goal. On the same piece of paper, write down the next 3-5 things you need to do in relation to this goal.

3. Set aside time and work through your tasks

After you have defined your goal and identified the next tasks and actions, prepare some time to actually work on them. One effective technique I have found which works for me is Time boxing. Essentially, Time boxing is a technique in which we limit the amount of time we spend on a given task. So instead of working until the task is “done”, we spend say 30 mins on it. It is either “done” at that point or we schedule another 30 mins to work on it another time. Time boxing is effective because we instantly focus on what’s important, avoid potential overruns and can act as a motivator against procrastination.
Another thing I should mention here is the importance of actually dedicating a time slot for working at your tasks. By this I mean, actually blocking out a period in the day or week in which you are actively looking at your task list and crossing things off. The reason why this is important is because we can have busy lives and sometimes we use this as an excuse not to do something. By allocating time, we have no excuses and can also establish good habits and positive patterns.

In my example, blocking out 90 mins on Tuesday and Thursday nights after work applies both the Time boxing and the regular routine techniques to my weekly patterns.

4. Review and reward

One of the most important thing about accomplishing goals is measuring your progress and reviewing your goal and assumptions as you go. If you are measuring well against your goal, you can reward yourself.

The trick about reviewing your goals and tasks is to pick a system that you trust. Some people prefer the paper based planners, whilst others prefer the electronic alternatives like a PDA or Microsoft Outlook. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter. What’s important is to have a system you trust and will look at periodically. In the past, I used Outlook to track my outstanding tasks. However, this has proved ineffective for me because I split my day between work and home and never do I have a single Outlook installation which has both my “work” and “personal” tasks available at the same time. As a consequence, I didn’t look at the tasks periodically and eventually stopped adding them altogether.

Why is it important to reward yourself? Well, some goals are difficult to accomplish and may require both time and ongoing effort. Rewarding yourself is simple way keep motivated. In my example on fitness and going to the gym, I can reward myself by buying a new set of running shoes in order to encourage myself to reach that 3 kms in 10 mins benchmark.

5. Revisit, revise and reassess if required

The flip side of tracking well is not tracking well. You may have to revise your goal or reassess any assumptions you may have made in order to be pragmatic and realistic about how achievable your goals really are.

Why is it important to revise our plans? Sometimes we set goals which are simply unrealistic, perhaps through no fault of our own. For example, dedicating two days each week to go to the gym could be too demanding on our schedules. Perhaps we have to pick the kids up from day care after work or we have a deadline which requires us to stay a bit later. Whatever the reasons, sometimes things don’t pan out as we originally planned. That’s ok, all we need to do is revise our plans. That could mean scaling back our commitments or planning around them. If work is making us stay back late, perhaps we can consider going to the gym in the mornings or take shorter lunch breaks.

One common mistake I see people make is punishing themselves when they fail to meet a certain commitment. For example, if I have committed to two days per week of going to the gym, missing one session may provoke a vengeful reaction from my inner self. I can punish myself by promising to go three times next week. In my experience, this is usually a bad idea for a couple of reasons. Firstly, we may make good on our promise in the short term but seldom would it work in the longer term. So what happens if we miss another session or another or another? Are we going to keep promising to have three session weeks? Secondly, it associates a negative thing to our goal. Given enough occurrences of this negative thing, we may give up the goal entirely which is obviously something which we do not want to happen.
I prefer the approach of revising our plans or our initial assumptions. This keeps our mind focused on the positives of our goal and outcomes. The trick is to determine the fine line in the sand between revising our goals because the assumptions were incorrect and our general “slackness” in working at our next tasks and actions.

In conclusion

The 5 steps I have described above hopefully can provide you with a framework for accomplishing your goals. Remember, start with a well defined goal by ensuring you describe the 6 characteristics of a good goal. If you want more reading material, you can also take a look at Steve Pavlina’s latest post in which he talks about setting goals you will actually achieve. Once you have your goal defined, identify the next immediate tasks and actions. Then set aside some time and block it out so you can actually dedicate some brain power and resources to completing them. Frequently review your progress and either reward yourself or revise your plans.

If you have any comments about goal setting and this simple 5 step framework, feel free to leave a comment.
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