How to Set Goals You Will Actually Achieve

August 1st, 2006 by Steve Pavlina

A major obstacle that prevents people from enjoyably achieving their goals is that they set their goals incorrectly to begin with.  This problem occurs because people don’t understand the nature of time well enough.  When people consider a particular goal, they often worry about the time commitment:  If I start my own business now, it could take years to make it profitable.  I’m so overweight it could take years for me to get in shape.  If I break off this unfulfilling relationship, it could take years to get back on my feet again.  Such thoughts are clearly demotivating, but more importantly they reveal a total misunderstanding of the nature of time.

We value our time, so we have a natural tendency to be expedient.  And we also want to enjoy the present moment.  Consequently, we’re disinclined to set goals that will take a very long time to achieve.  Who wants to toil for years in order to reach a potentially better someday?  Most of us simply don’t have the discipline to do that, even if there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  Discipline is not the real issue, however.  The issue is a misunderstanding of time.

We tend to think of time as a resource that we spend, just like we spend money.  To complete a one-hour task is to spend an hour on it.  How are you spending your day?  Where do you want to spend your next vacation?  How will you spend the rest of the year?  Time is money, a disposable resource.

This is a silly and inaccurate way to think about time, however.  Time is not a resource.  You cannot spend time.  Time spends itself.  You have no choice in the matter.  No matter what you do, the time is going to pass anyway.  It doesn’t matter if you do one thing or another for the next five years.  Those five years will pass no matter what you do.

In reality you are never in the past or future.  You exist only in the present moment.  Even when you remember the past or envision the future, you’re still thinking those thoughts in the present.  All you really have is right now.  And that’s all you ever will have.  You can’t control the passage of time, but you can control your present moment focus.  That’s all.  No past.  No future.  Just right now.

So if the only thing that exists is the present moment, then what sense does it make to talk about long-term goals?  How do you actually achieve anything?

First, understand that you can only achieve anything in the present moment, and you can only enjoy those achievements in the present moment.  You can’t achieve anything or enjoy anything in the past or future because you’re never there.  That’s obvious, isn’t it?  But too often people act incongruently with this fact.  It’s very difficult to achieve a goal that’s based on an inaccurate model of reality — such a goal will surely be an uphill struggle.

The purpose of goal-setting isn’t to control the future.  That would be senseless because the future only exists in your imagination.  The only value in goal-setting is that it improves the quality of your present moment reality.  Setting goals can give you greater clarity and focus right now.  Whenever you set a goal, always ask yourself, “How does setting this goal improve my present reality?”  If a goal does not improve your present reality, then the goal is pointless, and you may as well dump it.  But if the goal brings greater clarity, focus, and motivation to your life whenever you think about it, it’s a keeper.

Many people set goals and then assume the path to reach the goal will require suffering and sacrifice — a recipe for failure.  A better idea is to set a goal and pay attention to the effect it has on your present reality.  Set goals that yield a positive effect on your life whenever you think about them, long before the final outcome is actually achieved.  Treat goal-setting as a way to enhance your present reality, not as a way to control the future.

Suppose you set a goal to start your own business.  You imagine some future point where you’re enjoying being your own boss, doing what you love, and making a great income.  Nothing wrong with that.  Then you think about how much work it will be, the risks you’ll face, and other discouraging thoughts.  You’ve left the present and are dwelling in the future, which is only an illusion.  Bring yourself back to the present and realize that none of those things have happened.  You’re just making them up.  How silly it is to make up things you don’t even want!  And your imagination isn’t accurate anyway.

Now try this:  Think about starting your own business and imagine how great it will be when everything is running smoothly.  Now stay in the present and consider how this goal can improve the quality of your life right now.  Not a year from now.  Not five years from now.  Not even tomorrow.  Right now this very minute.  What does the goal of starting your own business do for you here and now?  Does it give you hope?  Does it inspire you?  Does it promise solutions to some current problems?  Allow those thoughts to churn through your consciousness for a while.  Consider how the goal of starting your own business improves your life right now.  And of course if you can see no improvement, then drop the goal and consider a different one.

Think about some goals you might have set if not for the imaginary obstacles you focused on.  Do you want to lose a certain amount of weight?  To enjoy a new relationship?  To enjoy a more fulfilling career?  Stop imagining doom and gloom on the path to get there, and simply focus on how each goal can improve your present reality.  What does the thought of physical fitness do for you right now?  What does the thought of finding your soulmate do for you?  What does the thought of a fulfilling career do for you?

As you think about how your goals improve your present reality, eventually you’ll feel motivated to take action.  At the same time, you’ll begin attracting resources into your life that will help you achieve your goals.  There’s no need to force yourself — you’ll find yourself naturally drawn to take action as you keep bringing your focus back to the present.  When you think about a goal in a way that motivates you right now, it’s only natural that you’ll begin taking action congruent with the goal.

When you set goals that increase the quality of your present reality, then what does it matter how long it takes to achieve the final outcome?  Whether it takes one week or five years is irrelevant.  The whole path is fun and enjoyable.  More importantly, you feel happy and fulfilled this very moment.  This drives you to take enjoyable action, so you’re productive too.

Whatever goal you set, you have the option of envisioning a path of sacrifice and suffering by focusing on the illusion of the future, or you can allow the goal to inject your present reality with new hope, enthusiasm, and motivation.  Even though it seems like you’re setting goals for the future, you’re really setting goals for the present.  The better you understand this, the more easily and enjoyably you’ll achieve your goals.

If you adopt this goal-setting mindset, you’ll find yourself setting different kinds of goals.  The size and scope of the goal will cease to matter.  The most important factor will be what effect the goal has on your present moment when you think about it.  When you really grasp this concept, you’ll begin to adopt a lifelong mission instead of just a collection of disjointed goals and preferences.  It doesn’t even matter if your mission can be achieved in your lifetime.  What matters is the effect it has on your present reality.  So you can feel free to adopt a really enormous mission, even one which may be unachievable in your lifetime, as long as that mission inspires and motivates you.  If the mission is so big that it disempowers you, dump it.  But if it really inspires you, go for it.

I recommend you abandon the concept of SMART goals.  SMART = specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, time-bound (there are many variations on this too).  This model sounds intelligent, but it’s based on an inaccurate understanding of time.  Instead of thinking of your goals as time-bound projects, consider each goal in light of its effect on your present reality.

I know this is a very different way of thinking about goals, so it’s only natural that you may have some resistance to it if you’re deeply ingrained in a time-bound model of goal-setting.  So ask yourself this:  How well is your current goal-setting model working for you?  On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your performance at setting and achieving meaningful goals?  I’d be surprised if you’re higher than a 5.  Pushing yourself to get better isn’t the solution.  The whole paradigm is broken to begin with.  It’s like trying to push a cart with square wheels.  You don’t need to push harder — you need a cart with round wheels.  The square-wheeled cart looks really slick, and from a certain perspective, it seems like it should work OK.  But reality itself is the ultimate judge.



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