How To Set Goals That You Can Actually Keep

How To Set Goals That You Can Actually Keep

by | 6 min read

This year I have set myself an ambitious goal. A goal that is so large that on the face of it seems impossible.

I want this year to be the year I change my life.

I want this year to be my best year yet.

I want this year to be different.

Sound familiar?

Maybe you have set yourself ambitious goals in the past. Whether it be to get fit and have a beach-ready body by summer. To finally save up and travel the world as you have always wanted.

Have you ever managed to achieve those goals?

I didn’t think so.

If you are one of the select few who always manage to achieve their goals (other than never setting another goal) then congratulations, you have won the game of life and this article is not for you.

The problem for most of us is that we set goals without a system.

A goal without a system to achieve it is just wishful thinking.

The fact that we have set a goal gives us a false sense of progress. We know what we want out of life and we are finally going to grab the bull by the horns and get the life we want.

Goals give us an image of a brighter future where we have achieved everything we have wanted and we are finally happy.

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The act of setting a goal often gives us the same endorphin rush as if we had already completed it. Picturing that brighter future isn’t always motivation enough to actually do the work that needs to be done.

This is why so many people join the gym in January. They have an image of their perfect body that they are going to achieve by summer. The first few times they go to the gym they pat themselves on the back and the goal they set seems finally within reach.

After a few weeks, however, when they look in the mirror and that perfect body isn’t looking back at them, they get demotivated.

If one workout doesn’t make a visible difference, then it won’t matter if I skip this one.

That one becomes two and before you know it you haven’t been to the gym in months and you are telling yourself you didn’t enjoy working out anyway.

You then feel even worse about yourself, as you failed your one goal for the year.

Turning Goals into Systems

In order to make a goal achievable you need to turn it into a system. You need to do it regardless of whether you have the motivation or not.

Achieving goals is more about discipline than anything else. You have to be willing to make progress, even a little bit of progress, every single day.

Some goals will have an obvious system that you can implement, others it will take a bit of work to find out what that system is.

  • If your goal is to have healthy teeth, then it is obvious the system is to brush your teeth twice a day for 2 minutes.
  • If your goal is to lose weight, then you need to do at least 30 minutes of vigorous exercise every single day and eat less.

My goal this year is to make a living being a writer, creator and entrepreneur.

This is my system:

  1. Write at least 500 words every single day
  2. Publish an article every single day
  3. Publish a newsletter every single week
  4. Publish a YouTube video every single week
  5. Share snippets of all the above on social media every single day

As you can see achieving goals is about repeating the same thing over and over again. It is really boring but habits aren’t supposed to be exciting.

You don’t get excited about brushing your teeth every day, you just do it.

What can you do every single day that we get you one step closer to achieving your goal?

Make it painful to stop

Once you have found out what you need to do every day to achieve your goal how do you make it a habit?

The key is to make missing it painful.

I am not saying you need to punch yourself every time you miss a work out (although you can if you want).

You just need to make it a painful enough that it is going to encourage you to keep going until it becomes a habit.

Don’t Break the Chain or The Seinfeld Method (coined after the comedian Jerry Seinfeld, although curiously he denies he came up with it) is one way to do this.

Print out a calendar or a chart like this one. Tick off every day you complete your habit and do it for a whole year.

If that isn’t enough, how about paying a (trusted) friend $100 at the start of each month? If you complete all of your workouts that month, then you get your money back, if not your friend gets to keep it or donate it to charity.

Addictive video games often implement features like this to encourage people to play every day. Sometimes it is simple as showing a daily streak.

In Animal Crossing, the number of Nook Miles you get from the terminal increases from 50 to 300 if you collect them every day. Miss a day and you are back down to 50.

Even a sting can be enough to form a habit.

Habit Stacking

Another way to make the habit stick is to stack it on top of an old habit.

James Clear the writer of Atomic Habits, says you can rewire your brain using synaptic pruning.

The key is to add the habit you are trying to build on to one of your existing habits.

The formula looks like this:


For example:

  • After I brush my teeth, I will do 20 push-ups.
  • After I have got up, I will meditate for 5 minutes.

By taking advantage of the habits you already have, you can prompt your brain to do the new thing.

Do it while they are sleeping

Often the most common reason that you fail to make a new habit stick is that life gets in the way.

  • You plan to go for a walk every day but now it is raining so you skip it.
  • You were going to write every day after lunch but today you have a doctor’s appointment.
  • You were going to do 20 press-ups after brushing your teeth but you are running late and need to get to work.

The easiest way to combat this is to pick a time when you have no other commitments.

To make my writing habit stick I am getting up at 5 am every day.

Yes, 5 am.

While my wife and kids are still asleep, I have an hour or two to get some writing done.

I am never going to have any commitments at 5 am so other than laziness, I have no (valid) reason to skip it.

This way I can maintain my streak, I can keep the chain going and can see what is possible when I stick at something for a whole year.

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