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Robert Marion  

Achievable Goals vs Resolutions

New Year’s resolutions fail. It’s kind of what they do. Why? Well, Americans don’t really understand how to make a quantifiable, achievable goals.

A paltry nine percent of Americans that make resolutions end up keeping them. Worse than that – two out of three people will abandon their resolutions within the first month. Mentally count everyone who has told you their resolution – only one out of ten is likely to keep it.

When discussing financial coaching with potential clients, one of the more difficult skills to cultivate is proper goal-making as a habit. Trackable, measurable goal-setting is an essential skill. Making a monthly spending plan without tracking its execution is a recipe for failure. It’s hard to succeed with money if you have no idea where it’s going.

The same principle can be applied to making other goals and should be. Call it what you want – a resolution, a dream, or a wish. Apply whatever term feels best, but it’s ultimately window dressing. Any vision for the future crafted without a plan to execute it is just that. A vision. It’s imagination.

So instead of making wishes with your New Year resolutions this year, let’s talk about how we can create actual, achievable goals.

Planning Achievable Goals

Crafting realistic resolutions means moving from a vision to reality.

Late author Stephen Covey created a classic book entitled The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The book was first written in 1989 but has since sold more than 40 million copies. Inside, Covey discusses what separates successful people from… well, those that aren’t. His discussion about mental paradigms we develop for ourselves should be required reading for anyone looking to improve their outlook from the inside out. Literally.

Among the seven habits, Covey discusses habit number two: Begin with the End in Mind.

In Covey’s mind, all outcomes come into being twice. The first creation is the imagination. This is the envisioning of the end product and is where dreaming takes place. It’s where vision is the greatest and the effort is the least. No work occurs when dreaming.

This is as far as most people take their resolutions – the extent that their imagination takes them. Which is to say, not very far.

But Covey doesn’t stop there. The second creation is the physical act of producing an outcome. If the first creation looks like imagination, the second looks like rolling up our sleeves and getting to work.

Those that produce a vision understand that the process is two-fold. An understanding of the outcome and what is needed to bring it to life comes first. The second is a lot of hard work. Doodling on paper or even designing blueprints does not create a building. Months of physical labor are required to transform an architect’s drawing into a physical reality that can be walked through and lived in.

Achievable goals require effort. Any goal or resolution created worth doing will require effort. But a resolution without any effort is just vision. It’s mere imagination. It’s the first creation and no more than that.

To go any further, we need a plan.

Quantify, Measure, and Track

If you’re anything like the average person, your resolutions are broken because you never set yourself up to achieve them. As discussed in the previous point, a true goal requires a plan of action. Without a plan to produce something, we’re limited to the scope of our imagination to make it happen. That feels good and can be a fun practice, but gets us nowhere. 

The secret to creating good, achievable goals really lies in the ability to craft a good plan. But what is a good plan? 

To answer that question, let’s first talk about what isn’t a good plan.

If we look at the top New Year’s Resolutions for 2022, we discover a common theme in the top 3 resolutions. Most Americans want to exercise more and lose weight. Both activities are commendable and can result in a healthier lifestyle (those that read The 7 Habits would recognize these as Quadrant 2 activities – important, but not urgent). Both are common resolutions for any year.

I want to dig into both of these resolutions. 

Let’s get the hard part out of the way. “I want to exercise more” is a terrible goal. I don’t just mean poor; I mean outright impossible to achieve. This is also true for its counterpart: “I want to lose weight”. These resolutions are destined to fail because they live in the first creation – the imagination.

What defines success with these resolutions? How do we know if we’ve failed? Neither of these resolutions can be quantified. They can’t be measured, and they can’t be tracked. These resolutions are mere wishes because there is no plan involved with either. They will never be completed, only abandoned.

To illustrate the difference, let’s change both of these goals into something quantified and measurable and see how much more realistic (or not) they sound:

Unrealistic GoalRealistic Goal
“I want to exercise more”“I want to exercise four times a week”
“I want to lose weight”“I want to lose 10 pounds in 3 months”

What changed?

Essentially, we’ve now created resolutions that have some level of planning involved. There is now a way to determine whether or not our goal has succeeded. What’s more, we have moved from mere wishing to crafting a plan of action. We have begun explicitly with the end state in mind. Our ultimate outcome is something that can be measured, quantified, and achieved (or not) within a set timeframe.

In essence, we have created a realistic goal.

By introducing something as simple as a little math into goal-setting, we’ve forced ourselves to consider what it might actually take to achieve either of these goals. The desire to lose weight has instead been replaced by a quantifiable amount of weight that must be lost within a set timeframe. A glance at the table above is all that’s needed to determine that such a person would have to lose a little more than three pounds a month to achieve the second goal.

All it took was a slight change in perspective. We’ve moved these resolutions from the imagination toward the second creation – where we physically create the outcome. Good goal-setting involves setting outcomes that can be quantified, measured, and then tracked over time. All three components are essential, and yet easily overlooked.

When designing realistic, achievable goals, consider your outcome from all three points of view. Ask yourself:

  • How can I determine if I succeed?
  • How can I measure this success?
  • How long do I have to achieve success?

Answering these three questions will guide you toward crafting an actionable plan. All of the goals on the Top US New Year’s Resolutions list can be improved this way. Instead of promising myself to merely “spend more time with family/friends”, I could use these questions to create a plan of action:

  • How can I be successful at spending more time with family and friends? Well, I can choose who specifically I want to spend more time with – say, my spouse and child.
  • How can I measure success at spending more time with my spouse and child? Well, I can be successful if I spend two uninterrupted hours with my spouse once a week and a half-hour uninterrupted with my child every day.
  • How long do I have to be successful in spending this time with my loved ones? Well, I will be successful if I have averaged this rate in the next two months.

I have now created a plan, one that can be quantified, measured, and tracked over time. Let’s plug this into the table above:

Unrealistic GoalRealistic Goal
“I want to spend more time with family/friends”“I want to spend two uninterrupted hours a week with my spouse and a half-hour uninterrupted with my child every day. I want to average these numbers in the next two months.”

Yes, crafting achievable goals requires more time, more thought, and far more energy. That’s the idea. We’re moving our resolution from a mere dream to reality. Such acts of creation takes effort. 

Mere humans are pattern-based, habit-driven creatures. We don’t change naturally. Moving a mountain requires some pushing and a little bit of faith. Anything less is dreaming. Someone else put this in a much more eloquent catch-phrase that, I believe, encompasses this quite well:

“If you want something to change, then change something.”

Fail, Make Changes, Continue

We fail. It’s what we humans do. Some of us just happen to be better at failing than others! Believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

Failure is harshly regarded these days, and that’s quite unfortunate. Failure is how human beings learn. If you’ve ever parented a young child, I find it unlikely that you criticized the child as he or she learned how to walk. We don’t scold toddlers for tumbling while taking their first steps. Rather, we encourage and cheer them on!

Yet, so many Americans are terrified of failure. Maybe we associate a failure of outcome with a failure of effort. Or perhaps we internalize it as a failure of our character. If so, then that’s quite unfortunate. Failure is an educator.

I much prefer this quote attributed to Edison when considering failure:

“I haven’t failed – I’ve just found 10,000 (methods) that won’t work.”

When making changes to our lives, failure is always an option. Some of our plans will not work. And that’s okay because that’s how we learn. Failure guides growth. We learn by doing, and practice involves discovering how not to do a thing.

For example, budgeting is not a typical skill for the average American. It requires a lot of self-honesty, and that can be difficult for people accustomed to spending freely. But beyond that, budgeting is difficult to get correct in the first month. Many people underestimate how much money they spend in certain categories, especially when planning for food and transportation expenses.

In reality, budgeting is a habit that typically takes at least three months to “get right”. For most new budgeters, the first month’s budget is a disaster. That’s all right. The budgeter calculates actual expenditures, then adjusts the second month’s budget accordingly. But despite that correction, he or she usually blows that month’s budget, too.

But for most people, the second month’s discrepancy is not as high as the first. By the third month, the numbers budgeted for tend to start approaching what shows up in reality. By month three, most people “get it” and can craft a workable, usable budget to sustain them from month to month.

Getting there requires a little failure, a little grace, and a little adjustment. All part of crafting realistic, achievable goals.

Give yourself that grace.

Failure is a natural outcome of making changes, and anyone looking to change something should be willing to give themselves permission to get something wrong. This is why our goals should be quantifiable and measurable. By quantifying our success, we can gauge how close we come to it. By measuring and tracking our progress, we can see what changes need to be made to keep us on target.

And ultimately, any goal worth pursuing is one worth adjusting over time. Maybe a half-hour a day uninterrupted time isn’t feasible every day. Maybe fifteen minutes per day is more realistic, or a half-hour every other day. Likewise, maybe ten pounds in three months isn’t going to work. But what about over six months?

In the end, the only failed resolutions are the ones that are abandoned or the ones that are never realized. With a little grace, a little forethought, and a lot of planning, it’s not terribly hard to move our wishful thinking into a plan of attack.

Try it, as a brand-new year dawns upon all of us. Begin with that end in mind, and be a little more proactive in chasing it down. Never know what you might achieve this year if you give yourself permission to get it wrong a time or two.

Note – this article is a repost of an article I wrote for my Financial Coaching website.

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