Misconception, Productivity, and Success: 5 Reasons Why Setting Realistic Goals Matters

A brand new year is approaching. It’s a time for fresh starts, new experiences, and of course, the requisite resolutions. Making New Year’s resolutions is a tradition not only for Americans but for people throughout the world. It just seems wholly appropriate to use a new calendar year as an opportunity to commit to personal and professional improvements. After all, the overindulgence of the holidays is in the past, the year’s final spending results have been tabulated, and the cold expanse of an uninterrupted January and February lies ahead. It’s the perfect time to start over or begin again.

In fact, more than 60% of us take the advent of a new year as an opportunity for setting goals for ourselves…and it seems that for the most part, we all want to achieve the same things. According to a survey of 2000 people by Inc. Magazine, the top 10 New Year’s resolutions are:

1. Diet or eat healthier (71%)

2. Exercise more (65%)

3. Lose weight (54%)

4. Save more and spend less (32%)

5. Learn a new skill or hobby (26%)

6. Quit smoking (21%)

7. Read more (17%)

8. Find another job (16%)

9. Drink less alcohol (15%)

10. Spend more time with family and friends (13%)

Each of these seems like a positive action. Five of them, in fact, are directly related to improving health and physical wellbeing, while others would result in professional and personal growth and happiness. Wouldn’t everyone want to make these goals a reality?

happy new year

What are goals, anyway?

Unfortunately, Inc.’s survey found that only 8% of those who make these promises to themselves actually achieve their resolutions. So why do we bother to set goals for improvement when statistically we seem doomed to fail?

First, let’s explore why the act of goal setting is important. Modern goal-setting originated in the workplace in the late 1960s as employers began searching for ways to motivate their employees to accomplish more. Simply telling them to “work harder” wasn’t working. In response, researchers Edwin Locke and Dr. Gary Latham came up with The Theory of Goal Setting & Task Performance. Together they found that a challenge that nudges someone out of their comfort zone is motivating, and that “employees tend to push themselves harder when they’re not completely confident they will achieve a goal.”

Locke and Latham’s conclusion is that “conscious goals affect action,” and that “conscious human behavior is purposeful and regulated by individual goals.”

Basically, the only way to improve ourselves is to set individual, positive goals for the future and think about what is required to achieve them.

If we don’t set goals, we’re not likely to move forward in either a personal or professional sense. We lack the direction and focus it takes to make forward progress in our lives. We just drift along, letting the world take us where it will.

Throughout the years,
Locke and Latham have continued to refine their theory, and in 2002 defined a “goal” as “the object or aim of an action, for example, to attain a specific standard of proficiency, usually within a specific time.” Within that definition, perhaps the word “specific” is the most important when it comes to effective goal setting as well as the achievement of those goals. Resolving to lose weight or spend less money is great, but without a specific plan detailing why, how, and when we plan to do these, it’s difficult to succeed. Here are five reasons why setting realistic goals for ourselves matters.

1. Realistic goals give you a sense of purpose and accountability

For a goal to be realistic, it has to be something we care about and can actually achieve, and as we’ve said, it has to be specific rather than vague. The acronym “SMART” was coined to help people remember how to set effective, realistic goals. Each letter in the acronym represents a different parameter of goal setting:

S is for specific, or well-defined. Locke and Latham referred to this as “goal clarity.” When you set a specific goal, you have a clear path of what you want to achieve, and how to do it. With the weight loss goal, this might mean determining how many pounds or what percentage of body weight you want to lose.

M is for measurable, which means you can actually measure or gauge your progress using precise measurements. In the weight loss scenario, maybe your goal is to lose 20 pounds.

A is for attainable. Although Locke and Latham’s theory asserts that a goal must be challenging, they also believe it has to be attainable. Perhaps, according to medical recommendations, your ideal body weight for your height should be 185, but you’re currently checking in at 210. A 20-pound weight loss goal is both attainable and safe, whereas vowing to lose 50 pounds is not recommended nor is it necessarily a realistic level for you to reach. Additionally, accomplishing something that at first seemed out of reach is highly motivational. When you meet that goal, you feel a sense of accomplishment, and you’re proud of the hard work that got you there.

R is for relevant. If you don’t care about the goal, why will you work to make it come true? If you’re happy with your current weight, for example, will you truly engage in a goal of weight loss? This is tied to Latham and Locke’s “commitment” aspect of effective goal setting. They found that people perform better in relation to a goal when they are strongly committed to the outcome.

T is for timely, or time-bound. This is your deadline for achieving your goal — the date or time when you’ll assess how you’ve performed. If your goal is to lose 20 pounds, your scale will help you know whether or not you succeeded. Plus, knowing that you’re three days away from your deadline and you’re on track to meet your goal will keep you from making excuses to justify eating that pizza or birthday cake.

As Locke and Latham theorized, setting SMART goals keeps you motivated and gives you a sense of purpose by challenging you to achieve them. With SMART goals, you know where you are and where you want to go and how to know when you’ve reached that destination.

2. Realistic goals help you determine what’s really important

As you go through the SMART goal-setting process, you’ll want to spend some time on the “R” phase. Ask yourself if the goal you’re setting is actually relevant and important to you. If you don’t achieve your goal to add one vegetable to every meal or to spend $200 less each month on eating out, will you even care?

Although there may be several things you’d like to do, you have to determine which ones really matter. Prioritizing your goals helps you determine which accomplishments would be most impactful to you, and what will hurt or disturb you the most if you don’t achieve it. When selecting goals for yourself, spend some time thoughtfully reviewing what will truly make your life better. You may find that you only have one goal, or there are two really important things you want to accomplish within a given time period. Prioritization keeps you from wasting time and effort on the wrong goals for your purpose in life.

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3. Realistic goals help you make long- and short-term plans

The time-bound aspect of goal setting is significant not just because it gives you a deadline or benchmark, but because it helps you plan your life for the long and short term. In other words, your goals become a roadmap you can follow for the next six months, two years, or 20 years, and the SMART aspect of these goals is your strategy to get to each destination.

When you started high school, you set a goal to graduate within four years with a diploma, then worked out how to make that goal a reality. It was the same with college. At about the same time you probably started setting goals for when you wanted to enter the workforce, what kind of job you wanted, and what salary you desired. You may have even set long-term goals like getting married, buying your first house, or starting a family by a certain age or phase of your life. If you made these things happen by your deadlines, kudos to you! You’ve got this goal-setting thing down!

It’s ok to set long-term goals, but it’s also important to understand that those plans could easily change. Family circumstances or new discoveries could completely flip your ideas of success or force you to take a completely different turn on your roadmap. In that case, re-evaluating and adjusting your goals, or even making some short-term commitments might be a more realistic path.

4. Realistic goals help you define your dreams

Is your dream to become a billionaire and retire by age 30? Great! But is it your goal? Maybe so. Perhaps you’ve mapped out a SMART goal to complete a specific education, excel in a certain career, or enter into an entrepreneurial venture that will get you there. There’s nothing wrong with setting big goals, as long as they are realistic and achievable; otherwise, you’re only going to be disappointed.

One way to decide what goals to pursue is to ask yourself what you really want to achieve, experience, or acquire, or what kind of person you want to be. At first, this may seem like a list of dreams or big goals that might be impossible to accomplish. But as you work through the list and prioritize what’s most important or impactful, use the SMART goal setting method to see how you can make them come true. If, during that exercise, you find that your goal isn’t realistic or attainable, consider scaling it down or dividing it into smaller goals.

For example, instead of your goal being “becoming a billionaire by age 30,” perhaps your goals are to play quarterback for an NFL team, or contribute a certain percentage of your income to a low-risk, high-growth account, or maybe apply for an appearance on Shark Tank to show your invention to potential investors. Maybe it’s all three!

Of course, if you’re a 5’2″ female with little interest in sports, you’re probably not going to achieve a goal to be drafted to the Patriots. No matter what your big goals or smaller goals are, you have to have a complete understanding of what it will take to make them a reality in addition to the ability to do so.

5. Realistic goals can have a positive psychological impact

How do you feel when you accomplish something you’ve set out to do, like finishing a 5K, completing a big project at work, or losing those pesky 20 pounds? Proud, happy, satisfied, relieved…no matter what the emotion, it’s usually a positive one.

Psychologists have determined other benefits from setting goals for yourself. Goal setting is linked to success, confidence, innovation, risk-taking, and autonomy. Researchers have found that when parents help children to set realistic goals in the classroom, at home, or in sports, they become more resourceful — they’re better equipped to find what they need to solve their problems. All of these are very positive outcomes.

If you’ve struggled with setting or achieving your goals, consider talking to a licensed counselor or mental health professional. A great therapist can help you identify your passions, dreams, and personal and professional goals. Once you’ve done that, your therapist will help you create SMART goals so you can achieve them. 

Remember that goal setting doesn’t have to coincide with a new year or even a new week. There’s never a wrong time to make the right resolutions.

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