How to Set Goals that Actually Work

How to Set Goals that Actually Work

2018 was a watershed for me: Not only did I start DLM, but for the first time ever, I actually met about 90% of the goals I set at the start of the year. This was earth-shattering for me, as I’m the queen of setting (and promptly forgetting) goals - usually ones I made while in a fit of productivity.

I don’t attribute my goal-setting success this past year to anything special I did or didn’t do. I attribute it to the sage advice I’ve gleaned from mentors far and wide about how to intentionally set goals that SET YOU UP FOR SUCCESS, not failure: In other words, setting goals that are actually attainable and concrete, not those that are so far-fetched that no one could possibly even come within a mile of them in a lifetime.

This past year, I’ve read and re-read books ranging from Lara Casey’s Make It Happen to Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, all of which have impressed upon me the importance of articulating our goals in clear, actionable, easy-to-follow steps. In 2018, what ultimately helped me was developing habits rather than setting aspirational goals. Here are the key principles of goal-setting that helped me.


First of all, my goals fit squarely within the realm of reality. In the past, I’ve set goals that no person, anywhere, ever would be able to achieve. Sure, they looked good on paper. But when it came to putting them into action, well, let’s just say I had no idea where to start and out of sheer frustration, promptly abandoned them.

But recently, the goals I set were actually achievable. For instance, rather than vowing to replace my income through freelance writing within one month, I set a goal to give myself twelve months to gradually transition to writing full-time for a living. And so the earliest iteration of, DLM was born.

Goal-Setting Key #2: MY GOALS WERE CONCRETE.

Equally importantly, my goals were 1) concrete, 2) specific, and 3) articulable. In other words, I could easily see, and measure, my progress. I’ve learned from multiple mentors the importance of devising benchmarks by which to assess my progress, so rather than set intentions or desires, I created touch points to consider throughout the year to assess my performance.

Think about it this way: If you set a vague goal to “get in shape,” you give yourself little to work with. What does that mean? How do you measure it? But if instead, you vow to “be able to run ten miles by December,” well, you can easily break your goal into interim goals (hit two miles by February, reach six by September, etc.) and track your progress along the way. Much more concrete, right?


Each goal I set was accompanied by a series of concrete, actionable steps.

For instance, my goal to start my own business included no less than 20 (realistically, probably MORE THAN 50) action steps that covered each minute, tiny detail of the process. When you break your goals down in this way, you make the process of achieving them far less daunting. As the adage stands, you eat an elephant one bite at a time. Set yourself up for success by giving yourself interim “mini goals” to achieve along the path to knocking out your big goals, and you will see much more measurable success.


I’ve learned that so much of working toward goals is not just about the goals themselves; it is about turning them into habits. For instance, if you set a goal to write 365 pages of a book in one year, you need to develop a habit of writing one page every single day. This is how the prolific John Grisham wrote his first novel: by stealing a few moments each day to scribble some imperfect words on paper while hiding in the stairwell at the Legislative office building where he worked.

The key with habits is that they become so inextricably wound into the fabric of our lives that they become automatic. Think about it this way: we don’t write “shower,” “eat lunch,” or “brush teeth” on our to-do lists; we do them daily out of sheer habit, because they are ingrained in us. The same habitual power should translate to our goals. If you aspire to write a page a day for a year, don’t put it on your to-do list. Do it daily, at the same time every day. Before you know it, you will have realized your goal.

The key to intentional goal-setting is to ultimately remember that all of the lists, podcasts, self-help books, and vision boards in the world won’t see you through. What WILL accompany you on your path to achieving your goals is hard work, grit, and a dedication to establish and maintain healthy new habits. It is a long-game, so start small, take baby steps, and most importantly, don’t give up.

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