When I was in fourth grade, I was responsible for selling a box of chocolate bars for a fundraiser. I tried my best, but I was a ten-year-old Hmong girl with little confidence and no business skills. On the Saturday I was supposed to be selling chocolate, I ended up at the park, eating all the chocolate underneath the shade of a gigantic stone turtle. Don’t ask me how it happened. To this day, I’m still not quite sure. This was the first goal I remember setting, and it failed terribly. I’ve learned a lot about goals and goal setting since fourth grade, and much of what I’ve learned is that achievability depends on a few key steps.
Step 1: Activate your goal
So I never thought I’d do this, but I’m about to talk science. When a goal is born, it’s inactive. It just exists in a vacuum in our mind. According to Newton’s first law of motion, if an object is at rest, it will stay at rest and if an object is in motion, it will stay in motion. So, remember our goal? It will stay at rest in our mind until we put it in motion. The moment we put it in motion, it will stay in motion, at least until we stop it from moving--in other words, until we give up on it or until we achieve it.
In short, your goal isn’t going to move until you set it in motion. When you release your goal from your mind by saying it out loud or writing it down, you put your goal out into the universe, and that in itself is the act of putting it into motion. Even if you don’t do anything else again, it will continue to stay in motion. That’s why the first step of any goal setting ritual is always to activate your goal.
Step 2: Create accountability
In a study done at Dominican University of California, psychology professor Dr. Gail Matthews, found that accountability and writing down one’s goal were two of the main tools that helped people achieve their goals. About two months ago, I did a two-week “no meat” challenge. Then I did a one-month “read a chapter a night” challenge. When I decided to do those challenges, I knew I had to write them down and get accountability. I chose to do both of those things on Instagram. Putting my challenges on Instagram also took accountability to the next level. It wasn’t just accountability with one person, it was public accountability--with hundreds of people. So I couldn’t just quit because people were expecting updates.
You don’t have to put your goals on Instagram. I certainly don’t announce all my goals on social media, but having some kind of accountability is important to achieving your goals. If not social media, an accountability partner would work really well, too. It could be a significant other, a friend or a co-worker. Sometimes it could be a group of people. If you can make occasional updates with this person or group, even better. For me, knowing that someone will be checking up on me makes me more likely to stick to a goal.
Step 3: Bundle for results
Once you’ve set your goal in motion and have an accountability partner or two, the next actionable step is to build a system that will allow you to follow through. There are millions of systems out there that cater to the millions of different types of personalities and goals. You just have to find one that works for you.
A few years ago, I learned that I wrote best in the morning, so I began waking up at 5:00 to write. It was so quiet, I could actually hear myself think. That is until Alex and Toby started waking up at that time, too. Alex would get his coffee and sit next to me at the kitchen table and talk. Toby would sit at my feet and look up at me with those dark round eyes, tail wagging hopefully, and I would feel guilty that I wasn’t taking him out for his morning walk.
At that time, I had also stopped paying for parking and was getting into the bad habit of being 15 to 20 minutes late to work. The perfectionist in me cringed every time I walked through the door at work after 8:00. So I decided that instead of writing at home, I’d get to work early and write at work. Some mornings, I got to work at 6:30 with barely a soul in sight. I got free parking, wasn’t late anymore, and this was how I finished my third novel.
Dr. Katherine Milkman, Associate Professor of Operations and Information Management at the University of Pennsylvania, calls this kind of pairing “bundling.” In her study, she pairs what she calls “temptations”--things that you want to do--with goals that maybe you’re struggling with a bit. So maybe you've been meaning to go to the park to exercise, but just haven’t been able to find the time. Listening to a book you’ve been meaning to read while walking at the park would be a good pairing.
Step 4: Find your goal in the journey
In the age of immediate satisfaction, it’s so easy to be done with a goal if we don’t achieve it immediately. To say, “This goal isn’t working, so I’ll start something different.” Or, “Maybe I wasn’t meant to do this or to study that. Maybe I should just quit.” We’ve been groomed to quickly discredit something or to toss it away if it doesn’t immediately work out the way we want it to. Some goals, however, take time. And some goals require us to be persistent and patient.
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was in elementary school. The first book I ever wrote was a children’s book I plagiarized in second grade. Literally, word by word. I even copied the illustrations. But I think that was the moment I set my writing goal in motion. More than fifteen years later, I finished my first full-length novel. It was the worse story I had ever read and no one else would ever see it. But I learned something important during the process. I had become a writer because of the journey, not because of the novel.
Step 5: Trust in a higher power
Have you ever failed at something only to realize that because of that failure you now have the opportunity to pursue something else? Something that’s better? When this happened, you might’ve wondered, “Wow, things do happen for a reason.” This, to me, is the act of surrendering to a higher power, whether it be God, the ancestors or the universe. You might’ve also heard this described as, “Going with the flow.” That was definitely what I was doing under that turtle eating all the chocolate I was supposed to sell.
At the age of ten, I didn’t know how to set goals. I just knew that I wanted the bicycle--the grand prize for the student who sold the most chocolate. It wasn’t the right kind of goal. In the end, I lived in fear that my teacher would call me out on it, demand that I pay for the missing chocolate. Then Mom and Dad would know what a horrid thing their daughter did. But my teacher never said a word. Maybe she knew that I wasn’t meant to sell chocolate. Instead, I was meant to sell words.