I have discussed in the past the importance of setting and tracking goals and how it can affect your results on both a personal and financial level. I wanted to take a moment to discuss in more detail how goal clarity combined with a positive attitude can help you achieve better things both personally and financially.
First, what is goal clarity? In essence it can be defined as your ability to set and reach specific goals. The important part of this definition is the word specific. A very broad or general goal won’t help drive you to success. If your goal is to get up and go to work in the morning, that is not a well-defined goal. It may be easy to achieve and a very important thing to succeed at, but it really has no strong emotion behind it.
Instead a goal should be clear, concise and worth achieving in which a specific outcome is reached. Unfortunately, we are less likely to consistently set such specific or high goals because of many self-limiting thoughts. People generally tend to stick to the safe and secure status quo and try not to get out of their comfort zone by nature. To further illustrate the importance of setting high and specific goals I want to take a piece out of the book Integrity Selling for the 21st Century by Ron Willingham.
He describes the various emotional stages you feel once you set these higher and more specific goals as:
- Initial excitement – the thrill of new possibilities can be intoxicating until you realize how much extra effort is usually required before change can take place.
- Conflict - you might wonder, “Can I actually achieve this new goal? What if I try and fail?”
- Doubt - focusing on the difficulties or roadblocks, and wondering whether you can overcome them.
- Resistance to change -the idea of changing your habits, beliefs and routines become uncomfortable.
- Commitment - a renewed sense of dedication to whatever work, education or effort it might take to reach your goals.
- Acceptance - finally believing deep down that you’re capable of reaching your new goals.
The problem most people have comes after the first few stages of emotions take place. The initial excitement gives way to conflict and doubt and if your focus is on the negatives and not the positives you will abandon the goal.
Setting Attainable and Intermediate Goals in Order to Achieve the Ultimate Goal
There is nothing more discouraging than setting a a lofty goal and then failing. We don’t like to fail and we don’t want others to see our failures. This fear of failure is what causes people to avoid setting higher or more specific goals. There is a fine line between setting a lofty goal that is attainable and one that is simply out of reach. For example, if I set a goal right now that said I wanted to make $250,000 by the end of the year, it would be a great goal that I’d love to reach, but the chances of reaching that goal is slim to none baring an unexpected inheritance or lottery jackpot. This is not the type of goal you should be setting.
Think of your ultimate goal as a game of baseball. Every batter that comes to the plate doesn’t go up there and try to hit a home run. A game of baseball is long and requires strategy and finesse to reach the end result of a win. Yes, hitting a home run is a great thing to accomplish but the probability of hitting one every time is very small. Instead, the team focuses on smaller and more reasonable goals that will hopefully add up to reaching the ultimate result. Some batters will go up looking to just get on base, another may follow up and bunt, or the team may have to sacrifice an out to score a run. If the team can reach these important, yet manageable goals the likelihood of success is much higher than trying to rely on knocking one out of the park every at bat.
The goals you set are no different. Maybe you want to retire at age 50. Ok, that is a great goal to try and reach but it is not well-defined and without hitting a home run it might be difficult to achieve. Maybe in order to retire at age 50 you need to tackle some credit card debt or put a child through college first. Or maybe you need to increase your income or save more money to help you reach that goal. Whatever the ultimate goal is there are many small goals you can set that lead up increasing the probability of success. Think of paying off your credit card goal as a base hit on your way to retiring early and finally getting your kid through college is a sacrifice fly to advance one of the runners home.
Emotional Response Determines the Outcome
Looking back to the six stages of emotions above it should be clear that you have to overcome the first four in order to have a chance at success. If your goal is too broad or easy to accomplish you will breeze through the series of emotions quickly with very few negative thoughts or apprehension. At the same time, if your goal is too high or incredibly specific you are likely to stall out after reaching number two or three on the list and never reach the goal.
If you can overcome the conflict, doubt and resistance to change you will find a sense of commitment and acceptance that you really can reach the goal you’ve set for yourself. If you let negative feelings take over, either because the goal is virtually impossible to complete on its own or there is no motivation to achieve it, you are setting yourself up for failure which in turn brings you back to sticking with the status quo.
Take Action Today
As an example let’s assume one of your big goals you’ve had for a while has been to pay off about $15,000 worth of credit card debt in 3 years. Clearly you understand the importance of reaching this goal yet you find that you aren’t making much progress. The reason you aren’t making good progress is that it is a bit overwhelming without understanding what it takes to get there. The first thing you should do is determine what it will take to pay off that debt. Generally speaking this would require:
- Earning more money to accelerate payments, or
- Find more money you currently have to accelerate payments
Now that you have determined what it will take to reach that goal you can begin to set more specific goals. For instance, maybe you think finding additional income is a good way to achieve this goal. So, now you can set an intermediate goal that will increase your likelihood of paying off that balance. You may set a new goal to find a way to make $50/month by doing some sort of side work, or maybe you set a goal to have a garage sale or sell a bunch of items on eBay to generate some more money. Whatever the case may be, these new goals you set are easier to reach than simply saying you need to knock out $15k of debt in three years, yet these smaller and more concise goals will help you reach it without feeling a sense of failure.
Take a look at some of the goals you have set for yourself and consider why you are having a difficult time reaching them. Are your emotions getting in the way or have you simply set a goal that is extremely difficult or too broad? If you can identify the reasons why you are having a difficult time with a goal you can then take the action required to overcome the obstacles and improve the likelihood of achieving that goal.
Author: Jeremy Vohwinkle
My name is Jeremy Vohwinkle, and I’ve spent a number of years working in the finance industry providing financial advice to regular investors and those participating in employer-sponsored retirement plans.
Thanks Jeremy I really enjoyed the article.
Personally, another big help for me has been to use backward planning to achieve goals i.e. you start at the end with the goal in mind and plan all the steps backward to the beginning and start plugging away at the intermediate objectives you've automatically set as a result of the planning process.