Have you ever vowed to do something — whether it’s as small as crossing an item off your weekend to-do list or as big as a career change — and then procrastinated for so long you never got around to it?
Sometimes, the things we really want to accomplish are so important to us, they induce a level of anxiety that can keep us from getting started. Other times, the sheer excitement we feel when we picture our goal can get overwhelming. And sometimes, we may just not even understand yet why we’re procrastinating at all.
Whatever your emotions, there is a way to address them and create a foolproof plan that allows you to achieve any goal. By creating a plan that not only breaks down the steps you have to do but also builds in steps to deal with the emotions that accompany your goals, you’ll be on your way to crossing off that to-do list or embarking upon the career you’ve always wanted. Here’s what to do:
1. Define the goal.
First, you want to get clear about what you’re trying to achieve. Think big but also think in a measurable way. You don’t want to get lost in the details, but you do want to be specific. So for example, if you want to get fit, instead of saying, “I’ll do 12 jumping jacks and 6 sit-ups and 20 push-ups on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays,” it’s better to commit to “I will be working out twice a week.”
2. Break down your goal into three main components.
Once you have your overarching goal, it’s time to think about some of things that go into executing it. For example, if your goal is to get into graduate school, there are three main steps you’d need to take to achieve it: write a winning personal statement, get a good test score, and put together your applications. Identifying these three main components helps you begin to see an outline of what is involved and takes away the guesswork — and some of the anxiety — as you can now start to see what exactly you need to do.
3. Add sub-tasks under each of the three components.
Now it’s time to list the smaller sub-tasks that go into achieving each component of your goal. Doing this gives you momentum, allowing you to plan ahead and giving you a to-do list to use to cross off all the hard work you’re doing as you go along. For the graduate school example, the sub-tasks would be as follows:
Component # 1: Winning Personal Statement
Pre-writing, jot down ideas
Choose friends/family/coach to read draft
Get feedback and revise
Component # 2: Good Test Score
Sign up for Kaplan
Sit for test
Component # 3: Application Admin
Make list of schools and deadlines
Identify recommenders; ask them for letters of recommendation
Complete online or paper applications
Confirm all materials received by schools
The beauty of thinking all this through in advance is that you don’t have to do it all at that particular moment. You are taking a moment right now to step back and be a project planner for your goal.
4. Organize your tasks into a timeline.
Now that you know exactly what’s involved in achieving your goal, you’ll actually put all the steps you listed into a timeline. First decide the timeframe you want to achieve this goal in — is this a six-month process or a six-week process? Be realistic about this, taking into account how long each task will take you and how much free time you have ahead. Then start organizing your tasks into time slots. The final outcome should look something like this:
5. Consider obstacles that may keep you from sticking to your plan.
Now it’s time to think of what could keep you from carrying out your plan and addressing the emotions behind it so it doesn’t hold you back anymore. For example, if you find that you always keep your appointments with your clients but not with yourself, consider why. It could be a logistical problem: Maybe you tend to over-schedule yourself with clients or need to learn how to prioritize those meetings with yourself. Or, the issue could be that you value the work or you don’t value yourself enough.
It’s good to have emotions. It’s good to be excited about your goals when you think about them. The key is to identify your emotions behind each task and insert some self-care ideas right into your timeline, making a bridge between the practical timeline and the emotions that come up.
To do this, first jot down the emotions you’re feeling about your tasks:
Then, layer in some self-care initiatives to address these emotions:
And finally, add these self-care strategies right into your timeline:
Doing this not only reduces your anxiety, but it also makes the process of goal attainment fun. You can add as many self-care strategies as you need to. Some ideas:
- Planning 15 minutes of complete quiet time
- Asking people in your life to help celebrate milestones with you
- Treating yourself to a piece of chocolate cake
- Recharging with a digital detox
What’s Your Next Step?
Now that you’ve got the five-step process down, it’s time to figure out your next step. Whether setting aside time to reflect on what goal you need to attain or make time on your calendar to complete your plan, figure out what you need to do to get that ball rolling.
Feel free to use my online worksheet, which you can also submit to me for feedback. I love to see these and love to help out in this way.
If you want to know more, you can also check out some of the Q&As from my recent goal attainment webinar:
Q: What if you’re not sure what the emotions are?
If you don’t know what the emotions are, as a psychologist, I think that’s information too. To me, that would suggest that a person is maybe feeling overwhelmed. So I would ask you to talk about the goal — sometimes it helps to verbalize it a little bit, and that might be something you plan into your calendar. When we don’t know what our emotions are, it’s a good time to just reflect.
Q: What if the goal is longer-term and amorphous?
Long-term goals are great. I’ve used this plan all the way up through even five years. For the amorphous part, you still want to zero in on and come up with at least three things, at least three components that you know will be there. For example, no matter how amorphous it might seem to be a balanced and contented human being, you can say, “Well, to me that means being fit, being in a relationship, and giving back to my community through volunteering.” Whatever the case may be, you can take anything amorphous and come up with three core things that you can make part of your plan and work toward to make those things come to fruition.
Q: Sometimes I get so absorbed in my goals, I lose this touch with my social circle and feel kind of isolated.
Knowing your obstacles is good. Now you can prevent this by adding self-care strategies that involve your friends. Make your social circle part of your process by inviting them to celebrate your progress along the way.
Q: What are some strategies to stay on track with a long-term goal?
If we’re talking about a six-month timeline goal, we can actually plan that sometime in the next six months something is going to happen in your life that’s going to throw you a curveball, and in fact, it should, right? Life is supposed to throw us curve balls — it’s what keeps it fun and exciting. So I encourage you, once you actually have the timeline made, to post it on your wall.
That way if your mind wanders, which it inevitably will, this brings it back to you. I encourage you to make your timeline really attractive. As a psychologist, I know that the colors we use, the way we space is organized, the way a paper is organized. It helps us to adhere to it, and to feel like it’s fun and that we’re organized.
And I also suggest that people have an accountability buddy. You can choose a friend or family member, and to build on that accountability, just ask them, “Will you plan a lunch with me please for six weeks from now because I’m going embark on my goal and would really like a six-week check in?” and that way it’s on the calendar. Sometimes that helps people.
Q: What if I need to change my goal midway?
Feel free to alter it. In fact, changing it in a deliberate manner can really help people be aware and own the changes that they’re making, so that they can have a plan that feels like it has integrity and they can stay on track.