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How to Build a Successful Goal

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We have many desires in life. To be successful, rich, well-liked, healthy, respected, desired, attractive, and many more.

For some people, achieving these goals is either easy or has been achieved already through winning the genetic lottery or very beneficial occurrences throughout life. For most people, however, these goals are something that has to be actively worked towards.

Almost everyone wants to be rich, and I’m pretty sure everyone wants to be healthy. No one actively wants to be ill or out of shape. So, to some extent, people actively try to be healthy. This can take many forms and shapes.

Some people go to the gym on a regular basis, have fitness regimes, eat restrictive diets, etc. Others are not quite so hardcore and just make sure they get all their 5-a-day in. But if you do have a “fitness” goal, how do you make sure it’s successful?

Every goal you set has to have some characteristics. It needs to be realistic, possible and feasible within the timeframe allotted. These three things might sound like the same thing, but they are slightly different:

Possible

A possible goal is a goal that can in fact happen. Within models such as COM-B, possible goals refer to the Capability side of things. For example, for someone who is permanently in a wheelchair to run a marathon seems a bit off, whereas them rolling a marathon is a possible prospect. There are many things that people are physically, mentally, emotionally or financially incapable of doing, and that is alright. It just makes for the worst foundation for a goal.

Realistic

Now if your goal is actually possible – you are in fact capable of obtaining it – let’s look at whether it’s realistic. Like I said before, it might sound very similar to being possible, but if we look back at the COM-B model, this section would represent Motivation.

To be motivated for a goal is to actively work towards it. So if you want to lose weight, you’d have to leave the crisps and the chocolate alone. Is this technically speaking possible, we are physically capable of not eating junk food. But is it realistic? Are we motivated enough to actually do it?
Can we resist buying bad food when standing in the candy and snack aisle?

Or, when looking at exercise, can we be asked after a long day of work to put on our trainers and go for a run, or drag ourselves into the gym? When getting out of bed, can we be asked to do exercise first thing in the morning? Can we be asked to leave the bed at all?

If you know for a fact that you will always eat chocolate and will never get out of bed early to exercise, no matter how many nudges and self-disciplinary punishments you give yourself, this goal is just not realistic. So come up with a new one and move on, or keep at it and very likely fail. The choice is yours.

Feasible (within time limitations)

If your goal has been judged to be both realistic and possible, now we need to make sure it actually fits your life, within the timeframe you have given yourself to reach the goal. Within COM-B, these represent Opportunity. When are you going to take the smaller steps to reach the bigger goals?

Take for example preparing to run a marathon, that’s quite a nice fitness goal. To prepare for something like a 42k, you’re going to need increasingly more time, as your runs become longer and longer. If you only have one hour a day to practice for a 42k marathon, things are going to get quite rough on the day you actually have to run the whole thing. Why? Because your practice never prepared you for this extensive a run. You can’t run 42k in an hour. I don’t think the average person can even run 21k in an hour (I might be mistaken here, maybe you can?). Either way, if your lifestyle cannot accommodate your goal, and the smaller steps needed to obtain that goal, you can be motivated until the chickens come home to roost. It’s just not going to happen.

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Now to some people feasibility is simply a function of motivation, but this can be a very misguided and toxic idea. Some people genuinely only have an hour a day. They might need to direct all their other time somewhere else: work, finances, family, health issues, taking care of others, etc. It is very difficult to find out where someone’s time is going. And if you have cleared out your schedule and re-listed your priorities and there’s still not enough time in the day, this goal is not for you.

Following these three steps, or answering these three questions if you will, should let you a lot closer to seeing whether a goal can be successful, or is doomed to fail from the start.

Now health and fitness isn’t exactly everyone’s thing. Sure, I get that. If you’re more interested in the money side of things, I’ll give you some tips there too.

I have already written and published an article on building the habit of getting your finances in order in 20 minutes a day. This article focusses on the fact that sometimes a goal as massive as “get your finances in order” can seem like the most daunting task ever, but it really doesn’t have to be. Because 20 minutes a day sounds feasible enough. So please do read that article if this is a goal of yours because it does actually outline easy steps to get that done.

If your goal is nice and vague like “I want to be rich someday,” I’m going to stop you right there. Define rich. Define someday. You’re going to need clear definitions for a goal to know if you’ve reached it or not.

If you think having 100.000 is being rich, well that’s a goal. But is that in annual wage or in assets? Is this before or after-tax? Are we talking dollars, euros, pounds, yen? There are many questions to answer here. Without clarity, goals are too messy to obtain and are likely to fail as a result. So be clear.

Once you do have a clear (financial) goal you can take the step towards it. If you want to make $100.000 a year before tax, you’re going to need to get a job that can pay that. So aim for sectors that do. Sectors known for this kind of money are tech and finance. Maybe go into asset management?

It sounds a bit weird to have it put like that because often, people do have passions and other lifegoals that need to co-exist with the goal of “becoming rich” which actually complicates the matter. But if your only goal is to become rich, just aim for jobs that you know pay a lot. Go into lifedraining sectors, where you’ll be burned out in under a decade and make that money! Maybe halfway through you’ll realize that becoming rich was never truly your goal and you’ll readjust, that’s fine too. But technically speaking, you are able to achieve this.

Now, to get back to the initial question: How do you build a successful goal? Well, you need a very clear definition of what your goal is, and how much time you want to reach it. “I want to be skinnier” is bad. “I want to lose 5 kilos in the next month” is good. Then, the goal has to be possible, realistic and feasible within the allotted time. Can you physically lose 5 kilos in a month? Yes. But it’s not going to be pleasant. Is this a realistic goal? If you leave carbs alone, drink water (no alcohol), eat vegetables and protein and do loads of cardio, sure. Is this feasible within your lifestyle? Do you have time to cook healthy meals, do food prep and do cardio? Well, if you fit it all in, there’s no reason why this goal shouldn’t be achievable. Good for you, you have built a successful goal!

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Merle van den Akker
Merle van den Akker is a PhD student in Behavioural Science, at the Warwick Business School. She studies the effect different payment methods, especially contactless and mobile methods, have on how e manage our personal finances. In her "free" time she writes articles on personal finance, behavioural science, behavioural finance and life as a PhD student, these are all published on Money on the Mind. With DDI, she writes on personal and behavioural finance, to ensure that knowledge from academia trickles into the mainsteam, and can help as many people as possible!

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