Setting goals is a meaningful exercise. Research shows that it motivates us, gives us a sense of purpose, and helps us feel accomplished. Still, so many of us struggle to achieve the goals we set out for ourselves. There are several reasons why: We set unattainable goals; we lack the motivation to follow through; we don’t really value the goal as much as we think we do. In some cases, there may be circumstances beyond our control.

To help you avoid these obstacles and become more mindful and realistic about your goals, this issue of Howe’s Now Monthly gives some advice from Harvard Business Review experts. Keep reading to learn 5 ways to set more achievable goals.


1. Connect every goal to a “why.”

In her article, “5 Ways to Make Sure You Achieve Your Goals This Year,” author Allison Walsh writes that “achieving goals becomes easier when they’re connected to a reason and purpose.”

When you spend time understanding the “why” that’s driving your actions, it’s easier to avoid distractions and focus on pursuing your goal.

Walsh shares a simple exercise to discover your “why.”

“I want to ____ so that I can ____.”

For example: “I want to build a profitable business so I can retire early and spend time doing things I love.” (The “why” is having the time and resources to do things you love.)


2. Break your goals down.

Author Allison Walsh, in the same article, suggests a 90-day sprint to make your goals more attainable. Instead of setting one big goal, break them down into smaller goals that you can accomplish every day.

For instance, if you want to read 50 books this year, figure out how many books you’d have to read in 90 days: ~10 books. Then, Walsh says, you can create a plan to attain the small goal you set.


3. Schedule “buffer time” for your goals.

According to author Kristi DePaul, one of the reasons we struggle to meet our goals is that we overestimate our capabilities and underestimate external factors that can affect us.

In her article, “This is Why You Keep Missing Deadlines,” she writes that one way to overcome this fallacy is to increase your estimated deadline by 25%. For instance, if you think launching the new website will take four weeks, set aside one extra week for any unexpected delays. You can use tech tools such as Due or Todoist to set timely reminders, or even enlist a virtual accountability partner to ensure that you stay on track.

Another strategy is to “add intermittent milestones (think of them as mini-deadlines) to keep you on track along the way.” For instance, set aside a few hours every day for focused work. Consider a regular check-in with stakeholders to ensure that projects are up to speed.


4. Focus on continuation, not improvement.

We often set goals with only self-improvement in mind. However, author Charlotte Lieberman argues that it’s time to let go of that framework, and instead, focus on self-acceptance. In her article, “Why You Should Stop Trying to Fix Yourself,” she writes that “focusing too much on ‘improving’ ourselves is a recipe for self-judgment, anxiety, and many other crappy emotions.” And research confirms a direct correlation between negative emotions and procrastination — the more anxious we feel about completing a task, the less likely we are to do it.

Lieberman suggests that we embrace all the things we’ve already started and would like to continue or build upon with time. For instance, if you set the goal of reading before bed in the past few months, use this month to commit to reading at least two new books. Thinking of goals as a continuation of something you’re already working on can make them feel safe, comfortable, and easy to achieve.


5. Don’t dwell on past failures.

The dark side of setting goals is that we’re likely to fail. While this may be a harsh reality, know that it’s normal and everyone goes through a cycle of ups and down. That said, if your past failures or mistakes are negatively affecting your confidence to pursue new goals, there are ways to move past these feelings and motivate yourself.

In their article, “Why We Set Unattainable Goals,” Haiyang Yang, Antonios Stamatogiannakis, Amitava Chattopadhyay, and Dipankar Chakravarti, share a few strategies to help you achieve stretch or long-term goals, and overcome the fear of failure.

  • Celebrate the small wins. Suppose your goal last year was to read 36 books and you read only 10. Remind yourself that this is progress and proof that you’re capable of making a change for the better. You did achieve something, so celebrate that.
  • Think about “accidental” or related benefits. Sometimes, pursuing a goal is not about the destination, it’s about the journey. Ask yourself: What did I learn about myself while trying to reach my goal?
  • Ask for an objective analysis. Although you shouldn’t dwell on your failures, it is important to understand why you failed. One simple approach is to ask a friend or family member for a “post-failure autopsy.” Ask: “Why do you think I failed?” They may give you a reality check that will help you better understand yourself.
5 Ways to Set More Achievable Goals