A few years ago I asked a question on Facebook every day for a year. One of those was “what’s your biggest struggle when setting goals?” The #1 problem was that people needed to know how to stick to their goals. I’ve spent almost 20 years sticking to my goals, and today I’m going to answer this question for you.
To stick to your goals, research says that you must track them, get social support, establish a vision for where you want to go and who you want to be, and adjust your goals for unexpected setbacks.
Let’s dive into each of these to see what science says. We’ll also look at some examples and how you can apply these principles to your own goals so that you stick to them and reach your dreams.
1. Set a Time to Record Your Daily & Weekly Progress
In 2016, eight researchers published a meta-analysis of 138 studies on what they termed “monitoring goal progress,” which is just a fancy way of saying tracking goals.
The results? Tracking goals increases the likelihood of achieving goals, as you’d expect. But there’s more to it.
They also found that reviewing your goals more often increases the chances you’ll stick to them. And that physically recording goals, such as in a journal, also helps you reach them.
So how do you track your goals effectively to take advantage of this principle?
Frequency, or how often you do it, matters a great deal. That means it’s best to track your progress daily and weekly at least. It doesn’t have to be hard to be effective though.
Start by getting a place you can record your progress. You can use an app, journal, pen and paper, or my favorite—a spreadsheet.
Once you have the place to keep track of your goals, take five minutes at the end of each day to write down how you did on each goal. Ask yourself if you completed your action steps and if there was anything that got in the way of doing them.
Then, set aside half an hour or so each week to review your overall progress. In this weekly review, focus on the outcomes. Did you lose weight or earn more money?
For 3 years now, I’ve used a spreadsheet to track my progress and it works like crazy to help me stick to my goals.
Each day I give myself a number score of whether or not I did my action steps. I have my weekly review on Sunday, in which I ask myself a series of questions that help me determine my progress and what my next steps should be.
2. Get Social Support From a Coach or Accountability Partner
In Shawn Achor’s The Happiness Advantage, he shares a remarkable story about two Harvard students who had very different outcomes because of one critical decision.
Amanda and Brittany both worked hard, but Amanda chose the path of a recluse and spent all of her time studying. Brittany instead decided to participate in all kinds of social events at school while still working hard.
At the end of the semester, Amanda was struggling and wishing she could transfer schools. Brittany, though, was happy and getting excellent grades.
The whole point of the book is that happiness leads to success instead of the other way around. And the most statistically significant finding Achor presents for becoming happier, and thus more successful, is social connections.
In other words, having strong social bonds has a greater effect on your ability to stick to your goals than almost anything else.
There are two simple ways to take advantage of this:
- Pay for a coach. I’ve used coach.me before and currently use Kickoff (that’s an affiliate link by the way) for a fitness coach. It’s phenomenal and every time I use a coach my success skyrockets. Both of these options are around $100 per month.
- Get an accountability partner. There are multiple ways to do this, but the easiest and freest is this subreddit called Get Motivated Buddies. Just follow their guidelines and post what you need help with!
You’ll also want to make an effort to have a strong social circle around you. I didn’t realize how much I missed this and how much it affected my goals when I worked for myself.
After I went back to a job, though, I found new friends, my social capital increased, and my happiness, income, and success have shot up higher than ever.
3. Have a Vision for Your Life & Review It Often
Did you know that mentally visualizing can improve your skills? In one study, researchers compared strength improvements of people who imagined themselves exercising their fingers to those who actually performed the exercises in real life.
The study discovered that mentally visualizing working out contributed to a 13.5% improvement in strength. In other words, picturing success in your mind can have an effect on the world around you.
To take advantage of this to help you stick to your goals, ask yourself the following questions of your mental, social, financial, and fitness goals:
- Where do I see myself three months from now? What about a year from now?
- How would it feel to accomplish this goal that I’m working on?
- What would change about my life if I reached this goal?
You might, for instance, consider how reaching a new income level will change your life. Achieving this goal could allow you to hire a fitness or business coach and help you get healthier and earn even more. You’d have more money to travel, eat healthier, or take your kids out to the movies.
Once you have your vision, set aside part of your weekly review to visualize achieving it. Imagine yourself accomplishing each of your goals and how that will feel. Also picture yourself completing the action steps required to get there.
To make your vision even more effective at helping you stick to your goals, there’s one more thing you need to do.
The Power of Identity
In Atomic Habits, author James Clear writes:
“Imagine two people resisting a cigarette. When offered a smoke, the first person says, ‘No thanks. I’m trying to quit.’ It sounds like a reasonable response, but this person still believes they are a smoker who is trying to be something else.
“The second person declines by saying, ‘No thanks. I’m not a smoker.’ It’s a small difference, but this statement signals a shift in identity. Smoking was part of their former life, not their current one. They no longer identify as someone who smokes.”
Consider your own goals and how you might use this to your advantage:
- Rather than saying I’m trying to lose weight, say “I’m a(n) athlete/runner/hiker/fit person.”
- Instead of trying to improve your productivity at work, think of yourself as pusing to be better because you’re a hard worker.
- When someone asks you do to something that would prevent you from going to your kids soccer game, instead of saying “I’m trying to spend more quality time with my kids” tell them that you’re a supportive dad.
That last one isn’t to say that missing a soccer game or two means you’re a bad parent, though. Sometimes you have to prioritize other goals and that’s okay. In some instances, it even makes you a better parent.
Your desired identity might take some time to figure out and that’s okay. Just start working on your goals and think about the kind of person you want to become in your weekly review.
It helps to just pick something and go with it then see how you feel as you go. If you struggle with this, think about the people you admire most and the kind of person they are.
Let’s Wrap This Up
Most people don’t know how to stick to their goals. They set New Year’s Resolutions in January and then give up two weeks later. If you don’t want to be that person and instead continue to grow forever, follow these steps:
- Record your progress and review it daily and weekly
- Get social support, the highest indicator of happiness and success
- Set a vision of where you want to go and who you want to become
Before I had these as part of my goal-setting process, I’d sometimes give up on my goals too soon. But now that I know about them, I’ve been sticking to my goals consistently for years.
I’m confident that by taking advantage of these science-backed principles, you also will start to reach your dreams more consistently.