Top Tips for Setting Goals and Priorities
Medically reviewed by Scientific Advisory Board — By Jane Collingwood on May 17, 2016
How do you plan your future?
Some people drift more or less aimlessly from day to day and year to year, without focusing on a long-term direction. Other people (the minority) set detailed goals and conform strictly to daily color-coded to-do lists.
Most people are in the middle, with hopes and dreams for the future, and either definite goals or a more vague plan. Usually, people think hard about big decisions, but smaller ones tend to be driven more by moods and intuition. If you feel you would benefit from a more organized approach, aim to take the time each day to determine what you want to achieve and set specific goals. Below are a few tips to increase your chance of success:
1. Choose the right goals. Try to find the middle ground between aiming too high and not high enough. Aiming high is a good motivator, but if you don’t feel the goal is attainable, you’ll soon be put off even trying. Bear in mind both your enthusiasm and your ability. Think hard about why you want to achieve the goal. Is the result going to be worth the investment? Is the goal challenging, valuable, specific, measurable, and with a specific deadline? Some goals are continuous and so won’t meet all the guidelines—for example, increasing the amount you recycle. Overall, a good goal is one that is worthy of your time and effort, and that is your personal decision.
2. Make it formal. Writing down the goal will make it official and will add to your sense of commitment. Perhaps also share your idea with one or two friends. Get them to ask you questions, help you fill in any gaps, and spot any flaws. Keep it creative and fun. Imagine yourself having achieved the goal—how good will it feel?
3. Devise a plan. This is vital in making the goal a reality. Without a plan, your goal has little chance of success. Write an overall summary of the goal, including details such as timing, cost, and location to make it authentic. Decide where to begin, and then make a detailed step-by-step plan of the major tasks needed to achieve the goal. If in doubt, work backward in stages from the final result. Make deadlines if you like, but keep them realistic to avoid disappointment.
4. Stick to it, but stay flexible. This is the biggest challenge. Finding a good time to start often holds the process back. There will never be a perfect time; goals just have to fit into your lifestyle. Unexpected events can distract you and lead to procrastination, but maintain your motivation. If possible, report back to others on your progress. The plan also needs to be flexible so you can adjust it as you go along.
5. Regularly reassess. Frequently re-examine the goal to ensure it’s still what you really want. Recognize and celebrate each small success along the way. Adapt it if necessary, but keep to your main objective. Work hard and stay focussed on the result.
If you are good at setting priorities, you will be better prepared to decide on goals, and in so doing, manage your stress levels more effectively. As stress increases, we are often forced to prioritize our commitments and decide which things can be put to one side and which can’t. This means that some aspects of life inevitably receive less attention than others. But be sure not to ignore any one area entirely. This could be the area that keeps you sane! Let your priorities evolve as the need arises.
Think about your personal values. What’s your dream? What’s your mission statement? What’s realistic? This will help you spend more time focused on the things that will make a real difference. On a daily level, organize your schedule according to the importance of each activity. Use stars, arrows, or a numbered list, or devise your own system. Of course, it’s tempting to leave the most painful task for last, but think how pleased and relieved you’ll be when it’s complete.
Learn to say no to people who try to make you change your agenda against your wishes, but allow some margin for unpredictable interruptions and delays. Plan to maximize your sense of accomplishment while creating space for relaxation too. And congratulate yourself for what you have achieved every day!