Whether you save all of your goal-setting for New Year’s Eve or you come up with new goals every month, you’ve probably experienced the disappointment that comes with missing the mark. One of the major, but perhaps too simple, questions that we often forget when setting grand, wide-reaching goals is this one: “What should I do today?”

No matter how big the goal, you will only ever reach it by working toward it one day at a time. Losing sight of this ever-present fact is the number-one reason why we start feeling overwhelmed. This is when inner resistance starts to kick in, and you might not even notice that you’re subconsciously procrastinating.

Goal Setting 101

To avoid that resistance and all the tension that comes with it, fixating on the end-result alone just won’t work. Always start with that one basic question every morning when you wake up: “What should I do today?” Every time you ask this, it should be like a single step on a long staircase that leads up to your ultimate goal. Keep your eye on each step and your goal may ultimately take care of itself.

Checklist for Setting Goals

There are a few things you should always keep in mind when goal-setting so that you’re not setting yourself up for failure instead of triumph. Keep this short checklist in mind:

  • Choose the right goal for you
  • Pick your goals with a realistic mindset
  • Make sure you have internal and external incentives
  • Keep your eyes on one step at a time

Choosing the Right Goal

The biggest favor that you can do for yourself is to pick the right goal in the first place. This means more than just choosing a worthy goal; it also means choosing that objective for the right reasons.

The human mind is tricky and complex. Sometimes, we might be convinced that we want something, when, deep inside, we actually don’t. For example, maybe you decide to set a goal to be a millionaire, but what you really want isn’t actually that amount of money, it’s the freedom that comes with it.

Sometimes we have to dig deeper to find what the real reasons are behind our apparent desires. Only then can we set a reasonable goal with a path that is aligned with what we truly want. If your goal is to make a seven-figure income because deep inside you want the financial freedom to travel, but your job makes it hard for you to take any time off, then clearly there’s a conflict there. Think in terms of what will actually fulfill you.

Most of Life is About the Journey, Not the Goal

We’ve all heard this said in various ways, but the wisdom shines through in practice. Look inside of yourself and follow the thread of your motivations. Where does that line lead once you get deep? What is that one thing you are inherently motivated to do, even if you’ve never made a penny from it… yet?

A good way to find some clues as to what you really want in life is to ask yourself, “What should I do today?” If what you “should” do on that given day to reach your goal is something that you’d rather not do on a daily basis at all, then you’ve probably chosen the wrong thing. Remember that the peaks and satisfaction that come with reaching a goal may not last long. Most of your time and effort goes into the journey. To have a truly rewarding life, you have to be able to enjoy every step of the way.

Being Realistic

The next sticking point for a lot of people is that they set goals that are unrealistic. You may have a genuinely strong desire to attain a certain goal, but just wanting something isn’t enough. Sometimes goals are so far out of reach that it is futile to set them without laying significant groundwork first.

For instance, let’s say that a friend is 200 lbs. overweight and he or she sets a goal to have defined abs in a few months. Probably, that goal is a bit premature at this point. Even in less extreme cases, many of us find ourselves setting goals appropriate for stages that we just haven’t reached yet. The problem with this is that our mind starts to obsess about likely problems way ahead of time. This is a recipe for getting overwhelmed. Focus on realistic goals that you can achieve in a reasonable time, and then worry about the details as they come.

Building a Network of Incentives

Once you’ve chosen a goal that is ambitious enough to excite and challenge you, but narrow enough to be realistic, you’ll need to start thinking about incentives. What will keep you on track?

It’s important to have a good mix of intrinsic and extrinsic influences. Intrinsic motivation comes from the inside: it’s the joy you get just from working on your goal in and of itself. This is absolutely essential, or else you will almost certainly quit. You cannot run on the steam of external motivation alone, though it is a nice cherry to add on top. Here are some examples of external motivation that you can treat yourself to in order to stay the course, however:

  • Celebrate every major step with a special reward
  • Keep track of all of your progress even if it’s small
  • Make your goal public and enjoy the peer pressure
  • Ask someone more experienced, “What should I do today?”
  • Next, ask that person to keep you accountable to your answer

Look inward to identify triggers that make you procrastinate and try to plan ahead to counter them. Social accountability is a good resource for this. You might even want to join groups of like-minded people who are busy trying to attain your same goal.

One Step at a Time: So, What Should I Do Today?

Remember that all of your progress will occur one step at a time even if those steps pass quickly. Try to enjoy every moment and don’t forget to keep asking yourself, “What should I do today?” This is the mantra that should be playing in your mind. Keep your eyes on what you should do today.

Tips for Success

Once you’re out there and actively trying to achieve your goal, be aware that progress is rarely linear. You will hit obstacles every once in a while that might require you to change strategies. That’s why it’s important to focus on each individual step and not get bogged down by your larger plan. Here are some tips to succeed in the face of change that may cause strategic shifts.

Keep an Open Mind

No one ever stretched their limits by being inflexible. Keep your mind open to possible solutions that you may not have thought of before. Consult with people who have different perspectives from yours and try out some of their “crazy” solutions. You never know what might work.

Prepare to Negotiate With Yourself

When you set that huge goal, you were probably close to a peak state of mind. It’s easy to assume that your future self will keep the same elevated mood and energy levels, but this is unrealistic. There will be a time when you will have to adjust that goal.

For example, maybe your goal is to meditate for 20 minutes every day, but you’re finding that you can barely sit still for10. It might be time to cut yourself some slack and allow yourself to meditate for just 10 minutes! Reducing your workload so that you can do a little bit of that great thing every day is far better than burning yourself out. Sometimes, you don’t need to ask yourself, “What should I do today?” Sometimes you do have to ask, “What can I do today?”

Tell the World or Start Building Support

You can decide to let everyone know about your goal! You’ll be surprised at how resources can magically pop up when people start to learn what you’re striving for. On the other hand, if you don’t have a good support network yet and you think your peers will just discourage you, then it might be reasonable to keep your goal temporarily under wraps. In the meantime, try to find a more supportive peer group. If your friends are too jealous or complacent to help you, then you’ll almost certainly find it harder to achieve your goals.

Getting Started: What Should I Do Today?

Remember that the sooner you get started on your goal, the better. Some planning may be necessary, but don’t allow yourself to fall into the trap of using research as a way to procrastinate. This is cleverly called analysis paralysis, and it’s a common way for your brain to trick itself into not leaving its own comfort zone. Instead, make “What should I do today?” your launching pad.

To avoid this, focus on only the next small step toward your goal and don’t bother with the bigger picture when you’re working on the details. Much of the larger plan in your mind will probably change at some point, anyway. It’s much better to get out there, get some experience, and get a realistic feel for what it’s like to work on this goal.

Conclusion

Goal-setting is a great way to help focus your energy and inch you closer to success every day. The problem is that many times the goals we set might be unrealistic or too inflexible, so we find ourselves straying off our paths much too easily. Achievable goals take many factors into account, such as your intrinsic motivation and the external incentives around you. Most importantly of all, remember to keep asking yourself, “What should I do today?” This simple question may bring your focus back into the present moment.

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