5 Ways to meet a very big goal

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Last week I wrote about how important it is to pick the right goal for yourself so that you are not banging your head against the wall trying to meet an impossible or insignificant goal. I actually think the reason we don’t meet our goals is mostly because the goals suck. But if you have a really important goal that’s right for you, here are some ways to ensure you see the goal to completion:

1. Think about money.
People who get paid to reach their goals are better at reaching them. This is why we typically can meet deadlines for work but not self-imposed deadlines. And that’s why movie stars can stay rail-thin, while the rest of us have a harder time losing weight: A movie star’s livelihood is based on their ability to lose weight.

So if you can think like a movie star, and decide that your livelihood depends on meeting your goal, then you’ll probably meet it.

Here are some mental gymnastics to that end: People who meet one goal can meet more goals because self-discipline is a muscle that gets stronger and stronger. Additionally, most of our career goals depend on self-discipline. So we can all tell ourselves that if we meet our one goal, whatever it is, we will have more successful careers and thereby make a lot more money.

Goal setting tip: Don’t set a goal about money. It has no intrinsic value beyond your basic food and shelter. Set your goals for things that truly will change your life. The money will come from living life like this.

2. State your goals in a way that encourages sticking to them.
You can’t structure that change if you are telling yourself only what NOT to do. My friend, Jay, points out that kids are a good example – they’re much better at “be quiet” than “shut up.” (Which immediately shows me not only why my kids are never quiet, but also that maybe my most important goals should be in the parenting arena.)

If your goal is to stop smoking, the goal is actually to replace that behavior with something else. One recent goal of mine was about not eating bread, but I reframed it so that I eat only foods that make me feel good. You can’t change behavior if you don’t know what to change it to.

Don’t make your goal so broad that you can’t tell on a day to day basis if you’re getting there. For example, I have a goal to keep my marriage together. On a day to day basis, though, my number-one thing is to keep my computer turned off when I’m home with my husband. It takes discipline and I have to plan for it. For example, at 9am I start making sure that no one is going to be waiting for me to respond to them between 6pm and 8pm. This would be easy for some of you, but I have been responding to email during family time for years, so people expect it. I have to retrain myself to retrain them.

Gender tip: Both genders should follow this advice, but for different reasons. Women get grander success when they tell their goals to a friend. But the competitive nature of men makes them very susceptible to specific measures of success, according to research from Richard Wiseman at the University of Hertfordshire (via Idealawg).

3. Write the goal down every day, and put the paper on your wall.
Many books extol the idea that if you write your goal down each day, it makes you more committed. I tried it. It works.

One of the reasons this works is that changing our behavior takes intense focus and writing down our goals reminds our brain. Bruce Wexler is a neuroscientist and author of Brain and Culture. He found that children have brains that can easily change, but adults become more hard-wired and changing their behavior requires a more extreme amount of intense focus than we ever imagine.

Writing down your goals will take about a minute a day. Not that long at all. But it’s a good litmus test. If you can’t commit to thinking about the goal regularly, you probably won’t have the focus to change.

Blogger tip: Susan Johnston told me she accomplishes this through her blog, Urban Muse, where she writes about meeting her professional goals for an audience of readers who are also trying to meet similar goals. She says, “The blog keeps me accountable to my goals.” I think this is actually true of a lot of bloggers, especially productivity types.

4. Commit to three weeks
The hardest part of changing behavior is that your brain is addicted to the bad behavior. For example, when you think about the gym, your brain remembers when you didn’t go to the gym and did work instead and your brain gets happy from having the extra time to work. If that’s what you usually do.

If you force yourself to change your behavior for three weeks, your brain will start to develop more dopamine in response to the behavior that you are trying to change to, according to Monika Fleshner, a neuroimmuno-physiologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder. For example, after three weeks, your brain will start to release dopamine when it thinks about going to the gym instead of when it thinks about ditching the gym.

During those three weeks, you need to know, the night before, how you are going to meet your goal the next day. For example, when my goal was to lose my pregnancy weight, I had to organize every day around going to the gym, scheduling the babysitter, and breastfeeding. Each day required a different schedule, but I worked it out the night before.

When I was starting out as a professional writer, I knew I needed to write an hour every day, but it was really hard for me. I used to put it off and put it off and then it wouldn’t happen. Until I realized that I had to schedule every single day around that hour in order for it to happen.

McDonald’s tip: You also have to organize your days around avoiding the dopamine triggers of the behavior you’re trying to avoid. For example, if you don’t want to eat fries, drive three blocks out of your way to avoid your regular McDonald’s. According Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, for some people, just seeing the colors red and yellow makes their brain release dopamine in anticipation of McDonald’s. Your issue might not be fries, but most of us have our own version of the red and yellow trigger.

5. Make some new friends to go with your new behavior
People who don’t change their behavior tend to justify it by saying that it’s socially acceptable, according to Cindy Jardine, professor at the University of Alberta who studies public health. This is why, for instance, if you have fat friends you are likely to be fat. So travel in circles where the behavior you want to change is not accepted. And find like-minded people. They will help you to be the person you want to be.

50 replies
  1. thom singer
    thom singer says:

    All good points on goals. The thing I don’t understand is the large numbers of people who do not set goal, or strive to accomplish more in thier life. It is foreign to me that someone would just exist….float along with no targets in their sights.

    Maybe someone who does not believe in goal setting, or just never gets around to it could comment on here about why the do not stretch for goals. Better yet, someone who skoffs at those who set goal could comment. (however, maybe those type of people dont read Penelopes blog)

  2. Kuwaiti Woman
    Kuwaiti Woman says:

    I set my 2008 to start saving seriously for the first time. One thing that is helping me so far is to write down every purchase I make. I don’t think I will be making new friends in my pursuit of saving money but who knows what 2008 holds?

  3. Susan Johnston
    Susan Johnston says:

    Hi Penelope,
    Thanks for the plug! As a writer (and I should add the book in the stairclimber photo was called “Think Like an Editor”), I found it really interesting how you adapted the article from newspaper story to blog post. Or maybe those edits were made by someone else. But “exercising self-discipline” and “5 ways to meet a very big goal” are both catchy titles!

    * * ** * * *

    This seems like a good moment for a few sentences about how I write headlines. For those who don’t know, this column appeared in another form in the Sunday Boston Globe. Their headline was “Exercising Self-Discipline”. A good title for the paper, because everyone loves a good pun. But online, good puns are search-engine death — because search engines don’t understand a pun. In the newspaper, the title I wrote for this post would be too simple and boring. But (according to ProBlogger.com, which I read a lot) lists and simple titles work best for blog posts.

  4. Dan Eustace
    Dan Eustace says:

    Hi Penelope,

    This is a solid topic for discussion. Nice approach to bring in psych research areas.

    Consider breaking down the goal to actionable steps that make progress. Your picture examples of writing and losing weight are overcoming undesirable habits. This is one subset of goals.

    All commenters have valid additions.

  5. Dan Kyles
    Dan Kyles says:

    Hey, great advice Penelope! Every point has some great truth in it. Keep up the good work!

    Glad you’ve escaped that bizarre comment crowd at YahooFinance, I never did understand what their deal was… It seems like it was more of a sick sport for their humor. I certainly didn’t think it was funny, just pathetic.

  6. Susan Johnston
    Susan Johnston says:

    Good points, Penelope. I sometimes fall into the trap of using too many puns in the headlines on my blog. As my boss pointed out, the google ads on that Boston.com page were especially perplexing because of the mixed metaphor (some were goal-oriented and others were fitness-oriented). The “5 ways” or “10 tips” title route reminds me of a magazine cover, but for online readers it’s easy to skim and, as you pointed out, very SEO-friendly.

  7. jd
    jd says:

    I think you’re hitting the keys for meeting goals — how you word them, how you get motivated, and how you remind yourself help.

    I think the “why” behind the goal matters most. Next I think is chunking up the goal and time frames.

    Here’s additional keys for meeting goals:
    * well-formed outcomes – http://thebookshare.blogspot.com/2007/12/priest-for-well-formed-outcomes.html
    * Step into your future – http://thebookshare.blogspot.com/2007/12/step-into-your-future.html
    * Meet your goals incrementally with 30 day improvement sprints – http://blogs.msdn.com/jmeier/archive/2007/03/26/why-30-day-improvement-sprints.aspx

  8. Adam Kamerer
    Adam Kamerer says:

    #3 really does work, and I agree with the blogger tip. I’ve found that when I’m blogging about ways to improve people’s lives on my blog, it keeps me inspired to do more in my own life to improve. I think, partially, that’s because it feels best to give advice that I follow in my own life, and secondly, because, as you said, it reinforces the idea in my brain.

  9. Queercents
    Queercents says:


    Throwing money out of the goal-setting formula is a bit like throwing out the baby with the bath water. The first mistake with goal-setting is not making it measurable. Often, money is what makes something both specific and measurable. It's the S&M of the SMART method: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.

    Since I'm in sales, it's natural that most of my work goals are about money. But even outside of work, 20 percent of my personal goals are about money. That's a lot of goal-setting focused on money. I don't think there's anything wrong with this. If you've explored and defined your values and what money means to you, then money actually makes a good, tangible goal.

  10. David B. Bohl
    David B. Bohl says:


    Great post. Thank you.

    I really keyed on #3, especially Susan Johnston’s experience. As a lifestyle coach, I need to practice the principles I share in all my affairs. Blogging, as well as having my own coach, help me to be accountable.

  11. Kelvin
    Kelvin says:

    The first one is very true. IN the early stages of my writing career, I couldn’t find the strength to write anything. But when I started getting paid for my columns, even if it was only a small amount, it definitely jumpstarted my output!

    Oh and thanks for the input in your comment about SEO and titles. I didn’t realize how much of a difference that can make!

  12. Elizabeth Partin
    Elizabeth Partin says:

    Defining each word of your goals can work wonders too. For example: send my kids to college might be a goal, but if I don’t define what that means exactly to me, I won’t know if that means make them study hard so they can go to college or I will pay for college but only public and not private and only if they get certain grades, etc. The reason defining each word of you goal becomes critical to success is because then you can develop a solid plan to meet your goal when you understand exactly what it takes to meet it.

    The other interesting thing about goals is what happens when you do meet them. When successful people achieve goals and still are not satisfied, it may be because they have successfully achieved the wrong goal. Ooops.

    Elizabeth Partin

  13. Karl Goldfield
    Karl Goldfield says:

    Penelope, again, fabulous job on tackling a subject.

    Just read another great article at eyes on sales on goal setting and the mistakes we make with NYR’s. Here is a link to his post


    Personally, my favorite part is the 21 days to make a habit part. If you know you want to do something and tell yourself that 21 days is all it takes to make it happen, you have an obtainable count down to success. I do this with every goal, and it works almost everytime.

  14. Emily Starbuck Gerson
    Emily Starbuck Gerson says:

    I completely agree that people who get paid to reach their goals are much more likely to do so. I never thought of movie stars that way until you said it, and it totally makes sense. If I was getting paid $8 million to act for a few months, I think I’d have no problem dropping 20 pounds, either :)

  15. MariaMH
    MariaMH says:

    I really related to #2 and #4 – make it something positive and then stick to it for a while. That first week of trying to make a change is pretty easy, then after that is when you have a tendency to let your old habits take over. The information about dopamine is really helpful. I never heard that before and that explains a lot. Thanks for the info!

  16. David Miner
    David Miner says:

    Great tips and links. About 30 years ago, I wondered about my behavior. Why was I doing things that were essentially self-destructive? Painful from then to now, but life is better and I am better. I intuitively followed the tips you have been laying out; but, where I am now, is alone.
    "Really bad to be alone." "You can't do anything alone." Well, – . This could be a larger post about all of that (early childhood, family, marriages, work), but it comes across to me as kind of a contradiction: is it worse to not be socially active, or staying stuck because I like social status and being around people? Once the decision-making process started, it took on a life of its own. It went beyond whether I was happy about it or not. In short, I went for the long-term. A catchy poster I read back then: "Happy are those who dream dreams, and are ready to pay the price to make them come true." – Nico

  17. Working Girl
    Working Girl says:

    Nice post for the new year.

    My two favorite methods: break down the big goal into mini-goals and tell everyone about your goal so you face public humiliation if you give up.

    A couple years ago I set a goal of doing something that scared me every week. This was to help me get out of a complacent rut. It really worked and now I do scary stuff all the time without having to push myself. Much.

  18. Mon
    Mon says:

    Note in response to thom singer re. people not setting goals and floating through life. I don’t know the exact answer to that but suspect it is people who don’t like to plans every aspect of their lives and prefer to be spontaneous that don’t have defined goals. Guess I am a bit like that and notoriously leave things to the last minute.

  19. m
    m says:

    “Don't set a goal about money. It has no intrinsic value beyond your basic food and shelter. Set your goals for things that truly will change your life. The money will come from living life like this.”

    I completely disagree with the above quote. Money actually has plenty of value, such as its ability to allow those who will not survive without expensive treatment or to those whose lives will feel hardly worth living without regular expensive medical treatment and medication to obtain the care they need.

    Money affects lives in many significant and essential ways aside from simply the bare minimum of having basic food and shelter. Just to have decent, safe shelter, a fairly significant sum of money is required in most places, and that type of money does not just flow out of having set and chasing life changing goals.

    It’s possible to set and meet goals that are very noble and wonderful and that change your life but yet still fail to produce a decent amount of money. In my opinion, not realizing the value of money in our society and not setting goals to make sure we have enough essentially is a way of setting oneself up for major risks with potentially serious consequences.

  20. p
    p says:

    I’m glad to see that there is a community that supports and appreciates your writing. Previously I had only read your columns in Yahoo finance with its hordes of scathing comments from readers. I must confess that while I always thought you were a very talented writer with interesting and novel perspectives and perceptions, I questioned the wisdom of many of your ideas. This article shows that you also have good ideas and insights to match your writing skills.

  21. Jenny
    Jenny says:

    Hi Penelope – great post. I read your column(s) a lot and find valuable, thought ptovoking information, so thanks for that. In fact, I often link to you on my own blog about recruiting, writing resumes, job searching and careers. I wrote something yesterday along the same vein as this – Take some time at the start of a new year to get organized, prioritize, and that will help stimulate and define your job search. Its at http://www.dfbryant.wordpress.com.
    I don’t really understand all the haters you get, since the whole point of blogging is to have your own soapbox and people can certainly disagree but there’s no reason to be ugly when you can just go read somewhere else. I hope you continue to provoke here, its the only way to start a decent conversation.

  22. Dora
    Dora says:

    I have to agree on the part that often we don’t meet our goals because our goal suck. We want something because we are supposed to want it, or because it seems good to us socially or some other thing but we don’t really feel strongly about it. if you have no passion toward what you say you want, you don’t want it.

  23. Gregory
    Gregory says:

    re: I don't understand is the large numbers of people who do not set goals…

    Living in a state of “Crisis Management” is easier in many ways than setting goals. The crisis or situation determines what is most important.

    For example, setting aside money every week for the house payment is a choice. Franticly scrambling to scrape together enough money for the payment the day the payment is due is a necessity.

    Also, there can be greater rewards being the hero who solves the crisis than of the one who by steady and consistent discipline avoids crisis.

  24. Jason Warner
    Jason Warner says:

    I should preface my comment by saying that I generally think that a lot of advice for helping people reach their goals is not that useful.

    It is helpful to understand the small number of truly critical behaviors that drive success in your goal. Most people don’t understand these critical behaviors and therefore struggle to miss goals. For example, in a study of weight loss efforts across a broad group of people, several critical behaviors emerged that were highly correlated with success:

    1.) people who hit their weight loss goals weighed themselves daily
    2.) people who hit their goal thought about and planned their eating before they sat down to the table…ie, they framed up their diet choices before being presented with the menu, so they were less likely to make poor decisions. So before every eating opportunity, they stopped and thought about what they should eat.
    3.) There was one more critical behavior that I can’t recall

    If you spend more time deeply thinking about what the critical behaviors are that drive success, and then focus most of your efforts on those behaviors, you are most likely to hit your goals.

    So in Penelope’s example of improving her marriage, perhaps the critical behavior is literally unplugging the computer at 8 pm every night. If she does this behavior consistently (literally unplugging the computer) she won’t check email. This is not likely the critical behavior that will improve her marriage, but it will certainly solve the email at night problem.

    I highly recommend the new book Influencer, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, and Ron McMillan. I have no affiliation to the book, other than it was one of the best books I’ve read in 2007 (and I read a lot of books).


  25. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    Last year I discovered a book called Your Best Year Yet by Jinny Ditzler (there is also a website, which helps you set major goals for the year. Having support and reporting back on progress really helps with achieving goals so I did it last year with a group of people from 43 Things. It really helped – 2007 was a great year and we are doing it again in 2008. Also David Allen’s Getting Things Done is a good tactical system for actually getting it all done.

  26. Joshua Ledwell
    Joshua Ledwell says:

    Another vote for point #3. A major reason I blog about my field is that I can write as my own best self. Later, when conflict or deadline pressure tempts me to compromise, I can check back for a reminder of how I really *ought* to do something.

  27. mark mcclure
    mark mcclure says:

    Yes, public accountability can work wonders with following through on goals. Toughens the skin too.

    On personal finance-related goals, especially cash flow control for new or would-be entrepreneurs: Adopt the intensely annoying habit beloved by corp purchasing departments of delaying and delaying spending approval!
    Translated – before ANY purchasing decision, at least sleep on it.

  28. Theresa
    Theresa says:

    I think it’s really admirable that you stuck to your goal, but honestly, losing 40 pounds in two months can be dangerous and is not an advisable weight loss trajectory for most people.

  29. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    Theresa makes a good point. Most health professionals say a healthy weight loss is 0.5-1kg a week, which is roughly 1-2lb. 40lb in 2 months is more like 5lb a week, so more than double the recommended weight loss.

    HOWEVER, I believe it’s quite different when you’re losing pregnancy weight. You not only lose weight when you deliver the baby but you can also lose quite a lot of weight naturally just by breast feeding. Many women find it hard to lose weight when they’ve just had a baby because they’re tired, their fitness may be down especially if they had to restrict activity during pregnancy, hormones might make them feel hungry. But it’s also quite common and normal to lose a lot of weight from breast feeding if you are not eating huge portions and you are exercising. It’s important to make sure that you get enough nutrients to produce healthy breast milk and get enough energy, but you don’t actually need to “eat for two”.

    Disclaimer: I am not speaking from actual experience and I wouldn’t presume to say that it’s an easy thing to do, or imply that women should feel compelled to lose weight immediately after having a baby. I’m just saying that medically, losing 40lb in two months after having a baby is not the same as losing 40lb in two months in normal life. It’s not your body’s natural weight so weight loss can be quickened simply by your body returning to its normal state, as well as the diet and exercise.

  30. John Michael
    John Michael says:

    Bread? there’s nothing wrong with eating bread especially if you make it yourself, it’s what you put on it that may be the culprit.

  31. Patricia Reszetylo
    Patricia Reszetylo says:

    I personally found it very hard to lose weight while breastfeeding – baby NEEDED me to eat. however I learned recently that when I deal with me issues, I can lose 10 lbs a week without even trying. Go figure!

    I’m currently setting my personal and business goals for the next 12-18 mo. They are extremely ambitious, so I can’t share them with most of the people I know, but I have some support systems I’m setting up.

    Thanks for a great article!!

  32. Veronica Allenger
    Veronica Allenger says:

    As a Goal Achiever, I believe the proper goal provides you with the necessary incentive to grow in your awareness and awareness gives meaning to life. SO if you want to be absolutly sure to improve the quality of your life, it is essential that you goal be something truly special, something that you really want even if it’s a $1,000,000 lifestyle.

    **Goal setting tip: Don’t set a goal about money. It has no intrinsic value beyond your basic food and shelter. Set your goals for things that truly will change your life. The money will come from living life like this.**
    I find it interesting that you would write that having a financial goal isn’t a good goal to desire. People don’t earn $25,000 because they want to, it’s because they lack the awareness of how to make $50,000. When people desire to earn a specific amount of money, they are looking to change their lifestyle and that’s a great goal. And I think you can earn money doing anything that you love to do.

    Great article. I look forward to your next post.

  33. Acai alive
    Acai alive says:

    Hi Penelope,

    This is a solid topic for discussion. Nice approach to bring in psych research areas.

    Consider breaking down the goal to actionable steps that make progress. Your picture examples of writing and losing weight are overcoming undesirable habits. This is one subset of goals.

    All commenters have valid additions.

Comments are closed.