July 21, 2020

How to Avoid Setting Too Many Goals At Once

Too many goals spoil the broth...

When you’re starting to set goals in your life for the first time, or coming back to some long held dream that you’ve wanted to achieve for years, it can be tempting to try and set as many goals as possible at once and try to change your life into whatever we want it to be with just a click of your fingers.

As an example: you’ve set goals to get up earlier every day, followed by a 10k run, then drink a healthy smoothie afterwards while meditating in your spotless apartment; you haven’t even left the house for work yet and you’ve already set 3 or 4 new goals that you expect to just become part of your life immediately!

Fast forward to 3 or 4 weeks later - all your new habits have stopped, you’re annoyed at yourself (again), you’re not going to try (again) for another 6 months, whereupon the whole process repeats itself, just like it the last 3 times you tried it. It’s the classic New Year’s Resolutions Story that we’ve all heard about - gyms are packed full of people in January, not so much in February.

Life is a marathon, not a sprint. And while I'm not advocating setting no goals at all, trying to make your day perfect and 100% productive is not the only alternative. There’s a solution somewhere between those two extremes.

Prioritising your Goals

So, what’s the solution?

I wrote previously about planning and examining your worst-fears, and a similar technique can be used for examining and prioritising your goals.

To begin with, write down every goal that you have, regardless of how big or small it is. You may have a list of 5/10/20 goals that you’d like to achieve.

Once you’ve done that, the next step is to borrow a technique from the Getting Things Done productivity strategy; for each goal, decide whether it’s a goal that you can start on today, want to do it soon, or a goal that you’ll come back to in the future.

Ordering your Goals By Your Priorities

Goals I want to Start on Today
Goals I want to Start on Soon
Goals I want to Start on Sometime in the Future

The final step is to order these goals in each list by it’s importance to you - this is quite a personal thing, but my advice is to think of the ones that seem the most important to you from a health/personal perspective, or have been a long held dream of yours to achieve. They’re probably the most important ones for you.

Once you’ve done that, you’ll have a list of goals, ordered by priority and that you know you can start on straight away. Keep the rest of the goals in a folder or file that you can review later, and if you want to add them back into the today list at a later stage, you can do that!

One final word of caution; you might find that, even with this process, you have a lot of goals that you wish to start on right away. Trying to make too many changes at once usually results in making no changes, from personal and research experience. So even if you want to start on 10 goals today, it’s worth making a plan to focus on only a small number of goals at a time. But how do you do that?

Adding One Goal at a Time

You can start with the most important goal (or any of your goals really) and once that habit or goal is ingrained in you (like getting up early every morning), slowly add in the next habit or goal over time (e.g. the 10k run). That way, you get a number of benefits - it’s easier to change one thing at a time instead of 4 or 5, and even if you struggle with a particular goal, you won’t lose the benefits of the previous goals/habits (in this case, getting up early) as it’s already a part of your life!

As Will Smith said, perfectly summarising this approach:

“You don’t set out to build a wall. You don't say ‘I’m going to build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s ever been built.’ You don’t start there. You say, ‘I’m going to lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid.’ You do that every single day. And soon you have a wall.”