Once you’ve set some new goals for yourself, what do you do next?
Many people take a few disorganized actions to get started, but they can’t maintain momentum. Within a few weeks after setting some goals, they’ve lost focus and clarity, and they aren’t sure how to keep moving forward.
Eventually they stall. Months or even years later, they try again, and the same pattern repeats. This is largely because they don’t follow a systematic method for turning goals into consistent actions.
Other people set some general intentions and then fall back on the hope-and-pray strategy of expecting the Law of Attraction to produce all the progress. Occasionally that can work for smaller goals by increasing your receptiveness to opportunities, but for larger and more complex goals it seldom yields reliable results.
During the past several years, I’ve received hundreds of emails asking how to better apply the Law of Attraction to get results. I tell people the best tools for applying the Law of Attraction are their own hands and feet. Meet the universe halfway by taking intelligent action, and you’ll be well-positioned to seize opportunities as they arise. Opportunities tend to shun people who appear to be standing still.
Some people approach goal setting with incredible ambition but little patience, so they try to squeeze many years’ worth of goals into a single year or less.
Eventually they get frustrated by the lack of rapid progress. This sometimes leads them to turn their backs on goal setting altogether for a while.
A common example is when someone tells me, “I’m going to earn $1 million by the end of this year,” and they haven’t even earned $100,000 in a single year yet. The goal of earning $1 million can still be realistic, but the timeline needs to be extended to allow adequate time to build skills, establish productive habits, and to learn how to create significant value for people.
What to Do After You Set Goals – the 5 Steps:
The truth is that meaningful goals usually require serious effort, intelligent **planning, and a great deal of patience
.** If you’re going to invest the time in setting clear goals, it makes sense to continue with process of goal achievement with intelligent action instead of chaotic stutters.
1. Avoiding Delay.
Understand that your goals will be achieved (or not achieved) in linear time. At any given moment, you can move your goals forward, or you can direct your attention elsewhere.
Mistake 1.: Not giving your goals enough attention.
One cause of delay is not giving your goals enough attention. You may procrastinate by putting your focus on something other than your goals. It’s important to take breaks now and then to renew and recharge, but if procrastinating becomes your default mode, your goals will seldom be achieved.
Mistake 2.: Splitting your attention across too many different goals.
Another mistake is splitting too much of your attention across different goals, too close together in time. Instead of focusing on one or two significant goals at a time and getting them done efficiently, you may take on many goals at once without establishing clear priorities. This is like trying to juggle more balls than you can handle. Usually you’ll drop them all.
I encourage you to start evaluating your actions in binary terms. Either you’re working on your most important goal (which means you need to know what that goal is), or you’re not. Strive to reach the point where you catch yourself working on your most important goal more often than not.
At any given moment where you’re ready to make progress, there’s only one goal that requires your focus at that time. Put your attention on taking action to achieve that singular goal, or admit that your attention is being squandered. Keep turning your attention back to your goal again and again.
2. Action Steps.
After you’ve set clear goals for yourself, list your action steps for each goal.
Many people sidestep this because it can be a lot of work, but it is possibly the single most important aspect of goal achievement. If you don’t determine which specific actions to take, your goal is likely to remain a fantasy. Listing the action steps takes your goal from the pure idea space down to a more practical level where you can begin to move it forward on a day-to-day basis.
Setting up action steps to achieve goals takes time.
Last month I updated my goals for the next 18 months and then listed out all the action steps as best I could. This was difficult work, requiring about two weeks of solid effort. For some goals it took me a couple of hours to type up all the action steps and put them in the right order. Sometimes I had to do extra research to figure out the most sensible action steps because I didn’t know them in advance. But the result was worth the rigor since I now have a 40-page document listing the detailed action steps for all of my goals. My goals feel much more solid and realistic to me.
It’s easier to visualize doing action steps.
If you like visualizing, then knowing the action steps will give you something specific to visualize. Many achievers discover that visualizing themselves doing the action steps is much more motivating and empowering than merely visualizing the end results. If you’re going to visualize, then visualize yourself following the whole trail of actions from your current position to your final goal.
Related article: How Guided Mediation Helps You Visualize More Clearly.
In addition to your own goals, I suggest you list out the action steps for all known projects and to-dos on your plate.
I do this by creating sections for each goal as well as a section for miscellaneous items. I use a Mac program called Scrivener to organize my goals and plans neatly in a tiered outline structure. In the past I used a PC program called ActionOutline to create a similar structure, but the developer seems to have stopped updating it years ago.
Scrivener is a program for writers, but I find it excellent for organizing and managing my goals, projects, and actions as well. It comes with a free 30-day trial and a detailed tutorial, so I encourage you to try it and see if it meets your needs.
In some cases you can punt the resolution of the action steps to some future time, so you don’t have to list out all the actions up front. Knowing when to preplan the actions vs. when to resolve them later is largely a matter of personal preference and experience.
What do you need to make your goals feel real, solid, and practical to you? What do you need to begin taking action soon and avoid procrastination?
Generally I will create the most detailed plans for the goals I expect to be achieved in the next 3-6 months, and I’ll do less detailed and more general outlining for goals that I don’t expect to work on for several months.
For the closer goals, I create detailed action plans that I can follow step by step. For the further goals, I’ll map out a fairly general strategy for their achievement, until the goals begin to feel more real and solid to me — less like fantasy and more like reality.
For me the greatest benefit to listing the action steps is a sense of pragmatism. By engaging in this planning process, I can see that most goals are more complicated than they appear at first glance. My biggest weakness is being too optimistic about how long certain goals will take to achieve. Before delving into the details, it’s easy to estimate that a certain goal will take only 2-3 weeks to achieve. But when I see all the action steps listed, it hits me that it’s probably going to take 8-12 weeks. Planning out the action steps in detail helps me accept the patient effort that will be required.
You may have some goals on your list that involve new habits.
In that case the action steps should include the setup work that’s required to set the habit in motion. Be careful not to neglect the early game of habit change. Properly preparing to adopt a new habit may require several days or more of researching success with that habit, procuring supplies, enlisting the necessary social support, etc.
If I know that a particular habit change may be very challenging, I’ll carefully choose my starting date and block off time on my calendar to focus on that habit for a few weeks, such as with a 30-day challenge.
I may also take many actions before the starting date to prepare myself for success, such as being sure that I have all the supplies I need and that my schedule is clear of obligations that may interfere with the habit.
For instance, if I’m doing a significant health cleanse or detox, I wouldn’t want to book a speaking engagement during that time. Often the success or failure of a goal comes down to timing; this is especially true of habit-based goals.
At first it may feel disheartening to see that your “simple” goal actually has 70 steps instead of the 10-15 steps you expected.
You may grow impatient and want to abandon the goal or the planning process. But as you set and achieve goals again and again, you’ll see that many goals are more complex than they initially appear. As you gain experience, your patience will likely increase, and your time perspective for setting and achieving goals will extend. Instead of irrationally hoping that you can accomplish two years’ worth of goals in a month, you’ll begin to adopt a more professional attitude.
You’ll come to accept that if you want the result, you must put in the effort, and you must be patient as you make progress week after week.
I have had many goals that took significantly longer than I initially expected. When I started my first business during the 1990s, I thought I could make it profitable in 6-12 months. It actually too me six years, a bankruptcy, and a radical change in my business model to finally make it profitable.
I achieved the goal, but my time estimates were grossly unrealistic, especially given my lack of business experience. My impatience only slowed me down and caused further delays because I kept chasing short-term “opportunities” instead of creating a workable and realistic long-term plan that I could follow. Succumbing to pressures from other people also slowed me down. I believe I would have fared much better if I’d begun with a more patient attitude.
You may discover that you have too many goals.
In that case you may want to delete some of them. You can also reduce the scope of a goal, you can delegate a goal to someone else, or you can simplify a goal by reducing the action steps required. Sometimes this will require making trade-offs, usually between time and money or between quality and speed.
For instance, you could declutter your home and sell the unwanted items online, which could take weeks. Or you could simply donate the unwanted items to charity, which could be done in a day and may be tax deductible.
When you see how many actions you already have to do, you’ll likely become a lot more cautious in taking on new commitments. You may even become slightly commitment-phobic until you work down your list for a while.
This can be a good thing. Whenever you have the chance to add something new to your list, compare the new opportunity to the goals and plans you already have on your list. Is it worth the consequence of pushing back some of your other goals to say yes to the new opportunity? Many opportunities that look good at first glance will seem a lot less interesting once you realize that every new opportunity is will undoubtedly cost you time, attention, and the delay of progress on your other goals.
Don’t use shortcuts when it comes to planning your process.
I believe that if you do this planning process correctly, you’ll pass through the initial phase of blind optimism, then through a period of disappointment and/or frustration as the realities begin to sink in, and finally you’ll experience a more patient and reasoned feeling of optimism once you have a realistic plan of action.
If you try to shortcut this process, you’ll only be shortchanging yourself. If it takes you a few weeks to create your plans, let it take a few weeks. The time you spend in planning will save you much more time in execution.
3. Linearize Your Goals.
It would be lovely to set 50 different goals and then somehow achieve them simultaneously. Unfortunately our brains don’t work like that. While it’s sometimes possible to work on multiple goals at once, such multitasking is usually ineffective.
Trying to tackle multiple goals at once will frequently sabotage progress across the board, making your goals take much longer to achieve than necessary.
It’s important to guard against the feeling of overwhelm that comes from trying to cram too many objectives into your mind at once. It’s more peaceful, relaxing, and productive to imagine that you must achieve your goals one at a time, in some kind of linear order, and that you aren’t allowed to begin working on a second goal until your current #1 goal is fully achieved.
To linearize your goals, arrange them in temporal order. Decide which goals you’ll tackle first, second, third, etc.
You could create two separate lists here: one for your professional life and one for your personal life. I tend to work best when I’m fully immersed in a singular mindset though, so for this step I prefer to combine everything into a single list.
In the past I’ve tried having two separate goal lists, but then I never knew when I should give priority to my personal goals vs. my professional ones, which diluted my focus. Since I only have one timeline for my life, I think it’s best to have only one timeline for my goals. This also helps me create a more balanced life since I know that all of my goals will eventually receive my attention.
List out action steps first.
While it’s possible to arrange your goals in order before creating your action plans, I highly recommend that you list out the action steps first. Knowing the action steps will give you a much greater awareness of the size, scope, and intensity of each goal, so when you arrange your goals in order, you’ll have a clearer sense of how long each goal is likely to take.
This can be important for timing reasons, such as making sure that you have enough weeks in a row on your calendar to devote adequate time to each goal without having them constantly disrupted.
Sometimes you have to turn your attention to other goals.
Sometimes you won’t be able to realistically tackle a single goal for an extended stretch without turning your attention to other goals and projects along the way. In that case, break the larger goal into subgoals or phases, such that you can tackle each phase as a singular block. Then you can tend to other projects between blocks as needed.
Do your best to minimize goal switching as much as possible though, so you don’t diluted your focus. Try to stick with each individual goal as long as possible before you have to switch, so you don’t have to waste too much time reloading the context of that goal again and again after each break.
This may take some social engineering, meaning that you may need to negotiate with other people to create a sensible prioritization of your goals.
List the goals in order of importance.
Now that you have a reasonable sense of the scope of each goal (from outlining the action steps), you’ll see that bumping a goal from one spot on your linear list to a lower priority could potentially delay the achievement of that goal by months.
The general idea here is to list your goals in order of importance to you. Partly this comes down to a value judgment, whereby you’re free to decide which goals you value more than others. But it’s also a matter of looking at the big picture, considering interdependencies between your goals, and thoughtfully scheduling your goals in time. The sum of your goals can create a powerful direction for your life.
The first time you create this linear list, I suggest doing it fairly quickly based on intuitive guesses.
Then use that first draft as your control, and see if you can improve upon it by coming up with different variations until you have an ordering that feels solid, realistic, and achievable. When I have an ordering that doesn’t feel quite right, I typically hesitate to take action, but when I feel good about the ordering, I’m usually anxious to get started on it. An intelligently ordered list can be very motivating.
To come up with an intelligently ordering of my goals in linear time, I like to project myself five years into the future and imagine that all of the goals on my list are complete. Then I reflect back on the present day and remember (from the future) the most reasonable order for accomplishing those goals.
You may want to work on your sexiest and most interesting goals first, while delaying the more tedious goals for months.
Looking back from the future may help you adopt a more sensible ordering of your goals because from that perspective, your whole list is already complete. I had some tedious goals on my list last year that I really didn’t want to work on first, and I especially didn’t want to delay more interesting projects, but with a longer time perspective, it was clear that I should tackle those goals first.
They weren’t fun. They weren’t sexy. But it was certainly wise to complete those goals first. Now that those goals are complete, I’m glad I prioritized them as I did. I feel relieved that they’re done and over with, and I no longer have to give them any attention.
You’ll probably have some tedious goals on your list too. You may want the results, but you’d rather not do the action steps. Do your best to accept that you’ll need to do the action steps to get the results. Try to adopt a longer time perspective, and realize that you’ll still get to work on the more interesting goals after the tedious ones are done. Your future self will surely be grateful to have those tedious actions done.
If you have a bunch of small goals or projects on your list, batch them together into one larger goal.
You can batch up many home maintenance tasks into a single home improvement goal. You can batch up a series of health improvements into a health transformation goal that includes a detox phase followed by researching and adopting new long-term diet and exercise habits.
Another suggestion is to chop up your list by month, so you can see it in monthly chunks. An easy way to do this is to insert the names of each month into your list (August, September, October, etc), at roughly the points where you expect each new month will begin.
Then whatever you see after the name of each month is your anticipated to-do list for that month. Depending on the complexity of your goals, you may prefer to divide your lists into weeks, quarters, or some other time frame. As you take action, you can compare your actual progress with your earlier estimates and then adjust your future estimates to better match your true pacing.
The key benefit you’ll gain from linearizing your goals is a newfound clarity of focus. By tackling your goals one at a time, you’ll be free to focus your attention on doing what needs to be done to move your most important goal forward. This is a powerful habit of achievers.
One major benefit I gained from quitting social media last year was a deeper ability to concentrate on a singular goal for an extended period of time. Without the chaotic, scatter-brained chatter of so many different voices, my world became quieter, more peaceful, and more centered.
This has been helping me achieve some of my goals faster than I otherwise would have expected, such as delivering the Conscious Heart Workshop that we did back in May. I don’t know what certain friends are sharing online anymore, so their pursuits can no longer mentally distract me. Consequently, I feel more focused, more patient, and less overwhelmed.
4. Daily Action to Achieve Goals
On a day-to-day basis, your work is clear. Tackle the #1 goal on your list, and work through the action steps in order. Do not distract yourself by putting your attention on any other goals on your list. Keep your attention on your #1 goal. Move it forward all the way to completion, even if it takes months.
If you’ve decided that the timing is right to tackle this goal, then respect your decision, and put in the time and effort until the goal is complete.
In some cases you may be able to make forward progress on multiple goals at once.
This is true especially if the goals are complementary, but always know which goal is your current #1 priority, and keep that goal moving forward. Deep focus on a singular goal is usually superior to splitting your attention between multiple goals.
An intelligent way of taking action is to split it in blocks.
An intelligent method for taking action is to work in blocks of 45-90 minutes at a time, followed by a break after each block, with breaks typically lasting 10-30 minutes. You can adjust the duration of the focus blocks and the breaks based on your energy levels and the difficulty of the tasks.
Sometimes you may only be productive working 25-30 minutes at a stretch, followed by 20-30 minute breaks (or longer). Other times you may get into the flow and feel good working for 90-120 minutes at a stretch with shorter breaks. When I’m writing I can often work productively for 2-4 hours at a stretch without a break, but then I usually need an hour or more of recovery time afterwards.
Within a given day, you can also vary the duration of your focus blocks and breaks. I’m usually freshest in the morning or right after a nap, so I’ll often work longer stretches (like 90 minutes) with shorter breaks (10-15 minutes) during these times. When my brain begins feeling mushy, I may drop to 30-45 minute work sessions with longer breaks in between.
When you take a break, make it a real break.
If you’ve been doing mental work, then don’t just switch to a lesser mental task like email during your breaks. Rest your mind by doing something unrelated. Go for a walk. Exercise. Meditate. Listen to music. Take a nap. Have a snack or a meal. Play a game. After a good break, your mind should feel rested and ready to resume working again.
Since I do a lot of mental work, I find that doing something physical during my breaks is best. I like to get up and move around for 10 minutes or go for a 15-minute walk in the park near my house.
Another suggestion is to start a countdown timer for your workday as a whole.
I normally set it to 10 hours when I begin my workday, so if I start working at 8am, I’ll end my workday at 6pm. Within that time I can do as many work sessions and take as many breaks as I want.
On a good day I’ll complete 7-8 hours of solid work during those 10 hours, with the rest of the time being breaks and meals. When the timer goes off to signal the end of my workday, I’ll finish up the current work session and call it a day.
The positive pressure of knowing that I only have 10 hours within which to complete my work for the day helps increase my motivation to work quickly, to stay focused while I’m working, and to avoid excessively long breaks. It’s a very useful technique, and I encourage you to try it.
To apply this technique, I use two digital countdown timers, one to count down the whole workday (normally 10 hours total) and another to track the individual focus blocks. I normally don’t time my breaks, but you could do that too if you find it helpful.
My favorite timing device is the CDN TM30. You could also use your cell phone or another device for timing, but I prefer to keep my cell phone away from my desk, so it doesn’t distract me while I’m getting real work done. I like having the physical timers in front of me, so I can see them at a glance. Since timing is their only function, they never distract me from my work like a more complex device might.
5. Creating Flow
It will take considerable time to list out the action steps for your goals and to put them into an intelligent linear order. You’ll likely encounter some psychological resistance to this, such as by feeling that you don’t have the time or patience for it.
But this is simply how achievers achieve. It’s up to you whether you want to accept this down-to-earth practice or continue to rely on wishful thinking instead. This process involves more work up front, but the gain is smoother execution, more goal achievement, and less disappointment down the road.
Even though this approach can be difficult at times, it works. It creates results. Ask yourself if your previous approaches to goal achievement have worked for you. Have you achieved the goals you set out to achieve? Did you get the results you wanted? Are you making intelligent progress? Are you completing more action steps each week?
There’s a place for unbridled optimism.
That’s appropriate when you’re allowing yourself to dream freely. There’s also a place for sensible pragmatism, which is appropriate when you know your goals and would like to get them done, so you can experience and enjoy the results.
It’s easy to mistake the foolish optimism of early goal setting for the more mature, patient, and reasoned optimism that comes after you’ve carefully and thoughtfully worked through the planning stage.
How to tell the difference between foolish optimism and sensible pragmatism?
An easy way to tell the difference is if I were to say to you, “Show me your written plan.” If you have no plan to achieve your goal, you’re still in the foolish optimism phase, and you’ll likely fail to achieve your goal if the goal requires serious effort over an extended period of time.
However, if you can produce a carefully considered written plan that meticulously lays out the important action steps, that is solid evidence that you’re taking your goals seriously and approaching them like a professional achiever.
Working through a goal step by step and seeing yourself make progress week after week can be very energizing and encouraging.
You may find it hard to get to bed at night because you want to keep making progress. Instead of being distracted from your goals, you catch yourself obsessing over them. That’s the point where you’re finally using your power to make your goals real.
Written by Steve Pavlina. Steve Pavlina is a human alarm clock – he wakes up people who are sleeping through life. Steve has a personal development blog for smart people, which you can follow here: stevepavlina.com/blog/