A Seven Step Strategy to Acquiring Your Goals

Successfully executing your personal strategic plan for change requires that, as you develop your plan, you effectively incorporate these seven steps for attaining each and every goal.

Step #1: Express your goal in terms of specific events or behaviors.

Unlike dreams, which tend to gloss over important details, or omit them altogether, goals leave no room for confusion about that which is desired. In order for a goal to be attainable, it must be operationally defined. In other words, it must be expressed in terms of the events or behavior that constitute the goal.

For example, in the language of dreams, the desire to travel might be expressed simply as, "I want to see the world." By contrast, in the language of goals and realities, it would be necessary to express this desire by describing the operations or behavior that define what is meant by "see the world." A goal statement might be: "I intend to travel to three different states and one foreign country each year for five years." Now that the desire has been broken down into steps, it can be managed and pursued much more directly than can the ambiguous, "blue sky" dream.

Bottom Line: For a dream to become a goal, it has to be specifically defined in terms of operations, meaning what will be done. So decide what it is you want. Identify and define your goal with great specificity. Know the answers to the following:

  1. What are the specific behaviors or operations that make up the goal?
  2. What will you be doing or not doing when you are "living the goal"?
  3. How will you recognize the goal when you have it?
  4. How will you feel when you have it?

Your answers to these questions, expressed in concrete detail, will become essential signposts, telling you whether or not you are effectively moving toward your goal, or whether you need to make a midcourse correction. Remember, "being happy" won't cut it; that's neither an event nor a behavior. When you set out to identify a goal, you've got to stay away from that kind of ambiguity. If you want to be happy, you must define happy.

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Step #2: Express your goal in terms that can be measured.

Unlike dreams, goals must be expressed in terms of outcomes that are measurable, observable, and quantifiable. In order for something to rise to the level of a manageable goal, you've got to be able to determine your level of progress. You need to know how much of the goal you've attained. You have to have some way of knowing whether you have, in fact, successfully arrived at where you wanted to be. In the dreamworld, you might state, "I want a wonderful and rewarding life." In the world of goals and realities, you would define wonderful and rewarding with the same kind of specificity we stated in Step 1, but also in terms that are measurable. That is, you'd express them in such a way that you could determine how much "wonderful" you have, and how "rewarding" it is. Relevant questions might be:

  1. In order for your life to be wonderful, where would you live?
  2. In order for it to be wonderful, who would you spend your life with?
  3. How much money would you have?
  4. In what type of work or activities would you be involved?
  5. How would you behave?
  6. How much time would you spend doing certain activities?

Any number of other details might serve as examples of measurable outcomes, but I trust that you get the point.

Bottom Line: Express your goal in terms of the measurable outcomes that will let you know whether you are approaching it, how far you still have to go, and whether you have obtained your goal or not. Test your goal by asking the same kinds of questions about it as are shown above.

Step #3: Assign a timeline to your goal.

Unlike dreams, which are vague in both definition and time, goals require a particular schedule or calendar for their achievement. A dream world statement might be, "I want to be rich some day." A statement in the world of goals and realities sounds like, "I want to have achieved an income of $100,000 per year by December 31 in the year 2000." By making a schedule or timeline, you impose project status on the goal: The deadline you've created fosters a sense of urgency or purpose, which in turn will serve as an important motivator. Goals involve time-sensitive requirements that do not allow for inertia or procrastination.

Whatever the period, create a date by which you will arrive at your goal. If your goal is to lose sixty pounds in twenty weeks, your date would be twenty weeks from the day you start. Working backward from that date, you can see where you have to be at the midpoint of ten weeks. Likewise, you can see where you have to be at the five-week mark and the fifteen-week mark. Thinking in terms of a calendar allows you to assess the realism of your plan, and to determine the intensity of what you must do to reach your goal.

Bottom Line: You will obtain your goal only if you are on a timeline and commit to a certain date. Once you have determined precisely what it is you want, you must decide on a timeframe for having it.

Step #4: Choose a goal you can control.

Unlike dreams, which allow you to fantasize about events over which you have no control, goals have to do with aspects of your existence that you control and can therefore manipulate. A dreamworld statement might be, "My dream is to have a beautiful, 'white' Christmas." A more realistic statement might be, "I am going to create a nostalgic and traditional atmosphere for our family at Christmastime." Obviously, since you cannot control the weather, snowfall is not an appropriate goal. On the other hand, you can control such things as the decorations, the music, and the food you offer during the holidays. It's appropriate to make those circumstances part of your goal, because you can control them.

Bottom Line: In identifying your goal, strive for what you can create, not for what you can't.

Step #5: Plan and program a strategy that will get you to your goal.

Unlike dreams, where the objective is merely longed for, goals involve a strategic plan for getting there. Figuring out a strategy to get from point A to point B can be outcome-determinative. To pursue a goal seriously requires that you realistically assess the obstacles and resources involved, and that you create a strategy for navigating that reality.

One of the great benefits of having a well-planned, well programmed strategy is that it liberates you from a pointless and misguided reliance on willpower. Remember, the notion that you've got to have willpower is a myth. Willpower is unreliable emotional fuel: experienced at a fever pitch, it may temporarily energize your efforts; once the emotion is gone, however, the train stops. You've had enough false starts in your life to know that there are times when you do not feel motivated, when you do not feel energized. The only way to guarantee forward movement during those downtimes is to design a solid strategic plan that sustains your commitment in the absence of emotional energy. Specifically, your environment must be programmed, your schedule must be programmed, and your accountability must be programmed in such a way that all three support you, long after the emotional high is gone.

Suppose, for example, that your goal is to make physical exercise a regular part of your life. It's easy to get out there and exercise when you're all fired up about your new program. But if it's emotion (willpower) that fuels your effort, what happens on that cold morning in February when you find that you really don't care about exercising and would much rather sleep? Willpower is gone, but the need remains. Only programming your environment in such a way that it is difficult or impossible not to do what you have committed to do will carry you through.

Even the simplest programming can be dramatically effective. For example, I am invariably hungry when I come home at the end of the day. For the longest time, I would enter the house through a door that led me through the kitchen. I would tell myself repeatedly that I wasn't going to snack before dinner. Sometimes the emotion would carry me, and sometimes it wouldn't. As I walked through the kitchen, the environment was full of temptation. Maybe it was cookies on a platter one day, a chocolate cake (or some other easily consumable snack food) the next. So, to program myself for success, I just started entering the house through another door that did not take me through the kitchen. The route I took had no opportunities for failure, and I got past that reactive eating that had plagued me so. Believe me, this method is a lot more pleasant, and effective, than relying on the fickle emotion of willpower.

Similarly, if I can influence someone else's environment and program it the way I want to, I can meaningfully influence and/or control their behavior as well. For example, I can cure smoking; I can cause people to quit smoking with 100 percent efficiency, provided that I totally control their environment. Think about it. All I have to do is put them in an environment where there is no tobacco. Problem solved. Unfortunately, probably nothing short of parachuting them into the Antarctic will ensure such a pristine environment. But each and every step in that direction will improve their chances of success.

Suppose you wanted to read and study a five-hundred-page book in a thirty-day period. Notice, first of all, what makes this a workable goal: it's specific, it's measurable, and it has a timeline. Determining how many pages you need to read per day would be a simple arithmetic problem. The real challenge would be to make a plan that would program you and your world for literally getting those pages read. This would require:

  1. Identifying how much time per day you would require to read the specified number of pages.
  2. Identifying the specific time, each day, when the reading would take place. (Scheduling is important here. Approaching it from the standpoint of willpower will not get it done. Setting aside the specific time of day, and protecting that time, will get it done.)
  3. Identifying the physical location where you can read without interruption or distraction, and where you can be sure you will be present at the appointed time in your busy day.

The significance of programming is that it recognizes that your life is full of temptations and opportunities to fail. Those temptations and opportunities compete with your more constructive and task-oriented behavior. Without programming, you will find it much harder to stay the course. Consider here the struggles that alcoholics and smokers undertake in order to defeat their addictions. You would never recommend that an alcoholic who's working to stay sober take a job as a bartender, or that he continue to frequent the bar or other location where he did most of his drinking. If you were programming that alcoholic for success, you would place him in an entirely new environment. You would strongly recommend that he not hang out with his old drinking buddies. During those times when he is most likely to give in to the impulse to drink, you would recommend that he choose incompatible behaviors to perform instead. It's difficult to drink with your buddies when you're jogging around the lake, getting fresh air. In the same fashion, you, too, can program your environment by setting yourself up to behave in ways that thwart negative outcomes.

Don't think that there's any kind of environmental manipulation that is insignificant. If you're a smoker who truly wants to quit, program your environment in every way possible to avoid the smoking behavior. You might undertake any number of behavioral changes that avoid the places where you smoke, the times you smoke, and your method of getting tobacco. It is not too trivial to do any number of the following:

  1. Rid your house of all tobacco materials;
  2. Stop carrying change or single dollar bills that allow you to purchase cigarettes;
  3. Ask all coworkers and friends to help you by not giving you a cigarette, no matter how passionately you might beg;
  4. Schedule activities during the times that your temptation to smoke is the strongest, for example, immediately upon awakening in the morning, immediately after meals, or while drinking alcohol.

Bottom Line: Make a plan, work your plan, and you will attain your goal. Rely on your strategy, planning, and programming, not on your willpower. Arrange your environment in such a way that it "pulls for" that result that you desire. Identify those places, times, situations, and circumstances that set you up for failure. Reprogram those things so that they cannot compete with what you really want.

Step #6: Define your goal in terms of steps.

Unlike dreams, whose outcomes we pretend will just "happen" one day, goals are carefully broken down into measurable steps that lead, ultimately, to the desired outcome. A dreamworld statement might be, "I'm going to drop down to a size eight from a size eighteen by summertime." A reality-based statement would instead be, "I will take certain steps to lose three pounds per week for the next twenty weeks. At the end of that time, I will be wearing a size eight." Major life changes don't just happen; they happen one step at a time. When someone is considering it in its entirety, the dream of losing sixty pounds and ten dress sizes can be so overwhelming as to be paralyzing. But it begins to look like a decidedly manageable goal when broken down into the steps of losing a few pounds per week.

Bottom Line: Steady progress, through well-chosen, realistic, interval steps, produces results in the end. Know what those steps are before you set out.

Step #7: Create accountability for your progress toward your goal.

Unlike dreams, which can be entertained at will, goals are structured in such a way that you have some measure of accountability at each and every interval step. In the dreamworld, you might decide that your child should have all B's on his or her report card by the end of the six-week grading period. In the world of goals and realities, that same child would have step-by-step accountability, perhaps reporting to you or a teacher every Friday afternoon to review his or her results on all homework, quizzes, and tests. Faced with this interim accountability, the child is now motivated to perform and adjust, since he or she now expects to be scrutinized on a weekly basis.

Without accountability, people are apt to con themselves, failing to recognize poor performance in time to adjust and keep from falling short. So consider who in your circle of family or friends might serve as your "teammate," the person to whom you commit to make periodic reports on your progress. We all respond better if we know that somebody is checking up on us, and that there are consequences for our failure to perform.

Bottom Line: Create meaningful accountability for your actions or inactions. Some days you might feel like working on your goal. Some days you might not. But if you know precisely what you want, when you want it by, and the time and place are scheduled and protected, and there are real consequences for not doing the assigned work, you are much more likely to continue in your pursuit of your goal. Set up an accountability system for yourself that will make it impossible for you not to achieve your goal.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Hyperion, a division of Disney Book Publ.
©1999. http://www.hyperionbooks.com

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Life Strategies: Doing What Works, Doing What Matters
by Phillip C. McGraw.

Life Strategies by Phillip C. McGraw.Some people spend their lives reacting to what life hands them, while others craft life to fit their goals. Author Phillip C. McGraw, who is a psychologist but describes himself as a strategist, is determined to make sure that his readers are the creators of their lives, not created by their lives.

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About the Author

Phillip C. McGraw, Ph.D.Phillip C. McGraw, Ph.D., has worked in the field of human functioning and strategic life planning for over twenty years. He is the co-founder and president of Courtroom Sciences, Inc., and has been associated with some of the highest profile litigation cases in the country, including Oprah's highly publicized "Mad Cow" suit. A professional psychologist, he appears regularly on The Oprah Winfrey Show as her resident expert on human functioning.