The Only Goal-Setting Advice You Need

by Nick Velasquez

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Most people quit their goals soon after they set them. Here’s how to stick to yours.

1. Don’t make a list. If you need to write a list of goals it means you are trying to do too much at a time. That’s where most people go wrong and end up quitting a few weeks into their journey. They try to do too much too soon. It’s overwhelming.


It’s ok to want to achieve as much as you want, I’m not telling you to lower your goals, I’m just telling you to not work on all of them at the same time.
We approach goal-setting like a wishlist when we should think of it more like a budget -We have limited time, energy, and willpower to develop and assimilate new behaviors.


Here are some reasons why trying to do too much at once is counterproductive.

Not enough willpower. We don’t have enough willpower to change many behaviors at the same time. Willpower is exhaustible, it drains as we use it, so if we spend too much of it forcing ourselves to work on one goal we leave little left to work on another later in the day.


Unfocused energyWorking on too many goals dissipates our energy. We break our concentration when we task or goal switch often. Instead, we should focus on a few changes at a time and give them as much attention as possible. They will slowly incorporate into our routine and eventually turn into habits. -freeing up energy to work on another one-


Confusion.When we have too many goals at the same time we get confused about which one to work on at a given time. Even with a rigorous schedule, our responsibilities will get in the way and we’ll have to choose to work on one goal at the expense of another. Just having to make that decision can lead to making no decision at all. Too many choices lead to confusion and procrastination.


Slow progress. Having too many goals at the same time makes our progress slower on each of them. This doesn’t seem like a problem -rationally we know we are making progress even if it’s slow- but our emotional brain is easily demoralized, it needs to see benefits and results. If it takes too long to see some progress we lose motivation and risk giving up on our goals.


2. Set up only 3 major goals at a time. If you achieve one or all of them soon, great! Get it back to 3, but don’t focus on more than 3 at a time. I know you want to work on all your other goals and you will, but you’ll do it progressively, 3 at a time.


If your goals are habit or routine related -like going for a run 4 times a week- you are allowed to add new goals once the habit is formed. Creating habits require consistent effort in the beginning but once established they demand little mental energy. At this point, you can shift your focus and start working on a new goal or habit.


The 3 big goals you choose may have subgoals and action steps. If they do, apply the same concept, work on 1-3 subgoals or action steps at a time. As you complete them add more to get it back to 3.


You can use this rule for daily activities too. Set up the 3 most important tasks of the day and focus on completing them. You can then add another 3 or use the rest of the day for other projects. Working this way gives you clarity of mind and reduces stress. You’ll also be more aware of your progress -which will motivate you to keep moving forward.


3. Work on each goal at least 3 times a week. It’s better to work on your goals often, even if it’s for a short time than working on them for long hours every couple of weeks. Ideally, we should work on our goals daily -But we’ll use a minimum of three times a week. It is  Consistent action that helps us form the habit of working on our goals. The more we do it the easier it gets to keep it going. Consistency will do more for us in the long term than cramming every now and then. 



4. Fail-Proof your goals. Right after the initial excitement of starting to work on your goals the novelty begins to wear off.  We are not as consistent anymore, and start to take a few days off. If we are not careful, those minor setbacks can snowball into quitting our goals not too long from now. Let’s make sure we stay on track. Here’s how to deal with setbacks and fail-proof our goals.


Prevention, Reaction, and Recovery.

Regardless of how much planning we do for our goals, things will go wrong. Life gets in the way, we break our practice routine, miss training days, take time off, etc. This is normal, we shouldn’t beat ourselves up, we all fall off the path from time to time.  Instead, we’ll first plan for it in advance so we can avoid problem situations as much as possible -Prevention-, limit the damage if they do happen –Reaction-, and having a strategy to repair the damage and get back on track –Recovery


In the book Switch: How to change things when change is hard, Chip and Dan Heat give a great example of those three steps applied for avoiding car accidents and people getting injured in them. It will serve us as an analogy for our goals.


Most of the time we are relatively safe driving on the road, but accidents do happen and people get injured. We want to bring those numbers to a minimum so we’ll plan for things going wrong at every step.


Our first line of defense is prevention, we want to avoid car accidents from happening in the first place. To achieve this we light up the streets, make signs on the road clear and visible, we set speed limits, and we require people to take driving lessons before they are allowed on the road.


Despite all the preventive measures, accidents will still happen. So, we come up with reactive safety features to minimize the consequences. These include Airbags, seatbelts, safety glass windshields, etc.  They are there to lower the chances of getting killed or seriously injured.


Now we’ll take it one step further. Accidents happen, and sometimes the safety features on the road and in the car won’t be enough to avoid injuries. To deal with those situations we create emergency response systems  -ambulances, police, and hospitals-. It’s also why we should have medical insurance.


This completes all three stages of dealing with problem situations: Prevention, Reaction, Recovery. We’ll use this model and apply it to our goals.


Here is an example for someone who wants to go for a run every weekday in the morning.

Prevention: Go to bed early the nights before so you don’t feel tired and want to skip your run in the morning.
Reaction: If you went to bed late and felt tired the next morning make an effort to go for a run even if it’s for less time than usual.
Recovery: If you were too tired and you skipped your run, schedule extra time for the next day or an extra day over the weekend to make up for the practice you missed.

Here’s an example for someone wanting to eat healthier.

Prevention: Avoid going to a fast food restaurant even if your friends are going.
Reaction: If you end up at a fast food restaurant for any reason start with a salad so you don’t overeat junk.
Recovery: If you couldn’t help yourself and ate a lot of junk food add an extra gym day to your week or don’t do a cheat day that week.


One of the benefits of planning for setbacks is that we avoid the “what the hell” effect. This is when you have a minor setback, like eating a chocolate bar on a day you were not supposed to, and then turning it into an entire week of unhealthy eating because “what the hell” you already broke your diet. Reaction and Recovery let you get back on track as fast as possible.


Keep in mind that your contingency could also be “not to be so strict and just enjoy that you ended up at a fast food place from time to time.” That’s fine. Your plan can be whatever you want it to be as long as it aligns with the way you want to live your life. If you want to be relaxed about your rules then make it so. But know it beforehand so you don’t feel guilty at the moment or afterward.


Your goals will be different from the examples I gave you but the principles of Prevention, Reaction, and Recovery remain the same. Now that you understand those principles come up with contingencies that are relevant to you and your goals. Planning for setbacks with this model is one of the best things you can do to make sure you reach any goal you have.


This time of the year is when everyone is writing their New Year’s resolutions and setting up their goals.  New beginnings -like a new year, a new job, moving to a new place, etc.- are good opportunities to create habits and make changes in your life. They can give us motivation and a feel of ” a fresh start” to finally achieve our goals. We should use these “New beginnings” opportunities as them as they come, but don’t rely on them. We must take the initiative at any time.  We should be as motivated to set goals and start new projects on May 15th or September 22nd as we are on January 1st. As they say: don’t wait for the perfect moment, take a moment and make it perfect.


I wish you your best year yet.


Sum Up

Three simple rules to set and achieve your goals

1. Don’t make a list. If you have a list you are trying to do too much at a time. Think: Manageable
2. Set only up to 3 major goals at a time. If you complete one goal, add a new one but don’t have more than 3 at any given time. If your goals have sub-goals and actionable steps apply the same concept, work on 3 sub-goals or actionable steps at a time. Once you complete one, add another. Think: Focus
3. Work on your goals consistently. It’s better to work on your goal a little every day than a lot every now and then. Think: Habits
Fail-Proof your goals. Eventually, we’ll get off track, it happens. What’s important is to plan for it and be ready to get back in line. Think: Prevention, Reaction, Recovery.



PS: If you want to learn how to create habits here’s how to do it: Mastering Habits: The principles and strategies for lasting change

PPS: If one of your goals is to read more here’s how to do it: How to read more and remember what you read

In the upcoming articles we’ll be discussing Goals, Mastery, Learning strategies, and more. Don’t miss a post, sign up below to get my newest articles in your inbox.

You may also like