How do I set better goals? This is something many of us start wondering about around this time of year. But the better question is actually “Will my goals actually bring me more happiness?”
As science has shown, goal setting can help with depression and increase confidence, motivation, and autonomy. But the wrong type of goals or approach can bring even more frustration, stress, and unhappiness. Even if we achieve our goals, we may find that they ultimately don’t transform our lives in the way we’d hoped.
This guide will give you 9 science-backed tips for how to set better goals that actually make you happier.
- 1. Consider the journey as important as the destination
- 2. Take an optimistic approach
- 3. Make goals to avoid late life’s top regrets
- 4. Focus on intrinsic rather than extrinsic goals
- 5. Break them down and make steady progress
- 6. Achievability is more important than achievement
- 7. Choose large enough time frames for your goals
- 8. Use measuring and accountability systems
- 9. Let yourself slip up (as you inevitably will)
- Attainable goals to increase your happiness
- Wrapping up
1. Consider the journey as important as the destination
A lot of us fall into the trap of thinking “I’ll be happy when…”. When I lose 10 pounds, when I find a better job, when I move to my favorite city.
The problem isn’t that you won’t be happy when you achieve these things. You probably will — but the happiness won’t last that long. Pretty soon you’ll get used to your fit body, your better working conditions, or your new location. And the level of happiness you get from them will stabilize back to what it was before.
We tend to think of the future as this nebulous place where all the good things we want finally happen for us, and we live in a feeling of constant bliss. We're always trying to move towards it, yet it’s constantly out of reach.
We’re willing to sacrifice almost anything to try to get there. “If I can just stick it out in this job I hate, I’ll be able to retire early and actually enjoy my life”.
From a certain perspective this grit is great. A lot of good things are impossible to get if we can’t endure discomfort in the present. But it only makes sense to endure it if you actually get something in return that makes it worth it.
When you let go of the notion that your happiness will drastically change once you achieve your goal, you’ll start to think about all those sacrifices you’re making in a different way.
Choose goals where you can enjoy the journey as much as you look forward to the destination.
2. Take an optimistic approach
Optimistic people tend to be happier, healthier, and cope better during tough times. They are also more persistent.
This means optimism can help you keep going until you achieve your goals. Not to mention, you'll enjoy the process much more by being more positive!
Here’s how you can leverage that to set better goals:
- Choose goals that are realistic and achievable. Don't set yourself up for failure and disappointment.
- Frame your goals in a positive way. Instead of thinking “don’t be so insecure,” aim to “become more confident” instead.
- Be proactive when problems come up and look for solutions immediately rather than putting them off or ignoring them.
- Accept the difficulties that you cannot change or control.
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3. Make goals to avoid late life’s top regrets
Sooner or later, everyone's time will come. And none of us want to live our last breaths deluged with regrets. At that point, you won’t be able to go back in time and change them.
But you can take proactive action right now to make sure you don’t create them in the first place. (I consider this a kind of proactive time traveling.)
The top five regrets of the dying, according to a book by the same name, are:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish I had let myself be happier.
So, what can you do over the next year to make sure you don’t end up with the same regrets? You can start by setting better goals to prevent them from happening:
- Be true to yourself and follow your heart over others’ expectations.
- Take time to have fun, don’t work hard all the time.
- Have the courage to express your feelings.
- Keep in touch with your friends.
- Make your happiness a priority.
4. Focus on intrinsic rather than extrinsic goals
Research found there are two types of goals: intrinsic and extrinsic.
1. Intrinsic goals are the ones that satisfy your psychological needs. These include things like social connections, self-acceptance, or getting fit. Intrinsic goals don’t depend on what others think of you, or whether or not people approve of what you’re doing.
2. Extrinsic goals, on the other hand, are focused on getting rewards or praise from other people. These can include becoming rich, famous, or popular.
People often pursue extrinsic goals, believing that they will make them happy. But it’s actually intrinsic ones that have the greatest happiness payoff.
You have have some goals imposed on you by other people, such as your employer or family. In this case, you can still find a way to align them with your interests and values. This will also increase your emotional well-being.
5. Break them down and make steady progress
Ever notice that when you procrastinate, your happiness and motivation to work on a goal gets lower and lower?
There’s a reason for this: there’s a positive feedback loop between progress and happiness. Making progress on your goals makes you feel happier and more satisfied with life. In turn, positive emotions motivate you to work on your goals and stay on task.
So you can increase both your well-being and your progress by creating and sticking to a momentum.
Here are some practical ways to do that:
- Define exactly what you’re trying to accomplish.
- Find personal meaning in your goal.
- Just get started no matter what.
- Break the goal down into small enough components that you can regularly check them off after not too much time or work
6. Achievability is more important than achievement
You might think goals will only make you happy once you achieve them. But research showed that surprisingly, that’s not strictly necessary.
A study examined how goals affect people’s happiness and wellbeing. Those who saw their goals as achievable had the greatest increase in mental and emotional well-being — even if they didn’t actually achieve those goals.
The authors speculate that it’s the feeling of control over your life that creates the positive feelings.
Of course, setting goals only makes sense if you actually want to achieve them too. But in case that doesn't work out, this tip ensures you get a great "participation award" anyways.
7. Choose large enough time frames for your goals
Whenever I sit down to write my goals, I always start with 2 or 3 in mind. But before I know it, my list has outgrown the page — and several others to boot.
There is a healthy limit to how many goals you can have, so you should not overdo it.
But from my experience, you can make even a larger number of goals work, if you give them large enough time frames.
For example, let’s say you want to:
- Learn to play a new instrument.
- Learn to speak a new language
- Becoming physically fit.
- Read more often.
- Get a professional certification.
If you tell yourself you want to make super fast progress on each goal, you might want to do a bit of work on all your goals every single day. But you’ll eventually find that you can’t keep up with all five tasks while still going to work, doing life’s necessities, and maintaining a social life. (Not to mention, staying sane in general.)
On the other hand, if you accept that with so many goals you can only make slower progress at each one, you can plan to work on each one once per week. With only one thing to focus on each day, you’ll be able to give it your full attention, and it won’t feel so overwhelming.
The downside is that your progress won’t be nearly as fast. So you can decide what is your priority:
- If you want to make fast progress, choose 1 or at most 2 goals. Put all your attention towards achieving them. Once you have, you can move on to new goals.
- If you want to work on many goals at the same time, you'll have to sacrifice speed in achieving them.
8. Use measuring and accountability systems
As we've just said, you shouldn't get too caught up in the mania of checking off to-dos and gathering virtual trophies in your goal-tracking app.
But as all the previous tips show, when done with a healthy mindset, it’s still healthy and beneficial to set goals. And if you want to actually achieve them, measurement and accountability systems help you do that.
As Marshall Goldsmith tells in his book The Earned Life, “what we measure drives out what we don’t.”
If losing weight is important to you, but you don’t track how much you weigh, what you eat, or how often you exercise, can you expect to make much progress? (And, can you really say it’s important to you?)
Measurement doesn’t always have to be done with objective numbers. If there isn’t something you can quantify, you can rate your daily level of effort in working towards that goal. Just by writing down a number every day will help you keep the goal top of mind when making relevant decisions.
And, you can take it one step further by involving an accountability partner.
Research found that 76% of participants who wrote down their goals and gave weekly progress reports to a friend achieved their goals, compared to 44% who didn’t.
9. Let yourself slip up (as you inevitably will)
It’s my hope for you that you’ll reach all your goals without a single hiccup. But if you’re like every other member of the human race, you’ll probably hit some bumps along the road.
There will be days that you skip, deadlines that drag out, or unexpected problems that pop up. You may even drop your goals for some time and have to restart from the beginning.
There's nothing wrong with any of this happening. The only problem is our own stubborn denial that it will.
If you learn to see working on your goals as a dynamic process, you’ll be able to accept the disorder while still keeping things moving in the right direction.
Attainable goals to increase your happiness
You can follow the tips above to get happiness out of any goal. However, many other actions and habits can bring happiness to your life too.
So why not combine them? Choose a goal that brings happiness, and apply the techniques above to get joy out of pursuing the goals. You'll get the absolute best return on investment with your new year’s resolutions.
Luckily, this entire website is brimming with ideas for things that make you happier. Here are some to check out as a start:
- Find a way to do good or give back
- Create a habit of exercising to increase your happiness
- Make habits to nourish your mind and brain
- Find a better job that makes you happy, or find ways to be happier at work
- Overcome nervousness and work on your confidence
- Let go of anger and forgive
- Improve your relationships
- Get to know yourself better by reflecting on yourself
- Become better at resolving conflict
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Now you know 9 tips to set better goals for greater happiness in 2023. I hope this advice proves beneficial and helpful to you.
I’d love to hear which ones you plan to try. Let me know one of your goals and how one of the techniques above can help you in the comments below!