Harvard’s Ultimate Guide to Setting Goals in 2021

Jessica Pedraza

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“If you’re bored with life — you don’t get up every morning with a burning desire to do things — you don’t have enough goals.” –Lou Holtz

What are your goals for 2021? I get hyped up about goals come December 31st. I write them down or email them to myself to further cement how serious I am about my goals this year. I usually have goals on fitness, finances, and personal development. I have all this bottled up energy that goes into creating these goals and a determination that lasts for about. . . a week.

Ok, maybe I’m being too hard on myself. I’ll cut myself some slack and say that I accomplish at least some version of my goals. Maybe I won’t lose the lbs I want, but I get relatively close-ish. Anyway, enough about me. According to Forbes, about 80% of New Year resolutions fail.

So, how can we create goals that we actually keep? For some insight into this, I decided to take the advice from some of the smartest people in the country— Harvard researchers.

Step 1: Write Them Down

“By recording your dreams and goals on paper, you set in motion the process of becoming the person you most want to be. Put your future in good hands — your own.” — Mark Victor Hansen

A Harvard Business Study studied the goal-setting habits of their MBA graduates. After 10 years of graduating, the 3% of graduates that wrote down their goals earned TEN times as much as the other 97% put together.

There’s something significant about making your goals tangible. When writing goals down you begin the process of manifesting those goals into your life. Life can get busy and distractions abound. Writing goals down will provide the reminder you need if you’re feeling lost. It’s the map you create for yourself when you get sidetracked in life.

Step Two: Create “Ridiculously Small” Micro-Habits

I first came across the concept of micro-habits through James Clear’s New York Times bestseller Atomic Habits. So when Harvard Business Review mentioned the importance of micro-habits — I listened.

The trick is for the micro-habit to be ridiculously small. According to the Harvard Business Review:

“You will know you’ve truly reached the level of a micro habit, when you say, ‘That’s so ridiculously small, it’s not worth doing’”

For example, if your goal is to meditate 30 minutes every morning. It’s best to start with 1 minute a day or even 30 seconds. Or if you want to start writing daily, start by writing one paragraph every morning. It seems meaningless, but the point is for you to create a micro-habit that’s so achievable it’s ridiculous. If it takes 30 days to create a habit, you’re much more likely to create this habit by creating micro-habits. These tasks are so small and easy to achieve, they’ll motivate you to continue.

So, you’re doing ridiculous micro-habits — now what? According to HBR “You’ve stuck with your original micro habit long enough when you feel bored with it for at least two weeks in a row. Then increase it only by about 10%.” The main takeaway is to make your micro habit something you can do with minimal effort.

Helpful tips on creating micro-habits:

  • Perform the habit while completing a daily task (e.g. brushing your teeth while meditating)
  • Make it ridiculously small
  • Track your progress

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Step Three: Create S.M.A.R.T goals

You may have heard of these before but here’s a reminder. SMART goals stand for:

Specific

Make your goals as specific as possible and have them connected to a meaningful outcome. If you want to write more this year, a specific goal would be to “Write 1 hour a day 5 days a week so I can become a better writer and build my portfolio.”

Measurable

If you can’t measure a goal, it’s much harder to stick to it. According to the Harvard Health Blog:

‘“I’m going to lose weight” works better with a measurable outcome, such as “I’m going to lose 15 pounds by my birthday in three months.”’

Achievable

The more realistic your goals the better. As much as we want to run a marathon in a month, a more realistic goal would be to run 5 miles within a month and build up from there.

Relevant

The more relevant your goals are to your life the better. Want to learn Chinese? That’s cool. Is it relevant to your life right now or in the future? If you’re planning a trip or have business in China, this is very relevant. If not, the chances of sticking to it are slim. This isn’t to discourage anyone from learning Chinese, it’s such a cool language.

Timely

Is your timeline for your goals realistic? Sure. It’ll be great to lose 20 pounds in 1 month, but is it truly sustainable and realistic? Nope. Trust me. I’ve learned this lesson plenty of times. It’s not for many people.

The point of S.M.A.R.T goals is to not set yourself up for failure. Goals are hard and 80% of those NYE goals get thrown out the window come Jan 10th.

Reward

It’s time for the good stuff. You’ve achieved your goal of losing weight and now it’s time for the reward. Cheat day, anyone? Now, wait. I know it’s tempting to reward yourself with that burger you see on the billboard that’s been taunting you for weeks. But according to Harvard, you should reward yourself with something that’ll help you maintain your goal. Instead of a burger, maybe new workout equipment or new clothes. This way, you’ll be motivated to continue pursuing larger goals and you won’t derail your own success.

Final Thoughts

The idea of a goal can be intimidating to think about. The truth is, without goals our life can become monotonous and stagnant. With Harvard’s tips, you’ll be on your way to crushing your goals in 2021. As for me, I’ve already written them down on paper. It’s the first step. Wish me luck!

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A mother, wife, traveler, writer, and lawyer — in that order. Contact me: jesszolt@gmail.com or follow my Instagram: @seekinggurustravel

Miami, FL
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