The One Goal-Setting Trick That Changed My Life

It's about progress, not failure.

Olivia Muenter

@oliviamuenter

I’ve always been inspired by setting goals. I can remember being a teenager, or even younger, and romanticizing the act of sitting down and planning what I wanted the next year to look like. Without even realizing it, I developed a yearly ritual of mapping out exactly what I wanted to accomplish. Usually, I’d begin with something realistic and fairly vague—say, exercising more, or finally quitting my nail-biting habit. Then, this goal would spiral into a dozen others. I’d want to journal every single day, cook meals from scratch each evening, or attend a certain number of workout classes every month. It was never just one, small thing, it was all the things. And inevitably, I would fail to meet some (or even most) of these goals.

Maybe I would cook more than the previous year, but it wouldn’t be every single night, so I’d view that as a failure. Maybe I would develop a consistent exercise routine, but it wasn’t as intense as I had planned. Perhaps I did finally cut back on the nail-biting, but it was only when my nails were painted. Maybe I only wrote a quarter of the book I planned to finish, or I only read 30 books when I had set a goal to read 50. What I was left with at the end of every year was simple: I had failed at whatever I set out to do. I was too lazy to cook every night and delete GrubHub off my phone for good. I was too weak to commit to exercising every single day, instead of three or four days a week. I was unsuccessful. Then, in 2020, I started to shift this mindset. 

When it comes to goal-setting, most experts will tell you to be specific, and to start small. When you try to do everything at once, you end up doing a lot of things half-way. Maybe you stick with some goals and leave others behind—it's inevitable. We’re all only human, after all. We can only do so much. Still, I knew this wasn’t an option for me. I loved having big dreams, big goals, and grandiose life changes too much to choose just one. Not to mention, if the beginning of 2020 taught me anything, it’s that goals should be flexible and allow for the unpredictability of life. What if my biggest and only 2020 goal had been to travel more? What then? Instead, I took a different approach. I’d keep all the goals, but completing them wouldn’t be... well, the goal. Instead, I would learn to value the journey—the baby steps that lead up to the goal. 

I started to look at the goals I set as possibilities, a thousand separate journeys without any specific parameters for success.

This is why when I made a commitment to incorporate exercise into my daily life in 2020, I had no problem starting small for once. I was OK with baby steps, because it was part of the journey. I was OK with deciding half-way through the year I wanted to write a book by 2021. I was OK with launching a business project late, because I still launched it eventually. I started to look at the goals I set as possibilities, a thousand separate journeys without any specific parameters for success. No matter what, they'd still bring me forward. And that was the point. 

So when I got to the end of 2020 and I hadn’t written a full book after all, I was excited I had written 25,000 words. I was proud of myself for incorporating exercise into my routine so gradually and so gently that I actually loved it. I launched a project six months late, but if I hadn’t set a goal to launch it than I never would have at all. On paper, I hadn’t fully met a lot of goals I set, but I had still made progress. I had discovered new goals and new hobbies. I eased into new habits without beating myself up about the results. Approaching my goals differently no longer looked like failure, but rather growth. Every individual goal led me somewhere positive; a place I wouldn't have gotten to without setting the goal in the first place. What’s more, I certainly wouldn’t have gotten there without giving myself the space to figure out what feels good to me. Turns out, telling yourself you’re a failure isn’t particularly motivating. Now, I view my goals not as reflective of my success or some moral benchmark for willpower, but as possibilities. And in all my years of goal-setting and dreaming and New Year’s Resolutions (and trust me, there have been a lot of them), I’ve never, ever felt better.

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