It's that time of year again. We’re packing away our summer gear and getting our kids ready to go back to school. In synagogues across the world, the shofar is being blown daily. The feeling of the Jewish month of Elul is in the air.
There is much work to be done. It’s a time saturated with potential for us to elevate ourselves in the deepest possible way before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. If there is any time to look deeply inside ourselves, to confront our most difficult weaknesses and to develop strategies how to overcome our hardest challenges, this is the time.
Needless to say, any desire for self-growth needs to come with a plan. We need to be organized and methodical. Spontaneous resolutions just don't seem to last. We need to set clear goals for ourselves of what we would like to accomplish this year and how we will make this year the greatest year of our lives.
Here are five rules for goal setting that are absolutely crucial for making long lasting change.
1. Be motivated to reach the ideal
In order for a goal to be exciting enough to actually stick to it, there must be a significant enough gap between the reality of today and the ideal that we are trying to reach. Going from good to very good is not very enticing. Going from good to great, now that gets me excited! The goal needs to be a bit of a stretch. It needs to present a significant enough challenge that when we get there, we are going to be really proud of ourselves. That being said, if it is too much of a stretch that we don’t really believe that we can accomplish it, it won’t be taken seriously and won’t meet success.
2. Focus on what you are going to do, not what you are NOT going to do
When trying to overcome bad habits and non-desirable behaviors, it is quite common for people to set goals that include “not speaking gossip,” “not wasting time,” “not losing my temper.” But showing restraint or “not doing” is so much harder (and much less exciting) than “doing” i.e. taking proactive steps to overcoming a negative trait. So replace “not speaking gossip” with “saying complimentary words.” Instead of “not wasting time,” try “finding more productive ways to relax.” And in place of “Not losing my temper”, how about “making sure to smile, breath and keep perspective even in very stressful situations.”
3. Be specific. Be clear. Make them measurable
Goals that are vague and abstract are pretty much worthless. “I am going to improve my marriage” is not a goal. “I am going to be a more positive person” isn’t a goal either. A goal needs to be specific. How will it look? How will it feel? How will I measure it? “I am going to improve my marriage” is likely an umbrella for many goals that are more tangible e.g. “My goal is to make sure that for the next three months, we won’t let angry feelings last for more than one day” or “My goal I to set aside two hours a week of uninterrupted time with my spouse”.
4. Is it worth the pain?
When setting a goal it is important to identify what costs this goal might incur, what obstacles one might face, and what are the difficulties that are going to be a result of going on this path. This way when they come up, we will be ready for it and won’t just buckle. Ask yourself: is this goal really worth all that pain? If you can’t confidently say that it is, it is likely that this goal won’t motivate you that much later on down the road. Either dig deeper and articulate the benefits of the goal, or pick a goal that has a bigger payoff.
5. What action steps are necessary to accomplish the goal?
After we have articulated the goal, it is so important to capitalize on the inspiration and excitement by immediately identifying the first one or two action steps we need to take to make this goal successful. These are actions that will get the ball rolling in the right direction and provide extra motivation to follow through. So, if you have taken on the previously mentioned goal of spending more interrupted time with one’s spouse, action steps could include reserving a babysitter, compiling a list of local and affordable places to go where there will be quiet, or purchasing a book that you would like to read together. Once time or money has been invested into the goal, you are already on your way to ensuring that it won’t just drift away.
Allow me to conclude with a story. Someone once commented to the great Ponovitcher Rav, who built so many dynamic Torah institutions in his life, how fortunate he was to have accomplished so much, compared to the average person who only accomplishes about 10 percent of what they set out to do. His response was, “I have also only accomplished 10 percent of what I set out to do, but I set out to do a lot more than the average person.”
Setting goals doesn’t guarantee that we’ll accomplish everything that we set out to do, but the more we set out to do, the more we can be certain that we will accomplish.