Be It Resolved: Goal-setting for Success

It’s that time of year again.

I have an almost flawless adult record of realized New Year’s Resolutions.  In the past, I have successfully achieved…

  • The Great Weight Loss (which continues to be maintained) of 2000
  • The Commitment to More Diverse Cooking of 2010
  • The Re-Introduction to Reading and the Pledge to More Emotional Expressiveness somewhere in between the above-mentioned two, and
  • 2012’s Experiment Into Internet Dating (which I hated, but that’s a whole other blog post) to cap it all off.

I’m not much of a lover of Christmas, but New Year’s is my favourite holiday of the year.  I love new beginnings – love the intrinsic metrics they provide for making life changes – because, like anyone else, when it comes to my life and myself as a person, there’s always room for improvement.

And while it’s true that life is peppered with opportunities to start over – every day is a new day, and easily the first day of the rest of your life – New Year’s is a much more significant new beginning, from which much more substantial change can be initiated.

Plus, I love to succeed where many others don’t.  I’ve always had a bit of a competitive streak.

Not all New Year’s Resolutions are created equally, though, which thus dooms many of them to fail from the start.  However, a failed goal is not a statement on the character of the goal-setter; rather, it indicates a failure in the goal-setting methodology, which anyone can succumb to, and likewise, anyone can repair.

Just what the doctor ordered

Dr. Randy Paterson is a Vancouver based clinical psychologist and psychology lecturer.  One of his public lectures is called Achieving Your Vision: Goal-setting in Real Life.  I attended this lecture on May 25, 2010, and took seven-and-a-half pages of notes.

When it comes to setting goals, Dr. Paterson makes the distinction between “immediate goals” and “ultimate goals”.  He says,

Ultimate goals are a challenge.  They are made up of a series of steps we’re 95% certain we can do, although we don’t need to know all of the steps at the start, or at any stage along the way.  Steps should feel small and idiotic – borderline anxiety-producing in how insignificant they feel.

In other words, “ultimate goals” are the big things on our to-do and/or bucket lists – the life changes we want to achieve of the magnitude that often comes to mind when we name our New Year’s Resolutions: lose weight; write a novel; travel more; find love; get one’s finances under control.  Ultimate goals are daunting, amorphous, and overwhelming in their complexity, both conceptually and in their unplanned execution.

“Immediate goals”, meanwhile, are the “steps” mentioned in the quote above.  Written mathematically, immediate and ultimate goals are related as follows:

Immediate goal(1) + Immediate goal(2) + Immediate goal(3) + … + Immediate goal(n) = Ultimate goal

This is to say, rather than just grab an ultimate goal by the horns and try to tackle it cowboy-style, it needs to be roped down and broken apart into its component parts, each of which is dealt with in turn.

Step by step, day by day

According to Dr. Paterson, unlike ultimate goals, which require many steps, immediate goals require only a single step of usually less than an hour’s worth of work.

As mentioned above, immediate goals should be almost insultingly simple to accomplish and feel like very little work at all.  This is how one creates a manageable pace that ensures (assuming a sufficient base level of commitment) regular progress on the ultimate goal.

I personally make a point of carrying out at least one immediate goal a day every day, which amounts to a very unintimidating 60 minutes or less of daily effort.

To work on an immediate goal, one must have on hand all the necessary equipment/resources (e.g. the running shoes for losing weight; the computer to write that novel; the weekly budget for controlling one’s finances).  Otherwise, there’s another, even more immediate immediate goal that needs to be set.

SMART folk need not fear failure

While ultimate goals can be lofty and inchoate, immediate goals need to be well-defined and SMART.  Dr. Paterson makes a few notable amendment to the typical Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely criteria that I personally think make for more effective goal-setting:

  • M = “my own”: they can’t depend upon anyone else (i.e. a goal to get someone else to do something) or involve anything you don’t have control over
  • A = “action-oriented”: they should be to do something, not to feel or think something
  • R = “realistic”: they must have a clear and obvious finish line – if not, you’ll never cross it

Related to this latter point, Dr. Paterson goes on to say that success doesn’t improve your motivation unless you pay attention to your success – that you can only tell you’ve made progress by looking behind you rather than keeping your eye on the proverbial prize.

Two other important points he makes: One is regarding failure: the idea that the only way it can be truly avoided is through not trying, and that to overcome the fear of failure, what you must actually do is overcome what failure means to you, i.e. to re-examine the explanations we ascribe to failure, and what we consciously or subconsciously believe it says about us as a person.

Dr. Paterson’s final point is a reminder that no matter how worthwhile your ultimate goals may be, no goal is attractive 100% of time, and thus waiting around until you feel “inspired” to do the work is a recipe for both misery and inaction.

In place of inspiration at the outset, he instead prescribes doing what you’ll be glad to have done after the fact, which, if you’re keeping your immediate goals simple enough, should trade off minimal effort for continued forward motion on your ultimate goal until the goal is eventually attained.

Be it resolved for 2013

In the past, I’ve usually only set one large goal as my New Year’s Resolution.  But I’m feeling ambition this year (or otherwise just have a lot of shit I need to get done), so I’ve come up with six.  My ultimate goals for 2013 (for some of which I will discuss the when’s, wherefores, and how’s in future posts) are as follows:

  1. Read 12 books
  2. Be more active/engage more with Twitter
  3. Complete the first draft of my novel-in-progress
  4. Research and decide upon some career professional development/upgrading
  5. Keep better track of and claim all of my overtime hours at work
  6. Keep a monthly record of accomplishments and noteworthy events in my life to review at the end of the year

What are your ultimate goals for 2013?

(Image source)

5 thoughts on “Be It Resolved: Goal-setting for Success

  1. I have a definitive goal of writing at least the first draft of a novel and a vague goal of making more money, because lack of revenue is holding me back from accomplishing a few other things that demand some investment.


  2. This is an amazing post, Janna. I love Dr. Paterson’s way of thinking. It always amazes me when I hear friends say, ‘Okay – I’m going to write a best-seller’. Hmmm – that’s not an easy thing to do. First you have to commit yourself to putting aside some time every day to work on a novel and then you need to give yourself at least 12 months writing/editing/sending out for review before you can definitively sit back and relax (and even then, you’re not guaranteed a single thing). Writing a best-seller is never an ‘immediate’ goal. My usual advice is to tell them to write something they really want to write for the simple joy of ‘writing’. Okay, they look at me as if I’m nuts (and they’re probably right!)

    I’m rambling on a bit here – but it’s so important to separate the immediate goals from the ultimate goals. If we don’t do this we usually end up throwing our hands in the air and giving up! I love your ultimate goals for 2013 because they are so achievable and make a lot of sense.

    Very best of luck! 😀

    My goal is to get the house up and then I can think and plan from that moment on 😉


    • Thanks, Dianne. It’s a simple thing, really, Dr. Paterson’s notion of looking at a large goal as the sum of a series of smaller goals, yet it was almost a transcendent experience when I first heard his lecture. I’ve since come to realize that goals in and of themselves are as useless as ideas are in and of themselves – that it’s the accompanying plan where the real magic happens. I’ll be working on the plans for my six ultimate goals all this week.

      I know you’re already hard at work on getting your house up, so I have no doubt you’ll find success in that goal. 🙂


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