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How to set realistic goals: 11 tips to reach the clouds with your feet on the ground

August 3, 2022 - 17 min read


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What are goals?

Why is it important to set realistic goals?

How to set realistic goals

How to set achievable work goals

10 examples of realistic goals

5 questions you should ask yourself before setting goals

8 skills required for goal setting

Moving forward: 5 values you should have for goal setting

Whether you realize it or not, you’ve had goals your entire life. When you were younger, you wanted to learn to ride a bike. As you aged, perhaps you had a dream of learning how to drive a car. After that, you wanted to be a Formula One driver. Then it hit you that you had no idea how to get from where you were to anywhere near that goal.

For some goals, like playing professional sports, it is not possible for many of us to achieve that. It might sound like a downer, but it isn’t. Achieving satisfaction and happiness begins with learning how to set realistic goals that inspire.

When we set goals, we need to brainstorm and take them seriously. They need to be attainable and achievable. But most importantly, we need to learn how to put in the work to achieve our realistic goals and why we’re devoting our focus to them in the first place. Let’s begin.

What are goals?

Goals are something that we put our effort toward achieving. They’re whatever we’re aiming to accomplish. Goals motivate us to work on our mental, financial, emotional, and physical well-being. They help us focus our actions on something specific and organize a plan. 

Goals fall into a wide variety of categories. Our professional goals can be things like working toward a promotion, learning new skills, or becoming better at networking. Personal goals can be exercising more or reading a certain number of books a year. Financial goals might mean saving to buy our first house, and physical goals might be running a marathon. 

Maybe you have a career goal of being an entrepreneur. Or you have a personal goal of traveling around the world. Goals are what will spark passion, excitement, new skills, and drive into your life. But you need to know how to work toward your goals and set reasonable ones if you really want to succeed.

Short-term vs. long-term goals

An important part of setting realistic goals is determining their scope. Some of our goals might carry a sense of urgency, like buying concert tickets before they sell out, whereas others are something we want to achieve down the road. Devoting our efforts toward long-term goals that don’t offer instant gratification helps pave the way for a more meaningful life

But short-term goals aren’t bad, and we need smaller goals to make our dreams come true. We can’t expect to be hired as a senior employee right out of college. Instead, we must take the smaller steps required to reach our end goal.

Why is it important to set realistic goals?

Setting realistic goals is in everyone’s best interest. Nobody knows the future, and we don’t know how our needs and aspirations will change over time. Adaptability teaches us that we don’t have to abandon our plans when circumstances change. And in a world filled with such uncertainty, adaptability is key.

Realistic goals are flexible and adaptable. Revising our action plans and adapting to new circumstances helps us continue to reach our goals. When things don’t go exactly as you planned, you’ll rely on your grit, agency, hope, and ability to navigate uncertainty to get you through it.

Studies have also shown that students are more likely to meet their goals if they approach them optimistically. Keeping a growth mindset will keep you successful.

Some people wonder why goals should be realistic, and then they become disappointed when they don’t reach their goals in their desired timeframe. A great example of this is New Year’s resolutions. If someone is hoping to lose 10lbs, learn Spanish, get promoted, and go vegetarian, they’re asking too much of themselves.

It’s easy to see why people grow frustrated and give up. The focus should be on building smaller habits or skills that will accomplish these lofty goals — like building a workout routine, enrolling in a beginner Spanish course, and trying to be a better leader.

Unattainable goals often end with failure, which can increase plenty of self-critical thoughts and poor self-esteem. Continuously setting unattainable goals can lead people to quit without trying to adapt to change. But if they had manageable goals, their time and energy could have been put toward something truly achievable. 

Manageable goals and accomplishments can boost our positive feelings and encourage us to keep setting new goals. This keeps optimism high and boosts self-esteem. These unrealistic goals happen when we don’t plan out our lives and stem from more automatic thoughts. Having a plan is crucial for achieving the goals you set.

BetterUp can help you stay organized, focused, and ready to adapt to whatever changes come your way as you develop your plan to reach your goals.


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How to set realistic goals

Learning how to set goals and achieve them may sound easy, but there’s more to it than just having your goals in mind. If you’re struggling to set long-term goals right now, take a step back and think about realistic goals you can accomplish in the meantime that can help you get there. 

Review these 11 tips that will help you learn how to set achievable goals for yourself:

  1. Figure out an organizational template that works best for you
  2. Brainstorm how your goals can be measurable
  3. Believe in yourself and your abilities
  4. Make sure you’re setting SMART goals
  5. Work your goals into your future plans
  6. Gather the resources and supplies you need to succeed
  7. Don’t be afraid to readjust your goals if need be
  8. Keep your goals aligned with your values in life
  9. Mark when you’ll want to check in with your progress
  10. Establish a time frame for your goals that’s also realistic
  11. Create a vision board or visualize your dream future to make sure you’re moving forward


How to set achievable work goals

The goals you set for your personal life may require different needs than the ones you want to achieve in your professional life. Learning how to set achievable work goals sets the tone for the rest of our careers. It helps us map out where we want to be and our professional goals to help us achieve. 

The best way to set goals for your team is to brainstorm together. Talk to one another and figure out what everyone’s skills are, what they hope to achieve, and how they plan to contribute their skills. 

If you’re finding it hard to establish work goals for yourself, here are some tips to help you:

  • Share your goals with your team members or mentors for support
  • Establish a rough estimate of when you want to achieve certain aspects of your goals
  • Don’t view failure or challenges as a sign to quit
  • Research your ideas so that you’re knowledgeable about the goal
  • Ensure you have all the necessary training and skills needed to take on your goals


10 examples of realistic goals

Realistic goals come in all shapes and sizes. They can be work goals, personal goals, and everywhere in between. Your goals could be something you work on with someone else, or they could be something very individually focused. They should be specific goals with a clear plan in mind wherever they are directed.

To get you thinking, here are 10 examples of what some realistic goals can look like:

  1. Setting boundaries with your coworkers 
  2. Working on your time management skills
  3. Spending more time prioritizing your mental health
  4. Learning new skills at work to help you earn a promotion
  5. Supporting your community’s food bank
  6. Developing new social media optimization strategies for your work
  7. Improving your graphic design skills
  8. Encouraging your team members to work more collaboratively
  9. Staying on top of your financial budget each month
  10. Improving your communication skills in professional and personal settings

5 questions you should ask yourself before setting goals

Before setting your goals, find a comfortable place and sit down with yourself. Figure out your vision for your goals and think about any obstacles you foresee. This thinking will help you develop a plan and prepare for the work required to achieve your goals.

James Clear is an author and speaker focused on decision-making and continuous improvement. He gave a talk about what he calls Atomic Habits,” and it emphasizes the importance of having a plan.

According to Clear, everyone wants a rapid transformation and quick success, but that just doesn’t happen. And when people think they lack motivation, what they’re really lacking is clarity. Clarity helps people establish a plan for achieving any goals.

To help you find some clarity, here are five questions that follow the SMART goal structure:

  1. Specific: What is it that you’d exactly like to do?
  2. Measurable: How will you know that you’ve accomplished your goals and you’re satisfied?
  3. Achievable: Is this a realistic goal or not?
  4. Relevant: How relevant is this goal to your values, future plans, and what’s important in your life?
  5. Timely: When do you want to achieve this goal? What time frame will you give yourself?


8 skills required for goal setting

Anyone can set goals, but it helps to be equipped with specific skills. They help make the process smooth and stay on track. Goal setting isn’t easy. But having these skills can help you move past the challenges you may face.

Don’t fret if you aren’t entirely comfortable and confident with these skills either, because they can always turn into your goals and something to work toward.

Here are eight skills you’d benefit from having when you set your goals:

  1. Visualization and a healthy imagination
  2. Mental clarity to think realistically
  3. Organization to keep your actions clear
  4. Self-motivation to help you want to set your goals
  5. Efficient use of time management for your actions
  6. Flexibility to adapt to sudden changes
  7. Self-regulation to manage your emotions
  8. Focus and the ability to commit to long-term projects


Moving forward: 5 values you should have for goal setting

Foundational research on goal setting has found five important values that we should keep in mind as we work toward achieving our goals. Without them, you’ll struggle to stay on course toward achieving your goals, even if you know they’re realistic. 

As you begin your work on accomplishing your goals, make sure that your plan sets you up to succeed. Here are the five values to remember as you work toward learning how to set realistic goals:

  1. Commitment: You have to be committed to your goal, or else why put in all this hard work and effort? When your commitment wavers, remind yourself of why you set this goal in the first place.
  2. Clarity: Your goal needs to be crystal clear. If you’re confused, you won’t be able to chart a path that will make your effort worth it. Take your time identifying your goals initially, and make sure you have plenty of clarity.
  3. Challenge: Facing challenges isn’t the end of the world. Overcoming them can be a great learning opportunity, but understanding when a challenge is too big for you at the moment can help you save your energy and efforts for a better time.
  4. Complexity: Think about how complex your goal is. Do you need to go back to school for more certifications? Do you need to take time away from work or change your lifestyle? Your goal can be realistic but complex at the same time.
  5. Feedback: Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback. Your friends, loved ones, or professional network could offer some great advice that could help steer you in a better direction.

If you need some direction with your goal setting, consider meeting with a BetterUp coach. They can help you define a path that’s action-packed and attainable for you as you work to achieve your goals.

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Published August 3, 2022

Elizabeth Perry

Content Marketing Manager, ACC

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