On Monday I suggested that instead of resolutions, you should set goals for the new year — a subtle but important distinction. I also recommended that you keep your list of goals small and manageable. When you set too many goals, you can lose focus, and are more likely to miss your mark.

This year, I have three primary goals:

  1. To save a $10,000 emergency fund.
  2. To lose 40 pounds.
  3. To write a book about personal finance.

Can I do these? I don’t know. Each of them is a huge stretch, but I’ve had similar successes before. I repaid $35,000 in debt over the past three years. In 1997, I lost 42 pounds in six months. I’ve spent the past 21 months writing about personal finance every day. I know that achieving these goals is possible, but it’s going to take a lot of work. It’s going to require focus and dedication.

Breaking goals into pieces
When I think about the Big Picture — losing 40 pounds or saving $10,000 — it’s easy to get discouraged. I almost want to quit before I begin. Shirley left a comment the other day, though, that included a tip for coping with big goals: Break them into smaller pieces.

I think all of us could accomplish a lot more of our goals if we worked on them 15 minutes at a time. Seriously. When I do the 15 minutes route, I am amazed at what I actually get accomplished. I use a timer and I totally focus on what’s at hand, whether it be writing an article, getting in some walking, etc. For most activities, I stop at the end of 15 minutes and take a break or do something else, but if I am really rolling, I set the timer for another 15 minutes before taking a break. This idea sounds simplistic, but it makes a difference.

We all have a tendency to look at the entire task and get overwhelmed or think it must all be done as a non-stop progression of tasks…In reality, working on it a little bit each day will get you to the end goal more efficiently and most importantly, you do get there.

This is great advice. Instead of worrying about the 40 pounds I want to lose (or the $10,000 I want to save), I should focus on what I can do in the here-and-now to get a little closer to these goals. Here are two examples:

  • I don’t know how I’m going to find $10,000 to save by the end of the year. But I do know that since my debt is eliminated, I can take the money I was using to pay those bills each month and put it toward savings instead. By doing this, and by making a couple of sacrifices (no Super Smash Bros. Melee for the Wii), I can save $3,000 by the end of April. That’s my first step.
  • With fitness, especially, I get depressed when I think how much work needs to be done to reach my destination. Short-term goals prevent me from feeling overwhelmed. Right now, for example, I’m not even in shape to take a serious bike ride. I love cycling, so my short-term goal is to be able to ride for ten miles with ease, to be able to enjoy the experience.

By starting with smaller sub-goals, my larger goals are more achievable.

Pursuing secondary aims
Another commenter on Monday noted that pursuing only three goals seemed “weak”. I think three major goals at one time is plenty, but there’s no reason you can’t work on additional smaller projects. For example, during 2008 I also intend to:

Though I’m dedicated to each of these, they’re secondary objectives. I’ve spent most of my life as a “jack of all trades, master of none”, but I’m beginning to appreciate the results that can come from concentrated effort. This year, I want to see what happens when I limit myself to only three major goals, goals that I’m passionate about achieving.

This article is about Planning, Real-Life, Self-Improvement