How to Set Realistic Expectations While Working Toward a Goal

Goals keep life moving forward, but setting your expectations too high can hold you back and make you miserable. Be kind to yourself, and you’ll go further than you ever thought possible.

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Managing expectations is one of the hardest parts of life. From relationship expectations, to job expectations, to food expectations, we’re constantly forming expectations. Oftentimes, we set those expectations too high, especially when it comes to pursuing goals.

Having a goal keeps your life moving forward, but setting your expectations too high can quickly derail your efforts. If you expect more out of yourself than it’s possible to give, then you’ll likely find yourself disappointed. Instead of making a sprint toward the finish line, set targets that you can accomplish at a slower, sustainable pace. To set reasonable expectations, follow these five steps:

Step One: Narrow your focus to concrete goals. One of the most common pitfalls of goal setting is creating vague, idealistic goals. For example, “I want to be a writer,” “I want to have a better social life,” and “I want to lose weight” are all fuzzy, difficult to define goals. When it’s hard to define your goal, it’s much more difficult to reach it. Even if you do find yourself writing, going out more, or losing a bit of weight, how will you know when you’ve reached your goal? Does keeping a journal count? Is one night out a month enough? Does a five pound loss make you feel successful?

Clarify your intentions by narrowing your goals to the specifics of what you want to accomplish. These goals might be “I want to get paid for my writing,” “I want to go out every weekend,” or “I want to lose thirty pounds.” Specific goals will help you better understand what it is you want so that you can decide how to get there.

Step Two: Focus on the behaviors that will help you reach your goal. Instead of just setting goals and mini goals, focus on the behaviors that can get you there. For example, writing everyday, submitting to publications, and working with a critique group are all behaviors that can help you be successful as a writer. Focusing on these behaviors is a more reasonable expectation than just saying you want to publish a piece you’ve written.

Make a list of behaviors that can help reach your goal, then start to incorporate them into your life. Over time, they’ll become habits, and those habits can lead you to success.

Step Three: Consider all of the demands on your time before deciding how much work to put toward your goals. When you commit to reaching a goal, spending a few hours each day working toward it doesn’t seem unreasonable. Once you start trying to schedule it into your day, however, you’ll likely find that things start slipping off of your to-do list. Some of those things – like television or scrolling through social media – might not be missed, but when you find yourself without groceries or realize you haven’t worked out in a week, something will have to give. Usually, it’s your goal that gets pushed to the side.

Before committing yourself to a certain schedule, take a step back and remember that any meaningful accomplishment will take time and a lot of hard work. This isn’t new information, but sometimes it’s easy to forget that it applies to everyone. Personally, I’ve noticed that the people in my life who act like things just fell into place for them really just have a good attitude about the hard work it took to get there. There are no expedited paths to greatness.

Step Four: Focus on completing 20-30 minute tasks on a daily basis. Sure, you can accomplish way more in two hours a day than you can in twenty minutes; however, dedicating two hours every day toward a goal is unrealistic to almost everyone. After you fit in work, family, and a social life, most days you’re going to find yourself running short of time. Often, we push back our goals until conditions are perfect for our ideal view of how we should pursue them, but this is a mistake.

Over time, small tasks add up to huge accomplishments. Not only that, but some days you’ll find an extra pocket of bonus time to use toward your goals. Instead of feeling bad about days you can only do a minimal amount of work, you can feel great knowing that each day you’re living up to the goals you set for yourself.

Step Five: Don’t expect more of yourself than you would of others. One of my worst habits is expecting way more of myself than I would of anyone else. I’m always happy to cheer on others when they make the effort, or to encourage them to take time to rest when they’re exhausted or sick. When it comes to me, though, I’m a taskmaster. This behavior is counterproductive and can really bring you down.

When you find yourself thinking about all of the things you didn’t do, making a list of things you “should” do, or feeling like you haven’t accomplished enough, turn those thoughts around. Remind yourself of everything you have done – even if it’s not connected to your goal. Then ask yourself what you’d say to your best friend, sibling, or partner if they were in your place. It’s probably something a lot nicer than what you’re saying to yourself.

Goals keep life moving forward, but setting your expectations too high can hold you back and make you miserable. You’re doing your best to get to where you want to be, so don’t let the pressure you put on yourself be the thing that holds you back. Be kind to yourself, and you’ll go further than you ever thought possible.

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