How to Achieve Your Goals (This Simple Trick Makes Progress Easy)

In the last 6 months, I’ve experimented with a simple strategy that has improved my work and my health.

Using this one basic idea, I have made consistent progress on my goals every single week without incredible doses of willpower or remarkable motivation.

Today, I want to share how I use this strategy and how you can apply it to your own life to improve your health and your work.

The Problem with How We Usually Set Goals

If you’re anything like the typical human, then you have dreams and goals in your life. In fact, there are probably many things — large and small — that you would like to accomplish.

That’s great, but there is one common mistake we often make when it comes to setting goals. (I know I’ve committed this error many times myself.)

The problem is this: we set a deadline, but not a schedule.

We focus on the end goal that we want to achieve and the deadline we want to do it by. We say things like, “I want to lose 20 pounds by the summer” or “I want to add 50 pounds to my bench press in the next 12 weeks.”

The problem with this is that if we don’t magically hit the arbitrary timeline that we set in the beginning, then we feel like a failure … even if we are better off than we were at the start. The end result, sadly, is that we often give up if we don’t reach our goal by the initial deadline.

I’ve mentioned this idea multiple times before. For example, in making the mistake of putting performance goals before your identity or in choosing life–changing transformations over daily lifestyle choices.

Here’s the good news: there’s a better way and it’s simple.

The Power of Setting a Schedule, Not a Deadline

In my experience, a better way to approach your goals is to set a schedule to operate by rather than a deadline to perform by.

Instead of giving yourself a deadline to accomplish a particular goal by (and then feeling like a failure if you don’t achieve it), you should choose a goal that is important to you and then set a schedule to work towards it consistently.

That might not sound like a big shift, but it is.

How to Achieve Your Goals: The Idea in Practice

Most of the time, I try to be a practitioner of my ideas and not just someone who shares their opinion, so allow me to explain this strategy by using two real examples from my own life.

Example 1: Writing

As you know, I publish a new article every Monday and Thursday. Since my first article on November 12, 2012, I’ve never missed a scheduled date. Sometimes the article is shorter than expected, sometimes it’s not as compelling as I had hoped, and sometimes it’s not as useful as it could be … but it gets out to the world and into your inbox.

The results of this simple schedule have been amazing. Our little community has grown, seemingly without effort. We now have over 1,100 people (welcome friends!) who are committed to living a healthy life and who are actively supporting one another. Onwards to 5,000 strong!

Related: If you’re a new reader, you can find out what it’s all about and join us for free here.

Imagine if I had set a deadline for myself instead, like “get 1,000 subscribers in 12 weeks.” There’s no way I would have written every Monday and Thursday and if I didn’t reach my goal, then I would have felt like a failure.

Instead, we are slowly building one of the most incredible communities online. (By the way, thank you for all of the emails, tweets, and messages on fat loss, lifting weights, living longer, and forming better habits. Keep them coming! I’m always happy to get your questions and I’ll do my best to help however I can.)

Example 2: Exercise

Back in August, I decided that I wanted to do 100 pushups in a row with strict form. When I tried it the first time, I only got 36.

In the past, I might have set a deadline for myself: “Do 100 pushups by December 31st.”

Instead, I decided to set a schedule for my workouts. I started doing pushup workouts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. So far, the only workouts I’ve missed were on long travel days from this trip in Istanbul and this trip in San Francisco.

I have no total pushup goal for any single workout. The goal is simply to do the workout. Just like I have no goal for any single article that I write. The goal is to publish the article.

The result, of course, is that after doing 77 pushup workouts I’ve made a lot of progress. If you’re interested, you can see every workout here.

Focus on the Practice, Not the Performance

Do you see how the two examples above are different than most goals we set for ourselves?

In both cases (writing and exercise), I made consistent progress towards my goals not by setting a deadline for my performance, but by sticking to a schedule.

Productive and successful people practice the things that are important to them on a consistent basis. The best weightlifters are in the gym at the same time every week. The best writers are sitting down at the keyboard every day. And this same principle applies to the best leaders, parents, managers, musicians, and doctors.

The strange thing is that for top performers, it’s not about the performance, it’s about the continual practice.

The focus is on doing the action, not on achieving X goal by a certain date.

The schedule is your friend. You can’t predict when you’ll have a stroke of genius and write a moving story, paint a beautiful portrait, or make an incredible picture, but the schedule can make sure that you’re working when that stroke of genius happens.

You can’t predict when your body feels like setting a new personal record, but the schedule can make sure that you’re in the gym whether you feel like it or not.

It’s about practicing the craft, not performing at a certain level. (We’re talking about practice. Not a game, not a game. Practice.)

If you want to be the type of person who accomplishes things on a consistent basis, then give yourself a schedule to follow, not a deadline to race towards.

25 Comments

  1. Great post, James. I’ve been thinking a lot about this as well. I’m finding it’s helping me a ton to see whether my goals are realistic or not by setting a schedule. The schedule will show you how much work you have to do to hit any goal.

    The other benefit I’ve found to setting a schedule is that it makes it much harder to overbook yourself. As long as you put the schedules you have into a central place like a calendar, it’s hard to take on too much at once. If all you have is a list of goals, how do you know how much time each requires? Not knowing and probably not have enough time for each is unnecessarily stressful.

    Do you include a hopeful deadline or no deadlines at all?

    • Good point with regards to the calendar, Ross. We often shoot ourselves in the foot by not scheduling time to actually do the things that we say are important to us.

      To answer your question, some things require deadlines, but I find that more general life goals are better off without them.

      If you’re running a conference, you have to pick a date. That’s your deadline.

      But for getting in shape or creating better work or building a better relationship — those things aren’t events that happen once, they are ways that you want to live your life. For those things, I find it’s better to operate on a schedule and not a deadline.

  2. Seems to me that this great idea combined with asking “What is the next action step?” would be a great combo. This variation would be for goals where doing the same thing 3 times a week (e.g. going to the gym) isn’t quite right (e.g. completing planning for a dream trip). I’m a new reader and I am energized by your down-to-earth philosophy and your writing style.

    • Nancy — first, welcome to the community. I’m glad you took the time to say hello as a new reader. I think you’ll love it here.

      And your question is a good one. I love how you’re focused on taking action rather than just brainstorming about the possibilities.

  3. I really like this way of thinking about goals. Another way to say it: dream up a big goal, and then parcel it out into small, achievable, incremental milestones. You can wrap your mind around those, and each is something you can realistically envision tackling. Set a schedule to hit each of those. Taken collectively, they add up to a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

    Another analogy is taking bites that you can chew. No one looks at a Chipotle burrito and tries to take it all down at once. But are they happy at each successive stage of the burrito takedown process? Damn right (at least this is true for me).

    Many great achievers have remarked when looking back on their accomplishments that they were never consciously driving towards some big lofty goal. They just took one day and week at a time, executed dutifully and well, and were astonished to see what they had done when they took time to reflect.

    • My main man — you raise a great point. The people who are often achieving the greatest things aren’t the ones dreaming about how great their vision is. It’s the people who are executing on their craft every single day.

  4. A fantastic message, James! After a bit, you learn to love the practice. I have set times to write, to practice guitar, to exercise, etc. Otherwise, my practice would be sporadic, making deadlines pure nonsense. Well, off to practice, man.

    • It takes something that’s hard to quantify (work ethic) and makes it more tangible, so it makes sense that it gained popularity. But if you want to become great, I don’t think the rule changes how you act on a daily basis.

      The people who are becoming experts aren’t thinking about how they have completed 3,640 hours of 10,000. They are focused entirely on executing on their craft today. Furthermore, your expertise in a particular craft will be dependent on all sorts of factors (your learning ability, your interest, the instruction you receive, etc.), so I don’t think the number 10,000 has any real bearing on your particular experience. Why measure your progress based on a number that was chosen with someone else in mind?

      I think the most important reminder that Gladwell provides is that to become good at something you need to work hard at it for a long time. The greatest achievers are singularly focused on their craft (often to their detriment elsewhere). There is no finish line for these people, no “10,000 hours” that they will get to and declare themselves an expert. There is only the next time they get to compete, to play, to practice, to create. That’s what their focused on.

  5. Agreed on this. It’s really more about making the process of development a part of your repeated daily routine. Success through consistency. When someone like Gladwell writes a “rule” it’s easy to take it as law…but you have to remember we are all individuals and our success isn’t calculated by a scoreboard.

    I wish it were that easy though.

  6. This article came at the right time. Last week when I saw that I have to many goals to accomplish I told my self that I should make a schedule and that’s what I did. That way I feel that I can accomplish whatever I want to and I see that my goals are much more attainable. Consistency is the key to success.

  7. You are so spot on here, James.

    “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” Steven King

    One of my favorite quotes, as it pertains to any habit. As well as being a writer, I am a musician. Building the habit of daily practice is paramount to success. There is no other way.

    So glad I came across your site.

  8. Thank you so much for sharing this idea and the examples from your own experience. Based on your post, I do feel that sticking with a schedule is indeed more encouraging compared to expecting an end goal. I’ll surely keep this in mind from now on. Do you have any advice on how to get back on your feet just in case you miss the schedule? Sometimes I find it hard to get back to my schedule after getting sick or dealing with unexpected events. Thanks and more power! :)

  9. Great article and I just wanted to share with you and others some things that worked for me that go along with your article.

    It’s funny how you talk about setting a schedule as I do this now when running long distance. My longest distance is a 52 mile trail run. People always ask two things when I say this: The first is always WHY and the second is HOW then followed by some explicit comment. The why is harder to answer as it is really subjective: it gives me peace as it clears my mind of the crazy times we leave in while others might say “they like to push themselves”. The why to me is enjoyment and on to the second part the how. I am a firm believer that you have to first visualize yourself finishing or pushing yourself to complete your goal. Now 52 miles is a long way and when you think about it as a whole it’s far (yes, I know it really is), but I broke it down into simple components: ok, it’s two marathons and I have run one before so I can just keep on going (one foot in front of the other). My goals were: to finish, but really I had several mini goals during my run. I would say “if I can just make it to that stop sign 100 yards from here I am that much closer” and when I got there I would say “ok, that wasn’t so bad”. Before you know it I was setting literally hundreds of mini goals and I crossed the finish line 11 hrs later.

    I apply this “goal thinking” to many things in life and it has worked for me. As Mr. Clear says the main focus should be to stick to a schedule/routine and keep at it. Overtime you will reach your goal. People seem to forget that slow progress is STILL PROGRESS.

    Great article.

  10. I just found your site today and subscribed. Enjoyed this article. I recently institute a schedule, about two months ago, for my fiction writing. I work full time in fairly physically and mentally demanding job, and just didn’t see how I would ever make it as a writer. Something amazing has happened since I started on the schedule. My output and quality has more than quadrupled. The action of knowing I will sit down and write seems to make the actual writing that much easier. It’s not if I feel like it or the rest of life is good. I just sit down and give myself permission to fail at writing for the next 90 minutes, but I will be in the chair.

    Ninety percent of the time, I don’t fail. And I’ve written more in the past 60 days than I did in the past two years.

    Thanks for this post. I look forward to reading more.

  11. James,

    Great post… What you have to say here is absolutely true and I can base it on my experience. As a 20 year old online marketer, I’ve set various goals for myself in the past… but have never been successful in achieving them. Financially, I would make enough money each month to pay off for my expenses and then some more (due to work-related momentum that builds). But I never made the money I wanted. I continued to struggle.

    I wanted to be fitter, healthier, richer and everything else. Got nowhere.

    Then I made the realization that I was not going to achieve any of my goals unless I focus on my behaviors. So I thought about all the goals I needed to achieve and created an INSANE daily schedule that I needed to follow. (June 2012)

    The schedule involved 1.5 hours of fitness training (weights + cardio), 10 hours of work, 3 hours of reading and just 4 hours of sleep and ZERO entertainment. It was intense… and too overwhelming, I failed every single day for the next 5 months or so.

    I did get something right – I was focussing on changing my behavior and not on the outcome directly. Working and achieving behaviorial goals was the key.

    Then I realized that such kind of performance was NOT going to come off all of a sudden. It’s something that’s gradually built up. About the same time… I needed to make more money than ever before and I naturally performed well, got more clients and made more $$$ responsibly.

    But I lost the balance that I was trying to create. No scheduling and stuff. There was no work-life balance and I was ONLY reacting to my clients. I was making money… but I really didn’t enjoy what I was doing. (Feb 13 – April 13)

    I took a vacation, did all sorts of things but it didn’t help. (May 13). And then, I made my decision to hire a life coach.

    I hired a life coach and we’ve been measuring and monitoring my each and every day for the last 12 weeks. I started off with simple goals:

    - Work 10 hours a day on my business
    - Wake up at 5 am or earlier each and every day
    - Exercise 3 times a week (gym… but first start running and get into the rut before joining the gym).

    How did it fare?

    Well… I’ve not achieved any of these goals (i.e. built a habit of). I’ve achieved them for a couple of days in the past 12 weeks.

    Anyone from the outside would easily say that the coaching couldn’t have been valuable. But to me, I have to attest that it gave me so much feedback on my daily activities.

    I came to the conclusion that one of the main causes of my lack of self-discipline was not:
    - Lack of motivation
    - Lack of direction
    - Lack of will power

    Rather, it was the lack of proper scheduled sleep for 8 hours each and every night. We need 8 hours of sleep each and every night. (Some do well with just 6 but it depends on the individual).

    For me, I think a minimum of 8 is required. 8 hours of each sleep means I needed to go to bed by 9 Pm (which is another behavior I’m trying to create right now).

    Getting 8 hours of sleep each night enabled me to accomplish everything else with ease. The night I gave myself 8 hours of sleep and woke up at 5 am… Here’s what happened:

    - Completed my running session just the way I wanted (to the fullest without giving up) which gave more confidence. The same you’re suggesting in the weight training post (http://jamesclear.com/why-lift-weights)

    Truth is… any form of physical exertion gives you the confidence boost mentally.

    As soon as the running was complete, I was VERY sure that each and every task on my to-do list for that day would be complete.

    And it was… (although it did take longer – I wanted to finish all of my work for that day by 3 Pm but I finished by 6 Pm).

    - Completed my work tasks for the day to the fullest.

    Right now, I am only able to work about 5 hours a day. My goal is to get to 8 – 10 hours of focused, concentrated work daily (Mon-Sat).

    With the secret of sleep and it’s effects on will power, waking up at 5 am and completing my running routine dutifully, I am confident that I will achieve my goals eventually.

    My time scheduling will IMPROVE as the days go by.

    Thanks,
    Harry

    PS: Sleep is crucial for habit building and behaviorial changes because there is a relation between sleep and will power (food and blood glucose levels as well).

    I’d like you to make a post on the topic to educate some of our other readers. Let me know if you’d like some research data (The book on Will Power by John Tierney and Ray Baumeister gives great info).

  12. Nice post. I believe you’re mixing goals and habits. Habits are all about schedules. Good habits lead you to reaching your goals and preserving the benefits of achieving them. Besides, we are really poor at estimating when and what we might achieving from following a certain strategy for the first time. I am definitely for forming and sticking with good habits.
    Peace

    • Fair point Ramon. I could have worded that better. And I definitely agree that habits are what take us to our goals. Thanks for reading!

  13. It’s a great article specially the idea to focus in practice the goal instead of thinking in performance of that goal. Good Job.

Leave a comment Share your knowledge and experience.