By Nashia Baker (Martha Stewart)
Whether you're working through a daily to-do list or creating a vision board for a specific part of your life, coming up with tangible, actionable goals can make your road to success that much smoother. Further, sorting your ambitions into short-term and long-term categories can allow you to focus your attention on the tasks directly in front of you—and might even boost your brain health along the way. Figuring out what these intentions look like and then setting and working towards them, however, can be a challenge. Ahead, you will find expert insight on how to make your own goals and how to stick to them for the long haul.
There are mind benefits to setting goals.
According to Andrea Marcellus, a life coach, personal trainer, and self-help author of The Way In ($25.99, target.com), setting learning- or activity-centric goals can pay off when it comes to brain health. "By having subjects you want to know more about (like Scandinavian travel), or skills you want to get better at (like cooking or tennis), we avoid thoughtless distraction or triggering images of mindless scrolling on our phones or too much TV binge-watching," she explains. "Instead, we activate our positive brain centers, allowing them to grow, and giving ourselves a chance to be in a childlike state of curiosity and wonder—the best antidote to the stress-inducing realities of adulthood." Plus, the expert notes that learning actually expands our minds and even releases serotonin (a "happy" hormone that helps us feel our best).
Identify and set short- and long-term plans of action.
In order to achieve your goals, its best to first assess what's happening in your life. Marcellus shares that beginning with tasks that you can accomplish on a short-term basis (perhaps within one week or one month), such as making breakfast in the morning or going for an evening walk, can help you establish and identify long-term goals for the future. "Short-term goals are actually the key to the achievement of long-term goals," she says. "Working to achieve long-term 'strive' goals gives you purpose and allows doors to open that otherwise wouldn't. But the mentality to stay on course with your strive goals comes form the short-term ones." She suggests making a list of short, 20-minute tasks; these are your short-term endeavors. "Small tasks require activation of our positive brain centers, which shuts off our anxiety center for a short period of time," the expert notes. "Achieving the task releases dopamine in your brain (one of your happy hormones), helping to further move your mood back to one of positive possibility."
Continue building from there to create long-term objectives. She suggests completing these within the next year since; this gives us more time to wrap our minds around the challenge, she says. "The proverbial five-year plan gives us too much space and time to 'get to it later' or 'when X,Y, or Z happens,'" she explains. "One year is long enough to give space, but short enough to create urgency so your goals don't get eternally put on the back burner." One of her best tips when approaching long-term goals? Dividing these types of goals in two categories: tasks to complete in the next year and other tasks you would complete if time and money weren't an object. This way, your passions should be covered by both categories. "Sometimes, people won't write their real passions or goals down because they seem so impractical," she says. "But it's the seemingly 'impractical' big-ticket pursuits and interests that really feed our souls. It's important to also have a few practical long-term goals, so that you will be more likely to move forward with them and not feel too overwhelmed to start."
Track your goals.
"Keeping a one-sheet with short, separate lists of goals above your desk or in your top drawer is the best way to keep track," Marcellus says of both short- and long-term ambitions. "Goals lists are better served when we put a check next to the goal indicating time spent, rather than thinking of checking items off," she says. "Also, your brain releases dopamine every time you mark your list, so be sure to put down lots of things that interest you, or short 20-minute tasks for giving yourself a boost of credit when you need a lift." Dr. Lepora Flournoy, SPHR, SHRM-SCP adds that many long-term goals can actually be lifetime attempts, so you don't have to stop at a certain point. She recommends maintaining the practice—and honoring it even when you've technically accomplished the goal.