How To Set Realistic Goals

Updated July 5, 2022

It's important to set goals to be successful. But just setting goals doesn't guarantee success—setting goals is only one part of a process that can lead you to success. Setting goals is key to planning, executing a plan, staying motivated and ultimately evaluating your success. In this article, we review the process for setting realistic goals and provide some example goals.

Related: What Are Business Goals? Definition, How To Set Business Goals and Examples

What is a realistic goal?

A realistic goal is one that you can reach given your current mindset, motivation level, timeframe, skills and abilities. Realistic goals help you identify not only what you want but also what you can achieve.

Why it's important to set realistic goals

When you examine your goals carefully to make sure each goal is realistically achievable, you increase your chances for success, whether at home, at school or in the workplace. Setting realistic goals maximizes your time and resources, and helps keep you motivated. Setting and achieving realistic goals also helps boost your self-esteem.

Related: 10 Educational Goal Examples

How to set realistic goals

Here are six tips for setting realistic goals:

1. Write down your goals

The simple act of writing down a goal is the first step toward achieving it. Written goals help you analyze your expectations. It's possible that the goals you had in mind need further clarification once you write them down. If your goals as written don't match the goals you imagined for yourself, regroup and try again.

2. Take inventory of resources and threats

Achieving goals relies on having the resources you need and overcoming the obstacles you face. Make an inventory of the things you have access to that can help you achieve your goals and the circumstances which may impede your success. These include:

  • Time: Determine how much time you have to reach your goals and whether the timeline is in your control. Make a list of other tasks potentially competing for your time while you're working toward your goals.

  • Motivation: Ask yourself whether you are committed to achieving your goals. Consider if your other commitments may conflict with working on your goals.

  • Information: Make sure you have all the knowledge you need to reach your goals. Research any topics you need to help you achieve your goals.

  • Training: Take inventory of the skills you possess to reach your goals. Undergo further training to help you meet your goals.

  • Funding: Assess whether you have the monetary assets you need to achieve your goals. Find out if things are depleting the budget you need to reach your goals.

  • Support: Determine if you need any assistance in reaching your goals. If so, ask for help from someone who is in a position to support you in reaching your goals.

3. Reassess and adjust as necessary

Now that you've taken the time to write out your goals and to examine factors that help and hurt you on your journey to reach your goals, you can honestly reassess your goals and adjust them if necessary.

Example: If your goal is "I will establish a new company to provide creative services to pet-related retail stores" but you do not have the capital to launch your business, you could adjust your goal to be "I will put aside 30% of my pay for six months while I look for investors to help launch my new company."

4. Determine milestones

Since achieving goals is a process, you need milestones along the way to let you know whether you're on track. If you miss a milestone, you may need to modify your timeline. Milestones also help you see your goals in smaller segments, breaking down your tasks into manageable segments. It is much easier to follow sequential steps than to try to complete everything at once.

Example: If you anticipate your goal to take six months to achieve, set reminders for yourself to check your progress every three weeks. If you find yourself behind schedule at one of these check-ins, decide whether you need to adjust the timeline or adjust the steps you've planned to meet your goal.

5. Share your goals

When you tell someone else your goals, you are opening yourself to be held accountable for your actions along the way to achieving them. Colleagues, friends and family members are good resources for sharing your goals. Be sure to tell them that you appreciate their help to stay focused and that when they ask you “How's it going?” they are helping you remain on target to meet your goals.

6. Consider the SMART approach

If you need a more structured framework for setting realistic goals, consider using the SMART method. Two of the letters in the SMART acronym — A and R — are directly related to how realistic your goals are.

SMART goals meet these requirements:

  • Specific

  • Measurable

  • Attainable

  • Relevant

  • Time-based

    Read more: SMART Goals: Definition and Examples

Examples of realistic goals

Here are some examples illustrating the difference between unrealistic and realistic goals:

  • Unrealistic: I want to take over the sales department.

  • Realistic: I will earn a promotion to senior sales representative by meeting my quotas for three straight quarters per the company's career path guidelines.

  • Unrealistic: I want to end food insecurity.

  • Realistic: I will support my community's efforts to end hunger by volunteering for three hours a week at our local food bank.

  • Unrealistic: I'm going to increase our company's social media following by 500%.

  • Realistic: I will implement a new hashtag strategy in our social media platforms and measure the increase in followers every two weeks for the next quarter to evaluate its success.

  • Unrealistic: I'm going to be the best graphic designer ever.

  • Realistic: I will improve my design skills by completing additional design courses as a postgraduate.

  • Unrealistic: I want everyone in my department to love their jobs.

  • Realistic: I'll institute three new employee engagement activities this year, and survey everyone in the department after each one to gauge team morale.

  • Unrealistic: I want a 20% pay increase.

  • Realistic: I'm going to ask my manager to define the steps I need to take to ensure I get the maximum possible performance-related pay increase next year.

  • Unrealistic: I'm going to finish all my work early.

  • Realistic: I'm going to improve my time management skills by enrolling in my company's organizational development and learning program.

  • Unrealistic: I want to be better at managing my departmental budget.

  • Realistic: I am going to audit my department's expenditures, track our spending and analyze the numbers to see where we can save money in the next fiscal year.

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