Great Expectations

Setting Realistic Goals for 2020

Tuesday night brought an end to a rather tumultuous decade. For many people, the years between 2010 and 2019 passed in a blur. But with the stroke of Midnight, Wednesday surged forth to usher in a new year, and a new decade, and a new beginning.

New Beginnings have a magical effect on our psyche. The idea of a fresh start or a chance to begin again is something that, as human beings, we find desperately alluring and, at times, almost cathartic. Nothing inherently magical happens at the ticking of midnight as seconds bleed from one year to the next, but the psychological ramifications are very real and can be an amazing leg up if used to our advantage.

In a tradition as old as time, many of us have scribbled down a few well-meant goals, vague wishes, or firm self-imposed edicts. But creating those resolutions is a process that that is often paved with the best of intentions and, as a result, just as flawed as you might expect.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try. Making, and subsequently keeping, a promise to yourself is one of the hardest things you can do. It is also the most worthwhile. If you cannot be held accountable to yourself, you will be perpetually reliant on others to provide the motivation and structure needed to grow.

Knowing how to set realistic goals and expectations is a necessary life skill that is important for everyone.

For kids making their first attempts at resolutions to working adults struggling to find enough time in the day to take care of their careers, their relationships, and themselves, to retirees trying to make the most out of every moment.

Creating realistic goals is difficult. Following through on them day after day will ultimately be down to you. But knowing where to start? We can help with that.

*If you go through the steps below, and trust them in their entirety, it can help you create a realistic set of goals for the year to come.


Start from Scratch

Think you know what you want to set as your goals or resolutions for 2020? That’s great! Write them down, create a list on a piece of clean paper, and fold it in half…

Now burn it.

We all have preconceived ideas of what we want to do or accomplish which also means that, more than likely, you have preconceived ideas about how they are going to unfold based on your experience attempting them before. Which means you already have a bias, for good or for ill, which will influence your behavior.

Forget what you’ve done before. Forget what you think you want to do. Start from scratch and we’ll get there.

The 7-3 Rule

Human beings are not generally able to juggle more than 7 distinct items within their short term memories. It is a general principle of psychology known as “Millers Law”. On a practical level, this generally means that if you are trying to instigate changes in your everyday life, the same limits apply.

Now, this has nothing to do with the practicality of implementing 7 distinct changes to your life or routine but purely comes down to the simple task of memory as you try to juggle all 7.

Realistically, when it comes down to large sweeping changes, it is more helpful to look at our ability to concentrate on more than one subject at a time. Generally speaking, the Rule of 3 applies here.

This does not mean trying to do three things at once (ie. trying to read while doing elliptical while eating vegetables) but rather that we as humans are only able to prioritize a certain number (3) of things above everything else at any given time.

We are still not making our lists yet, but keep these two things in mind as you move forward because it will help to shape your goals into something more manageable.

The I-Beam Test

* I am failing in my due diligence here. This is an established practice by a motivational speaker who I have been unable to locate online. If anyone knows or can identify the person to give them proper credit, please list them in the comments below.

We once had a speaker in college who talked about identifying what was really important to you via something called ‘The I-Beam Test’. The basic premise was that, when offered a reward, you walked across a steel construction beam on the ground for say, ten bucks. Easy, right? As the beam was raised further off the ground, the reward increased. Two feet off the ground, twenty bucks. Ten feet off the ground, one hundred dollars. And so on and so forth. At a certain point, a thousand feet off the ground, there are very few things most people would be willing to cross that I-beam for. Even if you have crossed that very same I-beam a thousand times before without ever faltering. Even if it something that you are absolutely 100% sure you can do, the risk stops us from acting.

The challenge becomes this – at a thousand feet up, what would you cross the beam for? A thousand dollars? Nope. A million? Yeah, not happening. A hundred million? Mmmm… still thinking. So, what would you cross for?

Now let’s try this from a different angle. Parents, your child is dangling over the edge on the other side, about to fall at any moment. Are you even going to hesitate?

Most parents will be across that I-beam in a heartbeat without even questioning it.

That is what you are looking for. The things that, when it comes down to it, you would risk everything for. So really, what would make you cross the beam?

A lot of people will probably skip this step. It is hard and requires a level of self-honesty that makes most people uncomfortable. When you really sit down and evaluate what it is you would take that risk for, it can make you completely re-prioritize your life.

There was a man attending this speaker’s event some years ago who, months after the event, finally sat down and really thought about the I-beam test. He was working all the time to provide for his family and was progressing well in his career, but as a result, he never had time to spend with his wife or ten-year-old son. After examining his choices he took a step back at the company, came home early, helped his son every day with his homework, coached his soccer team, and even took his son on business trips with him, introducing the boy as his business partner. The time they spent together brought them closer together than he ever thought possible and he cherishes every moment.

Two years later the man’s son died of Leukemia. He wrote to the speaker shortly after the boy’s death to thank him for the memories and time he had with his son that otherwise, he never would have had.

I will say that if you choose to skip this step for your resolutions I understand. Evaluating your entire life is not the lighthearted tip or ‘life hack’ that many of you will have clicked the link for. But if you choose to actually sit down and put your goals to the I-beam test, it will completely change the way you think about your priorities.

Set General Goals

Remembering the 7-3 Rule, begin thinking of the kinds of overall goals you might like to aim for.

For most people, resolutions tend to fall into one of three categories; Health, Social, Career. There are other commonly reoccurring themes; traveling, trying new things, saving money. But most will fall into these general categories. Keep in mind the 7-3 Rule and, if you did it, the I-beam test.

For the sake of this exercise, we are going to use this general list of goals on the left. Some are specific to me, most are more general. I want to use a broad range of examples as we go through each of the following steps to turn them from General Goals to Actionable Resolutions. Your goals and ultimate plans may be completely different. And I advise not actually having this many. But in order to provide the broadest example, we will start here.


Be Specific, Be Realistic, Be Accountable, Be Honest

These aspects (specificity, reality, accountability, honesty) are what take the goals from our previous step and sharpen them into something actionable.


Be Specific

According to U.S. News and World Report, 80% of resolutions are abandoned by mid February. One of the most common reasons comes down to the general vagueness of the resolutions.

“Get out More” is a great goal. But because it is so vague it is also inherently harder to follow through on and a lot easier to let fall to the wayside. When trying to make a goal more specific there are 3 things to consider.

  • Parameters; what counts as going out? If you end up at the same sports bar three times a month would that count?
  • Solo or Squad; does this require other people or are you going alone? Doing things with other people can create more accountability, but also increases scheduling difficulties.
  • Timing; is this a once a week thing? Every Sunday? Or is there a minimum time for this, like exercising for 3 hours a week or meditating for 10 minutes a day? *Setting a schedule can also help you to determine if a goal is realistic and keep you accountable as the weeks and months go on.

“Go out and try something new with friends (or alone) at least once a week”. This is a lot better. It sets parameters, you can include suggestions of what to do or maybe a wish list of things you want to try, and it includes a self-imposed deadline (once a week). Additionally, because two of the resolutions were so vague, we were able to combine them, which makes it more likely that to follow through on both of them.

Be Realistic

Check that your goal is realistic in terms of time commitment, finance, and energy. In terms of the previous example, is it really reasonable to be able to go out every week?

Even if you’re just going to the neighborhood bar and grille, dinner a couple of drinks, and a tip can easily be $40 or more. Trying new experiences, attending classes, these things can easily become a daunting expense.

Will you have time/energy every week? Lots of us have more than one job, family, or other commitments that draw on our time and energy. What happens if you get sick? If you need to travel for work or family? Starting to make exceptions when things come up can make it easier to give yourself a free pass.

Be honest with yourself and your reality. Setting goals is great. But if they aren’t attainable you are only setting yourself up for failure. Adjust your goals to suit your reality.

Sometimes you will need to adjust your goals after you’ve started. Wanted to get fit so maybe you joined a gym or a club, but it isn’t working out? If you aren’t comfortable in a class, or if it is hurting your body in ways that are not just muscle fatigue you might be doing more harm than good. Don’t be afraid to adjust your method in order to achieve your underlying goals.

Be Accountable

At the beginning of this article, we discussed how a resolution is a promise that you are making to and for yourself. Even resolutions that you may make with others in mind (spend time with kids, be more present at home, call mom) are still yours and yours alone.

Knowing that you can say you are going to do something and that you will actually follow through with it is no small thing. Being accountable to yourself, first and foremost, is a hallmark of integrity and something that should never be underrated.

It is also really hard.

There is nothing wrong with needing to lean on someone else to start with. While the ultimate goal is to be self-sufficient in this matter, starting off with an accountability-buddy or using programs or apps to help is absolutely fine so long as it helps you to achieve your goal.

When you keep a promise to yourself, even with help, it is a powerful thing. And it is self-perpetuating. Being accountable to yourself gives you the power to set your own path and accomplish so much more than you might have been able to before.

Be Honest

None of this means anything if you aren’t honest with yourself. Resolutions are promises that you make to and for yourself, not others. As such, if you are being dishonest with yourself, the only person hurt is you.

We all tell little white lies here and there. Sometimes as a matter of social convention, sometimes to spare someone’s feelings. Lying to yourself fulfills the same functions. But lying to yourself also means you are the only one being hurt. And it works both ways.

Begging out of a workout because you are ‘too busy’? Trying to stick with a new routine that just isn’t working because ‘you just need to get used to it’? I would say ‘Be Honest with Yourself’, but that’s not enough. Instead, I would rather you learn to recognize when you are starting to lie and call yourself out on your bull.


Additional Tips and Tricks

Setting Gentle Goals can make it easier to stick with it. Instead of ‘Eat Healthy’, ‘Try and choose the healthier option’ or ‘make better food choices’. Setting firm rules is a great way to set yourself up for failure. ‘Breaking’ a diet or a new habit often leads to people going off the deep end and completely overdoing it, which makes it harder to get back on track. Go out with friends, order that burger- but maybe just skip the fries and the soda.

Having Accountability Buddies can be a great resource, but this is only as reliable as the buddy. If your ‘buddy’ is likely to waver or lose interest a few weeks in, it does you no favors and can actually make it harder to keep going yourself. Be honest about your buddy’s ability or willingness, or choose a group of people (online or IRL) to help keep you honest.

Know when to give yourself a break. Diets have cheat days. Plans get put on hold. Projects are abandoned and started from scratch. Knowing the difference between when something just isn’t working rather than if you just don’t want to do it is important here. We all have off days, but sometimes strategies need to be adjusted. Check-in regularly and just be honest with yourself.


For more on setting new habits, self-honesty, and accountability, check out This Video by Matt D’Avella. Seriously, he’s awesome. And so much time and work and research go into his videos to create a great platform for you to use in creating your own habits going into the new year.


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