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13 Steps to Take to Achieve Your Goals This Year

How to Set Realistic Expectations, According to Therapists

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Having goals and setting expectations and intentions for yourself can be so helpful and needed for both personal and professional growth. The goals we have for ourselves can help guide us in our day-to-day lives and give us something to work toward. They can also provide motivation to keep going and create a game plan for yourself.

But have you ever wondered if the expectations or goals that you've set for yourself are actually helping you? Are they serving you and helping you grow? Or are they unrealistic, setting you up not for success but for failure? Did you set these goals just because they're what others expect of you?

If you have some doubt about any of the above, then it might be time to rethink the expectations and intentions for yourself.

How to Set Realistic Expectations, According to Therapists

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As I'm writing this, we're at the beginning of a new year: 2021. And after the year we had in 2020, a lot of us are looking to this year to really turn things around. Many, myself included, have very high hopes for 2021. But I wondered if the expectations I had for the year and for myself were too lofty or if I was naïvely putting all of my eggs into one basket, as they say.

Just because it's a new year doesn't mean all of our problems are completely erased. COVID-19 is still raging. The problems of racial and social injustice have not been solved overnight. The economy didn't start surging the moment the clock struck midnight on January 1.

How to Set Realistic Expectations, According to Therapists

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Psychotherapist, certified life coach, and public speaker Tess Brigham, MFT, BCC, helped me put it into perspective. "We have to be realistic with ourselves about the challenges that lay ahead, but at the same time, it is a new year and a chance to change in some way," she says. "Suffering is subjective, and so much of how 2021 will be for you is based on how you choose to see this year ahead. The best way to reconcile and address these mixed emotions is to focus on what is within your control and what is outside of your control. If you want a fresh start in 2021, focus on the things that are within your control and start making those changes." Brigham says you can feel hopeless and believe that change isn't possible when you focus on things that you can't control.

If you're feeling overwhelmed with the beginning of the year and so exhausted from the previous year, Jordan Madison, LCMFT, creator of Therapy Is My JAM says the best thing to do is hone in on hope. "Of course, everything did not change once the clock struck midnight on January 1," she says. "Hope doesn't mean that you believe the problems go away, but it does allow you to believe things can get better. Use the fresh start to focus on how we can take the lessons learned in 2020 and apply them to 2021 so that this year is not a repeat of the last. Even if hard times lie ahead, we've already gotten through 2020, which was a rough year for most of us. Let that remind you of your resilience."

How to Set Realistic Expectations, According to Therapists

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With all of the above in mind, you might be questioning your own goals, expectations, and intentions, whether you set them at the start of this year or have had them for a while. You might also be wondering how you can set realistic and helpful priorities going forward. And you probably want to know how to achieve those goals once you have them set. Here's what the experts recommend.

1. Take a Look at Your Life

How to Set Realistic Expectations, According to Therapists

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To start, Brigham suggests taking stock of your life at the moment. "What's working and not working? What do you want more of? What do you want less of?" she says. "Once you've taken a look at your current life, determine what you want to be different this time next year. What do you want for your career, love life, friendships, health, money? From there, you can start creating goals around how much you want to save each month or how many friends you want to reach out to each week."

2. Be Specific

How to Set Realistic Expectations, According to Therapists

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Madison says one common mistake people make when setting goals is making vague ones instead of specific ones. So really drill down what your intentions and expectations are. "An important detail is to visualize your goals and the steps that you will take to get there—what does my goal look like? If you can't visualize or describe it, it may be too vague," adds Sage Grazer, LCSW, co-founder and chief clinical officer of Frame.

3. Break Down Your Goals

How to Set Realistic Expectations, According to Therapists

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Small steps can help you get to the place you want to be, and they might even make things easier. "Start by understanding your goal(s) and identifying what is the overarching goal and what are the smaller, digestible goals that will lead you there," Grazer says. "One way to approach this is to write down your goal and then break it down into as many small steps as you can."

With the smaller goals, you can even feel more accomplished and celebrate the little wins once they're complete.

4. Be Realistic

How to Set Realistic Expectations, According to Therapists

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Madison recommends being honest with yourself and honest about your capabilities. You can still challenge yourself, but you shouldn't feel forced to set unrealistically high standards. "I usually urge people to try and always keep their expectations low," Brigham adds. "This doesn't mean you shouldn't have goals and go after them. This also doesn't mean you shouldn't have standards for how you want to be treated or have boundaries. Expectations are our beliefs about what should or should not happen, and many times, that's out of our control. Expectations are about the future and what may or may not happen, and when you focus on the future, you can't be present in the moment."

5. Set a Road Map

How to Set Realistic Expectations, According to Therapists

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Get organized and create a game plan for yourself. Write a timeline down if it helps. "Since I'm a Passion Planner ambassador, I have been using mine as a way to set intentions and goals for the New Year," Madison says. "However, Passion Planner also has free downloadable road maps, and I have been using those to help my clients set their intentions for the New Year. The road map allows them to think of what they want to accomplish within the next three months, one year, three years, and their lifetime. It also allows you space to focus on the goals that would have the most impact on you and then make a plan on how you will accomplish them." (If you want to purchase one, you can get 10% off with Madison's code JORDAN10.)

6. Focus on the Process

How to Set Realistic Expectations, According to Therapists

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There's that saying that goes, "It's about the journey, not the destination," and there's a lot of truth to that. Brigham says one way to stay positive and hopeful, especially in 2021, is to focus on the everyday actions you're taking toward accomplishing your goals.

"Good things will come, and definitely celebrate when things go your way, but when things don't go your way, that's okay, too," she says. "You really want to put all of your energy and excitement into the process of achieving your goals as well as how you feel during and after you've completed that task. We get stuck on associating 'success' with the outcome of our goals. The problem is the outcome is out of our control, which means we're determining if we're successful based on something we don't have complete control over."

7. Understand Your "Why"

How to Set Realistic Expectations, According to Therapists

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If you have a strong "why" behind your goal, then that will help you stay focused and motivated, Brigham says. Why do you want to look for a new job? Why do you want to work out more? Why do you want to strengthen your relationships?

8. Be Flexible

How to Set Realistic Expectations, According to Therapists

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As with any journey, there will probably be some bumps in the road. The trick is to not let them get you down or throw you completely off course. "The more clear you are on your 'why,' the easier it will be for you to stay flexible with your goals," Brigham says. "While your goals need to stay solid, how you reach your goals should always be flexible. People who are committed to something and have a strong reason why they are so committed are always able to find ways to achieve what they need to achieve in any kind of situation."

Madison says you shouldn't get too attached to the timeline and to instead focus more on the outcome: "That way, you remain focused on what it is you want but don't feel pressured to make it happen by a certain time."

9. Hold Yourself Accountable

How to Set Realistic Expectations, According to Therapists

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There are a couple of ways to keep yourself in check and hold yourself accountable. Create a habit tracker or something visual that will remind you of your goals. Set up reward systems for yourself. Write down your goals and priorities.

This is where peer pressure is actually a good thing—by enlisting accountability buddies, they can help provide motivation. "Set yourself up for success by surrounding yourself with people who support you and your goals," Grazer says. "It's much harder to kick-start that healthy diet when your partner is keeping all of your favorite junk foods in the house."

10. Be Kind to Yourself

How to Set Realistic Expectations, According to Therapists

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Along the way, it's important to show some self-compassion, especially if you experience a setback. "Be forgiving with yourself. It is very unlikely that beating yourself up or negative self-talk will make you feel more motivated to get back on track," Grazer says.

11. Don't Try to Change Others

How to Set Realistic Expectations, According to Therapists

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If one of your goals involves others, like strengthening your relationships, it's important to keep in mind that you can't control the actions of others. "Realize you can change any relationship by simply changing how you respond to that person, but it will take time, and you can't expect the other people to respond exactly how you want them to all the time. If you want to have a stronger relationship with your partner, then you've got to remember you've decided to make this change, not your partner, so don't focus on them. Focus on your behavior."

Madison adds that you want to be mindful that the other person is going through their own experiences. "So their reactions or behavior may not be a reflection on you as well. Focus on being gentle and on what you can control," she says.

12. Remember, It Doesn't Have to Be All-or-Nothing

How to Set Realistic Expectations, According to Therapists

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"Another major way to self-sabotage is 'all-or-nothing thinking'—this is why many people give up their goals or resolutions so quickly," Grazer says. "People often get into a mindset that is all-or-nothing and feel that they might as well go all in on the cheat day rather than recognize a small setback before getting back on track."

13. Know It's Okay to Change Your Mind

How to Set Realistic Expectations, According to Therapists

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When thinking about the journey to get to your goal, you'll want to consider if it's going to serve you and won't come at a big cost. "If you create a goal of 'I want millions of dollars' but the road to get those millions of dollars includes you working at a job you hate, long hours, sacrificing family and friends, and never having any fun, then are the millions of dollars worth you giving up five, 10, 15 years of your life?" Brigham asks.

You can set those goals, but try to make the journey worthwhile, too. And if it doesn't feel right, it's okay to change course. "If you start down the path toward a goal and realize it's not working for you any longer, you can change it up. What's always most important is how you want to feel day in and day out," Brigham adds.

Next up: 11 Very Realistic Health and Fitness Resolutions That You Can Be Happy About

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