You Got This!

How to Set Realistic Goals

A 8 minute read from Amber Shand

“New year, new me”

Yes, it’s that time of the year where we tend to reflect on our goals and what we want to achieve for the new year. If you’re anything like me, you may tend to have an overwhelming list of goals in a bid to overhaul your life and then progressively lose momentum as time goes on.

If you go too hard too soon with your goals, for example, setting out to work out intensely five times a week when you’ve barely been doing 500 steps a day for the past two months, you may find the initial jump too big and unsustainable, then give up. If we’re going to set goals, they can be challenging, but we need to make them achievable and break them down into smaller, more manageable steps.

Start with why

This phrase has been made famous by Simon Sinek, and he suggests that we should start with why we’re making an action, then how, then what. He talks about it in the context of business leaders, but it can also be applied to how we set our goals.

As an example, I may want to create a goal to start working out consistently, and my “why” is because I want to feel energised, clear headed and stronger. That leads me to “how”, which could be by starting to exercise at least 30 minutes a day. Finally, my “what” which could be strength training, yoga, and walks.

Also, knowing why you’ve set out your goal can help you to push on when things get tough. Being consistent, pushing yourself against limiting beliefs, and showing up is challenging. Remembering why you’re doing it in the first place can be the thing that keeps you going.

How to make your goals (or not)

There are a few different ways to create a goal. One way is a concept known as “SMART” goals which are: specific, manageable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.

  1. Specific: This is all about addressing “what” you want to accomplish. For example, “I want to practice more mindfulness” is not specific, but “I want to meditate for five minutes for the next three months” is specific
  2. Measurable: Being able to track your progress will be a key indicator of knowing that you have achieved your goal. For example, “I want to swim twenty-five metres in twenty seconds”.
  3. Achievable: As we mentioned before, sometimes we want to run before we can walk. Sometimes setting a goal of being able to run a marathon in six weeks with no prior running experience is a stretch goal, but “I want to run a 5km in eight weeks” may be more achievable.
  4. Relevant: Does your goal contribute to your values and wants? For example, setting out a goal to become the next professional swimmer, may not be relevant if you dislike the use of chemicals in pools or hate swimming.
  5. Time-Bound: Set out a time frame to achieve your goal, such as “I want to save £500 a month for the next six months”.

However, from reading Atomic Habits by James Clear (as seen from the below excerpt), an interesting alternative emerges to the idea of setting goals. He argues that the results from his goal setting had less to do with the setting of the goal itself and more with the systems he followed. If you want to become a software engineer, your goal may be to learn how to code. Your system is testing how you best learn, practice, and build projects.

The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking. It’s not about any single accomplishment. It is about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement. Ultimately, it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.

Things aren’t black and white, and he isn’t saying that goals are completely useless. Instead, goals are a great way to set the direction to what you want to achieve, and systems are best for making progress and committing to the process.

Addressing fears when setting goals

Fear and self doubt have always been the greatest enemies of human potential.
- Brian Tracy

I’ve previously found myself not setting goals for things, in case I can’t fully commit, or because I figured I would feel bad about myself if I didn’t or couldn’t achieve it. I would protect myself from what seemed like inevitable disappointment, when the reality was that these doubts and fears were holding me back from living to my full potential.

If this sounds like something you are experiencing, it’s important to understand that these feelings are valid and it takes inner work to remove these fears and doubts that you may be experiencing. Some of the limiting beliefs may be easier to address and let go of, while some others may be more deep rooted that you potentially may not consciously know are there.

When you look at your goals and have decided that you’re willing and ready to commit to them, you need to be honest with yourself about the fears and doubts you may have about accomplishing said goals. Here are some questions that I tend to reflect on:

  • Am I playing it safe with this goal, or should I be dreaming bigger?
  • What impacts do I think this goal will have on me and the people around me? (Both the good and the bad things.)
  • Do I believe am I worthy of it?
  • Can I trust myself to stick with it?

These things take time to work through. The more you are aware of these thoughts, the more you’ll be able to challenge and manage them.

This is a marathon, not a sprint

In general, progress is not linear, and your “best” looks different every day. In a world full of the hackiest ways to get results quickly, you may find that in your pursuit to meet your goals that you don’t see results straight away.

Consciously I know that my goal to work out three times in a week is not going to result in me dropping 20 lbs, but secretly, I want to be at my goal weight in minimal time. The reality is that the results are often delayed and it can take months or years to see the results of the work we have done.

In Atomic Habits, James Clear describes this as a “valley of disappointment”, where people feel discouraged after putting in weeks and months of hard work without seeing any results. The work is not wasted, it’s being stored and in some cases, it isn’t until much later that we see the fruits of our labour.

The power of accountability

Accountability is the act of being responsible for something. In the case of goal setting, this means being held responsible for the goals that you set to achieve.

Studies have shown that you are more likely to achieve your goal when you share it with someone.

The act of accountability is a powerful tool in helping people to achieve their goals by providing motivation, tracking progress, staying focused, and making sure that you’re doing the things you set out to do.

You can share your goal with a friend, someone with similar goals, someone who has reached your goals and can act as a mentor - basically anyone that you trust, will support you and help you to stay on track.

Use the five second rule

No, this is not the five second rule where if you drop some food on the floor, you gauge whether it’s still good to eat if it hasn’t been there for more than five seconds.

The five second rule is a concept that has been coined by Mel Robbins as a technique to overcome self doubt and procrastination by counting down from five and taking action.

The 5 Second Rule is simple. If you have an instinct to act on a goal, you must physically move within 5 seconds or your brain will kill it. The moment you feel an instinct or a desire to act on a goal or a commitment, use the Rule.

When you feel yourself hesitate before doing something that you know you should do, count 5-4-3-2-1-GO and move towards action.

Setting realistic goals is an important aspect of effective goal-setting and can help you achieve success in various areas of your life. Realistic goals can be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound, and should take into account your current skills, resources, and constraints. You can also set goals, and decide to put greater emphasis on the building systems to commit to the process.

By setting realistic goals, you can increase your chances of success and feel more motivated and empowered as you work towards them. It's also important to be flexible and open to adjusting your goals as needed, as circumstances may change and your priorities may shift over time.

Ultimately, the key to setting and achieving realistic goals is to have a clear vision, and work out what way works best for you in reaching your goals.

Amber is an award-winning Frontend Engineer at Cybsafe, the co-host of the Glowing in Tech podcast showcasing black women in tech and writes a bi-weekly newsletter called Imposter Methods. Check out her website at

@amberleetech on Twitter