Mastering realistic goals: strategies, tools & success tips


We often equate setting goals with success. While setting goals is one of the initial steps to achieving success, they must be realistic goals. 

When you set realistic goals that match your resources, previous experience, and skills, success becomes a tangible reality. Such goals also help you ward off stress and keep you motivated.

Today, we’ll talk about some of the best ways to set more realistic goals, what makes them so important, and the best goal-setting tools to help you with the process. 

What makes a goal realistic, and why is it so hard to do?

Setting realistic goals involves a delicate balance between ambition and practicality. You want to climb Mount Kilimanjaro within a day or two, but is it practical? How about settling with something more realistic, like a week? 

A goal becomes a “realistic goal” only when it’s humanly possible to achieve it within a specific timeframe and with given resources. 

To make a goal realistic, you should consider the following:

  • A timeline
  • Activities you need to complete
  • Resources you have available
  • Any other factors that may affect success

However, sometimes pinpointing the exact criteria for a realistic goal can be challenging due to external influences or the nature of the goal itself.

Another significant challenge in setting realistic goals stems from various cognitive biases. 

The Planning Fallacy, proposed by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, explains how we often underestimate the time, resources, and risk to achieve a goal. 

Optimism bias is another factor—we may not consider possible obstacles and setbacks before setting out to achieve something. And when faced with a challenge, we find ourselves unprepared and floundering. This phenomenon occurs because cognitive bias often leads us to assume we’re going to get a positive outcome, discounting the possibility of setbacks or a completely negative outcome.  

Take the Sydney Opera House, for instance. 

Projected for completion by 1963, the iconic performing arts center in Sydney, Australia, finally opened its doors in 1973. Initially budgeted at $7 million, the gap of an entire decade escalated the cost to $102 million.

Under-construction Sydney Opera House in 1966, three years beyond the initially set achievement goal (Source) 

This is the planning fallacy and optimism bias in action.

The Sydney Opera House project went awry because they didn’t factor in structural issues they faced down the road. This exponentially increased the project’s timeline and budget, both of which were too optimistic, reflecting the Planning Fallacy and Optimism Bias.

One way to overcome these biases is by envisioning the potential roadblocks you might face while achieving your goal. This means considering possible setbacks down the lane, including extra time, resources, and potential obstacles in your planning phase. 

Aside from internal factors, social and cultural norms also shape how we set our goals. Since the inception of social media, where everyone is trying to portray their achievements in the best light possible, this influence is more pronounced than ever. For example, we often find ourselves swayed by high-achieving social media creators who encourage unrealistic levels of productivity. 

It may appear like the norm, but before you set your goals around social and cultural norms, stop and consider whether it aligns with your capability and resources.  

Why is it important to stay realistic when setting goals?

Several psychological theories shed light on goal-setting and why it’s important to stay realistic. 

Locke and Latham’s Goal Setting Theory talks about the importance of setting clear, challenging, and specific goals to feel motivated and maximize your productivity.

However, the theory also states that while goals should be challenging enough to keep you motivated, they should also be realistic to avoid getting bogged down by unattainable objectives.

A Forbes Health survey found that the average New Year’s resolutions last 3.74 months. 8% of participants stick to their resolution for a month, and only 1% stick to it for twelve months. 

Not setting action-oriented goals is one of the biggest reasons for this low success rate. Unrealistic goals often lack a specific action plan, making them difficult to achieve. 

Let’s say you plan to cover two large projects within a week. Sure, you can—but do you have a roadmap to help you achieve this goal? It will remain unrealistic and often unachievable unless you back your goals with a clear action plan.

Here are some more crucial reasons to set realistic goals: 

  • Reduced stress and anxiety: When you set a goal for yourself and midway realize you won’t be able to achieve it, it’s naturally going to contribute to stress and anxiety. On the other hand, realistic goals that you can achieve smoothly will help you feel a sense of exhilaration. 
  • Better decision-making: Realistic goals help you make better decisions. They allow a clearer understanding of priorities, resource allocation, and the steps required to achieve the desired outcomes.
  • Enhanced focus and commitment: When goals are realistic, you’re more likely to stay committed till the end. With unattainable goals, you realize after a point you won’t be able to finish them, so you might end up abandoning them altogether.
  • Maintaining self-efficacy: Setting and achieving realistic goals boosts self-efficacy—the belief in one's ability to accomplish tasks. This belief positively impacts future goal-setting and performance, according to Albert Bandura's social cognitive theory.

5 Ways to set more realistic goals (with examples)

Break down big goals into smaller steps

Breaking down big goals into smaller, manageable steps helps you determine what you need to do in order to actually achieve them. 

For instance, rather than setting out to finish writing a novel within a month, you could set a daily goal to write a certain number of words. 

Or, let’s say you want to complete a project within three months. This is a large overarching goal. You could break it down into smaller milestones, weekly objectives, and daily tasks to make it more realistic and achievable. 

Here’s an example of how you can go about it: 

  • Define milestones: Divide the project timeline into milestones. For instance, Month 1 could focus on research and planning, Month 2 on execution, and Month 3 on review and adjustments.
  • Weekly objectives: You could further divide each milestone into smaller weekly objectives. For instance, in Week 1, gather project requirements and research potential strategies. In Week 2, create a detailed project plan and assign tasks. 
  • Daily tasks: Further break down weekly objectives into daily tasks. For instance, here’s how you can break down your official daily plan—on Monday, you could conduct stakeholder meetings, analyze gathered data on Tuesday, draft the project plan on Wednesday, delegate tasks to members on Thursday, and conduct a project kickoff meeting on Friday.

Tools like Sunsama make it simple to break massive goals down into more realistic, short-term goals. The digital daily planner offers weekly review and planning capabilities to help you set weekly goals and monitor progress. 

Sunsama weekly planning (Source)

For example, using Sunsama, you can schedule specific daily tasks and allocate time for meetings, research, and planning. You can also integrate these tasks into your day using the built-in calendar, allowing you to visualize benchmarks and maintain your workload. This helps you turn your erstwhile scattered tasks into well-structured, realistic goals while avoiding burnout.

Account for obstacles and plan for contingencies 

Not everything will go as planned. That’s why setting goals and anticipating obstacles go hand in hand. 

These obstacles could be a lack of motivation, running out of resources, market changes, or unexpected events like sudden health issues. 

Once you identify possible obstacles, the next step is to create contingency plans to address them. These plans involve alternative strategies or actions to overcome obstacles. 

When setting goals, you can use the WOOP method to account for obstacles and plan for contingencies beforehand. 

Developed by psychologist Gabriele Oettingen, the WOOP method stands for the following: 

  • Wish: Visualize the goal.
  • Outcome: Imagine the positive outcome.
  • Obstacle: Identify problems that may impede progress.
  • Plan: Make a specific plan to overcome those obstacles. 

This framework will help you set realistic goals by anticipating possible challenges and obstacles. Then, you can create a plan to address them in advance. 

Consider past experiences and resources 

When setting a goal, we often look toward the future to visualize what we want to achieve.  That said, it’s equally important to look into the history of your goal if it’s something you’ve set out to do before. 

Athletes often exemplify learning from past experiences to set more realistic and achievable goals for success in the present. Consider a runner aiming to improve their marathon time. They might analyze their past training schedules, nutrition plans, and race strategies to set realistic goals for improvement in the next race.

Scientifically, the adaptive learning theory supports this approach. It emphasizes that individuals learn from past experiences and adapt their behaviors and goals accordingly. 

Use the OKR framework  

The OKR (Objectives and Key Results) framework helps you set ambitious yet achievable goals and define key results that measure progress toward those goals.

Let’s say you have an objective to “Improve Customer Satisfaction,” with key results like "increase Net Promoter Score by 20 points" or "reduce customer support response time by 30%."

The framework first gained prominence when Google adopted it in its early stages. Google's co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, utilized OKRs to steer the company's growth. 

When in doubt, use the SMART method

If you’re feeling stuck in your goal-setting and nothing else seems to work, you can always rely on the “SMART” method to set realistic, time-based goals. 

For the uninitiated, the SMART method is a handy guideline that stands for: 

  • Specific: Your goal should be clear and convey precisely what you want to achieve. 
  • Measurable: Your goals shouldn’t be vague statements–you should be able to track and measure your progress. 
  • Achievable: Look at your resources and skills to see if they’re enough to achieve that goal. 
  • Relevant: Your goals should solve a purpose and align with your long-term, overarching objectives and values. 
  • Time-bound: A realistic goal should always have an endpoint in sight.
SMART goals (Source)

An example of a realistic “SMART” goal could be: “I want to save $6000 for my apartment’s down payment in one year.” 

This goal is not only SMART, but you can also break it down into smaller, manageable steps–such as saving $500 monthly. 

Goal-setting tools for achieving your goals 

Setting personal and professional goals requires more than just time management and ambitions. Sometimes, you also need assistance from the right goal-setting tools to feel a sense of purpose so that you can set and track your goals. 

Here are our top picks for the goal-setting tools to help you achieve your goals: 

Sunsama: best for daily and weekly goal-setting  

Sunsama is a new-age day planner that focuses on establishing work-life balance by helping busy professionals set realistic, measurable goals. 

It especially excels in daily and weekly goal-setting by encouraging you to break down your tasks into a step-by-step routine. 

It works by breaking down the daily planning ritual into five major steps: 

  1. Sunsama encourages you to reflect on your progress from the previous day. 
  2. Based on your previous workday and new plans, you can start adding new tasks from calendars, emails, and other integrations. 
  3. Arrange your tasks in terms of urgency and importance. You can schedule non-essential tasks for another day. 
  4. Finalize everything and add your tasks to the calendar. 
  5. Consider potential setbacks you might face and share this plan with your team members via Slack. 

This helps you create a roadmap for a focused and realistic workday.  

Additionally, built-in calendars help you bolster productivity through timeboxing and syncing tasks with your calendar.

Sunsama dashboard 

Trello: best for project management 

Trello is a Kanban-style project management tool that helps you create boards for different tasks and projects. 

It's highly visual, making it easy to organize tasks, set deadlines, assign tasks to different team members, and track progress. While not explicitly designed for goal-setting, its flexibility makes it adaptable for setting and monitoring various goals within projects.

Trello dashboard (Source: Trello)

Tally: Best for tracking personal goals 

Tally solely focuses on tracking personal goals and habits by helping you build and track habits based on daily, weekly, or monthly goals. 

The best part? Its simple user interface makes it easy to monitor progress and visualize trends over time. 

Tally user interface 

It's your turn to set realistic goals for success! 

Realistic goals aren’t merely milestones. They serve as your stepping stones to success without quitting projects midway or feeling frustrated chasing unrealistic deadlines. 

Setting attainable goals is crucial to avoid stress, make better decisions, and nurture commitment. 

We rely on tools and techniques to create such goals—breaking down long-term goals into smaller goals, planning for obstacles, and frameworks like OKRs and SMART goals. 

Goal-setting tools like Sunsama bring structure to our daily and weekly goals.

Ready to pave your path to success with realistic goals? Sign up for Sunsama's free trial to take it one step at a time.

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