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How many goals should I set at once for personal development

How Many Goals Should I Set At Once? [Personal Development]

Julie Nguyen
Julie Nguyen
So many of us have set up too many goals only to find ourselves achieving few to none of them. It’s just hard to handle everything at once. We then realize that we should have fewer goals to focus on, but how few, exactly, to get things done?
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So many of us have set up too many goals only to find ourselves achieving few to none of them. It’s just hard to handle everything at once. We then realize that we should have fewer goals to focus on, but how few, exactly, to get things done?

You should focus on only one goal at a time - get it done and only then, move on to the next. With some prioritizing techniques below, you would soon be able to choose your next top goal.

First, Why One And Only?

How many goals to set at once is a question with various answers. One, three, four, five, seven, or it depends, different experts say. But through experience, I believe one is the number that guarantees success the most. Here’s why.

Juggling is an illusion - Multitasking is not productive

“Juggling is an illusion. To the casual observer, a juggler is juggling three balls at once. In reality, the balls are being independently caught and thrown in rapid succession. Catch, toss, catch, toss, catch, toss. One ball at a time. It’s what researchers refer to as ‘task switching.” - The One Thing, Gary Keller and Jay Papasan

Multitasking, contrary to common belief, doesn’t save time. It wastes time. The reason lies in what researchers called “task switching cost” - the time and attention lost by the distraction created each time you switch. As researcher David Meyer says, the time costs can range from 25 percent or less to well over 100 percent.

what could be a personal goal
Source: njlifehacks.com

Think of this on a macro level, with each of your goals as a task. Bear in mind that, along with the growth in the magnitude of the task, the time spent for the “task” must lengthen accordingly. Juggling multiple goals at a time might cost you too long a time investment without the certainty of return.

Goal translates into habit, and creating habit needs attention

We all know that goals are only the destinations. To get to these destinations, we must take action. How? Habits. 

Instead of being overwhelmed and feeling burned out by your ambitious goals, breaking down goals into smaller daily goals helps you feel more capable, and see how you are making progress. One more repetition of the habit, one more step you are closer to your destination.

be the best version of yourself, starting with Habits and habitify

You can read more about why habits are so important in achieving goals here or here

So, if you want to achieve something, you should set up a habit to work consistently, bit by bit, towards your goal. Unfortunately, this is where the pain comes in - we often find it hard to stay consistent when trying to create A new habit, let alone MULTIPLE ones.

goals setting is important for personal development
Image for illustration: Source

Sticking to several habits at once requires us to remember to do all of them, which is easier said than done. Common possible scenarios include:

  • Doing this one habit might take more time than you thought at first, so you have no time left for others. 
  • You get too excited doing this one, you keep doing it, and later realize you forgot to do the others.
  • You have perfect excuses (work, meetups, health problems, weather, relationship issues,...) ready to drag you away from your intended routine
  • You just get bored one day, and then the next day, and then the day after that,...

Focusing on one goal only prepares your brain better against distractions, and more importantly, facilitates the process of making repeated behavior into a routine. 

It means you would find it easier to go from having to put in a lot of conscious effort when first practicing a new habit, to performing the habit automatically without heavy willpower. This is key in developing habits, and goals need habits to be done.

SEE ALSO: when goal setting goes bad

So How To Find That One Goal?

It’s not easy to decide the top important goal for us, since we all want to improve different aspects of our lives. The thing is, I’m not suggesting that we pick one goal and abandon all those left. Again, it’s about paying attention to one thing AT A TIME, and another next time once you have accomplished the first one. 

Still, you have a starting point to decide. If you are like me, you probably have a small list of goals, waiting for some intense prioritization. Below are three helpful tips I have gathered from research and my own experience.

1. First, transform your to-do list into your success list

Goals represent our wishes and wants. However, they surely are not of equal importance. One tip to make prioritizing easier is: once you have put up a list of goals, go back on each item and decide whether it’s something that you “should do”, or just something that you “could do”.

what goals should i set for myself
Your goals should be prioritized | Source: njlifehacks.com

Your “should do” should align with your long term goals, rather than random energy strikes which result in the “could do” such as learning a new musical instrument or going on a cross country trip. I understand that you WANT to do it, but we are trying to prioritize what we NEED to do first.

Sometimes, there are indeed reasonable “could do” goals, but you need to evaluate their necessity in comparison with other items on the list. 

For example:

You could try to plan for your dream vacation this summer, but you should be saving for a new, more expensive rent that is 10 miles closer to the city center where you work.

You could spend more time at the weekend with your family and friends, but you should sign up for that weekend course you need for your upcoming promotion opportunity.

SEE ALSO: what makes goal setting so difficult

2. Next, make sure you are ready to take the pain

Mark Manson, a personal development expert, pointed out that having a goal is the easy part. The hard part is: how much pain you willingly take for that goal. If you want to lose weight, you had better leave little time for daydreaming on your perfect body, and much more time thinking about all the pain, the sweat, the diet, and all other kinds of trade-offs you have to make in order to get to that goal. Are you ready to take them all? 

If you truly want that goal, you have to want to pay its cost too. 

Elon Musk used to sleep under his desk and did not leave his factory for days when Tesla’s Model 3 was in production. Stephen King, while trying to pursue his first drafts, had to work multiple jobs and couldn’t even afford a telephone at home. 

The more pain you are willing to take, the more likely you are going to achieve the goal.

SEE ALSO: why goal setting is important for leaders

3. Finally, The Focus Question: decide your most impactful goal

To pick out the top one goal from your already refined list, you must learn yourself which goal, if achieved, leaves the greatest impact on your life.

In the book The one thing, Jay Papasan and Gary Keller highlighted a unique technique to figure out the one thing you need to focus on to get your life together - the Focusing Question. It goes like this:

What’s the ONE THING I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

For example:

If your goals are around improving your physical health to combat the idle office lifestyle, your goals list might look like: going to the gym, dieting, drinking more water, having better sleep,...

Then, you might notice that once you start gymming vigorously, you will automatically drink more water (exercising enhances your metabolism), you are likely to find dieting easier (you don’t want to waste your pain at the gym), and the healthy exhaustion of exercises will naturally force you to sleep on time and deeper.

what type of goals should i set
Setting goals which are most impactful | Image for illustration: Source

Or, if you have decided to spend your next year advancing your career, you might have a bunch of goals like: taking up more projects to prove your ability, better networking within your company and your field, learning new things everyday from books and courses. 

Once you get down to think about the connection between these goals, you should realize that it’s the networking one that makes the other two easier: good work relationships lead you to better projects, might even assist you in doing the projects, and suggest you trusted sources of learning that would save your time.

And what if you want improvements in both your health and your career? Do not forget that you are not eliminating anything, you’re just choosing to do one thing first before the other. Stay calm, take a look at your overall life planning, then your current context, and decide which goal should be done first to assist you in achieving the next. 

The focus question not only forces you to prioritize and focus on one goal but also directs you to be specific, in a way that you get to know both the most important thing to you in life AND in your current situation. It tell

In case you are curious to learn more about this unique technique, the mechanism behind it and how to apply it in your everyday life, reading the entire book would be best, or this book summary might help as well.
decide goals which are the most important for your personal development
Image for illustration: Source


In the end, “What often looks like a problem of goal setting is actually a problem of goal selection. What we really need is not bigger goals, but better focus.”, says James Clear. It’s best to just focus on one goal at a time, complete it, and only then move on to the next. When prioritizing goals, ask yourself the question: What is the ONE THING you could do, so that the others would be easier or unnecessary, then narrow down your list till you figure out that very first domino of your success chain.

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