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A dream without a plan is just a wish. Here's how to get into the right headspace to help set achievable goals and make them happen.

This article originally appeared on Inspired Investor on August 5, 2022.

Once you have a goal in mind, whether it’s switching careers or building a nest egg, how can you stay on track to reach it? We asked Amy Deacon, a social worker in Toronto and CEO of Toronto Wellness Counselling, how to get into the right headspace to help set achievable goals and make them happen.

“Goals aren’t linear, and there are always hiccups along the way. We’re going to make mistakes and it’s going to be okay,” she says.

Build a reservoir of energy

Save and replenish your energy, because burnout continues to affect many of us. It can be hard to focus on goals when you already feel like you’re pushing several boulders up a hill. But Deacon says that our ability to focus hinges on something simple: a good rest.

“You can’t start to set goals when you’re still in the thick of burnout or if you’re feeling overwhelmed or overworked,” she says. “You have to have gas in your tank.” It may be tempting to hammer away as you set your sights on multiple tasks, but she recommends a reset before planning your agenda. Consider taking time to explore in nature, or committing to the kind of long walks that can clear your head. Being well-rested can lead to productivity — and that applies not only to the workplace, but also to reaching your personal goals.

Your goals should reflect who you are today

The world feels very different right now — but it’s likely not just the world that’s feeling different. We might not be the same people we were three years ago, due to shifting priorities and goals. “Our lives might have changed but, because we’re creatures of habit, we might try to chase down the same things,” says Deacon.

It can be challenging to accept that you may need to head in a different direction rather than remaining on autopilot. But taking a pause to recalibrate is important. “You have to ask, is this still serving me in the same way it was three months ago?” Deacon recommends reassessing goals every quarter — not just progress, but also priorities.

The power of small habits

In addition to revisiting goals, Deacon says it’s important not to underestimate the power of habits—however small they are. She points to a 2018 book called Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. In that book, author James Clear argues that success in life is often built on incremental changes. From saving goals to language acquisition and weight loss, Clear says it takes time for habits to translate into concrete results. He compares incremental habitual change to “the compound interest of self-improvement.”

“Improving by one per cent isn’t particularly notable — sometimes it isn’t even noticeable — but it can be far more meaningful, especially in the long run,” he writes in the book.

Getting into the habit of using simple financial strategies, such as dollar-cost averaging, can help you ease into investments slowly while reducing your exposure to risk.

Think about the sacrifices you’re willing to make

Life is full of tradeoffs, even if we are sometimes tempted by the idea that we can have it all. Making the changes required to accomplish a big goal isn’t always comfortable or easy. Deacon suggests framing things as essential and extra. “We need food, shelter and connections, but there’s a lot of things we don’t need,” she says, noting that some people have cancelled their streaming subscriptions, for example, to reduce expenses. Assess the things that might be standing in your way. What parts of your monthly budget are you willing to cut so you can take that vacation you’ve been dreaming of? Where are you willing to spend less time so you can make more memories with your children or friends? “We can get tripped up by the idea of having something taken away from us, but it’s really about seeing the bigger picture.”

See goals as an incremental process, not an end result

Accomplishing goals is rarely about simply snapping your fingers, which is why they require both a plan and regular reassessment. “Any goal is best done bite by bite, step by step,” says Deacon. She recommends focusing on what’s specific, measurable and attainable. If your goal is better physical fitness, what does that translate into on a daily or weekly basis? “You have to get nuanced about your goals.” Deacon says the physical act of writing things down — your plan, your progress — can force you to pay attention and connect with the process.

When it comes to your finances, one way to keep on track is to set up pre-authorized contributions to an investment account. This ensures that you’re making steady and significant progress towards your long-term saving goals without making emotional money decisions.

Push through the discomfort

After the last two years of anxiety, grief and confusion, you might not want to hear about the importance of letting discomfort sink in. But Deacon says that’s exactly what you need to do to push through the moments when you feel stuck and are tempted to give up. “Hardships, especially when connected to our goals, are not meant to break us, but to fortify us,” she says. It’s an opportunity to build your resilience, and to demonstrate your ability to get back up again. The pandemic has been full of stories of people who turned loss into opportunity or used a stressful moment to gain a new perspective — whether that meant finding a new career, refocusing on close relationships or getting back in touch with your inner voice.