What Is a “Realistic” Goal?

For those who read last week’s blog, you may have noticed that I marked the term “realistic” in a list of qualities a goal should have with an asterisk. Quick review, here is that list again:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic*
  • Timely

This is not a list of my own invention, and that led me to question that penultimate quality. What is a realistic goal? And how does it differ from an achievable one?

The other three qualities are pretty uncontroversial in my mind. Vague goals are hopes, so a goal needs to be specific. A goal with no means of being measured is by definition vague, because there is no way of having a victory condition. Therefore, goals must be measurable. And with the last one, I just think of the adage, “A goal is a dream with a deadline.” What of achievability and realism, though?

First, I found an analog to “achievable” that stated “attainable.” I won’t pretend to know just yet which one was the original phrasing, but both embody the notion of being able to gain something. In this case, the “gain” is the goal, and the notion as I understand it is that of working together with Timeliness. Say you have a twelve-month goal. The goal in question should have an associated task list that roughly fits with that time frame. This is the problem with a New Year’s Resolution to lose 60 pounds by summer. You would have to have a lot of weight to lose before this would be a healthy pace for weight loss, and so the goal’s achievability/attainability is dubious at best. Why? Not because losing 60 pounds is impossible, but because it’s probably going to take longer than six months.

So, that is how we might differentiate “achievable” from “realistic.” Realistic doesn’t pay heed to timeframe, but rather situation. It’s tough, though, because “realistic” often gets mentally subbed out for “safe” in most people’s minds. But I’m not talking about a goal that is conservative and easily won, here. If the goal doesn’t excite you and feel like a stretch, you stand little chance of attaining it.

I tend to measure the realism of a goal more in terms of its ability to be broken down into action steps and what must be true in order for each action step to be doable by you. A big goal that you can’t turn into smaller sub-goals is likely unrealistic, because there is evidence in that difficulty that you do not yet understand enough about how that big idea works in order to execute it. A year-long weight loss plan can be broken down into the eating and exercise goals for each day, which makes it a realistic goal insofar as the eating and exercise goals for each day are realistic.

This ability to break things down is one attribute, I would contend, that all realistic goals share and few unrealistic goals have. So, if your goal has this attribute, we’re likely on the right track as far as fulfilling the “R” of a “SMART” goals approach. Indeed, an unrealistic goal that can be broken down in this way likely has one or more sub-goals that are plainly impossible. So I tend to think of this as a useful tool for gauging the realism of your goals, without succumbing to the temptation to make your goals safe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *