Then, I had a wake-up call at my yearly check-up. My doctor asked how much I exercised in a week, and I realized how much time I spent sitting down at a desk. If I wanted to stay healthy, I would need to step it up—literally.
I’ve always been the type to keep track of goals, so I decided to create a simple system to boost my exercise. 70,000 steps a week seemed like a lofty goal—until I began tracking my daily activity with a digital step counter.
I couldn’t believe how drastically my activity levels increased. Understanding how active I’ve been is as simple as a quick glimpse at my wrist. If I lag behind, I receive an hourly notification reminding me how many steps I need to complete to stay on track.
Goal-tracking not only increased my activity levels, but also my energy levels and overall well-being. Now, I keep track of goals in other areas, like work, finances, and hobbies.
I like to think of goal-tracking as creating mile-markers. You’ll be more motivated to complete the journey when you know how much you’re already accomplishing. Plus, big goals seem less overwhelming when you break it down into smaller steps.
Want to keep track of your goals? Here are 5 strategies to do it effectively.
1. Visualize the “Chain”
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld popularized a goal-tracking concept called “don’t break the chain” (Develop Good Habits: Don’t Break the Chain: Jerry Seinfeld’s Advice on Sticking to a Habit)).
The idea is that every day you stay on track and work toward your goal, you mark the calendar (or your journal or whiteboard), and then you keep going until your goal is met. Your only job, according to Seinfeld, is not to break the chain.
Remember: One day’s success might not seem all that important. But people meet goals little by little, one small success at a time. By keeping your progress visible, you’ll gain motivation and build momentum toward the finish line.
It’s rumored Seinfeld used this system to meet his goal of practicing writing jokes every day, marking a large calendar with a big, red “X.” But you can use whatever system that makes sense for you.
Some people use graph-style journals to create their own goal-trackers. If you’re artsy, you can create a fancy bullet journal spread for your progress chain. To keep it simple, just grab a poster board and use Post-It notes, stickers, or a colorful marker to reflect your progress. Then, keep the progress chart somewhere motivating.
If your goal is to eat more nutritiously, hang a calendar in your kitchen. If you want to hone your graphic design skills, keep track in your workspace. If you’re not an analog person, then enlist the help of a dedicated app. There are plenty of goal-tracking apps on the market.
The only detail that matters is visibility. Without visible wins as your “mile markers,” you may start to feel lost on the journey, making you more likely to give up altogether.
2. Celebrate Your Wins
What’s the point of tracking your progress if you don’t even notice it? Once you start building your chain, don’t neglect to reflect on, and celebrate, each step towards your vision. Noting how far you’ve come (and, in turn, how little you have to go!) can be a major motivator toward whatever you’re aiming to accomplish as you learn how to keep track of goals.
When Harvard Business professor Teresa Amabile studied the daily habits of workers, she discovered making progress in meaningful work to be the most important component of motivation during the workday. According to her research, the more you experience a sense of progress, the more productive you’ll be on a long-term basis((Harvard Business Review: The Power of Small Wins))
Most of us don’t count “small wins.” We save the celebration when the end goal gets checked off the list. According to author Jocelyn Glei, that’s a problem: “Most of us make advances small and large every single day, but we fail to notice them because we lack a method for acknowledging our progress. This is a huge loss,” she writes((Jocelyn K. Glei: How to Feel Progress))
To feel more productive, and therefore be more productive, take time every day to celebrate how far you’ve made it. When you realize you’re a step closer than you were yesterday, you’ll be filled with fresh motivation for the rest of the process.
3. Create a Reward System
My fitness tracker sets me up for success with a simple, built-in feature. Every time I reach my goal for the day, the watch face explodes into a miniature celebration, complete with a disco ball.
It may sound silly, but this reward keeps me going. If I would have checked my fitness app to see I’d reached my daily step goal, I may have felt a sense of accomplishment. But a more tangible—and honestly, fun—incentive reminds me how good it feels to stay on track, and makes me want to get up and do it again tomorrow.
For some people, the rush of crossing something off the list (or in this case, marking the calendar with a nice, big “X”) is enough motivation to keep going. However, if building in your own rewards to your goal process will boost your inclination to keep going, then find a way to put a little “bait” in your line of sight.
Maybe you buy yourself something you’ve been eyeing if you stay on track for a month. Maybe after a week of daily walks, you order takeout from your favorite restaurant. Either way, the premise is to incentivize your progress. When you have something to look forward to besides the goal itself, you’ll be more likely to attain the goal.
4. Find an Accountability Buddy
Sometimes, self-motivation can only go so far—and you have to invite someone else into the process if you want to keep track of goals you’ve set.
By sharing your goals with someone else, you’re essentially making a commitment. You’ll be less likely to make excuses that derail you when you know someone is going to check in with your progress. That’s because having no progress to share feels like letting that person down, and it never feels good to disappoint someone. Plus, when you’re expecting someone to check in with you on a regular basis, you’ll have all the more reason to keep track of your goals.
Choose someone you trust, ideally someone who has similar goals or a shared perspective on success and growth, and invite them to check in with you on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. You may be surprised how much you achieve.
5. Start Every Day at Zero
You probably already know that breaking up your goals into smaller chunks—say, shrinking your monthly sales goal into daily metrics—makes them less intimidating and therefore less attainable. But there’s another psychological component involved.
When you start each day at “zero” instead of building on another number, you’ll more easily see where you started and where you are headed. The so-called “middle zone” of a large goal can feel nebulous and difficult to measure, which can result in wasted time and lost progress. Plus, feeling like you have 80% of the work ahead of you makes your daily contribution feel less important((Fast Company: 5 Ways You Can Figure Out How You’re Wasting Your Time)).
Starting at zero also boosts motivation through a phenomenon called the “fresh start effect.” You know how you’re so motivated to do new things at the start of a new year? The same principle applies when your FitBit resets at midnight or when you create a fresh to-do list in your notebook.
The brain registers “new days” as temporal landmarks, which are known to increase aspirational behavior by disrupting one’s daily routine((Management Science: The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behavior))
The good news is, you don’t have to wait for a new year or even a new week to start meeting (and tracking) your goals. Getting the motivation you need to move forward could be as easy as downloading a new app or buying a new journal. All you have to do is decide that today’s the day to start.
The Bottom Line
Learning how to keep track of goals can be a tricky process, but it can be made easier by incorporating a few simple tools and strategies. Find which one works best for you and your goals, and see where it takes you. You may find that your goals start taking care of themselves!