Goal-Setting: A Matter of Focus

 Posts on goals

Wednesday morning as I read personal finance blog posts before going to work, I noticed a theme emerging. The beginning of one month always means another month has just ended, and people were assessing the progress they’d made in March – being accountable about the goals they’d set.

“Argh. Just no. I failed miserably on almost every front this month,” said Emily.

“I don’t want to talk about it and I’m so mad and disappointed in myself,” said Tonya.

It was easy for me to think, “Come on, Emily. Don’t be so hard on yourself.” And, “Tonya, try to focus on all that you’ve done so well!” But the truth is, their self-criticism resonated with me. You see, I made it my goal for March to give up sugar … And that lasted for about 10 days. I’ve been feeling a bit “Argh” and “so disappointed in myself” too.

What was going on here? Why so much sense of defeat?

Progress for long-term goal

I reflected upon my own disappointment, and I realized something: Giving up on sugar isn’t my main goal by a long shot. What is my main goal? Financial health – no question! My husband and I have been on a journey out of debt for almost 5 years now. That’s a L-O-N-G time! But look at what has happened since June of 2012:

  • $21,000 in consumer debt – GONE
  • $82,000 in business debt – GONE
  • mortgage in June 2012 = $155,000 / mortgage now = $79,000
  • emergency fund (to see us through 3-6 months without income) – FULL
  • investments – modestly growing

“month after month after month …”

I decided Wednesday morning, “When I write my post tonight, I will not focus on my sugar fail. I’ll focus on continued success for my main goal: our money makeover.” It’s hard to keep a sustained focus on one goal for so many years – but that’s how real change happens. It’s how real change is happening for us. It’s easy to lose sight of the overall picture and how it’s being impacted because after years of effort, it stops looking like encouraging progress and starts looking . . . regular.

Every month, our goal is to max out on our mortgage payment. (We can double it as a maximum.) Each  month, we have. Every month, our goal is to save a certain amount. Each month, we do. Every month, our goal is NOT to use debt to deal with unexpected expenses. Mission accomplished. And if it means doing without something saved and budgeted for – we do without it.

It’s important to remind ourselves of the victories that are repeated month after month after month … And it’s important to celebrate forward progress on a path – even when that path seems to go on endlessly. My sugar fail isn’t even close to the significance of what we do on an ongoing basis with our finances.

J.D. Roth on goals

Wednesday afternoon, I happened to see this tweet from J.D. Roth:

“Many people try to tackle several goals at once. You’ll get better results working on one thing at a time–”

The article he’d posted Tuesday, “The Power of Focus” speaks to what I believe is the sabotaging element for too many of us in our approach to goals. ” Instead of trying to change many things at once, I’ve learned to change only one thing at a time.” 

If you’re disappointed with yourself because you haven’t managed to meet one goal out of many – or because you’re trying to fix every area of your life at the same time – try to find your focus. Roth quotes Gary Keller’s book The One Thing: “What’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

I know what that one thing is for me. It’s the same thing that is was five years ago. I’m turning my money situation around. And it really is making so many other things in life easier. There’s more confidence in planning; more harmony in relationships; less stress from road bumps of the unexpected – which we have the capacity to absorb now. We’ve got great momentum. Now is not the time to switch gears or to let discouragement creep in. I’ll deal with sugar later. Now is the time to maintain the power of focus on this one thing – knowing that it will continue to ripple out to impact other areas of our life for the better.


Have you been letting yourself feel defeated? Is it possible that you have too many goals? Can you identify the one thing that deserves the power of your focus?


*Image courtesy of Max Pixel

22 comments on “Goal-Setting: A Matter of Focus

  1. This is so, so important! I too find myself often being discouraged by what we didn’t accomplish rather than what we did accomplish. It takes serious work to not let failure and negativity get you down. You’re doing great, Ruth. Keep it up!

    1. Thank you, Laurie. I really wonder where that leaning towards the negative comes from. Good to be aware of it and kick IT to the curb (along with debt : )

  2. I love the concept of the power of focus. Its really what struck me when I found Dave Ramsey. It was what we needed at the time. Just focus on paying off the debt. Often when we try and accomplish multiple things as once we fail at them all, because we spread ourselves too thin. That focus give us clarity, builds momentum, allows us to win, and carries us on to the next goal.

    1. I also got that “focused intensity” concept from Ramsey. But apparently I let it go a bit too much. Even in the pf bloggosphere, with so many different points of focus, it can be hard to stick to the plan Ramsey lays out. But that’s exactly where I’m going to keep my focus until this mortgage is gone. Thanks, Brian!

  3. When you have a big, long term goal, it really does require the majority of your focus. Even though I know I struggle with too many goals, I set out at the beginning of the year with several (and learn quickly it won’t work for me). What works for me is to focus most of my attention on the one big thing, and do the rest in moderation. This means the other goals are slow and sometimes I don’t work on them at all…and that’s okay (though I do have to remind myself of this).

    1. “focus most of my attention on the one big thing, and do the rest in moderation” – that’s a good way to approach other goals. The thing is to hold those lesser goals loosely enough so that they don’t have the power to usher in discouragement. Good point, Amanda!

  4. Great job meeting those goals! I try to practice little wins each day so I don’t feel defeated. Even if I eat out instead of eating at home (one of my goals), I still celebrate other little wins, like paying extra on our student loans. Gratitude goes a long way for being patient with long term goals.

    1. It’s really good to be aware of small victories along the way. At the beginning of our journey out of debt, we had to be very mindful of those small victories – because they were all we had. By this point, we look at our overall progress more than those daily victories – but I think we would be wise to go back to celebrating those “little wins”. Thanks, Mr.s PP : )

  5. I think it absolutely amazing what you have been able to accomplish financially Ruth! I have to say, at least to this gal here in California, you are super inspiring! 🙂

  6. Thanks for sharing, Ruth!

    And maybe I do need more focus, but maybe I’m also focusing on the wrong things? I feel very torn by SHOULD. I should live healthier…it impacts financially, emotionally, medically, etc. I should do good things…everyone wants to make a positive impact, right? Because not doing good things means you aren’t doing your share for your community. And there are dozens of other things that make sense, would improve my quality of life long term, and aren’t THAT hard.

    I think I’ve found my next blog topic.

    1. I am very interested in the concept (and truth) that by focusing on that one thing, you’re setting up for unforeseen positive ripple effects. You don’t need to work on everything directly. So much can be improved indirectly by the right, single focus. I look forward to seeing what your next blog topic will be, Emily : )

  7. I used to have a ton of goals at the same time, and it just really bogged me down at the time. Then I read this book that advocated what it called “the rule of 3”. Focus on 3 long term goals you want to achieve and set 3 daily goals/things that you want to get done each day. It definitely changed my life and gave clarity to my thinking. Today I’m focused on living a healthy lifestyle, growing my business, and having fun seeing the world.

    1. That’s a book I’ve heard of but haven’t read. Thanks for sharing its impact on you. I bet you find that your 3 goals end up supporting each other quite a bit, right? Thanks Troy : )

  8. Thank you for this post! You put your thoughts together on this most eloquently. I too tend to try for too many things all at once. In our work to get our finances where we want them I finally just focused on making my money go where I wanted. It has taken months but we are consistently hitting that goal. I need to stop thinking of that as boring, and remind myself this is success! And in achieving that goal we are moving forward in other financial arenas.

    Regarding the sugar, don’t beat yourself up. It is very hard, especially if you are the only one in the house doing it. 10 days without sugar is a big deal! Baby steps 😉

    1. “I need to stop thinking of that as boring” – Spot on, Wendy. I think that is a more significant stumbling block than most of us realize – the dread of boring. I guess we’re much more “interesting” if we spend our way into indebtedness!
      Well done in consistently budgeting your money! And thanks re. the sugar thing. I’m going to keep that goal on the back burner for now : )

  9. That’s a great 5 years of progress. My life was completely different 5 years ago as well. I was single & hadn’t met my wife yet. Now being married & a parent, my goals have changed as I have learned the importance of doing what’s best for the family instead of only me.

    The difficulty for me is juggling personal & financial goals and realizing it might take a little longer to accomplish them since it’s harder to just work a little longer, exercise a little longer, etc. & still be home to be an effective parent.

    1. It really is tough, Josh. Especially with little ones. Can you jog while pushing a stroller? Get some work done when the kids are asleep? It really is a juggling act! My hunch is that if you made excellent parenting your “one thing”, everything else would fall into its place. Easier said than done, I know . . .

  10. I have to agree with the advice about focusing on one goal at a time. On the one hand, we all have many things to juggle and focus on. But they are not all “goals” we’re setting to change or improve ourselves. It is easy to feel defeated or directionless if you’re trying to focus on too many things. My goal for this month, now that it’s nicer out, is to get back to exercising.

    1. That is a great goal, Kalie. It’s true that being stuck inside makes it difficult to exercise. Never has the nicer weather been more welcome! We’re having a lot of rain in these parts – so going outside is still often iffy. But that’s OK! We’re headed in the right direction.

  11. We DEFINITELY have too many goals at the moment but we’re just managing to keep all the balls in the air right now.

    Month to month is a little too granular for some of the things we’re tracking but at the end of each year, I’m pleasantly surprised to find that we’ve done really quite well despite setbacks. Quarterly reviews are useful to have for perspective.

    1. Month to month is a good starting point for people who are facing mountains of debt – like we were. It takes time to develop the patience and perspective that values gradual progress over longer periods of time – as you do. All the best with those goals you’re managing to make progress on. I hope that the multi-tasking won’t last for too long.

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