What are your dreams? Everyone has at least one. Is it to finally finish that novel? Run a 5K? Start your own business? Watch all best picture Oscar movie nominations from the past five years? Fold all your laundry the same day it's washed and dried?
The good thing about having a dream is that there is no right or wrong answer, no dream too big or too small. In your mind, you can hope for anything or everything your heart desires. In your daydreams, even the sky is limitless. It's when you've fallen back to earth or snapped back to reality that the truth settles in: You haven't written more than the second paragraph of the third chapter in your book for more than a year. You haven't even tried to walk a 5K much less run one. You have no financial banking to start your own business, and movies—who has time for that? After you put the kids to bed, it's nearly your own bedtime.
Though some excuses are valid and some dreams might be too lofty (not everyone can be an astronaut after all), there are some questions you can ask yourself that can move you toward making some of your dreams a reality, one small step at a time.
ID Your Dream
This one might sound silly, but it's worth the effort to write your dream down. Take some time to brainstorm what it means to, say, write that novel. Do you even enjoy writing, do you like the act of creating or do you simply want to see your name in print? When were you last happy writing something? Who were you writing for—yourself or others? Does it turn out that you enjoy writing poetry way more than writing novels? If so, then your dream might be to write a book of poetry, not a novel.
Try to key in on the contents of your dream. Once you identify your specific dream, you can then act on it. Megan Fischer, the executive director and founder of Sweet Cheeks Diaper Bank in Cincinnati, Ohio, decided to pursue her dream of helping provide diapers to low-income families in her hometown after attending an entrepreneurship conference. "One of the speakers was incredibly inspiring and proved to be the spark I needed to start my crazy idea and see where it ended up. Up to that point, though, I had spent time in the evenings writing out my thoughts—mostly what scared me about this dream. It wasn’t exactly a formal list of pros and cons, more of a way to get all the chaos in my head into some sort of order. Once the decision was made to start Sweet Cheeks Diaper Bank that’s where the lists and brainstorming came in," she says.
The act of putting your thoughts down on paper is the first step in committing to your dreams.
Make a Plan
Once you've identified your dream, it's time to sketch out a plan. If your dream is more concrete, like starting a cupcake bakery, there are books you can purchase that can help you draft a business plan. Other goals might require a several-step plan, like updating your résumé or meeting with a career counselor to help you finally land that dream job.
One strategy for planning your goals is to work backward. For instance, if you want to run a 5K, you'll need to write out your training plan starting with the event date. From there, you can figure out how far you must run every week to meet that race-day goal.
"My husband and I have always been fitness enthusiasts but we were not distance runners! When a friend asked us to participate in her charity 5K, we felt like it would be a good challenge, so we signed up. We practiced in Central Park, where I made it halfway through one measly mile, and doubled over in frustrated tears, unable to finish," Jamie Hess, fitness Instagrammer @nycfitfam, says. "I went home and thought it over, accepting the defeat as a lesson in patience. We continued [training] until we were ready for the 5K, which changed our lives because we had a blast and fell in love with racing."
Decide to Dare
Once you've decided what your dream is and have crafted a plan, it's time to take a leap of faith. Be bold in your actions. Maybe it's unrealistic to think that you can land your dream job tomorrow. Not daring to try to turn your dreams into reality is a surefire way to never achieve them.
Fitness trainer Julia Buckley was tired of not being able to gain lean muscle definition, despite being an ultra-marathoner. As hard as it was to switch up her fitness routine, she knew she had to do something to get the results she wanted.
"I loved running but I also wanted to get lean and at this point it became obvious that simply continually adding more miles to my runs wasn't going to shift the fat—in fact it was having the opposite effect!" she says. "I was working as a fitness journalist at the time so I'd heard a lot about the benefits of high-intensity interval training and strength training but I'd never seen myself as someone who worked out in those ways. I'd become very proud to call myself a marathon runner [but] I wondered, what would my identity be if I started exercising differently? I'd be a beginner again and maybe I'd always struggle with it. It was kind of scary! But I felt so awful and knew I had to make some changes for the sake of my physical and mental well-being."
Check in on Your Plan
What good is a plan if you don't stick to it? Although it might be difficult at times to follow through on what you say you're going to do, you'll know the payoff will be worth it when you finally reach your goals. If you're having trouble with follow through, you can always revisit it to make sure what you outlined is attainable.
According to behavioral psychology expert Dean Anderson, the six characteristics of effective goal setting are:
1. Challenging: Your goals should be realistic and suited to your present capabilities.
2. Attainable: Don't take the challenging characteristic too far. Make sure you can achieve what you're setting out to do.
3. Specific: Trying to "do your best" or "do better" is like trying to eat the hole in a donut. There's nothing there to chew on or digest. You need to define some very specific, concrete and measurable action-steps that tell you what your goal looks like in real-life terms. Consider how you will measure your results so you can tell whether you are getting anywhere down the road.
4. Time-limited: Goals need to come with deadlines, due dates and payoff schedules. Otherwise, they'll fade into the background with your daily hubbub, and you'll quit playing the game.
5. Positive: Goals should always be framed in positive terms. Humans are not designed to white-knuckle their way through life, always trying to not do things or to avoid certain thoughts, feelings, actions or circumstances. We are much better at approaching what we do want than avoiding what we don't want.
6. Flexible: Good strategies and goals are always flexible, because nothing in this world stays the same for very long, and staying alive and on course means being able to adapt to changing circumstances.
If your goals are realistic and meet these criteria, you'll have an easier time sticking to your plan.
Learn from Your Mistakes
What's that they say about best-laid plans? Allow yourself some wiggle room for error. If your plans get off track due to unforeseen circumstances, give yourself time to get over your obstacles and back on track. Use setbacks as opportunities for learning and growth. If your goal to lose 20 pounds was derailed over the holidays, take a day or two to step back, re-evaluate where you went wrong and come up with a new plan for the next time you are in a similar situation. Then, when confronted with a table full of party food, you will be able to resist temptation and keep your eyes on the prize.
Buckley counts her whole fitness experience as a tale of education along the way to her goals. "I guess my whole story is about learning from my mistakes. I never would have thought that I could enjoy exercising with weights or the type of intense, fast-paced workouts I do now," she says. "I was plodding runner who loved distance and endurance training and I believed that was just the way I was made. Plus, I thought that was the only type of exercise I could ever love. But it turns out that my body and mind were more than capable of adapting to and even coming to relish more intense training. I sure do feel good for it."