Whether it’s the start of a new year, an academic semester, or a job, new beginnings are always an inspiring time to set new goals.

However, many of us struggle to meet those goals and maintain momentum. According to  Adrienne Tierney, creating an action plan is key to avoiding potential pitfalls. Tierney, an instructor and research advisor for Harvard Extension School’s psychology master’s program, offers five tips to get started.

1. Make The Goal Concrete

“Often, goal setting begins by thinking about abstract aspirations,” says Tierney. “Those aspirations can be helpful in identifying where we want to end up, but they can feel so distant and out of reach that we easily give up or feel like we will never get there.”

Tierney suggests breaking larger goals down into more manageable steps that can be achieved with specific actions. 

For example, instead of setting the goal of exercising more, set the more concrete goal of walking three times per week for 30 minutes each. This more specific framing can help you put it into practice and evaluate your progress.

Tierney also recommends writing the goal down, whether on paper or on your phone or computer to make it visible and serve as a reminder.

2. Identify the Requirements

Each goal will require different parameters to achieve it. Identifying the type of goal will help to clarify your next planning stages. 

For example, if you want to cut down on something, such as sugar, caffeine, or screen time, plan to have appealing and accessible alternatives to help along the way.

Conversely, if you want to add something to your routine, such as exercising, reading, or practicing a skill, try creating a plan to work it into your schedule. The plan should include parameters like what days, for how long, and what activities you work on so you don’t have to figure it out each time. 

Creating specific plans helps to cut down on the mental energy along the way and makes the process of achieving your goal as painless and easy as possible.

3. Set Aside Time

Similar to planning ahead, determine whether or not your goal requires a time commitment. If so, set aside the time in advance instead of waiting for an opportunity to arise. 

Reserve the appropriate amount of time in your calendar so that other demands have to work around your time commitment, rather than the other way around.

4. Personalize Your Approach

Some people thrive best when seeking to accomplish a goal all at once, while others find more success in taking things step-by-step. 

For example, some people enjoy the month-long commitment of Dry January and prefer to cut out alcohol entirely for that period of time. Others prefer to reduce their intake for the month but not eliminate alcohol altogether (often called “Damp January”).

Different goals might also work best with different approaches, so experiment along the way and adjust accordingly.

5. Find Motivation

It is important to keep yourself motivated throughout the process of pursuing a goal. Tierney suggests a few ways to support your progress, no matter what step in the journey you’re on.

Make a social commitment

“Having social accountability is enormously helpful in supporting us through the tough moments in working towards our goals,” says Tierney. “Having a group can help us achieve goals over the long term by offering a chance to share the successes, to help you show up, or to help you renew the commitment along the way.”

Try searching for accountability partners with friends who share similar goals, or on an app or online group that offers virtual communities. Bolstering your support system means that you’re not alone and have others cheering you on.

Celebrate successes

As you make progress, make sure to acknowledge your successes and the work it’s taken to get there. Celebrating not only gives you the credit you’ve earned, but also is a reminder that you have the wherewithal to achieve your goals, no matter where you are in the process.

Be realistic 

Whether your goal is focused on changing old habits or building new ones, both can have their challenges. Mistakes and setbacks can happen and it’s important to be compassionate toward yourself. 

“Look for progress not perfection,” says Tierney. “If you have a day where you don’t achieve your goal, don’t let the frustration or disappointment make you give up. Re-commit for the next occasion.”

You may realize your initial goal was too ambitious, and you need to course-correct or revise that goal while still working toward your long-term objective. 

Determination is important, but having the judgment to make these decisions as you go may serve you better in the long run.