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  • Julius de Jong

How to Set Goals and Achieve the Improbable (Episode 22-39)

Do the work…

We’re very close to ending the year of 2021. One more day, and we’re counting down at midnight until 2022 starts, a brand-new year. With new opportunities, new chances, and new boundaries to break through. For me, these last days of the year are about looking back, taking stock, reflecting on all that took place, and thinking and planning for the year ahead. These days are about contemplation, critical self-evaluation, and goal setting for the year in front of me. And for sleeping in.

My annual goal setting (and reviewing) routine

Since many years I’ve taken this process serious. I make time for looking back and looking forward. Zooming out, and in. What gets measured, gets done. Where focus goes, energy flows. It’s amazing what happens when you write down your goals. Especially the big and bold ones. I’ve been scared and self-conscious at times writing down certain goals, while finding myself later in surprise to have actually achieved them, and more. I’m not quite sure why this is, but I do know that thinking consciously about where we want to take our lives and work makes a lot of sense. In my opinion and experience, this process involves seven critical phases:

  1. Review the past. Take time to look back. I like to do this in a beautiful place, outside of my regular environment; a high-floored hotel room with a wide view over the city, or a cabin in the nature somewhere. Wide and beautiful views are always beneficial in my experience. Typically, I use post-it’s for this process. I then take time to reflect on the past year in a thematic fashion. For instance, I look back separately on that year’s work; relationships; habits; impactful events; etcetera. Per theme, I write down things or keywords that surface in my mind or stand out. At this stage, I’m not trying to make sense of anything, I just account for what surfaces. When my room then ends up full of post-it’s, and no more ideas or thoughts surface, I start ordering the post-it’s in groups on the walls and windows. This helps me see patterns and identify areas of interest that need more exploration. It’s a rather messy process, where I allow things to unfold as they do. It’s not something you can force but allowing the time for this (without the distraction of your phone or Internet) is always beneficial and brings great insights.

  2. Reflect and assess. The next step is about reviewing all this information. What is it telling me? Why did these particular thoughts come up? This process involves more ordering and reshuffling of the post-it’s, and the identification of categories and focus areas for the year ahead. This is also a process of honest self-evaluation. Looking truthfully at my previously set goals and aspirations, and my work on achieving them. Looking honestly at who I want to be, and how what I have done in the past year fits with that (or not).

  3. Preview the future. Based on my review of the past year and beyond, and my reflections during this process, I start to include the future into my thinking. Again, thematic, I focus my thoughts on different parts of my life. My work, my relationships, etcetera. For each part, I continue drawing the lines from the past into my desired future. I think out scenario’s and reflect on how these make me feel. Things that stand out for me are, again, written down on post-it’s. By now, walls and windows are scattered with different colored post-its.

  4. Formulate goals and sharpen focus. From the process of reviewing the past, reflecting, and assessing on this, and from there previewing the future, certain goals and focus points start to emerge and crystalize. This is a process of elimination, where through categorization, restructuring and choosing my focus emerges from all that has surfaced from the process of reflection and contemplation. By now, many post-it’s have been moved around, categorized, and piled together to be replaced by concrete and bold goals that give me the chills. I feel that a good goal should make us (slightly) uncomfortable. It should definitely push us outside of our comfort zone in the process of achieving it. Ultimately, there is where our growth happens.

  5. Create subgoals and timeline. Derived from the main goals I set for myself, I then identify subgoals and fit them into a timeline. This is not something that’s crazy detailed, but does offer some structure for measuring progress against. Also, this is not necessarily something chiseled in stone, as life happens. But I do aim to stick to it as much as possible, or adapt it to new circumstances when required. Making and having time for continuous reflection and re-evaluation of our goal achievement is defiantly helpful in this process and for achieving goals. By doing so, we can find new inspiration and the motivation to persist when the going gets tough.

  6. Build/update the systems and habits that help you achieve. This is an important part. As with life, for me, achieving goals is just as much about the process of growth and learning, as it is about actually achieving the final goal and ticking the box. It is about becoming a better, happier, and more appreciative and grateful person. For this, the process can be just as valuable, or even more valuable, as finally achieving our objective. Because of this, a big part of my goal setting involves daily practices and habits that have an immediate effect in the here and now, in addition to bringing me closer to a final objective. My current training for an Ironman race in June 2022 is a good example of this. Every day of the week I’m conscious of, and am working towards, this goal. My daily cardio and strength training has benefited me greatly and spilled over positively in other aspects of my life. For instance, committing to this goal helped me plan better, get more things done in a day, and improved my sleep, which in turn has improved my work and relationships.

  7. Execute. Put in the work. Persist. Don’t give up. Fail, and (re)commit, and start again. ‘The most important marker is what you will do today to reach your goal’ (Murphy, 2010).

Typically, the process of the first six phases is spread out over multiple days/weeks, typically scattered from November until January or sometimes February of the new year. I must also say that these phases do not all happen in a clean linear fashion. Since many years, I’ve spent New Year’s Eve doing a big part of this process during the early hours of the first day of the new year. You might find this a strange practice, but I love starting my year like this. Typically, the final formulation of my specific goals and subgoals and the underlying system and habits emerge in the early days/weeks of the new year. From there, phase seven starts, putting in the work and building/reinforcing the habits.

To learn more about setting goals, and specially about achieving the improbable, I’ve talked to a legend in the field, Devon Harris. During our talk, Devon shared with me how he dreamed about becoming a soldier as a little boy growing up in the ghettos of Olympic Gardens, Kingston, Jamaica. Little did he know then that he would later attend the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in England, become a three-time Olympian and a founding member of the legendary Jamaica Bobsled Team, and in the process, become a Jamaican hero; a goal he had around 10 years of age, while locked in the slums of Olympic Gardens, plagued by political strife, gun violence and lack of prospect. Wow, what an amazing story of possibility and persistence, and achieving the most improbable of goals set as a little boy in the grimmest of circumstances.

Why goalsetting is important

Many of us don’t set goals for the simple reason we’re not being taught how to do so, according to Devon Harris. Another element of why we’re at times reluctant with setting goals comes from a fear of failure. It’s scary to formulate and commit to a big ambitious goal, outside of our comfort zone. This is definitely a scary and confrontational process, at least it is to me. ‘People don’t want to fail, they don’t want to be ridiculed or rejected, hence they stay clear of concrete goals which could result in this happening’ (Harris, 2021). However, in order to grow and improve, we need to do the things we fear. Because of this, I’ve learnt to see fear as an indication of possible growth. Therefore, we need to set big, bold, and ambitious goals in spite of the fear we might experience in the process. Goalsetting then is important, as it gives you a life direction and it focusses your energy. As I’ve shared above with my Ironman example, committing to one goal spills over into positive effects in other areas. ‘When we alter something about ourselves, we increase the likelihood that we will alter other things about ourselves’ (Norcross, 2012). Thus, let’s take the direction of our lives into our own hands, and think consciously about where we want to take it. Will we act, or merely react?

We don’t have to know how

Setting big goals can be scary business. A large contributor to the fear experienced when setting big goals is the fact that we typically have no clue as to how to accomplish these ambitious goals. It’s the increased uncertainty we feel when considering committing to a big, audacious goal. I appreciate what Devon Harris shared about this during our talk. As he said, “I don’t know if I can do it, but I want to do it” (Harris, 2021). “If they can do it, I can do I”, was his reasoning. This is so true. There are so many people out there doing amazing things. Why shouldn’t we? We don’t have to know all the answers. We just need to start and find out on the way. When getting into action, is when we learn what we really need to grow and develop. Also, when we fail, these are just opportunities to get better, and learn more. ‘Failure can be an amazing teacher if you are open to learning the lessons’ (Roth, 2015). Finally, when we’re in action mode, we have no time to doubt ourselves, or overthink our perceived limitations. For this reason it is important to keep moving, once started. Don’t give up.

Our perceived limitations

‘It was a leap in many respects, coming from the middle of Olympic Gardens, one of the toughest ghettos of Jamaica, wanting to be an army officer; “that’s not something that happens every day”’ (Harris, 2021). However, as Devon said reflecting back on this, a big part comes from the perceived limitations. It’s how we make where we are today, mean something about where we could possibly be (or not be) in the future. Who we are today has no bearing on who we can become tomorrow. ‘Before you can begin to pursue your dream, you must prepare, mentally, physically and spiritually for the effort ahead. Confront time-wasting habits and negative self-talk to focus on your dream’ (Warner, 2019). Next to freeing ourselves from our perceived limitations, we also need to be mindful of the limiting beliefs of others too.

The limiting beliefs of others

During our talk, I asked Devon about how he deals with the limiting beliefs of other people around him. In response, he told me that he doesn’t really share his goals with those around him. As he said, ‘when you’re not careful, you’ll allow their limiting beliefs to pull you down, as you allow their reality to become your reality’ (Harris, 2021). ‘The fact that you’re in the similar environment with others, doesn’t mean that their reality has to be yours’ (Harris, 2021). In the environment of the ghettos of Olympic Gardens, ‘there is nothing that suggest success is remotely possible’ (Harris, 2021). Because of this, many of Devon’s former friends grew into the “sufferers’ mindset”. He had set his goals elsewhere, and woke up one morning, saying ‘hey, we’re not friends anymore’ (Harris, 2021). We have to be careful with whom we surround ourselves. For instance, if we surround ourselves with people who are proactive, and who exercise, we will become people who are proactive, and that exercise. We emulate who we surround ourselves with. ‘People will always project their insecurities and their lack of confidence or abilities on you’ (Harris, 2021). We need to be careful to not confuse these feelings for our own. There are also people who truly love you, and who don’t want you to get disappointed, because they can’t see themselves doing what you envision doing. They want to save you the hurt from trying. Although they’re coming from a place of love, it doesn’t serve you, as all it does it limit you (Harris, 2021). Instead, we have to keep distinguishing other people’s feelings and fears from our own, and keep our eyes fixed on our goals, instead of their excuses. ‘The problem with reasons is that they’re just excuses prettied up’ (Roth, 2015).

Visualizing achievement and self-talk

‘Strange as it may sound, we usually get what we anticipate. [We] are the product of […]our own thoughts. What you believe yourself to be, you are’ (Bristol, 1985). What fuels this process are our visualizations and our self-talk. As shared by Devon Harris, visualizing achievement is a big part of attaining it. As is the internal dialogue about what we’re doing. Self-talk are the parts and parcel of the images we have in our mind, according to Devon. It forms a big part of building the confidence that we can actually do it. ‘When you bring the future into the present with an incredibly vivid picture of your goal, your brain takes ownership of it; it wants it right here, right now’ (Murphy, 2010). ‘Make this image as vivid as possible. Seeing really is believing’ (Murphy, 2010). Own the idea, and start imagining yourself being that thing, or achieving that goal.

While being outside in Olympic Gardens, hanging out at the gate next to a lamp post, Devon always had the images of his goals in his mind’s eye. As a little boy, in a grim and uncertain environment, his mind became fixed on something bigger than his circumstances. His visualizations and continued positive self-talk eventually led him to become that soldier his grandmother told him about, a three-time Olympian, and a national hero, who pioneered in putting Jamaican Bobsledding on the map. ‘Jamaica, a tropical country, to compete in the winter Olympics? Naah, that’s just crazy!’, everyone said at first. But with work and dedication, the improbable was achieved.

Setting goals

When I asked Devon about what tips he has for people to set more clear goals, and achieve them, he replied; ‘are you ready to do the work?’ The hardest work is introspection, this is the first step of goal setting. Sitting there and reflecting on oneself in a quiet space and time. Figuring out what it is you want, and what it is you need work to on. The answers are not always apparent, but as you keep asking, and keep searching earnestly, you will come up with answers. Maybe not with the final answer, but you’ll come up with answers that will put you in a certain direction (Harris, 2021). ‘Only about one in ten people achieve self-awareness, but self-awareness predicts […] success’ (Taylor, 2020). The second step, as Devon has learnt through experience over time, is to write your goals down. This helps crystalize them in your mind. From personal experience I know the power of this. I’ve been doing it for many years, and it’s crazy how this process helps us focus our attention, both consciously and unconsciously. I’ve found myself surprised at overachieving on what I earlier thought were very ambitious goals. Goals I felt self-conscious about writing them down. Thirdly, it’s about constantly thinking and working on your goals, becoming obsessed with them (Harris, 2021). Fourthly then, it’s about figuring out the steps. Figuring out what it is you have to do. It’s about completing the five meters in front of you, as part of the 800-meter race ahead of you. At this stage, you also start asking questions about your goals. For instance, ‘if someone would like to go to the Olympics, how would the go about doing this?’ Start asking people who would have answers, and ask multiple people, tap into multiple sources. The learnings you will gain from these answers will help you focus your goals and do the right things to achieve them.

Setting HARD goals

‘Most people set mediocre, unimportant goals and don’t even pay attention to them, take them seriously or remember them’ (Murphy, 2010). Leadership consultant Mark Murphy suggests something different: ‘Make your goals as difficult as possible and set objectives that are absolutely essential to your continued well-being’ (Murphy, 2010). Ambitious goals pull you in, and engage you. They focus your mind and put you on edge. Set demanding goals that motivate, challenge, and inspire. Murphy suggests setting HARD goals; Heartfelt, Animated, Required, and Difficult. I’ll dive into each of these below:

  1. Heartfelt Connections. ‘If your goal is not important to you, if it’s not something you deeply want, you probably won’t achieve it. On the other hand, if your goal means everything to you, you will move heaven and earth to accomplish it’ (Murphy, 2010). This heartfelt connection to our goals comes from the intrinsic connection we feel towards the goal. There needs to be a personal element in the goals we set for ourselves. It needs to be dear to our heart.

  2. Animated Images. ‘To attain your goal, you must be able to visualize vividly how its successful completion will change your life. People are visual creatures. Only when you see something do you truly believe it; hence, seeing is believing. When people learn something by hearing it, three days later they can remember only about 10 percent of the information. Include a picture, however, and total recall climbs to 65 percent’ (Murphy, 2010). Thus, we seek emotional attachment to the goals we set for ourselves. Images help us do this, and imagination is the process that brings this emotional attachment alive and provides the fuel and inspiration for the work required. ‘If we can imagine something, see it or picture it, we’re a lot more likely to process, understand and embrace it. Animating your goals involves picturing, visualizing, envisioning and imagining. The more you can see in your mind’s eye how your life will change when you achieve your goal, the more likely you are to accomplish it’ (Murphy, 2010).

  3. Required Achievement. Our goals should seem almost like a life-and-death issue. ‘You must feel a sense of urgency about your goals, or they will never happen. Thus, those who aren’t truly serious about their goals constantly push the future back’ (Murphy, 2010).

  4. Difficult Roads to Travel. ‘Tough goals keep you inspired, but most people do not push themselves enough. They are capable of far more than they imagine’ (Murphy, 2010). Set goals outside of your comfort zone. Stretch yourself. As you can probably imagine, Murphy is not a fan of SMART goals.

Doing the work

‘Many reasons are simply excuses to hide the fact that we are not willing to give something a high enough priority in our lives’ (Roth, 2015). This is true for the work that’s necessary to achieve big goals. Sometimes, achieving a goal can take an enormous stretch where we have to keep moving and acting, one step after the other. Ralph Waldo Emerson famously wrote, ‘[a]n ounce of action is worth a ton of theory.’ ‘Attempting something and accomplishing it aren’t the same. When you are determined to get something done, nothing can stop you’ (Roth, 2015). For anything worthwhile, we will have to make an effort. Effort, however, is more rewarding than results. Therefore, [f]ocus your self-affirming comments on the work you do, not on your accomplishments. Praise how hard you try, not your outcomes’ (Roth, 2015). We need to work on ourselves, in the process of working on achieving our goals. When we do so, we grow, inevitably in the process. Doing the work, and overcoming our own excuses does something to you. It builds one’s self-esteem. Doing what you say you will do. There is no faster way to growth, if you ask me. As Devon shared with me, ‘work on yourself, push your boundaries’. Do sports. Competing in sports and doing well really does something to your self-esteem (Harris, 2021). When you’re playing sports, nothing that’s happening in the world matters […] Who your family is, how much money you have, none of that matters in the field. There it’s about your talent and your heart (Harris, 2021). Devon took these learnings from sports and applied them throughout life. I too can only underline the beneficial effects of a routine of movement and exercise and pushing yourself in the process. If you don’t yet, or not enough, please try it, and thank me later.

Action and excellence instead of perfection

With any achievement, it’s the action that counts, and not whether what we do is perfect. I’ve fooled myself in the past thinking I, and my work, need to be perfect. I’m sure you know the results of that. You rarely get any work done, and never make any real progress. Instead, we need to get into action. Do things. Try. Start, don’t wait until its perfect. Take steps and learn from the process. ‘Take it from a reformed perfectionist’ says Devon Harris, ‘I get it why we want to be perfect, but it’s excellence, giving it your absolute all and best. We can always do that, while being by nature imperfect beings’ (Harris, 2021). If you’re waiting to be perfect, or your product to be perfect, you’re not going to get started. When we aim to give our best however, each step of the way, we’re pursuing excellence. Then, no matter the outcome or final result, we can look back on our actions gratified, having given our best efforts in that moment. ‘Achievement can be learned. It is a muscle and once you learn to flex it, there’s no end to what you can accomplish in life’ (Roth, 2015). Pursuing excellence is the best form of practicing our achievement.

Take time

‘Behavioral research indicates that it takes 90 days to prepare for change, build a new behavior, become confident in the face of high-risk triggers and move past the likelihood of relapse’ (Norcross, 2012). Really making new habits stick takes time. With every try and every application, we grow and learn. Achievement takes time. Achieving the improbable probably takes even more time. Therefore, stick to it, and don’t give up. ‘You have to toil in obscurity and figure out a way to keep pushing, putting one foot in front of the other’ (Harris, 2021). Persist, fail, learn, and get up again. ‘One of the colossal mistakes people make when trying to change is overestimating the value of motivation while underestimating learnable skills’ (Norcross, 2012). Achievement is a learnable skill, as long as we allow the time necessary. You have to dig deep to get over those obstacles that are in your way, but as you do, you become stronger and capable of taking on the other ones’ (Harris, 2021). As long as you don’t give up, you’re getting stronger, and closer to your objectives.

What gets measured gets done

Where focus goes, energy flows. I love this. It’s been my mantra for a long time. Because of this, monitoring and log your progress. All the famous athletes (and their coaches) do this. All top performers do this. Track your progress, and gain insights into where you’re slacking or about what needs work. Be open for feedback of others.

Celebrate your successes

Lastly there is celebration. We need rewards. Not at the end or only when we achieve the final goal. No, we need rewards along the way, when the going gets tough. ‘There is a tight link between celebrating your growth and perpetuating that growth’ (Norcross, 2012). Rewarding ourselves for when we do well or complete a task is therefore critical to enhance our achievements. Thus, don’t forget to reward yourself for your work and efforts. You deserve it. With that I completed this last post of 2021 for 39 Ideas For Life; number 22 of 39 posts. After uploading this to the website, I’ll reward myself with booking a great place for tomorrow night, starting 2022 with a bang!

Wishing you a happy 2022, and may your boldest and most improbable goals be achieved!

Image: The Jamaican Bobsled team in action. Copyright, Getty Images.



To learn about setting goals, and achieving the improbable, I’ve talked to a legend in the field; Devon Harris. During our talk, Devon shared with me how he dreamed about becoming a soldier as a little boy growing up in the ghetto of Olympic Gardens, Kingston, Jamaica. Little did he know then that he would later attend the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in England, become a three-time Olympian and a founding member of the legendary Jamaica bobsled team. In the process, he became a Jamaican hero; a goal he had set for himself around the age of 10, while locked in the slums of Olympic Gardens, plagued by political strife, gun violence and lack of prospect.

Devon shared with great humility some timeless knowledge and insights on setting and achieving what might seem like highly improbable goals. He shared both entertaining and inspiring stories of possibility and persistence and achieving goals many believed to be impossible.

Devon is a graduate of the prestigious Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, England, a retired army captain, and author of two books. He’s a motivational speaker who has been inspiring people globally with his talks and is continues to do so. He is also the founder of the Keep on Pushing Foundation which aims to support and enhance the education of kids in disadvantaged communities by providing practical solutions to the challenges that prevent them from getting educated.

Anyone wanting to pick up their game a notch or two will more than enjoy this talk. Also, in case you’re working on some new goals for 2022, this is a must view interview. Enjoy!

Website of Devon Harris:

Website of the Keep on Pushing Foundation:



Bristol, Claude M., 1985, The Magic of Believing: The Science of Setting Your Goal and Then Reaching It.

Harris, Devon, 2010, Keep on Pushing: Hot Lessons from Cool Runnings.

Locke, Edwin, 2000, The Prime Movers: Traits of the Great Wealth Creators.

Murphy, Mark, 2010, Hard Goals: The Secret to Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.

Norcross, John, 2012, Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions.

Roth, Bernard, 2015, The Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life.

Taylor, Trey, 2020, A CEO Only Does Three Things: Finding Your Focus in the C-Suite.

Warner, Tenishia Jackson, 2019, The Big Stretch: 90 Days to Expand Your Dreams, Crush Your Goals, and Create Your Own Success.

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