Setting Realistic Goals for 2021

  • by John W. Portwood Jr., DDS, MS, MSF, CFP, CLU, ChFC, MAGD
  • Jan 11, 2021
2020 was an intense year, but looking ahead and thoughtfully planning for the new year is more important than ever. 

In the latest issue of AGD Impact, we asked dentists of varying backgrounds to weigh in on setting new goals. In the section below, John W. Portwood Jr., DDS, MS, MSF, CFP, CLU, ChFC, MAGD, discusses how to create the best possible goals. 

Achieving Success: The Path to Creating Reachable Goals 
John W. Portwood Jr., DDS, MS, MSF, CFP, CLU, ChFC, MAGD

Around New Year's, many find it essential to begin setting goals for the upcoming year. After all the turmoil in 2020, many professions are planning for recovery, and what better way to start this than through setting goals for 2021? 

Before we start setting goals, however, a worthwhile exercise is to recognize the difference between attainable goals and any all-encompassing aspirations. Such aspirations should be larger than goals and difficult to schedule into a timetable. They should be global in nature, such as wellness, financial security, a feeling of wellbeing, practice success, etc. Once we have identified our aspirations, we can begin to set attainable goals and the appropriate timetables necessary to achieve them. This concept can be likened to the adage, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Goal setting is very structured in nature, but it is very sequential and easy to follow. 

Many people feel that they know how to set goals, but the truth is they rarely do. This ultimately results in failure to reach success and frustration. While we know some of the milestones that we would like to achieve, most of us lack a formal path to follow. Successful goal setting requires discipline, a formalized plan and following prescribed steps — otherwise we are just making a wish list. 

1. Set Your Goal 
The first step of setting a goal is to get an index card and write down your goal. Specificity is key. Merely saying “I want more money” is vague, and, again, more of a wish than a goal. Specifying “I want to max out my contribution to my retirement plan this year” would be a more precise goal. Another might be to take four continuing education courses designed to teach you a new procedure that you are not doing presently to increase your viability as a dentist. Another goal might be to hire a management consultant to help you improve your new patient flow (i.e., “I want ten additional new patients a month”). Whatever your goal is, be specific and realistic. The broader and more general the goal, the less likely it can be accomplished.

2. Determine Your Motivation 
Next, write why you want to accomplish this goal. If you do not have a strong reason to achieve the goal, then it is probably wise to drop it from the list. Sometimes, you may even find that it really wasn’t a goal at all — again, more of a wish. Remember that we are blessed with infinite desires but limited with the time necessary to accomplish these goals. Restrict yourself to four or five goals that are most important to you. By doing so, you provide yourself with the best chance of achieving them. 

3. Identify Obstacles 
The next step is to write down all the obstacles that could prevent you from meeting your goals. There are always situations that can keep us from reaching our goals. Some are foreseeable, like potential market downturns that affect our retirement plans, and some are unforeseeable, like the COVID-19 pandemic. The key is to write down as many of these obstacles that you can think of and how you would react to them. By doing so, you can react quicker if or when obstacles occur. 

4. Explore Resources 
Next, identify the resources you need to accomplish your goals. This usually falls into two categories: people and education. If I need help with my retirement plan since the pandemic began, or perhaps I was already behind in my savings, who do I need to consult to help get me back on track? If my practice has taken a financial hit and my goal is to improve my bottom line, what educational resources are at my disposal to get me back on track? Do I need practice or financial management help? Do I need to improve my clinical skills, or do I need to explore learning new skills to enhance my practice mix? 

5. Form a Plan 
Put all the information from the points above on each goal’s index card. The final task is to determine a completion date. Without this last point, we may wander aimlessly, wondering why we are not making any progress on our goals. This last step places a finality to the goal-setting process. Keep these cards where you can see them every day until you accomplish your goals. 

These steps are all that you need to set successful goals. However, one must realize that the single most effective destroyer of goals is procrastination. As I stated earlier, goal setting requires discipline, and procrastination is the absolute opposite of that. Although there are several techniques for defeating procrastination, they all ultimately come back to your personal discipline. 

Goal setting is the most important exercise a person can do to ensure success in life. This process creates a map for us so we know both where we want to go in life and how to get there. 

John W. Portwood Jr., DDS, MS, MSF, CFP, CLU, ChFC, MAGD, is a nationally recognized lecturer on issues involving financial planning and investing and how they affect dentists. He is chair of the AGD Investment Committee and currently practices in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. To comment on this article, email

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