Table of Contents
- What Is Goal Setting?
- Types of Goals to Set
- The Power of Setting, Writing Down, and Tracking Goals
- Goal Setting Using the “ABC” and “SMART” Goal Frameworks
- How to Set Goals: Step-By-Step Process
- Examples of How Top Leaders and Entrepreneurs Set Goals
- Overcoming Common Challenges When Goal Setting
- Turn Behaviors Into Habits to Make Your Goals a Reality
In the words of John F. Kennedy, “Effort and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.” If you want to succeed personally and in your career, you must have goals, be mission-driven, and intentionally spend your time and energy being a servant leader. To know where you’re going and get there, you must have a plan in place; otherwise, you’re aimless.
Thinking and dreaming of a better future is not enough though. Research shows that setting and writing down clearly-defined goals produces a better chance of goal accomplishment. For example, a Harvard Business study found that among one MBA class, the 3% of MBA graduates who had written down their goals ended up earning significantly more (up to 10 times more) than the 97% of graduates who had not written down goals.
No matter what your vision of a fulfilling life is, you can benefit from setting professional and personal goals, such as those related to your health, productivity, relationships, and income. In this article, learn how to master goal setting in order to lead a more fulfilling life and overcome challenges that stand in your way.
- Goals are defined as objects or aims of action to attain within a specified time limit.
- Setting goals give us a way to take control of our direction in life, ensuring that we are the ones to choose what we want to do and where we want to go.
- A meta-analysis published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology concluded that goal setting is an effective behavior change technique and fundamental for success.
- Pursuing SMART goals helps you achieve your goals more easily because they’re specific, trackable, and time-sensitive.
- Habits are often the building blocks of achieving larger goals. Therefore, consistency, structure, and accountability are all essential.
What Is Goal Setting?
Goal setting is the process of deciding what you want to achieve, establishing a clear plan, and persistently working toward that achievement. It involves identifying something specific you desire to accomplish by a certain date and often includes identifying the steps you need to take to reach that outcome and be successful.
Everyone should set goals, regardless of their age, profession, or circumstances. Goal setting is not limited to business executives or athletes; it’s a useful tool for anyone who wants to make their dreams and desires a reality. This can include students aiming for academic success, individuals wanting to improve their health or fitness, or artists seeking to master their craft and distribute their work to a wider audience.
Types of Goals to Set
Here are different types of goals to consider setting and pursuing:
- Long-term goals: These are your “big-picture goals,” such as career aspirations or life goals tied to relationships, children, or home ownership. These can be set every few years or whenever you experience a significant life change that alters your priorities, such as getting married, moving to a new location, or becoming a parent. Examples can include: “Become a father by the time I’m 40 years old” or “Build my own business to have a six-figure income.”
- Medium-term goals: These are goals that can be achieved in one to five years. They are often milestones toward your long-term goals. You might set these goals annually to ensure you progress toward your bigger aspirations. Examples can include: “Improve my professional network by attending four conferences this year” or “Run a 10K by the end of the year.”
- Short-term goals: These are tasks or objectives you can achieve in the near future, such as within a few weeks or months. Short-term goals often serve as stepping stones toward medium or long-term goals. You can set them monthly or even weekly. Examples include: “Finish two presentations at work this week” or “Cook four healthy meals each week for the next month.”
- Daily goals: These are small tasks you aim to accomplish each day, contributing to your short-term goals. For example, “workout today” can be a daily goal that builds toward longer-term fitness.
How often should you set goals? The frequency of goal setting can vary based on the nature of the goal. Here are some guidelines:
- Professional goals: In a business context, goals are typically set annually or quarterly as part of strategic planning, with regular reviews (such as monthly) to track progress and make necessary adjustments.
- Personal goals: Consider goals at least yearly, such as at the start of the year, or quarterly if you prefer. Each month, check in on your progress and determine if you’re meeting your milestones.
The Power of Setting, Writing Down, and Tracking Goals
“The thing about goals is that living without them is a lot more fun, in the short run. It seems to me, though, that the people who get things done, who lead, who grow, and who make an impact . . . those people have goals.”Seth Godin
Research in the field of positive psychology suggests that setting goals is an essential activity for growth, self-esteem, life satisfaction, and work engagement. Goals provide motivation, a clear focus, and accountability. They allow us to pinpoint what we want to happen, filter out distractions, measure our progress, and live fulfilling lives that we’re satisfied with and proud of. Studies show that once we reach one goal, we often feel more confident in our abilities and are encouraged to keep pushing ourselves to set even more goals.
Here’s more about the importance of goals and how they help improve various aspects of our lives:
- Direction: Goals provide a roadmap toward our ultimate objectives. They guide our focus to where we need to concentrate our efforts.
- Motivation: When we take the time to goal-set, we create the energy and determination necessary to work toward something. Reaching milestones often gives us a mental reward that pushes us to strive harder.
- Sense of Control: When we remove distractions, adjust our efforts in response to changing circumstances, and fulfill the promises we make to ourselves, we gain confidence and a greater sense of control over our lives. We prove to ourselves that we can be accountable and can accomplish what we put our minds to.
- Life/Personal Satisfaction: Achieving goals gives us a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, especially when the goals are based on values. It creates an “upward spiral” in which we keep pushing ourselves forward.
- Performance Improvement: Goal setting helps leaders and executives enhance the performance of their teams, as it makes individuals aware of what is expected of them and encourages them to work harder and smarter.
- Evaluation and Feedback: With clear goals, leaders can evaluate the performance of their teams and give constructive feedback.
- Decision-Making: We need clear objectives to provide a benchmark that we can measure against. Goals facilitate leaders in making strategic decisions, such as resource allocation, budgeting, and priority setting.
Goal Setting Using the “ABC” and “SMART” Goal Frameworks
“The trouble with not having a goal is that you can spend your life running up and down the field and never score.”Bill Copeland
It’s one thing to think about your goals but a totally different thing to clarify them, write them down, and then act on them. It can be even more powerful to share your goals with others, as this makes them seem more “real” and creates accountability. In the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
To give your goals the greatest chance of becoming a reality, make sure they are “ABC goals,” meaning they’re: Achievable, Believable, and Committed.
An example of an ABC goal is: “Every evening after dinner for the next three months I will go for a 30-minute brisk walk and then skip dessert to reach a healthier weight.”
How to Develop SMART Goals
Another way to create ABC goals is to use the SMART goal framework. Goal setting using the SMART framework results in more effective goals than vague objectives because they’re targeted and defined. SMART goals are designed to provide clarity, focus, motivation, and the ability to measure progress, ultimately leading to goal achievement. It’s possible to create SMART goals that are either personal or professional and that are related to short-term, long-term, daily, monthly, or yearly objectives.
SMART goals are:
Here’s how you know if a goal is SMART:
- The goal is detailed and not vague. It includes information about “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “why,” and “how” (it’s specific).
- You can track the goal’s progress and determine if and when the goal has been met (it’s measurable).
- The goal is challenging but possible with effort (it’s achievable).
- You believe the goal is aligned with broader objectives and relevant to the key priorities in your life or work (it’s relevant).
- The goal has a clear timeframe that creates a sense of urgency and prompts action (it’s time-bound).
When setting precise, effective goals, ask yourself these questions:
- “Is this goal (S)pecific enough, meaning it includes a key clear objective and target audience (if applicable)?” “What will success look like if it’s achieved?”
- “Can the goal be (M)easured and how?”
- “Is it realistic that this goal can be (A)chieved given available resources, time, and other constraints?”
- “Is this goal (R)elevant to my mission/my company’s mission? Which emotions will reaching these goals invoke?”
- “Is the goal (T)ime-bound, meaning it has a clear deadline? Are there milestones that need to be met at certain times?”
Below are examples of SMART goals:
Business and leadership goals:
- “I will enroll in a public speaking course and practice my skills in front of an audience at least once a month for the next six months.”
- “I will take on two additional projects in my current role and communicate my work and results directly to management over the next six months to position myself for a promotion.”
- “I will engage in a 15-minute meditation session every morning before work for the next two months to decrease my stress levels and improve my focus.”
- “I will run for 30 minutes at least four days a week for the next three months to improve my cardiovascular health.”
- “I will save $300 per month by reducing my dining out expenses and tracking my savings progress on a spreadsheet for one year to buy a new car.”
- “I will complete one Spanish language lesson online each day for the next six months to become conversational in Spanish.”
On the other hand, these vague goals are NOT SMART:
- “I want to get in better shape.”
- “I want to become better at public speaking.”
- “I’m going to save more money.”
- “I plan to market myself better and make more connections at work.”
- “I’ll work toward a promotion this quarter.”
How to Set Goals: Step-By-Step Process
It’s unlikely that you’ll reach your goals, especially ones that require a good deal of effort and time, unless you have an action plan in place. “A goal is great for defining what success looks like; a system is great for actually making progress toward that goal,” explains Jeff Harden for Inc. “Your goal can provide direction and even push you forward in the short-term, but eventually, a well-designed system always wins. Everyone has personal goals; committing to a system makes all the difference in achieving that goal,” he says.
To start making progress toward your goals, follow these steps:
1. Determine Your Mission and Purpose
Rakshitha Arni Ravishankar from Harvard Business Review suggests that you “Connect your every goal to a why.’” For goals to be fulfilling and enduring, they must align with your values, which are the guiding compass for your actions and decisions. Otherwise, you risk losing motivation, giving up when you experience setbacks or stress, or becoming distracted.
According to the Center of Creative Leadership (CCL), “Too often, people set goals based on their thinking alone,” which is one of the most common reasons goals aren’t reached (because they aren’t value-based). “Bring your heart into the goal-setting process and examine how your goals align with your values—the underlying life principles that you believe are important,” recommends CCL.
To define your mission and values:
- Reflect on the “big picture”: To gain self-awareness, spend some time thinking about your past experiences, interests, and passions. What are the things that you feel most strongly about? What are the things that make you feel fulfilled and satisfied? Use visualization or journaling to imagine what your dream life would involve. A study published in Frontiers in Psychology says the most effective goals help to answer these questions:
- “What are my values and passion?”
- “What are my desired competencies and habits?”
- “What do I want my future social life to look like?”
- “How do I want my possible future career to look?”
- Rank your core values: Based on your reflections, identify a list of several values that are most important to you. This could be things like honesty, respect, creativity, hard work, family, health, or community. Once you have identified your core values, rank them in order of importance so you can prioritize where your energy should go.
- Craft your mission statement: Use your values to develop a mission statement. This statement should be a concise explanation of your fundamental purpose. It should answer these questions: Why do I exist? What is my ultimate goal? What am I striving for? Companies should follow the same process to identify the organization’s purpose for their customers and the broader market.
- Use this structure: Fill in the blanks to help you pinpoint your goals: “I want to ____ so that I can ____.”
- Be sure to write your goals down: According to an article published by Forbes, “Vividly describing your goals in written form is strongly associated with goal success . . . Writing improves that encoding process. In other words, when you write it down, it has a much greater chance of being remembered.”
2. Make Goals Challenging, Yet Attainable
As Michelangelo supposedly once said, “The great danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”
Unrealistic goals can lead to frustration and decreased motivation, however easy goals fail to inspire us. Effective goal setting should make you or your team feel stretched and challenged but not overwhelmed. This is something Google does well, using its “Objectives and Key Results” (OKRs) method. Writer Michael Schneider explains that Google approaches goal setting by “encouraging its employees to stretch themselves, be ambitious, and embrace uncertainty.”
Here are tips for choosing inspiring but achievable goals:
- Narrow your focus: In order to tackle goals in a focused way, choose to focus on just one to five inspiring and exciting goals at once.
- Be precise: Clearly state what you want to achieve. Instead of saying, “I want to read more,” you might say, “I want to read one book per week.” This type of specific goal is more measurable and achievable.
- Choose positive, approachable goals: Findings from one study published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine found that “Approach goals help individuals move toward desired outcomes, whereas avoidance goals help individuals move away from undesired outcomes. Approach goals are associated with greater positive emotions, thoughts, and self-evaluations and greater psychological well-being.” To make your goal approachable, substitute behaviors to avoid with behaviors to promote.
- Make sure it’s attainable: Your goal should be something you have the means to achieve because it’s within your control. If you don’t have control over the outcome, then it isn’t a useful goal. For example, “Win the lottery” is not an attainable goal since it’s based on chance, not effort. “Work on getting a promotion by taking on three new responsibilities this quarter” is a better, more attainable goal.
3. Break Bigger Goals Down Into Smaller, Measurable Steps
Once your goals are set, it’s beneficial to break them down into smaller, manageable steps and then track your progress regularly. This helps you maintain momentum and stay motivated.
- Dissect larger or year-long goals into smaller milestones: Break goals into specific steps that are measurable. Schedule the steps you need to take on a calendar. Write out specific dates and milestones to create a clear path to success.
- Give yourself enough time: Reserve at least several months for larger goals. If it’s a professional goal, consult with key team players to make sure that the timeline set for the goal is reasonable and based on the workload it requires.
- Determine your system for measurement: For a goal to be effective, you must be able to measure your progress. If you set a goal to “be happier,” it’s hard to quantify progress. Instead, try setting a goal related to a measurable action that contributes to happiness, such as “I will set aside 30 minutes each day for self-care activities.”
- Use quantifiable measurements: Use numbers to make your progress concrete. For example, determine how many workouts, how much money, or how many hours of work you need to do to maintain momentum.
4. Increase Accountability
Accountability ensures you stay on track because when you know that someone else is aware of your goals, you’re more likely to follow through on your commitments. Having others keep you accountable also boosts your motivation to work hard, decreases procrastination, and increases your sense of responsibility.
Here are tips for fostering accountability:
- Check in with a mentor or coach: Find someone who you admire and trust, then regularly speak to them about your progress or concerns. A coach can provide valuable feedback and a different perspective. They can point out potential obstacles, suggest different approaches, and celebrate your successes.
- Enlist an accountability partner: Lean on a friend, colleague, family member, or spouse who can boost your morale and help you troubleshoot when things steer off track. Knowing that you have to report back to someone else can be a powerful motivator to start taking action.
- Write down your actions: Track your effort and behaviors in a journal or an app. Physically writing things down makes them feel more concrete.
5. Continue to Track Your Progress
“Objectives and key results are the yin and yang of goal setting,” says John Doerr, billionaire venture capitalist and investor. Setting goals helps people dream big and view goals from a large-scale picture. Nevertheless, progress and results must be tracked to determine whether or not goals are practical and attainable.
This is where OKRs come in:
- Objectives are what you want to achieve.
- Key results are how you measure progress toward these objectives.
Suppose a company wants to strengthen its partnerships. If so, one of their OKRs might look like this:
- Objective: Build strong and effective partnerships that contribute to our business growth.
- Key Results: Increase the number of strategic partners by 20% by the end of Q3, and improve our partner satisfaction score by 15% as measured in post-partnership surveys.
The key results above provide a measurable way of determining whether the objective was reached.
Here’s how to use OKRs to make sure you’re on the right track:
- Keep track of key results: Each key result should be specific, time-bound, and measurable, to enable tracking of progress and eventual success.
- Schedule regular reviews: Regularly review your progress, whether weekly, monthly, or quarterly.
- Make sure you’re following your timeline: A goal should have a specific time frame or deadline. This creates a sense of urgency and can motivate you to take action. Keep referring back to your timeline to avoid procrastination.
- Reward yourself when you reach milestones: Inserting motivating factors into your plan will keep you engaged and inspired to keep pushing forward. For instance, give yourself a small gift or experience every time you reach a big milestone.
6. Revise Your Goals as Needed
Life changes and your goals might need to change with it. Therefore, it’s important to revisit and revise your goals as needed. Remember that while setting and achieving goals is important, it’s equally crucial to remain flexible and to adapt your goals to changing circumstances.
- Regularly review your goals: Schedule time to check in on your goals, such as once per month or quarterly (every three months) in order to see if they’re still meaningful and important to you. Reflecting on your mission and values can also help ensure they continue to align with who you are and what you care about.
- Include others in the conversation: If appropriate, consult with others, such as team members or close friends, to ask for their opinions and insight.
Examples of How Top Leaders and Entrepreneurs Set Goals
“Success is the progressive realization of a worthy goal or ideal.”Earl Nightingale
Research conducted by Washington State University revealed that “thousands of companies around the world are using goal setting in some form, including Coca-Cola Company, PricewaterhouseCoopers International Ltd., Nike Inc., Intel Corporation, and Microsoft Corporation, to name a few.”
Here are a few noteworthy examples of successful individuals and businesses that attribute their achievements to the practice of goal setting:
- Elon Musk: The CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is known for setting ambitious goals, such as making his vision of multi-planetary life a reality and having a large percentage of the population drive electric cars. While these ideas may seem unreachable, and despite many challenges, he has made significant progress toward achieving these goals through consistent effort and perseverance. Musk credits much of his success with having a “strategic mindset,” in which he constantly reviews what he’s aiming for and why, as well as his methods. He actively analyzes tasks, plans in detail, self-monitors, and revises his strategies when needed.
- Oprah Winfrey: Oprah rose from poverty to become a billionaire and one of the most influential women in the world. She set goals throughout her life, ranging from becoming a news anchor to building a media empire. Oprah has shared that she uses tactics including visualization and meditation to practice self-actualization and boost her confidence.
- Michael Phelps: The most decorated Olympian of all time, Phelps has been known to use goal setting in his training regimen. His coach Bob Bowman noted that Phelps would write down his goals before each season and had a clear plan of what he wanted to achieve. He also believes in displaying written goals in visible places. Phelps tells CNBC, “I write my goals down on a piece of paper and they’re there where I can see them because I have to have a reason, I have to see something for why I’m getting up in the morning and what I’m doing that day.”
- Google: Google is famous for its goal-setting process known as OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). Each quarter, every employee sets ambitious goals (Objectives) and concrete measures of success (Key Results). This practice is intended to align and focus the company’s efforts while also allowing employees to be creative and innovative. Google usually recommends its employees set several goals per quarter. Other companies also use OKRs, including Spotify, Twitter, LinkedIn, Intel, and Airbnb.
- Amazon: Amazon has a goal-oriented culture where every project starts with an official “Operating Plan.” Project managers write plans every year to describe the end goal of their team’s projects, how they benefit customers, and the key features of the projects. This approach forces teams to crystallize their goals at the beginning of a project, providing a clear vision to work toward. Senior-level executives then use these plans to allocate resources to Amazon’s various teams.
- Starbucks: Starbucks sets a variety of goals each year relating to sales growth, new store openings, sustainability, and employee development. They are known for their commitment to taking great care of their employees, customers, and the planet, on top of achieving sales. By relying in part on feedback from their employees, they goal-set using a model of transparency in which they share progress updates regularly and revisit goals that are no longer working.
Overcoming Common Challenges When Goal Setting
When working toward your goals, expect to encounter some obstacles along the way, such as lack of motivation, fear of failure, procrastination, and unrealistic expectations.
Certain strategies can help you overcome these challenges, such as:
- Set the right types of goals in the first place: As mentioned above, your goals need to be SMART, such as realistic and specific, or they likely won’t work.
- Identify the factors that are preventing you from making progress: Get specific about what’s standing in your way, such as limiting beliefs or feelings of overwhelm. Brainstorm how you can tackle these issues, such as by freeing up more time in your schedule or delegating tasks.
- Improve your confidence and mindset: Many goals aren’t realized because of self-sabotage, limiting beliefs, or old patterns that block desired growth. Self-doubt or excuses can halt personal goals in their tracks or cause a loss of focus and motivation. Becoming aware of past destructive patterns or habitual blocks requires time to reflect. Carve out a place in your schedule for pressing pause and thinking about what’s getting in the way of achieving your goals.
- Increase accountability to maintain motivation: Ask yourself if a better support system is required to maintain momentum.
- Modify goals that are no longer relevant: Return to your vision and mission, making sure that your goal is still worthwhile to pursue. Don’t be afraid to adjust your goals as needed based on your circumstances.
Turn Behaviors Into Habits to Make Your Goals a Reality
Working toward a goal might seem difficult at first, but behaviors become automated with repetition and practice, making them easier to sustain. The best way to keep reaching goals long-term is to build beneficial habits, since habits allow us to perform tasks without expending a significant amount of mental energy. However, this doesn’t happen overnight. One study from the European Journal of Social Psychology found that it takes 66 days on average for a repeated action to turn into a habit.
With persistence, habits can potentially drive significant, lasting change over time. Here are tips for turning goal-oriented behaviors into enduring habits:
- Prioritize important tasks: Treat scheduled goals as if they were an appointment with an important client. Furthermore, avoid rescheduling or dismissing them, which reduces their significance. Complete important tasks first, which reduces the chances you’ll lack the mental resources needed for more complex tasks.
- Practice consistency and structure: Habits create routine and predictability in our lives. They help us know what to expect at various points in our day, which can make us feel more in control and reduce anxiety. Stick to a schedule to get the most out of your days, such as by working, resting, and sleeping at regular times.
- Make your behaviors a part of your identity: The habits you cultivate can reflect and shape your identity. For example, if you make a habit of reading books or exercising every day, you’ll likely identify as a reader or athlete. This can boost your self-esteem and keep propelling you forward.
- Keep learning and growing: View yourself as a constant work in progress. Once a positive habit is formed, it can be easier to add another habit to it, leading to a cascade of positive behaviors. This concept, known as “habit stacking,” can lead to significant improvements in various aspects of your life and buffer you against the effects of negative experiences.
Want to learn more about effective decision-making and how it can impact every area of your life? Check out this article:
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