No person on this planet hasn’t heard about goal setting at least a hundred times in their life. Your parents may have tried to instill it in you, and you may have heard it from your teachers or coaches in school. If somehow the concept eluded you during that time, you certainly met goal setting in the context of your first and any subsequent jobs you may have had.
And, let’s be honest, most of the things that your parents and teachers tried to make you do, and almost everything your bosses make you do, are pretty freakin’ annoying. That’s precisely why goal setting gets such a bad reputation. It’s like a chore that sucks the life of everything that is fun in the world.
The thing is, it doesn’t have to be. I bet that by the end of this article, you’ll take goal setting out for a coffee, and you’ll make up. Hell, you might even invite goal setting to meet your friends. Sooner than you think, you’ll never let goal setting out of your sight. Let’s see if I’m right.
What’s Goal Setting?
First and foremost, let’s talk about what’s goal setting because most people misunderstand the concept in several ways.
- Goal setting applies to just one big thing at a time (THE goal).
- You can’t set any goals until you are fully ready to tackle them.
- Too many goals will get in the way of your “real” life.
The proper way to think about goal setting is an overarching concept across your entire life (time and areas). That means that you need to have goals in all aspects of your life, not just one, and you must set goals for different periods, including your full life.
Also, the goal’s outcome is not the only thing to keep an eye out for in life. It’s also the journey, as they say. Your goal setting encompasses everything from having the thought about the goal, getting ready for the objective, training, practicing, learning new things to tackle the target, and then actually working on the goal.
It’s all related. In this way, goal setting no longer becomes a one-time thing or something that you dread and have to drag yourself to do it. Instead, it turns into an integral part of your entire life.
So, goal setting is no longer something ‘else’ you must do; it’s the way you do things, and it goes like this:
Vision -> Goal -> Action -> Repeat
- The vision is the desired outcome for each particular area of life. It could be the way you’d want to look, or where you’d like to live and with whom, or what profession you want to have. It’s your image of an ideal future.
- The goal is actually a series of objectives; it starts with the one derived directly from that ideal future and then breaks down into many shorter-term goals and tasks.
- Lastly, the action is the execution. If you plan from left to right (from vision to action), the plan’s implementation requires you to continually look back (toward the vision) and gauge your progress to-date.
So that is how you should regard goal setting: as a connector or a bridge between what you want and what you do. In this way, the goal itself acts as a motivator for you to move forward and reach for that vision.
Why Is Goal Setting Important?
It’s probably not surprising to learn that goal-setting theory goes back as far as 1960 when Edwin A. Locke, an American psychologist, postulated that specific and challenging goals paired with appropriate feedback and progress tracking lead to higher and better performance.
I am not going to get into a boring monologue about goal setting theory, but I wanted to point out that people have been working on it for many years. As you can imagine, the world of business jumped right on the bandwagon when they saw the dangling carrot in the form of “better performance.” So goal setting took roots into the corporate world and never left.
But, what about personal goal setting. Is there a theory in that context?
Of course, there is, and it’s just the same. The only problem is that when you try to apply corporate theories to your personal life, you generally start to gag. Strategize, synergize, let’s make a plan. Ugh!
The reality is that in the realm of goals, the goal-setting theory overlaps personal life to a large extent, but it’s difficult to see and accept if you start from that perspective. If the only way you think about goal setting is for becoming a more productive human being, although that sounds good, there’s no “fire” behind it—no emotional drive.
You need to slash those ideas with a samurai sword, and never think about it that way ever again. Instead, please close your eyes and look at it from the inside out.
To accomplish anything in life, you must:
- Know where you are (your starting point, your resources)
- Know where to go (your ending point, your desired vision)
- Take action to complete it, which further requires you to:
- Split the action across multiple periods
- Divide the action into bite-sized pieces
- Complete each sub-task that adds up another brick to the larger task
If you think about anything that you’ve ever done successfully in your life, you will be able to map it to this pattern. On the other hand, if you recall any situation in which you failed and were not able to accomplish what you wanted, you can trace that to a failure in one of these points.
Therefore, goal setting is not just the act of setting a clear goal or target; it’s the entire journey from where you are today through to the execution.
So, if everything you do and want to do follows this pattern, and your life’s accomplishments depend on you following this pattern, goal setting is not only critical in your life, but it becomes a way of living. It’s no longer ‘something else’ you must do; it’s what you do.
How to Do Proper Goal Setting?
Now that you understand and agree wholeheartedly that goal setting is a critical activity in everyone’s life, and you managed to banish those corporate-driven thoughts about goal setting, let’s see what the proper way to set your goals is.
Characteristics of Personal Goals
Just about the same time as Edwin Locke defined the goal-setting theory, the concept of S.M.A.R.T goals came to be. That’s quite a cute little acronym that stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Now, that’s all fine and dandy, but I think that for the sake of having a cute name for it, they left out some essential characteristics of goals.
So, I came up with my definitions, detailed below. I won’t use them as an acronym, though, unless you are linguistically-nimble enough to say SRMRFCCTEP.
- Specific: Goals cannot be vague or left to interpretation. Goals must be precise and very clear.
- Realistic: Goals must be practical in the sense that they are achievable.
- Measurable: You must be able to measure goals, or otherwise, you won’t know if you’ve completed them.
- Relevant: Goals must be connected to your life and your overall life vision.
- Flexible: To some extent, you should be flexible enough to adapt your goals to sudden life changes.
- Controllable: Because these are your goals, you must be in full control of their execution.
- Challenging: Goals must push you gently outside of your comfort zone to drive your growth.
- Timed: Goals must have a firm deadline. Goals without a deadline are merely dreams.
- Ethical: Goals should be morally ethical and not infringe on anyone else’s pursuit of happiness.
- Positive: Goals should be uplifting and drive growth.
Setting the Right Kind Of Goal
For this system to work correctly, you need to set the right kind of goal for the correct type of period. From that perspective, you must first go through the exercise of setting up your vision for life. I firmly believe that it’s a crucial prerequisite because your vision is a powerful magnet for your behavior.
Unlike a mere, “I want to be more productive,” by setting up a vision for your life, you flip that into lifelong energy that generates drive and motivation. You create a system that will actively push you to complete those goals, and you will hold yourself accountable for it. You basically create a system of self-responsibility and self-regulation that, over time, will lead you toward your vision.
Now, with that vision in hand, you can begin to unpack it, bit by bit:
- Audacious Goals: These are your lifetime, big goals. They span your entire life, and they are as big as you could imagine. Because of their nature, the audacious goals are nothing but an extension of your vision. That vision defines what you want or who you will be in all aspects, including physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual/social. These big goals are so big that they almost seem unattainable; that’s okay. Their role is to provide you with a compass and a direction at all times. As you may have guessed, the deadline for these goals is… your death.
- Long-Term Goals: These goals are the ones that you will attempt to accomplish over one to ten years. They are derived from the audacious goals above and contribute to their achievement.
- Short-Term Goals: These are goals that you will have to complete over the next twelve months, aka your annual goals. However, don’t think of the year as of January through December. Instead, think of the next twelve months. These goals either derive directly from the audacious goals or long-term goals or represent other smaller stepping stones contributing to their realization.
- Big Tasks: Of course, to complete your annual goals, you need to complete different tasks every month. With each month that goes by, you add one more brick to your short-term yearly goals.
- Small Tasks: Using the same logic, you will complete your monthly tasks through smaller steps week by week. Your weekly tasks are as close as it can be to your to-do list. But now, it’s not just a random to-do list; instead, it links upstream to your grand, audacious goals.
- Habits: These are your daily routines and practices. Through consistency and discipline, they contribute to your daily and weekly tasks.
As you can see, the farther you go into the future, the less immediate action there is. On the other hand, the closer in time you are, the more direct, immediate action there is, done with consistency and discipline.
If you don’t set up proper habits that support your upstream goals, although your big audacious goals will always serve as a beacon for your direction, it might take you forever to get there. So, the idea is not only that you want to set up goals and a plan of action, but you want to make sure that you achieve them in a reasonable time so that you can enjoy their fruits.
So, to recap, you can summarize this goal-setting strategy in 8 simple steps, as below. Of course, take ‘simple’ with a grain of salt because each stage and the process overall will require work on your part: deliberate, consistent work, day after day.
- Create a vision in all areas of your life.
- Derive some big and audacious goals out of that vision.
- Decide on 5-10 goals you want to achieve over the next ten years.
- Decide on the 1-3 goals you want to achieve this year.
- Divide and Conquer: Break those goals into monthly chunks.
- Divide those chunks into weekly tasks.
- Create supporting habits so that you can execute the tasks day by day.
- Review and revise all these points annually for the rest of your life.
Goal Setting Must Lead to Action
Now look, we’ve covered this above. There is no such thing as goal setting without action. You don’t merely set goals; you set goals so that you can accomplish them. Setting goals without action is like massaging a peg-leg: it’s pointless.
Therefore, the action behind the goals that you set is just as necessary, if not even more important than the goal-setting itself. That is why breaking your goals down into smaller and smaller pieces and then acting upon the smallest one is the way to go. I’ve discussed in the past the idea of divide and conquer, and goal setting is a perfect real-life application of that concept.
The idea is to chunk your biggest goals down the funnel from top to bottom. The smallest and simplest component is the one you’ll act upon first. As soon as you complete that one, now you have one tiny brick to add to the bottom of the pyramid. That is why you plan from top to bottom, and you execute from the bottom to the top.
And the idea is that you will always and continually work on the smallest things, but over time, they will stack up and amass to something huge. Of course, this also implies that you can set up proper priorities in your life by learning how to say no to distractions and embrace only the essential.
Goal Progress Tracking
One critical characteristic of goals, as expressed above, is that they must be measurable. If you can’t measure something, you cannot check your progress, and without checking progress, how would you know if you had succeeded or failed?
No matter what kind of goals you have, you must gauge your progress at all times. Whether you use apps for goal setting or manual goal setting worksheets and notebooks, you must figure out a way to do it.
You know that I love technology, and I’ll use any tool that increases my productivity. But, for some reason, when it comes to goal tracking, I do like the manual process. There’s something about a simple sheet of paper where you get to mark your progress that does the work for me.
Over the years, I’ve designed multiple worksheets for goal setting, some more generic, and others very specific. But, no matter what, they all share some common points:
- The goal name and description
- An expected completion date (deadline)
- The life area and roles that it applies to (context)
- Its purpose or why (clarity)
- A progress indicator (0% – 100%)
- Milestones (smaller tasks needed to complete the goal)
- Notes and remarks
I’m not going to delve too much into the science of habits because I believe it deserves its own article. Instead, I’m only going to mention that those daily habits I described above have the potential to make or break your entire goal plan.
You see, your day is just like any other period: it has a beginning and an ending. But the day also has a biological cycle to us humans. As days come and go, our lives move forward. That’s why establishing healthy daily habits and routines that support your goals is critical.
In this context, I make an exception from my paper-tracking preference. That’s because, with daily habits, you need to have something in your hand at all times, and tracking should take seconds and be super easy and convenient. That is why it’s far better to use apps for habit tracking that mere paper worksheets or notebooks.
Here are some of the best habit tracking apps, which I have personally used over time. I will try to do a full review for each one in a future article:
- Beeminder (for those who are okay paying $ for failing at their habits)
- Tick Tick
- Habitica (for those who also love RPG games)
Setting Up Goals – Conclusion
I hope that I managed to shift your mindset about goal setting, and I’ve converted you into a believer. I wish you good luck with your goals and dreams!
Other Goal Setting Resources
- Personal Goal Setting
- Golden Rules of Goal Setting
- Goal Setting: A Scientific Guide to Setting and Achieving Goals
- What is Goal Setting and How to Do it Well
Now, before you go, I have…
3 Questions For You
- Which step in the goal-setting process do you find most challenging to tackle?
- What are some of your favorite tools or systems to track the progress of your goals?
- What are your biggest struggles with staying consistent with your action plan?
Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!
Hi there! I’m Iulian, and I want to thank you for reading my article. There’s a lot more if you stick around. I write about personal development, productivity, fiction writing, and more. Also, I’ve created Self-Growth Journey, a free program that helps you get unstuck and create the beautiful life you deserve. Enjoy!