Goals—we all have them in one form or another, though they can vary widely and wildly.
And while one person might be planning a trek up Everest and another may be planning to retire at forty, another’s goal might simply be getting out of bed that day.
As human beings, we often set goals as a way of improving, or evolving: To lose weight, to get healthy, to improve our attachment styles in relationships, to focus more on our art, to get into law school, or to start a family. But while there is an abundance of goals one can hope to achieve, it often seems there are far more goals that go unfulfilled.
This is why the art of goal setting becomes an important skill to master.
If you work hard striving for goals and yet never seem to get very far, it’s possible that a little more groundwork could be the ticket. You may need to spend more time reflecting on what you truly want, and turning those clear wants into concrete, formal goals.
While it’s most certainly true that the journey is the destination, our chances of ever reaching a destination—not to mention, getting the most out of a journey—depend heavily on our clarity of desire and intention. In other words, clear goal setting is a key part of getting done what we want to accomplish.
What is goal setting?
Goal setting can be defined as the process in which you identify something you wish to achieve, and go about setting a timeframe in which to achieve it, complete with measurable objectives along the way.
According to famed life coach Tony Robbins, learning to set goals in one area of your life makes it easier to do the same in other areas, and setting goals with milestones along the way which allow for small, progressive wins helps pave the way for larger achievements.
People across all backgrounds, experiences, and industries set goals in order to make progress towards them, in large part because goal setting helps us keep the long term big picture in mind while also motivating us in the short term.
Ultimately, effective goal setting, proper time management and a well organized goal setting strategy is the key to progress and making the most of your life. By defining smart goals, not only will it help you understand the different types of goals and their relationship to one another, but it will set you up on a road to long-term success.
What are the 3 types of goals?
Process goals, also known as procedural goals, are based on specific, measurable actions, such as aiming to work on your novel for one hour every morning, or doing yoga for 30 minutes a day.
Setting a process goal means honing in on strategies related to what you want to achieve entirely within your control, and finding ways that will increase your chances of accomplishing what you set out to do.
Particularly helpful for altering habits and behaviors, process goals often include clearly scheduled plans, such as exercising 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week, for a 1 month. As luck (or dedication) would have it, process goals also help pave the way for outcome goals.
If process goals are the journey, outcome goals are the destination.
Outcome goals are based on the precise end results you want to achieve. This could mean scoring a position you’ve been vying for, getting into the NHL, winning a grant, or building your own house.
Outcome goals are challenging to control due to external influences. For instance, saying, “I will become an acupuncturist” tells you what result you’re looking for, but not how to get there. While you can study hard, you don’t grade your own exams.
Ultimately, while we can take steps to influence the outcome in our favor, the final results are more or less beyond our control.
Performance goals are largely controllable, though not entirely, and they are based on your personal standards. Aiming to graduate at the top of your class is a good example of a performance goal.
Think of it this way: performance goals set the bar for our process goals. They’re results-focused. For example, while your process goal might be to jog an hour a day for 3 months, and your outcome goal might be to win a marathon, your performance goal might involve gradually improving your speed.
Ultimately, the best way to attain an outcome goal is to align your performance goals with your process goals.
Why is goal setting Important?
It’s actually relatively simple. If you want to accomplish personal goals, or improve, succeed, or even excel at something, goal setting practices are necessary. Without them, we lack direction and attention.
- Agency. Setting goals helps us grab the reins that steer our lives, while also providing a benchmark to evaluate whether or not our trajectory is well-aimed at success.
- Growth. Setting goals is also the most natural way in the world to set yourself up for personal growth and expansion, as goals and goal achievement push us out of our comfort zones, facilitating transformation in ways that previously may not have seemed possible.
- Fulfillment. For many, a feeling of fulfillment can only come with the sense that we’re working toward achieving some kind of success, whatever dreams you may have. In other words, progress and satisfaction are profoundly linked.
How to achieve your goals
It can be very helpful to begin the goal setting process by looking at your long term vision. By breaking down your lifetime goals into smaller goals, you can achieve goals over a progressive time frame: ten years, two years, one year, until you get to next month, next week, and finally, today.
Once you’ve looked at the big picture and broken it down into numerous smaller pictures, you’re ready to start moving toward achieving them. This is the key to effective goal setting.
Let’s break down this important prep work, shall we?
Want to achieve? Here’s how to set goals
- Brainstorm. Take 5 or 10 minutes to brainstorm a list of any and all things you hope to do, create, achieve, have, or experience in the next 20 years (or however many years you want). Don’t hesitate—just write it all down, whether it seems realistic or not.
- Organize. Since deadlines are integral to setting goals, go through your list and next to each goal, indicate how many years (or months) it will take to achieve them.
- Review. Look through your list again, and select your top 4 goals. Try to pick some short and some longer term. Ideally, these are the goals which excite you. Then, write a blurb for each, detailing why you will definitely be achieving the goal within your scheduled time frame (i.e., what’s driving you to succeed?).
- Assess. Look over your list again with fresh eyes and determine whether your goals are clearly defined, measurable, and realistic. Do they have a deadline built in? Most of us work best with a bit of pressure in the mix.
What are the 5 steps to goal setting?
1. Set SMART goals
Harnessing the SMART framework as a 5-step strategy for setting personal goals with a clear purpose can be super helpful for setting you on the path to successful goal fulfillment! Here’s what SMART stands for:
Perhaps the most important thing is that your goal setting be clear and concrete. Avoid vagueness when setting goals because you’ll only end up lacking direction. Think of goals as lanterns, lighting up your path. The more precise and well-defined your goals are, the clearer your path to success will be.
Be sure to include precise dates, scores, amounts, etc., in your goals so you have a straightforward way of measuring your progress. If your goal is “To eat less sugar,” it will be difficult to determine at what point you’ve successfully achieved it. Instead, come up with tangibles so you can measure feedback, like “a 50% reduction in one year.” That way, you’ll have a much clearer idea when a celebration is in order!
While it’s important not to let others tell us what is and isn’t realistic when it comes to goal setting, it’s important to look inside yourself and determine whether it’s actually possible to achieve the goals you set forth. If you set a goal you have no hope of achieving (i.e., switching careers to become a rocket scientist) you will end up discouraged. At the same time, try not to set goals that are too easy either. Individuals should have goals that occupy the sweet spot: realistic yet challenging. These are the types that push you to grow.
It may go without saying, but your goals should be relevant to whatever direction you want your life and/or career to take. Otherwise, why set goals? If your goals diverge with the trajectory you’re currently on, you may end up struggling to make time or stay focused. By keeping your goals aligned with your current path, you’ll develop the self-discipline you need to fulfill your goals. All of that said, if your goal is to alter your current life path, and you’re motivated enough to follow through on the challenges, don’t let anyone else’s list of rules discourage you.
To get what you want to achieve, you have to give your goals a deadline, even if you’re not a deadlines person. Achieving goals is hard to do any other way. Goal setting theory tells us that deadlines give us a well-suited sense of urgency, remind us to celebrate victories (both big and small), and ultimately help us to achieve our goals with time to spare for other things.
2. Identify your greatest motivators.
Any goals you set for yourself should motivate you, and in order to motivate you, they need to mean something to you. If your goal doesn’t fully interest you, or in some way contradicts your bigger picture, then the chances that you’ll make it a reality are low.
One of the best goal setting tips is that, wherever possible, you should set goals aligned with your highest priorities: your career, your relationship, your family. Without high priority focus, you can end up with too many goals, scattered over different parts of your life. This can be overwhelming or frustrating and leave you with little time to spend on each. This in turn is demotivating.
Focused motivation is the fuel you need to make it happen!
3. Write it down.
Taking the time to think about a goal thoroughly enough to put it in writing makes it real. You no longer risk letting it slip your mind.
Use concrete language like “will” instead of “would like to” or “might.” For example, “I will become a personal trainer,” rather than “I would like to become a personal trainer.” The difference may seem negligible, but words have power, and can hold our passions if we use them right.
Once they’re down on paper, post your goals in visible places (like your fridge, or your bathroom mirror) to serve as daily reminders.
4. Create an action plan
Many of us skip the action plan step in the goal setting routine, but it’s crucial to achieve goals. We become overly focused on the outcome, to the detriment of the steps needed to get there!
Write down every step you need to make, and enjoy crossing them off your list, one by one. This is especially important if your goal entails a long term commitment.
Goal setting is an ongoing commitment, not just a way of achieving results. Be sure to schedule regular reminders to keep yourself focused, and allot daily or weekly time slots to review and update your goals.
While your end goal may stay the same in the long term, how you get there can change drastically. To stay committed to your outcome, check in with yourself regularly to make sure your goals are still relevant, valuable, and necessary to your life. You should still feel excited about them.
Why we sometimes fail to achieve our goals
Arguably, coming up with goals is easy when compared with all the work that goes into outlining its specifics, coming up with an action plan, and following through with them despite the obstacles that are sure to crop up along the way.
You don’t need to look far to see there are many reasons we fail to fulfill our goals and all the dreams that accompany them. Here are some of the reasons why we fail to achieve our goals, and how to avoid falling into the usual traps:
- We’re too focused on the effort it takes. Keep your eye on the prize, even through all the hard work.
- Our goals are vague or unattainable. Be concrete, define everything with clarity and focus.
- There are too many pots on the stove. Avoid setting goals which are scattered, especially ones that conflict with each other.
- We plan poorly. Consider all your responsibilities and measure them against your goals: i.e., don’t aim to win a tennis championship the same year you plan to have a baby.
- We lose sight of our motivators. Don’t lose sight of why you’re striving for something in the first place: that’s your bread and butter, right there.
- We make excuses. Although sometimes life does get in the way, it’s important to listen to the excuses we make and judge whether we ourselves actually do believe them.
- We don’t expect any obstacles. Planning for potential obstacles is arguably just as important as planning our goals out—it’s also a good way to avoid being taken off guard and having your whole process derailed.
- We fail to set deadlines. Sometimes, the best lifeline is a deadline! In other words, to have the right time management, you need a barometer by setting deadlines. Even if they may seem arbitrary, they can actually act as self-fulfilling prophecies.
- We pay attention to naysayers. There will always be haters and naysayers out there in life who discourage you or plant seeds of doubt—ignore them, because they’re often a sign that you’re doing things right.
- We’re afraid of failure. Fear of failure, often rooted in perfectionism, can seriously hold us back, yet without risk, we achieve nothing. Overcome this and avoid sabotaging your goals!
- We procrastinate with the best of them. Of all the reasons we fail to achieve our goals, procrastination is the most widespread. According to the Harvard Business Review, one of the best ways to beat procrastination is by committing publicly, or telling as many people you can about your goal so you have people to hold you to task.
The good news is, the main reason people fail has to do with how they set their goals. And this, as we’ve seen, is something that can be corrected.
The other good news: if you’re not failing at something, you’re not doing much. Even if you don’t achieve a specific goal, chances are you’ve made a good deal of progress.
The real question is, what will you do with your failures—and your successes? When you fail, you’re always free to go back and reevaluate your process to gain insight about what you might have done differently, and when.
Analyzing our failures help us alter our strategies and tackle our goals from fresh new angles. After all, even if the results you want are highly specific, there may actually be numerous different ways and systems you can use to reach your final destination. Once you determine what it is that caused you to fail, you can choose to learn from it (we should all do the same with our successes, truth be told).
Every single time we set a goal, we have the opportunity to learn something new.