Goal Setting: How to Set and Achieve Your Goals
What is goal setting, how do you do it, and how do you make sure you achieve your goals? Here’s what the science says about goal setting.
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What Is Goal Setting?
Goal setting is defined here as the process of thinking about and deciding on specific aims or objectives that one would like to achieve. Goal setting often also includes planning, which is breaking down goals into smaller pieces that can then be easily scheduled or executed. Although there are many types of goals—life goals, work goals, financial goals, relationship goals, etc...—all of these goals can be benefited by going through a goal-setting process that helps us identify, clarify, and execute the goals that are likely to actually make us happy. In this article, we’ll talk about how to set the right goals, in the right ways so that you can more easily reach your goals.
Why Is Goal Setting Important?
Many years of research have shown that setting goals can help us improve our performance (Latham, & Locke, 2007). Moreover, when we use science-based goal setting strategies, we make it more likely that we achieve the goals we set for ourselves and that these goals actually affect our lives in the ways we want them to.
For example, the SMART goal system (which we’ll talk about more below), suggests that we set goals that are meaningful to us. When we do this, we’re more motivated to work towards our goals and experience greater enjoyment while we do it. Overall, setting goals helps us gain the clarity we need to take the actions that get us to where we want to go.
Goal setting theories offer us some useful information on what goals do for us and how we can set goals that really work for us. To start, goals establish an endpoint so that we know which direction to go in. This goal-directed action includes four parts (Latham & Locke, 1991).
SMART Goal Setting
SMART goal setting is a strategy used to help us set goals that we are more likely to reach. It involves thinking about different aspects of our goal and ensuring that it has some specific characteristic. A SMART goal is:
So when setting goals, make sure your goals are SMART. The questions and guidelines below can help:
Is your goal specific?
Ask yourself, does your goal include clear boundaries? James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, says we should set upper and lower limits for our goals. For example, we might set a goal to go to the gym at least twice per week but no more than 4 times per week. By setting these boundary conditions, we get clearer on exactly what our goal is and help prevent ourselves from burning out.
Is your goal meaningful?
Ask yourself, why does this goal matter to you? Dig deep to make sure your goal is consistent with your values and is in alignment with your desired lifestyle. If your goal goes against your values or lifestyle, it’ll be hard to stick to.
Is your goal achievable?
Ask yourself, is this goal possible? There are a lot of folks out there telling you that you can easily wish your way to being a millionaire. Although having positive expectations can indeed help you reach those expectations (Rasmussen, Scheier, & Greenhouse, 2009) and setting challenging goals helps us perform better than we might have expected, the science does not support the practice of setting impractical goals. For example, if your goal is to get rich, think carefully about the amount of effort you can exert and the likely results of that effort. Otherwise, you could be setting yourself up for disappointment.
Is your goal realistic?
To my mind, a realistic goal includes time parameters. Ask yourself, is the timeline you’ve set for the goal realistic? Given the number of hours you have in a day, can you reach the goal in the time you expect to?
Is your goal trackable?
Lastly, ask yourself, is the goal trackable? We are more likely to achieve goals when we track them. Perhaps seeing our progress helps motivate or inspire us. Regardless, make sure your goal is trackable. For example, if your goal is to make the world a better place, how would you track this? Would you count the number of kind things you say to strangers, the number of times you volunteer, or something else? Whatever your goal is, break it down into trackable, measurable chunks.
How to Set Goals
Very often, goal setting is described as a detached, mental, unemotional process. But when we leave a sense of emotional connection out of our goal-setting, we actually do ourselves a disservice. If we set goals that do not represent ourselves (namely, our values and interests), we set ourselves up for less satisfying experiences, and therefore, we reduce the likelihood that we actually stick to our goals (Sheldon & Elliot, 1999).
Goal setting is a tool to enhance well-being
Ultimately, happiness and well-being are the ultimate goals—we set the goals that we set because we think they will make us feel good in some sense. Yet, so much of the goal-setting guides fail to consider the emotional ramifications of the goals we set. If I set a financial goal that requires me to work 80 hours per week, my goal might actually make me less happy. Or, if have a goal to never go through a divorce despite being in a miserable marriage, my goal might actually hurt me.
Goal setting is an expression of ourselves
Another thing to consider is how well our goals represent who we are. We’ve likely all heard stories of people who climbed the corporate ladder only to end up at the top, miserable despite having achieved all their goals. The goals that they set didn’t actually represent who they are. Other people might set financial goals that go against their core values. For example, I know someone who really doesn’t believe that money should be important. As a result, this person constantly struggles to stick to money-making goals. She just doesn’t feel emotionally connected to the goal.
When setting goals, we first need to get in touch with our true selves. Goals that we think we ‘should’ have or that are driven by societal demands or expectations are likely harder to stick to. For example, it is not uncommon for us to adopt the goals that our parents want for us rather than the goals we want for ourselves.
Goal setting is a way to meet our own expectations
Additionally, we might set goals that meet society's expectations rather than our own. For example, we might set a goal to buy a big house or a nice car because our society values these things even though we do not. This is why it’s so important to reflect on how each of our goals fit us. Overall, by setting goals that are consistent with our true self, we help satisfy core needs like autonomy. Goals that are driven from sources outside ourselves are often anxiety-producing and may lead to feelings of guilt (Sheldon & Elliot, 1999).
Ask yourself, are my goals in alignment with what I know about myself? Are my goals actually coming from me? Or, are there external influences that have led me to choose my goals? Making sure that your goals are true to you and are actually going to satisfy your emotional needs is key.
The SMART goal system is a great tool for goal setting. But here are a few more tips that can help aid the goal-setting process.
Hopefully, some of these goal setting tips can help you set and reach your goals.
Goal Setting Examples
Now that you know how to set goals, what kind of goals might you want to set? Here are some examples.
Video: Guide to Goal Setting
Goal Setting Challenges
I’ve been writing a series of articles on goals, and it’s been helping me better understand how goal setting actually works in real life. It’s a bit messier than goal-setting articles really account for. So here are some thoughts on common challenges that come up with goal setting.
Some goals actually oppose other goals. I’ve found that work-related goals often oppose home-related goals. We literally do not have enough hours to pursue all of our goals, and when pursuing career goals, they often leave home-related goals, things like family, social life, or self-care, often get left behind. Setting effective goals ultimately requires finding a balance between our goals. Perhaps, we don’t reach our career goals as quickly because we don’t want to sacrifice our home goals. In general, completely giving up on one goal to pursue the opposite goal tends to leave people unhappy. So it’s helpful to think about how we will compromise with ourselves and give goals on both sides a chance.
Like opposing goals, conflicting goals represent a challenge that can be difficult to overcome. Conflicting goals are two goals that fundamentally don’t work together. For example, if someone has a goal to be a kind relationship-partner and a goal to sleep with as many people as possible, these goals likely conflict. Pursuing one goal means they are not successful at the other.
You might be surprised how often we have conflicting goals and then wonder why we’re failing miserably at both of them. For example, I have a goal to be a successful solopreneur, but I also have a goal to be part of a team. By pursuing one goal, I actually hurt my ability to succeed in the other goal and often feel frustrated for failing in both goals.
Really, the only way I’ve seen to overcome goal conflicts is to merge the two conflicting goals, if possible. For example, I could strive to be a successful solopreneur and then form my own team. Or, in the example above, the person could choose to be in an open or polyamorous relationship so that they can meet both of their goals at the same time. Overall, identifying and reworking conflicting goals is key to success.
Goal setting contingencies
We come across goal setting contingencies all the time. We need to do X before we can do Y. So Y goal is contingent on X goal. For example, we need to go to school before we can get the job we want. The challenge with goal contingencies is just having the perseverance to stick to the goal long enough to get through all the prerequisites.
Goal setting catch 22s
Like goal contingencies, goal setting can also have catch 22s. These are where we need to do X before we can do Y, but we also need to Y before we can do X. A classic example of this conundrum is when we need experience to get the job, but we need the job to get experience.
This can be a tough nut to crack, but usually involves finding a way to do a little bit of X so that we can do a little bit of Y and that helps us do a little more of X and so on. So we might volunteer a few hours per week to get a little bit of experience. This then helps get a first job, which helps us get a little more experience, which turns into a better job and so on.
When I decided to go back to school and my PhD in psychology, I was caught in this classic catch 22. I needed research experience, so I needed a research job. But I couldn’t get a research job without research experience. So I ended up volunteering in a research lab on my day off of work, eventually got a job, this helped me get into a PhD program and the rest is history.
Goal Setting Hacks
Many of us feel like we come up against goal challenges a lot. But sometimes goals can be set in ways that make them so easy that they almost seem to achieve themselves. Here are a few tricks I’ve seen that may be helpful.
Mutually supportive goals
Just like some goals conflict with each other, some goals support each other. Diet and exercise are a great example of this. If we have the goals to eat well and exercise, the more we do one the easier it is to do the other. That’s because eating right makes it easier for our bodies to exercise and when we exercise we often crave foods that are better fuel. These goals have just helped each other.
Like contingent goals, these goals need to be achieved first before we can move on to the next goal. But unlike contingent goals, they not only support our next goal but also many other goals. For example, financial goals often have multiple benefits to other goals—when we have more money, we can pursue all sorts of goals. Figuring out which of your goals support not just one but several of your other goals sets you up to see more progress, faster.
Lastly, exponential goals are goals where the effort you put in results in a greater amount of return. You can think of these goals kind of like the stock market. If you put in $1, you’ll generally get back more than $1 at some point in the future. I consider positivity goals to be exponential goals because a small boost in positive emotions doesn’t just result in that amount of positive emotions. Positivity also leads to upward spirals of positive emotion that build on themselves (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002). Plus, these emotions lead people to like you more, help you with your goals, and support your professional success.
Goal Setting Plans & Tools
There are a few different plans or tools you can use to help you reach your goals. Here are some ideas to explore.
Creating a 10-year plan can help you get a better understanding of what you want to achieve over a longer period of time. By knowing this you help avoid short-termism and set goals that are a greater benefit to you.
Goal setting vision board
A vision board is a fun and creative way to better visualize your future. By including images that represent your goals, you may be able to better imagine achieving those goals. If you create a vision board, it can help to put it up on the wall and look at it often.
Goal setting templates and goal setting worksheets
Sometimes it’s helpful to have goal setting worksheets to better organize your goals and keep your thinking clear.
Goal setting planners
If you prefer to have a planner or notebook for your goals, there are many to choose from. Here is one nice goal-setting planner.
Video: Set the right goals
Goal Setting Books
Here a few goal-setting books if you’d like to keep learning more about how to set goals:
Goal setting can help us engage in goal-directed behavior so that we get the things in life that matter to us. By using these strategies, we can likely achieve a lot. So why not give them a try?