Life Goals: Definition, Examples, & Strategies for Setting Personal Goals
What are life goals, how do you set them, and how do you achieve them? Discover the goal setting strategies that can help you reach your relationships, work, and financial goals.
*This page may include affiliate links; that means I earn from qualifying purchases of products.
What Are Life Goals?
Life goals are defined as the desired states that people seek to obtain, maintain or avoid (Nair, 2003). When we set goals, we envision, plan for, and commit to achieving these desired results. Because our lives include many different parts, life goals can be broad, including things like relationship goals, career goals, financial goals, and more. Setting life goals is an important part of what it means to be alive, and achieving them can feel rewarding or even generate a greater sense of purpose and meaning.
Setting Life Goals
Some types of goal setting are thought to be good for well-being while other types are not so much. For example, gaining more material goods (money, houses, cars, etc...) rarely results in a significant increase in well-being. Indeed, you hear about folks who got the 'great job' and the 'perfect life' who are still miserable. That may be because they set—and even achieved—the wrong goals. Goals that focus exclusively on self-interest over the interests of others aren't actually good for our happiness (Headey, 2008).
On the flip side, goal setting that focuses on the collective interests of ourselves and others are generally good for our well-being—for example, goals that involve committing to helping family, friends, and society at large. When we go about setting life goals, it's important to keep this in mind. That way we can be sure that we set goals that actually make us feel good.
How to Set Goals
Setting goals involves putting in place cognitive and behavioral strategies. For example, much of goal setting involves mental strategies like developing a growth mindset, the mindset that we can grow and improve. We also need to have dedication, perseverance, and grit. These are all cognitive processes that help us stay motivated long enough to reach our goals.
Behavioral strategies for goal setting might include breaking our goals into baby steps, planning for when we'll work on these steps, scheduling time to work on these steps, and actually following through. Both cognitive and behavioral strategies need to be used simultaneously in order to fur us to reach our goals.
Goal Setting Theory
Goals setting theory suggests that the reason we set goals is to regulate our emotions and resolve "discontent" with the present situation. Years of goal setting research show that specific, hard goals lead to better performance and success than vague or abstract goals like "I'm going to succeed!" Other things that lead to goal success include being committed to the goal, having the skills needed to achieve it, believing we can achieve the goal, and not having conflicting goals. We can also benefit from feedback and tracking our progress (Locke & Latham, 2006).
Setting SMART Goals
SMART is an acronym used to aid goal setting. Although the concepts behind SMART goals are based on research, SMART goals themselves did not actually arise from scientific research (Lawlor, 2012). Rather, SMART goals evolved naturally by combining bits of research and turning them into something more useful in the real world. Because of this history, the SMART acronym doesn't actually have an agreed-upon translation (Rubin, 2002). Here is one interpretation of SMART that seems to me to be the most helpful.
S - Specific
M - Meaningful
A - Achievable
R - Realistic
T - Trackable (or time-based)
Personally, I find that having a "time-based" aspect on some goals is de-motivating, so I prefer "trackable" for the T in SMART goals. For example, if I'm on a diet and I'm following all the rules I set for myself but still not losing as much weight as I thought, it would not be healthy for me to eat fewer calories or exercise more just to reach my goal by a certain date. Having a general idea of when you'd like to achieve your goal is great but having set deadlines can lead you to sacrifice other important needs and values. So when setting time-based goals—or goals with a deadline in mind, be sure you're deadline doesn't become more important than other things in your life—like relationships, health, and self-care.
Video: Setting the right goals
Short-Term Goals & Long-Term Goals
It is commonly suggested that we set both short-term and longer-term goals. That's because achieving easier goals feels good and can motivate us to continue on towards longer-term goals. To create short-term goals it's often helpful to break longer-term goals up into "baby steps", which are really just a bunch of short and mid-term goals.
For example, if you were trying to save enough money to buy a house, that is likely a longer-term goal. But you can break this up into many smaller steps. Specifically, you might try to save $100 from every biweekly paycheck. You could take on a part-time job and earn an extra $100 per week. You could decide not to get your daily $5 coffee and save $150 per month. All these little goals would give you an extra $550 per month to save. Or, you might have a mid-term goal of investing this $550 per month to grow it into what you need to buy your house sooner. By being clear about the exact steps you'll take to reach your goals, you're more likely to get there.
Examples of Short-Term Goals & Long-Term Goals
Sometimes it can be helpful to see how others break down goals into smaller short-term chunks. Here are some examples of short-term goals that might contribute to a longer-term goal in different domains of life.
Most of these short-term goals can be broken down even further into even smaller steps (or objectives).
The Difference Between Goals and Objectives
Although a goal could be anything, big or small, it can be helpful to think of goals as the bigger, longer-term outcomes you hope and work for. You can then break these goals into smaller goals. When you keep breaking goals down into their actionable parts, these parts are often called objectives. So objectives are the actual actions you take to reach goals.
For example, if you have a goal to meet a romantic partner and get married, the objectives may be to go on dates, build intimacy by sharing personal information about yourself, and by giving gifts to show you care. A goal without objectives is just a dream; taking action on that goal is what makes it a reality.
Video: Process for Achieving Goals
Life Goals: Career Goals
As I mentioned earlier, there are many types of life goals. Let's go into a few common ones and explore some different types of goals. First, let's talk about career goals. Career goals are any goal that has to do with your work or vocation. It might involve achieving a particular title, income, role, position, or employer.
For example, some people have in mind the title they want, perhaps the director of X, or CEO of X. Others might not care so much about the title as long as they are working for a popular or meaningful company like Google or the ACLU. Others of us focus more on the position we have. We might not care what our title says as long as we're doing the work we love. Maybe we want to work with students but it doesn't matter if our title is teacher, teacher's aid, or assistant. Think for yourself what the nature of your goals are and get specific about what exactly you are trying to achieve.
Life Goals: Financial Goals
Financial goals are another important life goal. But keep in mind that money doesn't always increase happiness (DeVoe & Pfeffer, 2009). We are best served by pursuing financial goals that help us live our values or promote social and community well-being. But still, many of us don't earn as much money as we might like to achieve important social goals like taking care of our family, donating to causes we care about, and supporting our community.
When it comes to setting career goals, keep the SMART goals system in mind. Ask yourself, How much money do you actually need to achieve your other goals? How will you shift your priorities once you meet these goals so as not to develop greed? And how will you give back to others if you exceed these goals? These are some important things to think about when setting financial goals.
Life Goals: Relationship Goals
Relationship goals are another big one. Regardless of whether we are in a relationship or not, we likely have goals about the type of relationship we want. That's why it can be helpful for us to define our goals clearly.
For this goal domain, it can be helpful to keep the "Realistic" part of the SMART goals method in mind. We can get caught up on finding the perfect partner and then we might miss out on the perfect partner for us. For example, if we want someone who is attractive, rich, kind, funny, smart, has an awesome family, an interesting job, and so on, we're likely to be disappointed (or alone). That's why it can be helpful for relationship goals to identify your relationship needs, not your relationship wants.
Our relationship needs might include being with someone who is affectionate towards us, listens to us when need them to, and accepts us for who we are. By thinking about what really matters to us in a relationship, we're likely to forgo unrealistic expectations and be more satisfied. Luckily, most people do prioritize interpersonal communication over sexual attraction in a relationship (Menkin, Robles, Wiley, & Gonzaga, 2015).
Life Goals: Fitness & Body Goals
Health is important to most of us, so life goals commonly include fitness, body, health, or wellness goals. These types of goals include things like exercise goals, weight loss goals, nutritional goals, or maybe even skin-care goals. Where are you in terms of your health? Are there things you want to work on and improve? Then you might want to set some body goals.
Life Goals: Educational Goals
Another big life goal has to do with education or learning. We might want to gain education in pursuit of a career or professional goal, or we might just want to learn about something that matters to us. Personally, I pursued a psychology and art double major. The psychology education was a short-term goal that was part of a larger career goal, but the art education was just for me, for enjoyment.
What are your education goals? Ask yourself: What are the things you want to learn? What skills do you want to build? What do you need to know to manifest your dreams? Think about these questions and how they relate to your other life goals. Maybe you want to learn some communication skills to better reach your relationship and career goals. Or maybe you want to learn some math to better reach your financial goals. Explore how your goals are related and how completing one goal can lead to furthering your other goals.
Personal Life Goals
Any of the life goals we've talked about so far could be personal goals. They are goals that are unique to you and your unique circumstances. But since we've talked about a lot of different personal goals already, let's explore some other goals that might be of interest to you.
Personally, I have a lot of goals that don't really fit into the other categories. Here are some examples of personal goals from my life to give you some ideas:
These are some odd goals, eh? Well, we all have goals that are specific to us and what we care about. Don't forget to include these "unique-to-you" goals if you're planning out your goals.
Setting Achievable Life Goals
A part of the SMART goals system is to set achievable goals. To my mind, there are a few roadblocks that can get in the way. Let's explore each of these to see if we can find ways around them.
One thing that can get in the way of our goals is a lack of finances. For example, if you want to become a lawyer and fight for those who can't fight for themselves, you'll need an education, skills, and time. If you don't have enough money, it can make it harder (but not impossible) to achieve these goals. Your goals may require a longer period of time, more resourcefulness, and hard work. Just be self-compassionate and don't be too hard on yourself.
This has definitely been a roadblock for me. I worked multiple jobs while I was in college, and volunteered on the side for 5 years after I graduated before I was able to get into grad school. It took a long time, but I kept at it and ultimately reached my education goals.
Conflicting life goals
I mentioned earlier that financial freedom is one of my goals. This goal sometimes conflicts with my other goals. For example, if I want financial freedom I need to build my business. But to survive, I need to have the money to support myself, which means I have to take consulting jobs. These consulting jobs make me less free and take away time that I could be using to grow my business. But that's the thing. Sometimes reaching our goals means doing things that are not in alignment with our goals. Confusing? Yes. Reality? Also yes. While setting your goals, just try to think through how you'll actually reach them and plan for detours if needed.
Life Goal Planning
You have an idea of what you're goals are now, right? Well, let's start making a plan for how you'll reach these goals.
Planner for Life Goals
It can sometimes be helpful to track goals in a planner or notebook. Personally, I use excel sheets to track detailed stuff and I use Asana, a tracking app, to keep track of bigger goals and any notes related to them. If you prefer to write down your goals and track them in a planner, here is a nice blank planner for goals that I like.
Making a Life Goals Board
Another thing you can do is make a goals board (also known as a vision board). A goals board is a visual depiction of your goals. You might include words or pictures and lay them all out in a collage. If you're a more visual person, a goals board can be helpful. It can help you explore different goals and when you display it prominently in your home, it'll remind you of the goals you set for yourself.
More Life Goals Examples
Here are a few more examples of life goals if you need more ideas.
Articles Related to Life Goals
Want to learn more? Check out these articles:
Final Thoughts on Life Goals
Setting personal goals can help us reach those goals and make the most of our lives. We just need to keep an eye out to make sure our goals are collectively beneficial and have positive impacts on ourselves but also the people around us. When we do, we can not only achieve our dreams but boost our well-being too.