I have to be honest, I don’t have the world’s best track record with goals. This post isn’t being written because of my valuable experiences in this area, but out of my desire to grow and never stop learning.
To write this post, I spent time researching the most helpful and respected voices in goal-setting and immersed myself in their work1. The title of this post promises to be a guide that really works, that is my hope, both for you and for myself.
The Benefits of Setting Goals
Not everyone is convinced that goal-setting works, or that it’s even a healthy habit to adopt.
Maybe you’ve been turned off by the way goal-setting has been presented to you in the past. I’ll do my best to keep things down to earth and practical in this post, but I really do believe that setting and achieving goals can be a life-changing experience. We routinely overestimate how much we can change in a few weeks, but underestimate how much we can change in a year.
Here’s why goal setting really does work:
Goals Help You To Decide What’s Important.
The most important reason to set goals is that it forces you to decide what is most important to you. Without goals, you’ll still prioritize certain activities and live as if certain things are more important than others, but you won’t have the same clarity or conviction around these actions as you would by having to articulate them.
Written goals act as a natural filter to remove what is unnecessary and unrealistic.
Goals Help You To Reflect On The Costs You Are Willing To Bear.
Everyone loves setting goals, right? Who doesn’t like thinking about some pleasant outcome or reward waiting for you in the future. But a good goal setting process forces you to think about the costs you are willing to bear to achieve them. Or, in other words, what daily habits are you willing to adopt in order to make progress towards your goals?
Again, articulating these goals by writing them down gives you a chance to really think about the values you hold and the tradeoffs you’re willing to accept. It’s too easy to fool yourself with wishful thinking if your thoughts are cloudy and vague.
The Right Goal-Setting Framework Can Be Motivating And Provide Accountability.
Another great reason to adopt goals is that the right plan can be immensely satisfying. In the abstract, thinking about achieving your future goals connects you to your future self and expands your natural motivation beyond what feels good in the moment.
And a good plan balances those abstract, feel-good emotions with the tangible and practical satisfaction of making progress and marking milestones.
Objections to Goal Setting
Sometimes goal setting gets a bad rap. I’ve probably bashed on goals a time or two in my own frustration and disappointment. But what I’ve discovered is that most concerns with goal setting can be addressed with a simple and thoughtful process.
Here are a few common objections you might hear:
Objection #1: Setting goals is no better than daydreaming.
Partially true. If all you ever do is come up with a list of long-term goals (>1 year away) then yes, you are mostly just fantasizing. We have to remember that setting goals feels good because we’re imagining future rewards and benefits.
A good goal-setting process includes intermediate checkpoints and action steps. This might sound intimidating, but it will be quite simple once you’ve done it yourself a time or two.
Objection #2: Goals can Make you Depressed.
Some people say that goals are bound to leave you disappointed. Either you’re sad when you fail to achieve them, or find yourself feeling empty when you do succeed.
But you can’t consider the cost of goals without considering their benefits. Many people feel immense joy in pursuing a difficult and meaningful goal, and satisfaction in each step of progress. And one achieved goal can become the stepping stone for another.
Most importantly, goals are simply measured outcomes. They do not supply the purpose for living. That must come first. Many avoid finding a purpose in life by pursuing whatever goals society finds most impressive. In the end, these people become disillusioned, but the goals themselves are not to blame.
Objection #3: Goals can make you selfish.
We can all think of someone whose personal ambition has made them more selfish and less concerned with those around them. But goals don’t have to change you for the worse. In fact, many goals are motivated by a desire to be a better person or to make a contribution that benefits others.
The best safeguard to this concern is not to stop setting goals, but to have a generous vision for the kind of person you want to become and to consider whether your goals are bringing your life into alignment with your personal values.
Objection #4: Goals can Make you too Single-Minded.
Out of all the objections, this one has the most teeth. By their nature, goals are usually focused on what is measurable. But some of the most important things in life are not easily measured, friendship, worship, and happiness to name just a few.
It is certainly possible to over-optimize your life for that which is most tangible and measurable at the expense of what isn’t. And it’s possible that goal-setting tends towards this outcome.
However, I have also seen examples where people apply the principles of goal-setting to those less easily measured areas of life with impressive creativity. And I believe it’s possible to do this without it turning the activity into just another item to check off your list.
The bottom line is that, like anything, goal setting can be taken to an unhealthy extreme. No system could ever capture all that it means to live a flourishing human life, but goal setting can be a useful tool that you use towards that aim.
A framework for Setting Goals
Anyone can dream up a list of things that they’d like to do someday, but a good framework for setting goals is more than just a bucket list or a personal pep talk, it’s a repeatable process that eliminates the most common points of failure.
Before writing this post, I set out to gather the wisdom of others who have found some success in achieving their own goals and to distill what I learn into a simple guide.
- This is the process I now use in my own life:
- Choose 4-6 areas of life that are most important to you.
- Decide on 1 Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) in each area.
- Set a checkpoint goal that is connected to your BHAG.
- Choose 1 or 2 habits that will lead to your checkpoint goal (and ultimately BHAG).
- Measure progress and adapt if needed.
I’ll explain each of those steps in a bit more detail:
Choose 4-6 Areas of Life to Focus on.
The first step is to decide which areas of your life are most important to you right now and most in need of change. It’s very important to only include 4-6 areas, as the greatest barrier to achieving your goals is typically having too many goals. The more goals you have, the thinner your efforts are spread and the more likely you are to face decision paralysis.
I’ll choose “Learning” as my area and use that as my example for each step below. But some other areas might include health, relationships, finances, faith, and business.
Decide on 1 Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) for each area.
What in the world is a Big Hairy Audacious Goal? It’s a term coined by author Jim Collins meant to describe a goal that is big and ambitious enough to be memorable and inspire action.
Ironically, harder goals can sometimes be easier to achieve than easy goals, because they demand our full effort and attention, and we are naturally drawn to great challenges.
Some people say that you should “start small” with your goals. Personally, I think goals should be ambitious, while our initial habits might benefit from being small.
Example learning goal: Read 52 books in 1 year.
Set a Checkpoint Goal that is Connected to Your BHAG.
We all know that deadlines are highly motivating. That’s why college students who are too lazy to start working on their paper all term can suddenly pull an all-nighter and finish the whole thing.
But waiting until the last minute can sometimes leave you in a bind, or at least unable to produce your best work. A simple solution is to set checkpoints along the way.
Example checkpoints for this reading goal:
- Read 13 books by the end of March
- Read 26 books by the end of June
- Read 39 books by the end of September
- Read 52 books in 1 year
Choose 1 or 2 Habits that Connect to Your Checkpoint Goal.
It’s one thing to set an audacious goal like reading 52 books in a year, it’s another to determine if you are willing to put in the work. This step is all about working backwards from your goal to determine what it will really take.
A quick Google search suggests that the average book takes about 6-8 hours to read. If we assume the average to be about 7 hours and decide I want to read a book a week, that means I’ll need to spend about an hour a day reading.
Another important aspect of choosing your new habits is setting what’s called an implementation intention. This is just a fancy way of saying that you should decide when, where, and how you are going to complete the habit, and not just leave it to chance.
Example habits for this reading goal:
- Read 30 minutes every morning after waking up (roughly 6:45-7:15am)
- Read 30 minutes before bed (roughly 9:30-10pm)
Measure Progress and Adapt.
The things we measure are the things we improve. We can’t help it. Clear feedback triggers something in ourselves that desires to see improvement.
It doesn’t matter how you record your progress, as long as you keep it as simple as possible.
If you find yourself struggling to build a string of habit days together, adjust the numbers downward until it’s achievable. Especially in the beginning, consistently showing up is the most important variable on your path to success.
The goal-setting framework I just described is not rocket science, but don’t let its simplicity deceive you, it’s based on some of the best of what has been learned about human motivation and psychology.
If you follow this process for a year, I’m confident that whether or not you “achieve” your goals, you will make significant progress in the direction that you set out. Let that be a last reminder to carefully choose the direction of your goals, as they really do shape the person you become.
Eventually at some point in the year, your motivation will wane, and you won’t have the same desire to do the hard things that you’ve committed to. This framework, with it’s checkpoints and micro habits attempts to address those expected challenges, but there are 2 other secret weapons at your disposal.
While motivation and excitement about your long-term goals may come and go, your desire to be respected by those you respect is always present. Leverage this fact by committing to your goals publicly or to someone you admire. Ask them to keep you accountable, especially at the various checkpoints you’ve established.
For a book reading goal, you might have a friend ask you each week about the new book you’re reading, or find another avid reader who wants to join you in the challenge.
Shape Your Environment.
The environment we live in and the defaults we set are powerful shapers of the people we become. Surround yourself with junk food and candy, and you’ll find yourself eating more of it. Become friends with fitness fanatics and pretty soon you’ll be in the best shape of your life. The good news is that shaping your environment is something you can do in advance of your waning motivation to make it easier to stick to your goals.
For the book reading example, I’d recommend finding a comfortable place to sit and keep a stack of interesting books nearby. And maybe anytime you sit in that chair you commit to leaving your phone in another room.
This article was originally published on ThisEvergreenHome.com.