To make any change you desire, you have to know how to set goals. Having coached a lot of talented people, I believe there is a right way to do it that doesn’t follow conventional advice.
7 tips on how to set goals
Pick one goal to focus on.
Though you may be able to manage two goals, one is really best. If you feel you must focus on more than one, stagger the goals so that you’re focusing on only one at a time. That is, when you’ve accomplished one goal, move on to the next. To learn how to weed out goals, see the next tip below.
It’s best to start with a “want to” goal rather than a “have to” or a “should.”
Be honest with yourself; pick a goal that will give you satisfaction or pleasure. This may seem counterintuitive, but you’re more likely to succeed and will be in a better position to tackle more challenging goals.
If you’re having a hard time accomplishing something important, like figuring out what it is you want to do with your life, it’s even more critical to start with something that can give you joy. If you focus on a goal you think you “should” be working toward instead, you’re likely to get stuck or stay in the rut you want to escape. Doing something enjoyable that holds your interest helps you to get closer to figuring out what you want.
Also, doing something reasonably easy (or challenging but not too arduous) lets you feel more confident about pursuing it. I explain why in greater depth, using real-life examples, in my e-book The Lighthouse Method.
Focus on yourself and what is within your control.
Don’t try to change the behavior of other people by setting goals for them. If, for example, you want your children to develop better homework habits this fall, or you’d like your partner to do more of the chores you loathe, they aren’t likely to succeed unless they set those goals for themselves. The only thing you can do is ask them to set their own goals, just as only you can set yours.
Similarly, if the outcome of your goal is dependent on someone else or “luck,” then your efforts won’t truly matter. For example, setting a goal to win employee of the month, might feel reasonable if you’re a talented and high achieving individual. But, your winning is not solely dependent on your efforts but also on how other employees perform and what the selection committee perceives. So, it’s not the right kind of goal to go after. A better goal instead might be spending 30 minutes three times a week reading articles relevant to your field.
Recognize the difference between projects and tasks, and choose each wisely.
Picking one goal, as suggested in tip No. 1 above, usually means choosing one project, which is a set or a series of smaller tasks. The best tasks to choose are small, observable, and discrete. Let’s say, for example, you want to read more or develop a reading habit. That’s a project as it requires many smaller action steps. The tasks would be researching what to read, buying or borrowing books, scheduling time to read, setting an alert or a reminder of when it’s time to read, starting a list of recommended books, and so on.
Often, some of your tasks will depend on other ones, so continue to ask yourself, “What’s the next action I need to take to move forward in my project/goal?” Then, focus on that specific task. In other words, focus more on the short term rather way out into the future.
Set a check-in point.
Many of us have been taught to set a deadline or a target date for our goals. I suggest setting a check-in point instead. About a week or two after you’ve set your goal and done some tasks related to completing it, take a step back and evaluate what you’ve done. If your tasks are measurable, keep track of your work on a piece of paper, a spreadsheet, or a calendar.
Celebrate your successes.
Celebrating small wins is not just fun, it’s actually essential to keeping yourself motivated. Successes, even tiny ones, remind you that you are the type of person who can get things done. (To learn more, read an article I wrote about how to think small.)
Celebrations themselves can also be small. They don’t require a big production to be effective. They can simply be making note of it in some way. A got-done list next to your to-do list works. You can also pump your first, back yourself on the back, or tell yourself, “You did it, [your name]!”
Be flexible. Abandon goals that don’t serve you well.
If you find you’ve picked the wrong goal or are having a hard time achieving it, change it. Make the goal easier or move on to another one. Don’t blame yourself, be critical of your willpower, or feel guilty. I give you permission to abandon goal setting altogether if it doesn’t work for you. This may not be the right time for you to set goals or start a new project. When the time comes, you’ll know it.
If you find that you’re having trouble either setting or keeping your goals. Don’t beat yourself up, you may just need a few suggestions from a helpful friend or an outside observer. I’d be happy to help you move things along. Life is already too short and challenging; don’t make it more so by making yourself feel bad about your goals.
So, what enjoyable task will you tackle next?