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Have you ever met a chronic goal-setter who seems to have endless plans for world domination but never quite seems to follow through?
Maybe you're guilty of it yourself. Countless lists and sticky notes cover your desk and journal. Your to-do app seems to get more crowded every day. But you still feel a lingering sense of unproductiveness around the targets you set.
It seems so easy to say "I want to do this thing". We think we know what we want. And in some situations, like school or work, the objectives are set for us.
So why is it so difficult to actually do these things?
Well, one of the main reasons is that we think we're better at goal-setting than we actually are.
When emotions like excitement or anxiety are running high, our perception is warped, and we assume we'll always have the same amount of energy. But life gets in the way, of course - we all get tired, burnt out, and distracted by whatever new circumstances appear that we didn't account for.
There's good news, though: if you're wondering how to set personal goals and achieve them every time, this is something you can do methodically. Same goes for your professional life. There's no mysterious sorcery you can perform to achieve the milestones you set for yourself, but there are simple steps and habits you can follow to massively increase the likelihood it'll happen. Let's have a look at how you can set powerful, achievable goals in life - then go right ahead and get them. Boom!
We can be thankful for the work of psychologist Edwin Locke, who researched the theory behind goal-setting. A fellow of the American Psychological Association, Locke is the 'most published organizational psychologist in the history of the field' - so he's certainly someone who knows how to set goals in life and achieve them.
Throughout his studies, Locke pioneered many aspects of 'goal-setting theory', including the division of goals into three broad categories.
We covered these in our blog about the 3 types of goals, but here's a quick refresher:
Learning goals are all about acquiring a new skill, ability, or understanding of a certain domain. They're useful to set when you're new to a task or field, or want to enhance abilities you already have.
Learning goals don't always have a quantifiable result, although in many situations you can add one. For example, learning a language - while being able to have a conversation in Spanish as a second language would count as a success for many language learners, there are still a lot of variables that affect it. Is the conversation about something simple, like food or entertainment? Or something more technical, like politics or science?
That said, you might want to add a specific outcome to make it more definite. For example, passing a Spanish language exam at a certain level of fluency.
One potential downside is that learning goals aren't always linked to an outcome you can demonstrate or immediately make useful. Learning how to do things is one achievement - actually using the skill in real life is another.
Performance goals are some of the easiest to understand. They're focused on the outcome of your efforts and you can measure them. They're most useful when you're already competent in the field, so you're not burdened with learning at the same time as performing.
In your personal life, these might be tied to fitness, personal finance, or ticking things off your bucket list. At work, you might be hitting a sales quota, or helping a certain number of customers.
They usually have a binary status: either you achieve them, or you don't. There's probably a number involved, and there's not much ambiguity in their definitions.
The downside to performance goals is that it's easy to put too much weight on the final result and ignore the effort or progress that you made in pursuing them.
These are all about the journey, rather than the destination.
Process goals are really focused on how you get to where you want to be. So, the eventual target is still important, but the getting there is the real focus.
Take fitness as an example. You might decide you want to lose 20 pounds in 6 months, but in a way that's a bit easier on your body and mind. So instead of obsessing about the numbers on your bathroom scales, you could instead make it your priority to work out a certain number of times each week, and cook nutritious meals from a meal plan.
If you achieve your goal, nice! But it's not the priority. If you went those 6 months eating healthy and getting exercise without overdoing it or burning out - success! You'll almost certainly feel better, and will have done your body a favor in the long-term.
It's just a shuffling of priorities, but the end goals will be pretty similar.
Process goals like these focus on the actions you'll take along the way - how you'll achieve your targets. So they sometimes come secondary to performance or learning goals. But it's worth thinking about - if you've already decided on the targets you want to hit, have you paid enough attention to measuring the methods you'll implement to get there?
Now we know what type of goals to set, it's time to get them done. Step one - choose what you want to do. Step two - do it.
Just kidding. There's a bit more methodology to it than that. Here are ten steps to setting goals and achieving them.
What do you want to do? Why do you want to do them? Are you actually capable of achieving them? Are you copying someone else, or will these goals really bring value to you specifically? These are just some of the things worth asking yourself before setting your targets in stone.
Instead of vague aspirations, your goals should be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. They've got to be properly defined and achievable with the resources you have at your disposal. And if you don't pick a due date, their completion will keep receding into the distance.
Pick a proper goal and say when you'll have it done by. That's how you get things done.
Have a look at the goal setting examples in the section below for more inspiration on how to do this.
Yep, this is the fun part. Keeping your goals locked away in your head won't do you any favors when it comes to accountability and checking progress.
Get them noted down somewhere accessible and visible, where you won't forget they exist. Whether it's on lists, spreadsheets, sticky notes, fridge magnets, whatever - committing your goals to writing is one of the most important steps in making them real.
Carving out the time to actually work on your goals can be troublesome, especially if life events are getting in the way. The best way to avoid this? Pre-plan everything. Get your projects loaded into your calendar and productivity apps so you can see what you're going to do each day. Color-code things and cover them with stickers and smiley faces if you like. Just make sure you use sensible time blocks that don't burn you out. Don't plan to work on challenging stuff for more than 90 minutes at a time without a break.
If you follow the schedules that you've planned, this shouldn't be too difficult. Getting into a routine with your tasks makes it easier to do each time - you won't have to rewire your brain trying to remember how to do things after a 3 week break. Forming habits is the key to long-term success, and even though you might not always feel like you're making progress, you will be.
Small efforts compounded over time can soon snowball into much bigger effects. Momentum is easy to stop but hard to regain, so don't break your streak of regular, effective work.
Things almost always go wrong. You can't plan for every eventuality, but you can buffer yourself against the more likely outcomes.
When you're planning work, don't fill your entire day with goal-oriented tasks - one delay can send the whole plan spiralling into chaos. Alternatives and contingency plans might take a little bit more up-front effort, but you'll thank yourself when the time comes that you need them.
Being accountable to yourself is one thing. Knowing you can't let down someone else by failing is another.
Accountability means someone is relying on you to achieve your goal. This might involve telling a friend, family member or coworker of your intentions and making a promise to follow through on them. Don't fall into the trap of telling everyone what you're going to do, because this can actually reduce your chance of actually doing it.
Without some validation along the way, some goals can become a real slog to get through. Hard work and willpower can only take you so far. At certain milestones it's only right to stop, get some rest & relaxation, and celebrate how far you've come. Pat yourself on the back and take a breather. It'll give you that spring in your step to really push for the finish line.
Are you making progress on what you set out to do? Do you need to adjust some parameters, or ask for outside help? Maybe you're starting to realise you should have picked something else. Either way, these issues can only be addressed with smart introspection and periodical reviews. Schedule them in rather than doing them ad-hoc, and you'll have a much better chance of success.
A different type of validation comes at the end of a successful project. This is where you congratulate yourself for a job well done (and maybe say thanks to those who helped you along the way). Without this to look forward to, you won't have as much motivation to reach the finish line. It's definitely worth reviewing things at this point, too - what have you learnt? How do you feel? You could be exhausted, or you could feel motivated to aim higher and go for something else. One thing's for sure - you now know what you're capable of.
Sometimes, all it takes is a little tweak in language to transform your vague, unaccountable goals into targets you can hit with confidence.
In particular, you need to add some specificity. Here are some examples of setting achievable goals:
Almost every goal you set can be altered to make it more achievable.
Now that you have a good grasp of the methodology behind goal-setting and achievement, let's have a look at the nuts and bolts of it. The day-to-day doing of the stuff you said you were going to do.
Lots has been written about this topic, and different things work for different people. But these tactics are pretty sure to help you get good stuff done on the regular.
Getting by on a minimum of sleep, or skipping breakfast (if you're not a regular practitioner of fasting) is a great way to have an unproductive day.
And if you're working from home, going straight from bed to workdesk means you just won't have a spring in your step.
So - eat healthy food, move your body, and get good sleep. Without these in your routine, you're prone to distraction, irritability and difficulty doing your best work.
If in doubt - go work out. (Or eat a sandwich).
This might sound unappealing if you prefer to spend the first 30 minutes of a work day scrolling through emails and doing busywork, but it's one of the most effective things you can do.
But your willpower tends to be strongest at the start of your day, so once you've done your morning self-care routine, take that strength and apply it to the work that'll take the most effort.
Not only will you avoid the temptations of the later day (where you have limited power to resist), your conscience will be clear as you've tackled your Big Thing. Things can only get easier for the rest of the day. That sounds like a win!
There are some simple ways to keep you from getting overwhelmed and maintaining that focus on your important stuff - let people know you're unavailable, silence all your digital devices and remove as many nearby distractions as you can. But above all, make this your sacred Achievement Hour, where nothing can stop you from getting things done.
This pairs well with getting that main task done first thing in your day - if you're able to carve out a quiet hour before the demands of your team or family take your attention, you're in a much better place for getting it done.