The Ultimate Guide to Goal Setting

Goal setting is an important practice that can benefit everyone. Even if you don’t read self-improvement books or engage in any form of personal development, you still probably set goals for yourself in one form or another.

Goal setting can be as simple as dedicating an entire day to just one project so you can get it done before an important meeting. It can also be much more complex — though people who practice complex goal setting usually understand that is what they are employing as they go through the process.

So, there’s a lot of material out there about how to set smart, effective goals. But what do you do if you don’t really know what your goals should be?

Here’s where I can help. I’ve outlined my process for goal setting, including how to identify, organize and prioritize your goals — and how to put your plan in action.

Start with Your Dreams

Regardless if you actively practice goal setting or not, just about everyone has dreams of all shapes and sizes. All of those dreams are just goals that haven’t been fully developed yet.

To start the goal setting process, take some time to brainstorm. Open a Word document, grab a notebook or use a whiteboard if you’ve got one. Find a place and time when you can work distraction-free. My recommendation is to have at least 30 minutes set aside, but an hour would be better.

Now, just start jotting down your ideas for everything you would like to accomplish. If you are struggling, here are some questions to jump-start your thinking:

What do you…

  • Love to do?
  • Want to start or create?
  • Wish you could stop?
  • Want to be?
  • Wish you could see?
  • Want to have?

Don’t put limitations on your dreams. This list is about what you want out of life. You shouldn’t be constrained by what you perceive as being possible for you to obtain. Many people have achieved goals they and others once thought impossible.

Turn Your Dreams into Goals

I like to think of dreams as just being poorly defined goals. By definition a dream is something that is not real, and I don’t like the idea of spending my life chasing after something that isn’t real.

How do we use our dreams for goal setting, and, by doing so, make them real and attainable? Apply the SMART system to each one.

SMART is an acronym that stands for the following:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Timely

Go through your list of dreams and see how they measure up to the SMART system. Let’s use two examples as we work through the process:

  • Learn how to speak a second language
  • Buy a second home

These are two great dreams, but we need to turn them into goals by making them SMART! So start by asking yourself:

Is it specific?

It’s hard to strive for a target when you’re not 100 percent clear what the target looks like or where it is. Our examples are great dreams, but they’re too vague for goal setting. Make them more specific without over-complicating. For example:

  • Be able to converse with somebody entirely in French
  • Buy a seasonal home with a pool on St. Thomas

Is it measurable?

The only way you will know if and when you have attained your dream is by making them measurable. Using the examples above, you would hardly consider it attaining your dream if you spoke to somebody entirely in French by just greeting them with “Bonjour!” or if the house you bought on St. Thomas was a 200-square-foot shanty. Quantify them by adding numbers. For example:

  • Be able to converse with somebody entirely in French for 60 minutes
  • Buy a 10,000-square-foot seasonal home with a pool on St. Thomas

Is it Attainable?

This one is tough because as an optimist I always hate telling people to put a ceiling of any kind on their dreams. I see stories every day of people who have accomplished things far beyond what anybody expected of them. That being said, having dreams that defy physics or that set the bar impossibly high are going to have the opposite effect of what goal setting should do. The complete inability to achieve these goals or the enormity of the challenge are just going to wear you down. Make sure you are setting ambitious but attainable goals:

  • Be able to converse with somebody entirely in French for 10 minutes
  • Buy a 2,000-square-foot seasonal home with a pool on St. Thomas

Is it relevant?

In most cases, if these are dreams you wrote down because you have a desire to achieve them, then that makes them relevant. This becomes more relevant when using the SMART system for goal setting at work or in business. It can still be something to think about in regards to your dreams though. For instance, is speaking French going to be something you will ever use? Are you going on a trip to France? Do you know somebody else who speaks French? Again, these are you dreams, so the answer may be, “no, I don’t, but it’s just something I’ve always wanted to do,” in which case – go for it! Who am I to tell you what your dreams should be?

Is it timely?

This is probably the most important part of the SMART system as far as I am concerned. Every goal needs a deadline – a target due date to shoot for. If your dreams are tied to “someday” or “eventually,” then I can almost guarantee that the reality will unfortunately end up being “never.” Most of us, for whatever reason, work better under pressure. Deadlines give us a sense of urgency and push us to perform at a higher level. Add some deadlines to your goals:

  • Be able to converse with somebody entirely in French for 10 minutes before my trip to Paris in June
  • Buy a 2,000-square-foot seasonal home with a pool on St. Thomas by the time I am 50 years old

Can you see how our new goals are so much clearer now that we’ve applied the SMART system? We’ve transformed amorphous dreams to real and attainable goals just by defining them better. And our final goals give us a concrete target to aim for.

Now let’s take that list and start segmenting it into various categories. Doing this will allow us to look at them from various angles and start to see how they interact with one another in a more cohesive way. This will lead you towards being able to lay out a long-term goal setting plan for attaining them.

Goal Setting Segmentation using the PPD Approach

A balanced life is an important piece of happiness. Most people have many aspects of their life that overlap and intersect with each other and this can make it difficult to focus on one particular goal.

This step identifies three primary segments that we can use:

Personal Goals – These relate to your family, health and personal relationships. Some examples would be, “I want to lose weight” or “I’d like to go on vacation with my family every year.”

Professional Goals – These relate to any businesses you own or want to start, your career and your finances (even personal). Examples would be, “I want to make more money” or “I want to work for myself.”

Developmental Goals – These revolve around personal and professional development. Examples include, “I want to learn how to paint” or “I want to become more productive.”

Another way to look at these three segments is that everything listed as a “professional” goal explains how you will achieve your “personal” goals. Your “developmental” goals explain what you need to accomplish to get there.

For instance, you could say “purchasing a vacation home” is a personal goal, but “becoming an executive at my current company” (a professional goal) is how you will be able to achieve that goal and “finishing my MBA” (developmental goal) is what you need to do to get there.

None of this is set in stone, and you can segment your goals however you wish. The objective is just to make sure you end this process with balanced goals.

“The One Thing” Approach: A Segmentation Alternative

If you’re struggling with segmenting using the PPD method, another thing you could take is to approach your goal setting with the mindset taught in “The ONE Thing” by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan. Throughout the book they have the readers ask themselves, “What is the ONE thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

Go through your goals, and ask yourself that question. As you identify goals that by achieving they make others easier or irrelevant, you are identifying “supporting” goals. Ideally this process will leave you with no more than a handful of goals that wouldn’t make others easier or irrelevant. These are your big-picture or end-goals.

My Goals Aren’t Segmenting Nicely

You should be realizing at this point that the process is not simple or straight-forward. More than likely, you’re making some guesses and flip-flopping on where to put things. None of the lines are very clear, and there is a lot of grey area throughout all of this.

That’s OK. Everyone’s goal list is different, and you’ll need to adapt this process to what works for you. Also, if you have something that is very clearly a developmental goal, but it’s more important to you than any of the others, then it’s OK to define it as a big-picture goal. This is all about what works for you. I am just giving you a place to start. Think of this as a framework for you to flesh out your goals as it best fits your life and your way of thinking.

Also, feel free to backtrack as we go. If you start the process and realize you need to rethink how you categorized a goal originally, go right ahead.

Organize Your Goals by Attainability

The goals that need to be achieved before you start working towards bigger ones should now be apparent. Everything should be falling into some semblance of a priority order now.

At this point, you want to go through your list and make notes about how long it might take to achieve each goal. You can be as exact or vague as you need to be for each goal as this is just a starting point.

One method that works well for me is to think in terms of short-term, mid-term and long-term.

Short-term Goals are generally able to be accomplished in less than a year or two. Generally speaking, they tend not to have many, if any, supporting goals beneath them. However, you probably identified them early as making others “easier or irrelevant” once they were completed.

Mid-term Goals can usually be accomplished in anything from a few years to a decade. They tend to have a few supporting goals beneath them but also support other big-picture goals themselves. A large percentage of your list will probably fall into this bucket.

Long-term Goals are the ones with “someday” time frames. To be more exact, they tend to be closer to 10-20 years out, or more. If you find yourself saying “Someday I’ll retire in Italy” or “Someday I’ll buy that boat,” then it’s a good bet you’re referring to an end goal.

By categorizing your goal setting by timeframes, you become even clearer on which need to be followed first and what order you should follow from there.

Now let’s take that list and move on to the final steps.

Create a Goal Setting Ladder

How do you climb a ladder?

One rung at a time, in order – slowly rising up as you go.

It’s no different with your goal setting. When properly organized, each goal will become a rung on your ladder that you can accomplish in order to move you to the next rung.

So how do you take your goals and build your goal setting ladder? We’ve already started the process by segmenting and then organizing by attainability. Your short-range goals are the ones that will build the lower rungs of your ladder and raise you to a point where you can tackle the next set of objectives – your mid-range goals. The mid-range will then form the middle set of rungs building to your final, big-picture goals.

I approach this next step by creating a series of 90-day plans. “Why 90 days,” you might ask? Well, 90 days is long enough to complete many short-range goals, and it’s still short enough to not seem so far in the future that you don’t have that sense of timeliness and urgency.

It also works nicely with my Best Self journal that I use, which is a 13-week journal. So each new journal I start has a new set of 90-day goals.

Create a 90-Day Plan

Take one short-range goal from each of your segments to focus on. Ideally you haven’t identified more than 3-4 separate segments. If you have, try to focus on only a couple segments during each 90-day plan. It’s self-defeating to split your focus among too many different goals at one time. You don’t have to completely ignore your others, but just make sure you aren’t focusing on them to the detriment of the goals you have identified as your current focus.

So, for instance, you may have the personal goal of losing 20 pounds, but you’ve identified the personal goal of getting up 30 minutes earlier as your current focus for the next 90 days. This would make sense since you may have identified needing that extra 30 minutes in the morning in order to exercise. This doesn’t mean that you ignore your health and fitness for the next 90 days. What it does mean is that on any given day working out should not take priority over getting up earlier.

This might sound counter-intuitive, but remember, we are climbing a ladder one rung at a time. “Getting up early” has been identified as the lowest rung needed before tackling the next rung – working out.

In “The One Thing” by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan, getting up early has been identified as one goal that by accomplishing, it would make the others easier or irrelevant.

Build the Goal Setting Ladder Out of Wood – Not Stone

Stone is immutable, and items built out of stone are very difficult to change in the future.

Once you have set your 90-day goals, you will need to re-evaluate your goal setting after those 90 days. Things in life change and your goals are no exception. Additionally, although we want to keep a positive outlook, you may not reach your 90-day goals. Or, even better, you may surpass them.

At the end of each 90-day block, reassess your goal setting, and then choose new targets for the next 90 days. This may mean repeating some from the previous 90 days, and that’s OK. Remember: you’re climbing a ladder, and sometimes you have to pause to get your footing. Sometimes you may need to take a step back to regain your balance. The key is to keep striving to make it to that next rung.

All of this means that you should also try not to schedule all of the goals you came up with in the earlier steps into 90-day chunks. I could easily take my dozen or so short-range goals and schedule them out in 90-day blocks for the next year or two. The problem with that is you don’t know what the future will bring. Goal setting out that far can be disheartening if they have to change or if you miss a target here and there along the way.

I loosely determine how long I think it will take to accomplish my short-term goals and use that to identify when I want to start tackling my mid-range goals. This is a target to strive for but not something I set as a permanent deadline in my mind.

I Have Identified and Organized My Goals – Now What?

You’ve probably spent a good amount of time getting to this point and are now thinking how any of this work is going to help you reach these goals. The key is that you’ve given structure to what was once a pile of “maybe someday” dreams. You’ve made them SMART, and you’ve organized and prioritized them.

Now, every morning, write down the 3-4 goals you are working toward.

I have a spot in my Best Self journal that I use to write down my goals first thing before I start my day. This is important as writing it down helps embed it into your subconscious. It also reminds you every day what you should be focusing on. After the first few days of writing them down, you should start to notice that you’ll catch yourself thinking of them anytime something is trying to pull your focus away.

The idea here is that you’re keeping goal setting at the front of your mind. By doing so, it helps you make decisions with your goal in mind. For example, if your big-picture goal is to lose 20 pounds and your current 90-day goal is to not eat take-out, then writing that down every morning increases the chances that you will remember that when you contemplate swinging through that drive-thru window at lunch.

Make Your Dreams Come True by Goal Setting

It seems like a complicated process, but the more you practice goal setting, the easier it gets. Also, the work you put into it will get returned to you ten-fold as you start to accomplish those goals and work toward what once were just dreams.

Give this process a shot, and please let me know how it works for you. Everybody has their own system that works for them, and this is just what has worked for me. I’d love to hear what works for you, so send me an email or leave a comment below.

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