Regularly setting well-defined goals can make you more effective in your endeavors and help you achieve your dreams in life. This post will go over the benefits of setting goals according to the research, how to set goals you will actually accomplish, the five main types of goals to set, and offer seven tips for setting better goals, starting today.
Benefits of goal setting
According to researchers at McGill University and the University of Toronto, “More than 400 correlational and experimental studies provide evidence for the validity of the goal-setting approach. Explicitly setting goals can markedly improve performance at any given task.”
These studies show that setting well-defined goals can make it easier for you to:
- Direct your attention and effort toward activities that will get you closer to your goals and away from activities that won’t
- Regulate your behavior
- Maintain your enthusiasm for achieving your big goals
- Persist in the face of obstacles like anxiety, disappointment, and frustration
- Discover and use more efficient strategies and modes of thought and perception
So if setting goals offers all these benefits, why don’t more people do it more often? The answer is that setting any old goal isn’t going to offer you the full benefits. What you need to set for maximum success are well-defined goals.
One framework many people use to evaluate their goals is SMART.
- Time based or time-bound
Many people’s goals are too vague to be useful. A well-defined goal is specific and detailed. It leaves little room for interpretation on what you want to accomplish. To set a specific goal, try to specify who, what, when, where, and how.
Vague goal examples:
- Progress in my career
- Get a raise
- Finish a major project
Specific goal examples:
- Get promoted into management within two quarters
- Meet or exceed all existing criteria for a 10% raise within the next quarter
- Finish the Q1 Future of Work report by the pre-set deadline
Another place where many people’s goals fail is that they’re hard to measure. Setting a measurable goal helps you determine your progress as you go along, allowing you to reward yourself and/or reset or re-evaluate your goals in light of your progress. To set a measurable goal, set the way you’re going to measure progress at the same time.
Hard-to-measure goal examples:
- Improve performance at my job
- Spend more time writing
- Cut down on distractions during working hours
Measurable goal examples:
- Achieve 80% or more of my quarterly KRs
- Spend one hour per day writing
- Check Facebook no more than three times per working day
Another common pitfall for goal-setting is taking aim at objectives that are beyond your ability. A well-defined goal is within reach and doesn’t rely too much on outside factors over which you have limited control.
Unattainable goal examples:
- Get my dream job
- Win a prestigious award
- Get chosen for a prestigious project at work
Attainable goal examples:
- Work to meet 80% of the hiring criteria for my dream job
- Qualify and apply for five prestigious awards in the next year
- Propose a project at work I’d like to work on
It’s all too easy to set too many goals at once, and lose momentum and focus as a result. Make sure the goals you’re setting are relevant to your life goals and interests and don’t conflict with other goals you’ve set.
Irrelevant goal examples:
- Gain 30 lbs of muscle while you’re gunning for a promotion at work
- Spend less time on social media when it’s part of your job
- Open your own business when you’re already overwhelmed with a full-time job
Relevant goal examples:
- Work from home to save time commuting while you’re gunning for a promotion at work
- Spend 50% less time on irrelevant social media and focus on what’s necessary for your job
- Replace one side hustle with a new one that takes less time and energy
Time-based or time-bound
Part of making a goal specific and measurable is giving yourself deadlines. Every goal should have at least one target date. Without the “when,” it’s impossible to know whether you’re ahead or behind schedule in achieving your goals.
Not time-based goal examples:
- Finish this report
- Schedule this meeting
- Land this client
Time-based goal examples
- Finish this report by midway through the fourth quarter of this year
- Schedule this meeting for 12/14 and have it in everyone’s calendar by 12/1
- Send proposal to client X by COB 12/4
For more info on SMART goals, check out this helpful vide: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1-SvuFIQjK8
The 5 main types of goals
There are many different types of goals. Here are the five main categories of goals we’d recommend you consider using to increase your chances of success.
1. Process goals
These are the steps you take to achieve your bigger, longer-term goals. These goals are almost entirely in your control. For example, you have less control over whether or not you pass a test than you have over how many hours you spend studying each night. Passing the test is an outcome goal (more on that later). Spending a set amount of time every day studying is a process goal. Process goals are goals you set to help increase your likelihood of achieving your performance and outcome goals.
One way to increase your likelihood of success is to break your bigger goals down into the smallest possible components. So if your goal is to study two hours every day in order to pass a test, you could try setting stepping stones or micro-goals to schedule that time on your calendar and mark it as “busy,” tell your friends and family what you’re doing and when and why, and cut out one time-consuming activity from your routine to free up that time for studying.
3. Performance goals
Performance goals level up from process goals. They’re part of what you hope to accomplish through your process goals. So if you’re studying two hours per night, a performance goal might be to pass 80% of your practice tests. If your ultimate financial goal is to get out of credit card debt within a year, a performance goal might be to pay at least twice your monthly minimum payment every month for a year. You have less personal control over performance goals than process goals, but more than outcome goals.
4. Outcome goals
Outcome goals are the things you hope your process, micro, and performance goals all lead up to. They’re the least controllable set of goals you can set. There’s always a big element of chance at play. But if you’re setting SMART goals, you should be able to readjust and re-evaluate your goals as you go along to increase your likelihood of success. An outcome goal might be to get promoted within the next year, win a competitive award, or land your dream job within the next five years.
5. Time based goals
You’ll want to set a deadline at the minimum and possibly checkpoints for each goal in all of the above categories. But when it comes to time horizons, goals come in several varieties.
Some goals are meant to be pursued over a lifetime. For instance, you can make a lifetime goal like “spend enough time with my family,” SMARTer by setting a goal to check in with yourself and your family every six months to see whether the quality and quantity of your time together is satisfactory.
Other goals are long-term, perhaps pursued over five to 10 years. Examples of long-term goals include earning a large enough amount of money to start saving for retirement over the next decade. Make that career goal SMARTer by setting shorter-term process goals like setting aside a few hours every week to research potential career paths.
Then there are medium-term goals. These might have deadlines of six months up to five years. Examples of medium-term goals include get a raise or promotion. These goals could then level up to the goal of saving for retirement. Again, make a goal like getting a raise SMARTer by setting micro-goals like making a commitment to ask your boss what is required of you to get a raise.
And then, of course, there are short-term goals. These could be what you want to accomplish in the next day, week, or month. Ideally, these short-term goals contribute to your ability to accomplish your medium-term, long-term, and lifetime goals. Examples of short-term goals include learning a new skill in the next month, setting up a dentist appointment within the next week, etc.
Any of these kinds of goals can be applied in any areas of your life. So you could have spiritual goals, health goals, relationship goals, educational goals, personal development goals, social goals, etc. And for each area, you could have process goals, micro-goals, etc.
In the next section we’ll offer nine tips to help you set better, more achievable goals.
7 tips for setting better goals today
1. Write down your goals and keep them in a place you see often.
Research shows that writing your goals down increases your chances of achieving them. In addition, it may help to display your written goals where you see them often to help keep you motivated and focused on what’s most important to you. Try writing your goals on a sticky note and sticking it to the edge of your computer monitor or your mirror in your bathroom.
2. Adjust your goals as you go along.
When you set measurable goals with set deadlines, you can measure your progress as you go along to determine whether you’re ahead of schedule or behind. Set regular checkpoints along with your goals so you can adjust your goals as necessary. Whether you’re behind or ahead, you increase your likelihood of success if you become aware of it before the deadline and adjust your end goal, make changes to your micro-goals, or both.
3. Reward yourself.
Plan to give yourself small rewards for small goals or progress towards your goals and big rewards for big goals or faster progress than expected. To make this extra efficient, plan what your rewards will be when setting your goals so you don’t have to remember to do it or get derailed deciding what to do when the time comes. Try to make your rewards relevant to your goals. If your goal is to lose weight, for example, a dessert reward might not be as efficient as a piece of new exercise equipment or a new outfit to work out in.
4. Evaluate previous goals before setting new ones.
If you find yourself setting similar goals time after time only to abandon them partway through or fail to meet them, try doing a retrospective on your previous attempts. Could your goals have been SMARTer? Did you reward yourself? Find out what you can adjust going forward before setting out on another attempt.
5. Proactively consider potential obstacles and devise strategies to overcome them
Lower the chances you’ll get derailed by thinking through what might get in your way at the outset. As you’re setting your goals, consider potential roadblocks and factor them in. Then, create strategies or even micro-tasks aimed at reducing their impact on your ability to meet your goals. For example, if you want to work late at least one night per week toward the ultimate goal of a pay raise or promotion, think through what might prevent you from working late. This might include childcare, after-work activities, a workout routine, etc. Plan ahead by making micro-goals to obtain childcare, reschedule your workouts, etc.
6. Make sure your goals are compatible with each other
Similarly to your rewards, you’re going to have an easier time if your goals don’t conflict with each other. Try to avoid setting a lot of concurrent, time-intensive goals, for example. As another example, you might not want to try to pay down your credit card debt and start taking an expensive class at the same time.
7. Share your goals with an accountability partner
No one likes to go it alone in life. There’s no reason to try to go it alone on accomplishing your goals. Telling a friend about your goals and asking them to hold you accountable can be a great way to keep on track when you get discouraged. And your friend might have suggestions for ways to make accomplishing your goals easier.