10 Ways to be a better goal setter

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Today I'm kicking off a productivity and personal development series all about the things you can do for yourself to take leaps forward! I think these things are going to be the most important things to improve your productivity, your sanity, and your life in the long run if you learn how to master them.

The first of these is all about goal-setting! Goal-setting is something I feel like is something that people collectively struggle with. I believe that everyone has some internal drive to do more, and do better but they create these big dreams and then they don't know where to go from there!

Here, I've provided a list of the 10 things that I believe to be the most important things for you not only setting great goals, but also for setting yourself up for achieving those goals!

"When you believe it, you can achieve it." One of my favorite parts about this quote. Image source: believe-toachieve.tumblr.com

"When you believe it, you can achieve it." One of my favorite parts about this quote. Image source: believe-toachieve.tumblr.com

1. Choose goals that matter. I say this all the time in reference to so many things - but you have to know your "why". Your goals have to be things that matter to you. Additionally, you have to understand your TRUE motivationsfor doing something. Superficial reasons won't work and won't keep you motivated for the long term. You really have to dig deep and figure out why you're motivated to make a change or to get something done. For example, my initial motivation to lose weight  was to be viewed as more attractive. That ultimately became something deeper and something more meaningful to me - I wanted to lose weight, truly, because I wanted to be more confident. I didn't have self-confidence in so many avenues of my life previously. I didn't trust myself, believe in myself, or trust in other people's compliments because I didn't believe them. So ultimately for me, losing weight wasn't the end game. Losing weight and getting fit & healthy was the gateway for me finding my confidence. There's always more to it than that superficial reason, so dig deep and find that thing.

2. Use positive, present statements.   This one comes straight from my girl, Chalene Johnson, and is probably the most novel goal-setting technique I've ever heard of. Use positive, present statements. I feel like the positive part of this is pretty straight-forward. If you set a goal of "Don't get fat," your brain is going to latch onto the idea of "getting fat," because internally we kind of reject the negative part of the statement. It's like when someone says "Don't think of elephants" and you immediately think of an elephant. If your goal is "Don't get fat", you will actually be less likely to get fit, which is ultimately what you want. Negative goal setting gives you no positive motivation. Besides, we should just be nicer to ourselves, right?

Also, set your goal as if it's already happened, not as something far off in the future, by framing it as a "present" statement. What do I mean about present statements?

  •  "Run a marathon" becomes "I have run a marathon."
  • "Get a promotion" becomes "I am the Senior VP...", for example 
  • "Be a NY Times Best-selling author" becomes "I am a NY Times Best-selling author" 

Treat your goals as if they've already happened, and that promotes visualization and belief that your goal is attainable. Believe and you will achieve, am I right?  

3. Be SMART. Ever heard of S.M.A.R.T. goals? I'd guess so if you're in the market for goal-setting tricks. And this one is a total winner for a reason. The biggest problem most people make when they're setting goals is that they set a goal that's hard to define. They say they want to "get more fit" or "be more organized," etc. The problem with that kind of goal setting is there's no way for you to know what constitutes reaching that goal, how to take action toward reaching it, and with no definitive "due date," nothing is motivating you to start. Hence, the S.M.A.R.T system. S.M.A.R.T. stands for multiple different things (depending upon who you ask!), but I define it as

  • Specific  
  • Measurable 
  • Actionable  
  • Realistic 
  • Time-bound 

For goals to be considered SMART they need to fit all of these requirements. For example, since this has been a consistently used goal in this post, don't just say "I want to lose weight." Instead, that statement should become "I have lost 20 pounds by December." This goal is specific, because it gives you a number that you're shooting for, it's measurable because you can weigh yourself to track that progress, it actionable because there are specific actions you can take to ensure achievement of this goal, it is realistic (ie. you're not trying to lose more weight than you have to lose, and you're not doing so in an unrealistically short time frame), and it's time-bound, in that we've attached a deadline to the goal.  Set SMART goals and you'll set yourself up for success!

4. Start simple. The worst thing you can do when you're trying to make some big life changes is to overwhelm yourself by piling on 10-20 BIG GOALS that you have. This is just a recipe for disaster. And don't cheat by making a single goal have multiple levels. If you stick to around 5 or so main goals, you'll be able to be more focused and more effective in your pursuit of those goals. Some may even say 1-2 goals is best. Depending upon your goals and the sheer size of them, choose a number that seems reasonable for you, but don't go above 5! A 5 goal cut-off is definitely the limit, in my opinion, to keep you focused and moving forward.

5. Write it down. The research is conclusive - when you write down your goals you are more likely to achieve them. Why?

  • Because it forces you to clarify what you want
  • Because it will motivate you to take action
  • Because it will enable you to see and celebrate your progress!
  • Because it frees up your mind to do what it does best - think creatively and not remember everything!

I would suggest you do this for both your goals AND your actions plans (which we will get to in #7!). 

6. Priotize - identify the Domino or Push goal. This idea of a Domino or Push goal is something that you'll hear about a lot and is defined differently depending upon who you ask! If you've established your goals, spend some time evaluating them. Determine if you have one goal that will help you achieve all of the other goals too. Chalene Johnson calls this a PUSH goal, while other productivity experts call this a Domino goal. They're both right! And whatever way works better for you to conceptualize this is the one you should adopt. But basically, the idea is that one of your goals will likely help to make all of your others goals easier.

For example, if I had 4 science-related goals... 

  1. I have 4 first author publications by 2019.
  2. I am a PhD by 2018.
  3. I have mentored an undergraduate by the time I graduate.
  4. I have a job lined up upon my graduation.

The question is, which of these goals helps me to complete all of the others? You can go about doing this whichever way you choose. But my initial thought is that I have "4 first author publications by 2019" serve as my push-goal. Why? Because I need publications to defend my PhD so having publications would help that goal. If I am doing such a high volume of work, then I would likely be able to hire and thus mentor an undergraduate, thus Goal #1 helps me complete that goal as well. Lastly, if I had 4 additional first author publications upon graduation, I would be a highly competitive applicant for the kind of positions I want. Therefore, Goal #1 would be my Domino/Push goal because it helps me to achieve all the other 3 goals! Go through the same kind of process for your own goals, and determine which one is your Domino/Push goal. That way, you can prioritize this goal in reference with the rest of them.  

7. Take specific actionYou've set your goals, you've prioritized them, but now the first thing you're probably thinking is "where do I start?" 

That's because the next step is probably one of the the most crucial parts of goal-setting. You have to make a plan. I personally love to create action plans. In doing so, you lay out the different aspects of your goal, and then break them down into smaller sub-goals, which you can start taking action toward.

Start by brainstorming everything that needs to be done to get you to your goal, and then turn that brainstorm into daily, weekly, and monthly goals. Those small, manageable, actionable tasks will serve as benchmarks for you that you can start working on to move you forward. For example, I set a goal this summer that I wanted to run a half marathon by the end of the summer. I definitely am in no condition to just go run one now! So, I had to make a plan. I needed to:

  • Buy new running shoes
  • Find a training program - Hal Hagdon!
  • Find a friend to run it with
  • Pick which half marathon I want to do
  • Schedule my runs
  • Etc.

So, not one week after deciding I was going to do this and that it was important to me, my coworker and I chose our half, I purchased new shoes, I found a schedule, and I scheduled my training runs for the rest of the summer until the half! Make a plan, and then you can take action on your goal!

8. Remind yourself of your goals. Once you've written your goals down, it does you no good to then stash that piece of paper or that document in some unknown location. Put it smack in front of you! Hang it on a bulletin board above your desk, or better yet create a VISION BOARD (I'll post about this eventually!)! If you have recorded your goals electronically, set that as your desktop so that you're constantly reminded! Better yet, put your goals and your action plans in whatever handbook or notebook you use to manage your life. I review my goals every morning, which includes my purpose, my values, my goals and my action plans...that way I'm constantly reminded of what I'm working toward in life!

9. Review your goals. This tip is two-pronged. Firstly, it is important to review your goals and progress toward them on a consistent basis. If you can't at least glance at your goals everyday, then I highly suggest doing a weekly review. I love to do mine on Sundays! Evaluate what's working, what isn't, where you should spend more time focusing, if you've achieved the benchmarks you set for yourself in your action plan, etc. Evaluate the systems you have in place and add things into your action plan as necessary to help move you toward your goals.

Secondly, as part of this review process, it is important that you ask yourself - is this still what I want? Our lives are very dynamic, and our priorities and passions are constantly changing. Especially if you're a wayward twenty-something like me. So, it's important to realize that sometimes the goals you've set for yourself will become less important than they were when you set them. Sometimes your priorities change. That's OKAY! And that's why it's important to constantly remind yourself and review your goals so that you can make sure that the things you're working toward are in line with your current priorities in life.  

10. Be flexible about the "how". One of my all-time favorite goal setting quotes is "Change your strategy, not your goals." Also, there's a great derivative of that quote from the great Zig Ziglar, shown to the right! 

If you've gone through this whole process, you'll have this perfectly mapped out plan for how you're going to attack your goals. You know what you're going to do, when you're going to do it, how you're going to move forward...but, more than likely, something will go wrong! Sometimes, things happen unexpectedly, or there was a step that you missed and you have to change your strategy a little bit. Life is a crazy, crazy ride! And it's not going to work out exactly according to plan.

I can't tell you how many times I set audacious goals for my soccer seasons. I was 2nd Team All-League when I was a freshman, and it definitely was on my radar to either match or beat that All-League placement the following year. But, I tore my ACL. I never planned on injuring my knee. Similarly, I set a goal to finish P90X in 2011 after I graduated from college, but I never planned on getting appendicitis. Things happen, and sometimes there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. Those setbacks just have to be written into the plan, and you have to find ways to work around them.

So recognize that you're only human, that somethings are ultimately out of your control. Recognize that, breathe deep, and be okay with it. But always remember that if you want something and you want it bad, never lose your desire to achieve that thing

Change your strategy. Not your goals.

And that's it! Those are your 10 tips to be a better goal-setter! I hope you got some great, new ideas and these simple tips will help you with your goal setting as much as they've helped me!

Do you have any tips that I missed? Share in the comments section below!