I’ve written a number of articles about goal setting and the different aspects of achieving them, such as barriers, defining your path to achieving goals, and resources, among others.
I’ve now made this single all-encompassing guide, which includes all the steps you need for setting goals and succeeding with them. I’ll also include links to resources (some of my own, some from others) that you can use in your own goal setting.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Planning Your Goals
How to Prioritise Your Goals
Breaking down Your Goals into smaller parts
Developing Habits for your goals
A Goal Setting Worksheet
What is goal setting and why should I do it?
Setting a Goal is defined “the development of an action plan designed to motivate and guide a person or group toward a goal”.
That all sounds more complicated than it needs to be, but essentially;
If you have something that you want to achieve, like running a marathon or stopping smoking, goal setting is the process of developing a plan or a system to achieve this goal. Research has shown that by making specific and ambitious goals (and plans to achieve them), you’re more likely to make improvements than compared easy or general goals.
You probably already have some goals that you want to achieve - great! However, before we start examining how to achieve them, let’s step back a bit and talk about values first, as they’re going to help with the process of setting goals that work for you.
A value is “one’s judgement of what is important in life”. Examples are kindness, assertiveness, or reliability.
WHY ARE VALUES IMPORTANT FOR GOALS?
Let’s ask another question first - Have you ever thought about why you set the specific goals you have? Why are they important to you? **Are** they important to you, or did someone tell you they should be important to you?
One way to help answer these questions is to define our values - they can be your North Star for your goals and projects, or for changing the goals that you have. But how do you define values?
DEFINING YOUR VALUES
To begin with, write down a list of all the values you can think of that relate to you. There are too many values to list here (here’s a list from Google).
Don’t worry about if your values seem like they’re repeating or seem similar to each other, the key thing right now is to get as many of them as possible down on paper or on the screen.
GROUP SIMILAR VALUES
At this point, you should have a list of values that are important to you. The next step is to group all of your similar values together. For example, happiness, humour and fun could be grouped together, thankfulness and gratitude could also be grouped together.
There is no specific limit to the number of groups of values, but I think 4 or 5 groups works well for me.
PICK A KEY VALUE
From the groups you made above, circle one word from each group that best describes that group.
APPLY IT TO YOUR GOALS (CURRENT OR FUTURE)
Now that you have defined your values, take a look again at your goals. Do they match the values that you have just listed? If not, why not? Perhaps they refer to some values that you hold but haven’t listed, or perhaps they don’t align with your values at all?
If you’re setting new goals or just starting projects for the first time, ask yourself before you start whether the goal or project aligns with your values?
Finally, perhaps your projects or goals align with some, but not all of your values - are there values that you hold that you’re not as focused on? Why is that?
REFLECT ON YOUR VALUES OVER TIME
As a side note, periodically reflect on the values that you’ve written down. Over time, they may/will change, sometimes without realising. This is perfectly normal. Repeat the above process, but add the step of comparing your previous values to your new ones. What’s changed, what values are new and what values do you no longer hold (if that’s the case)?
This process of self-examination and self-reflection is difficult, but will ultimately help you set better goals and projects that are aligned to your values. It will make them seem more meaningful and important to you, and gives you a direction in life that’s specific to you and your needs.
PLANNING AND SETTING YOUR GOALS
Now you’ve identified your values, how can you identify some initial goals that align with those values?
You probably already have some goals already, but to help, ask yourself the following questions:
- where do I want to be in my life in 3/5/10 years time?
- is there a habit (e.g. smoking, going to the gym) that I would like to stop or start?
- is there a dream of mine from childhood that I would like to achieve?
- is there something about my life that I would like to change/improve?
- are there actions that I do (or don’t do) that don’t align with my values?
There are thousands of other ways to identify goals, but asking yourself the above questions is a good start.
Please note that all of these questions tie back to your values - which is why it’s so important to identify your values first.
Write down as many goals as you can think of for now, in no particular order. For now, just list as many as possible.
HOW TO PRIORITISE YOUR GOALS
Most people have more than one goal or dream that they want to achieve at any one time. They may be at different levels of difficulty or (personal) importance, and may even have an order built into them. For example, if your two goals are to fly commercial airplanes for a living and get your pilot’s licence, it’s (hopefully!) clear which goal you need to achieve first.
But not all goals are as clear and ordered as that, so how do we decide what to focus on first?
To begin with, look at the complete list of goals that you wrote down earlier. You may have a list of 5/10/20 goals that you’d like to achieve.
The next step is to borrow a technique from the Getting Things Done productivity strategy; for each goal, decide whether it’s a goal that you can start on today, want to do it soon, or a goal that you’ll come back to in the future.
Ordering your Goals By Your Priorities
Goals I want to Start on Today
Goals I want to Start on Soon
Goals I want to Start on Sometime in the Future
The final step is to order these goals in each list by it’s importance to you - this is quite a personal thing, but my advice is to think of the ones that seem the most important to you from a health/personal perspective, or have been a long held dream of yours to achieve. They’re probably quite important ones to you.
Once you’ve done the above process, you’ll have a list of goals, ordered by priority and that you know you can start on straight away. Keep the rest of the goals in a folder or file that you can review later, and if you want to add them back into the today list at a later stage, you can do that!
BREAKING DOWN YOUR GOALS INTO SMALLER, MORE SPECIFIC PARTS
Now you’ve identified your goals and values, and prioritised them, it’s time to look at your goals in more detail and start breaking them down into smaller chunks. As an example, let’s say one of your goals is to run a marathon. That’s a good general goal, but it’s not very specific - for example, when do you want to run the marathon, how long do you want to take? Have you ever run as a hobby before? The goal ‘run a marathon’ is missing lots of detail, and as we said earlier, planning our goals in detail makes them more achievable.
If you can’t answer questions like the ones in the previous paragraph about your own goals, the chances are that they’re too general. To fix this, it’s a good idea to break each goal down into more detail and formulate a clear plan to achieve it. One way of doing this is asking the following questions:
Effort - How hard is this goal for me personally? Have I done something similar before?
Time - How much time will this take up? How much time have I available?
Priority - How important is this goal for me compared to other tasks/goals in my life?
Stages - Can I break the goal down into smaller pieces? What are they?
To keep using the marathon example, let’s look at what training for a marathon involves. A quick search online showed that there are many marathon training plans available. Here’s a sample one with specific plans for beginners, intermediate and advanced.
However, the first week for beginners involves running 20 miles, increasing to 40 miles a week as you get closer to the marathon itself! I’m not criticising the plan (I’m sure it’s excellent if you’re at that level), but I think the definition of ‘beginner’ here is someone who runs regularly but has never done a marathon. I think it’s unrealistic for someone who’s never run at any consistent level to do 20 miles in their first week of training and an average of 30 miles a week for 4 months.
So answering those questions using our marathon example:
Effort - It’s very hard to run a marathon (the first guy who did it died!) - I’ve never run more than 2km in my life.
Time - Large amount of time for training/recovery.
Priority - This is your own personal choice
Stages - I can break my marathon goal down into smaller distances and build up to the goal of a marathon in the future. Finishing 5k/10k runs are still great achievements and help me prepare for the marathon itself!
So now your single goal has become more than one goal, staggered over time. It may seem like more work, but in reality, it’s far more achievable.
So the goal(s) now looks like:
Goal 1 - run a 5km race in 2 months
Goal 2 - run a 10km race in 4 months
Goal 3 - run a half marathon in 6 months
Goal 4 - run a second half marathon in 12 months
Goal 5 - run a marathon in 18 months?
If you take this approach to your goals and break them down into smaller parts, it’s a great way to increase your chances of success. The reality is that the goal may actually take longer in reality want it to take, but consistency and sustainability, not speed, are the key ingredients to long-term change.
As a side note, there are similar goal setting strategies like SMART - Goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time bound. I think that the above goals also fit into the SMART criteria - if using those criteria work for you, great!
OTHER ASPECTS TO THINK ABOUT WHEN SETTING GOALS
So now we have our values, our goals and a plan to achieve them, but is there anything else to think about? Things should all just run smoothly and we’ll hit our goals in no time, right?
There are usually other factors beyond the plan that we need to consider. I’ve described a few below.
Some goals require things (objects, time etc.) beyond just our sheer willpower. If you want to lose weight, and have decided to learn to cook so that you eat healthier, do you have any books on cooking? If you're quitting smoking, have you purchased nicotine patches or gum? If you’re learning to dance, do you have a dance teacher or club you want to attend? It’s important to think through the resources that are needed and amend your plan to account for it, if necessary.
Nothing worthwhile comes easily, so it's natural to encounter some resistance while trying to achieve your goals. Identifying and thinking about these barriers helps you deal with them when you encounter them for real.
The smart scientists who study goal-setting call this coping planning, and along with action planning, they’ve shown that it provide you with a proven strategy to achieve your goals. As a quick recap, action planning and coping planning can be defined as:
ACTION PLANNING AND COPING PLANNING
Action Planning - This is about planning the goal itself - what you will do, when and where you will do it:
“I will meditate for 10 minutes after my gym session in the stretching area before I head to the showers.”
Coping Planning - You’ll inevitably encounter resistance to the change you want to make, so planning for it and thinking through solutions can be really helpful. For example:
“If I want to go to the gym but feel tired, I will not let myself sit down when I get on, but will pick up my gear bag and go straight to the gym at once”.
Some barriers are a little less obvious and require some introspection. They may not be based on physical or financial limitations, but on your own internal mindsets or thinking. How do we work through these types of barriers or fears, often where we may not even be consciously aware that we have them? For example - some people think that ‘they just can’t lose weight, no matter what’, so they don’t try.
These sorts of barriers are beyond the scope of this article, but Ramit Sethi’s invisible scripts article is an excellent primer on the topic. I might write more on it at a later point.
WORST CASE SCENARIO
Another example where people won’t try to achieve a goal as they keep imagining the worst-case scenario if they don’t succeed. In reality, it usually is both unlikely that your worst-case scenario and isn’t anywhere near as bad as you think it will be.
By actually defining the worst case thing that could happen, it allows us to think through what we could do if that came to happen - and can also define a coping plan for it. In Tim Ferris’ own case, he discovered that even in the absolute worst case scenario - where his business collapsed and he lost all his money - he realised he could still work and find a job relatively quickly and get back on track:
So how do we examine at our fears and barriers in detail?
EXAMINING YOUR BARRIERS AND FEARS
For each goal:
- What’s the worst thing(s) that could go wrong by trying to achieve the goal? List them all.
- If these scenarios happened, what could you do to fix things or get your life back to where it was? How long would that take? Are these worst-case scenarios permanent? For example, if you started a business and it failed spectacularly, losing billions of dollars for everyone involved, does that mean you’ll never find another job again? (the answer to that is no just to be clear!)
- Why are these particular scenarios your worst-case scenarios? Are they due to fear? Shame? Maybe it reminds you of a past you wanted to forget? Something else? Think about the underlying emotion related to that scenario and where it comes from.
- How can you reduce the possibility of these things happening - not trying to achieve the goal is not an answer!
- How likely are these worst-case scenarios to occur - be realistic! What other scenarios are more realistic?
- What are the upsides of achieving your goal - do they outweigh the potential risks of failing?
- What’s the cost of not trying to achieve the goal? I always think of the line ‘it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’ when I’m unsure about whether to do something. Is it better to have tried to achieve your goal and failed than never to have tried in the first place? Will you regret not trying in later years?
DEVELOPING HABITS FOR YOUR GOALS
One of your goals may be to start (or stop) a habit. Or maybe your goals are more likely to succeed if you change some of your habits.
Achieving our goals usually means doing something repeatedly, or stopping an action that we do repeatedly. This action is usually called a habit.
Most goals we have require stopping, starting or changing a habit - but what’s the right habit to pick or stop?
For the sake of completion, we’ll define a habit as “a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.”
For example, if you want to run a marathon, you have to start a habit of running consistently, slowly increasing the amount of time and distance you run. Alternatively, if you want to stop smoking, you have a number of techniques that you can use, such as stopping the habit immediately, tapering down your smoking habit over time, or changing to a vaping habit.
Sometimes the habit is obvious - if we want to stop smoking, it’s pretty clear what needs to stop. But what if we want to start learning a new language - should we start listening to radio shows in that language, attend a class, or buy a language book that we’ll read daily/weekly/monthly? All of the above? Something else?
We’ve spoken above about prioritising your goals so that they’re achievable, where breaking down your goals into smaller and more digestible chunks makes you more likely to succeed with them.
So ask yourself some of the following questions, once you’ve identified a goal that you’d like to achieve:
- Think about similar goals that you’ve achieved in the past: why did you succeed and what could you apply to this new situation?
- Also think about some times where you didn’t succeed: why not? What can you learn from those situations? Perhaps you were too busy? Or took on too big a goal?
- Do I know someone who’s done this before? What were their experiences like? It may not directly apply to your situation but it’s always good to talk to someone who’s done it before and learn from their experience.
- Is there something I really like (or really hate) that I should keep in mind when planning this goal?
This isn’t and shouldn’t be a particularly involved activity, the idea is that you’ll quickly be able to pick a habit to start, stop or change that’s more suited both to the goal you want to achieve and you as a person. Additionally, you may find that you can incorporate existing habits into your goal, further increasing the chances of success!
Most goals take more than a few minutes, so it's always a good idea to review where you are along the way.
As a quick review, ask yourself some of the following questions on a regular basis for each goal
- Where am I on the path to achieving my goal? Is that where I want to be?
- What’s going well? What’s not going so well?
- Is there anything I want to change?
If everything’s going well, then continue on - but a little course correction on the path to your goals every now and then can really be the difference between succeeding in hitting your goals, and not quite getting there.
Thomas Edison famously made 1,000 attempts at inventing the light bulb before he succeeded. When a journalist asked him how did it felt to fail 1,000 times, he replied that he didn’t fail, but that “the light bulb was an invention with 1000 steps”.
We mentioned previously how one study showed smokers take (on average) 19.6 attempts before they succeed in quitting. Some might see that as a sign of how difficult it is, and they’re right.
But it also shows great resilience that so many people dust themselves off after each unsuccessful attempt, try again and (eventually) succeed.
One aspect this study did not focus on was the type of method people used to quit (vaping, patches, tapering off, cold turkey etc.) or why they succeeded when they did. What was so different about the successful attempt compared to the other ones? Would understanding why they didn’t succeed in the past help them succeed in the future?
If you’re trying to quit smoking for the 20th time, lose weight again, or trying to get up earlier every morning, it’s useful to reflect on why you think previous attempts didn’t succeed. It could be a combination of many things, and you may not know exactly why an attempt didn’t succeed, but a small amount of reflection could give you some ideas on how to increase your chances of making that habit stick.
This isn’t meant to be an exercise in failure - changing habits to achieve goals is not easy and if you’re succeeding first time on everything, then you’re not challenging yourself enough. Edison’s achievements are incredible and there were many years of effort before that moment, but I think we can all agree that the lightbulb was worth it!
This reflection can be part of developing a ‘coping plan’ for your goal, namely, identifying barriers that you know you will encounter as you try to achieve your goal and writing down ways to overcome them. A simple plan could look like this:
Previous Attempt (If any):
What did I find easy?
What did I find hard?
Why did I succeed (or not)?
To achieve my goal and for the problems I find hard, what I can do to help make them easier? Examples include:
Things to do (exercise, reading)
Talking to or spending time with friends
Talking to a mentor/professional who can advise me.
This can also be a great exercise to do after you have achieved a goal. By writing down why it worked, it can help you in planning for the next goal you want to achieve!
There’s a lot there about the many facets of goal-setting, but it’s important to cover all aspects of it - the good parts, the difficult parts and the parts no-one talks about like barriers, reviews and reflections.
A FREE GOAL/PLANNING WORKSHEET
To finish, I’ve put the worksheet I’ve made for setting your goals - It has some examples present for each part of the process - if you want a version without the examples or a different format (maybe a printed version?), get in touch!