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There are usually three situations in which people encounter goals:
- Someone else (a manager, boss, teacher, or some other authority figure) has established a goal for you that you must then try to meet.
- You are suffering from a lack of motivation, so you intentionally set goals to push yourself towards accomplishment.
- You have so much excitement and motivation that you set goals as a way of focusing your energy toward what's most important.
All of these situations have wildly different external and internal forces, yet the process of goal setting (as well as the outcomes of goal setting done well) remain consistent.
How to Set Goals (That Will Work)
The way you set your goals determines your levels of performance and effort, the steps you take in attempt to accomplish your goal, and your overall chances of success. Research has shown that abiding by a certain set of goal-setting best-practices can drastically heighten the likelihood that you will eventually accomplish the goals you set.1
Step 1: Pick the Right Difficulty Level
The first factor you need to take into account when setting a goal is how challenging you want to make it.
This seems like most of the time it would be self-evident from the task at hand. Finishing a report is finishing a report, right? You might be surprised. Let's say a hypothetical person named Mark wants to write a book. You might think that all permutations of the goal to "write a book" are equal, but it actually isn't that simple.
All Goals Aren't Created Equal
Mark could set a mental goal to just get the words down on the page. Maybe he has procrastinated writing for so long he just wants to snap himself into action and get started. (Side note: if this sounds like you, we have an article on how to beat procrastination you may want to check out.)
However, maybe Mark is trying to write his book to boost his business, develop a reputation as an author, and establish himself as an authority in his field. In this case, he doesn't just want to get words down on paper, he wants to write a book that's going to be a big success and draw some serious attention. In this case, the goal of "complete the book writing process" might not be difficult enough. Instead, he might want to set a goal to "write a book and get it accepted by a prestigious publisher" or even "write a New York Times bestseller".
You can see how these two different goals would both result in Mark finishing writing a book, but would probably yield very different writing processes, levels of effort, and quality of the eventual book produced.
What Research Says
There has been a great deal of research on what level of goal difficulty yields the best performance. In an examination of 400 different studies, most showed that more difficult goals yield higher levels of performance.2 This is fairly predictable due to the connection between effort and performance. If people set easy goals they won't try that hard to achieve them, but they'll have to work much harder if they select a more difficult goal.
Some studies did show a drop off in performance with really difficult goals (those at the top end of the difficulty spectrum), but this was only visible when there was also a decrease in commitment to the goal. This means that the only reason people perform worse when faced with an extremely difficult goal is if they decide to give up.
Set a goal that is as challenging as possible. A goal that is too easy will not make you perform as well as a difficult one. The only upper limit is that you shouldn't make the goal so hard that you lose motivation.
Step 2: Make Your Goals Specific
The next major finding in goal setting research is that people are far more likely to perform well with specific goals than with vague or undefined goals.
Let's look back at Mark and his goal to write a book.
We already discussed how the goal to "write a book" could mean different things, from getting words down on a page to writing a bestseller. But how will Mark plan to accomplish his goal if he doesn't specify exactly what "writing a book" entails? Is just getting 20,000 words down and self-publishing it to Kindle enough to satisfy his goal? Does he want to complete his book by a certain date or event? Does he need to get a contract with a publisher to check this goal off his list?
Goals need to be specific.
Ask yourself questions about how you will know you have accomplished your goal. What metrics will measure your success? By when do you want to complete different necessary steps? Is there a deadline for the entire goal?
Having answers to these questions will help you create a goal that is specific enough to guarantee performance.
Why is Specificity Important?
First, specificity helps you envision just what accomplishing a goal will look like and what needs to be done to accomplish it. However, specificity isn't just important because it clarifies where you end up, but because it determines the process by which you get there.
Obviously, if Mark wants to walk into a book store and pick up a physical copy of his bestselling book he needs to find a publisher and seek distribution channels, on top of actually getting the words on paper. On the other hand, if Mark wants to write a book to create ancillary revenue for his primary business, he might want to look at self-publishing (where the royalties are higher), email marketing, and online lead generation instead.
He has the same overall goal (i.e. "write a book"), but when he got more specific about what his eventual outcome should look like the steps he needed to take completely changed.
What Research Says
One of the most common goals people make is to "do their best" at a specific task. With enough commitment, this may qualify as a difficult goal (fulfilling Step 1) but it isn't specific enough to really elicit peak performance.
In fact, research has repeatedly shown that "do your best" goals rarely bring out people's best work.2 Not only was maximum effort not aroused, but people with "do your best" goals also tended to rate their performance more positively than those who actually created specific goals (even though they didn't actually do better).
Furthermore, not only is performance usually better when people have specific goals, but there is also less variability in their performance when goals are specific.4 This means that with specific goals not only will you have a better chance at optimum performance one time, but that you will also have habitually higher performance across multiple goals as well.
Make sure your goals are specific. Include an external metric that will show that your goal has been accomplished and a deadline by which the goal must be completed. "Do your best" is not a specific goal.
Step 3: Accept Your Goal
One essential aspect of having a goal is actually committing to the goal.
Commitment is defined as the level of attachment a person has to accomplishing their goals. This includes things like how important they consider the goal to be, how determined they are to accomplish it, and how well they stay true to their goal in the face of obstacles or setbacks.
Commitment is equally important for the accomplishment of internally generated goals as it is for externally generated goals.
Individually, this means that a goal does absolutely nothing for you if you "set it and forget it". Think of all the new year's resolutions to lose weight and then look at the utter ghost town that is any gym in February.
If you don't commit to a goal, you aren't likely to devote that much time or effort into accomplishing it.
However, where this becomes even more of an issue is when we are faced with a goal that is set by someone else. Most of us have a boss, a client, a professor, parent, spouse, or some other external figure that sometimes sets our goals for us. Finish that report, this project has to be done by the end of the month, defend your dissertation, call more often, be a better communicator...
All of these are perfectly valid goals, but none of them are actually coming from you. They're being imposed by someone else.
While there's a possibility you could be on the exact same page, there's also a chance that you aren't going to be that excited about completing (or even willing to exert effort towards) an externally generated goal. This is why commitment to a goal is so important.
Unless you adopt an externally-set goal as your own and embrace it as a goal you truly care about, you will never achieve peak performance in trying to complete it.Tweet This
While goal commitment applies to individuals who need to make sure they prioritize their goals, where commitment is even more important is when it comes to people who have to set goals for their subordinates. Managers set sales figures to meet, teachers assign papers, and parents create behavioral standards. If the person for whom you set a goal doesn't embrace the goal as something they want for themselves, it will never elicit a high level of performance.
While the art of creating compliance towards and intrinsic motivation to complete an externally-imposed goal is an article in and of itself, there are two broad categories of factors that enhance commitment which can be useful for making either yourself or others create higher levels of commitment towards a goal:
- Convincing people that it is possible to achieve their goals
- Convincing people that the goal itself is important
Without believing that it is possible for you to accomplish your goal (at least with some good old fashioned sweat equity) and believing that the goal is important to you personally, you will not be fully committed to achieving a goal. Commitment is essential because it is a necessary prerequisite for goal-directed effort and eventual performance quality.
Step 4: Create a Plan and Find Feedback Channels
So you have a goal. It's specific and difficult enough to be motivating. You're fully committed to accomplishing it. Now what?
Just as you wouldn't leave your driveway before knowing where you were going and the driving directions to get there, you don't want to begin working towards a goal without first creating a solid plan of what you need to do. Most of us have seen versions of a quote that says "a goal is a dream with a deadline". The full quote is a bit more specific:
"A dream written down with a date becomes a goal. A goal broken down into steps becomes a plan. A plan backed by action makes your dreams come true.” -Greg Reid
While this quote has probably been embroidered and calligraphied on a few too many surfaces for my liking, it accurately represents a very real problem with the way many people set goals.
It's not hard to set a goal. What most people fail to do is to translate their goals into concrete plans with actionable, "bite-sized" steps that lead them to the completion of that goal.
It's easy to set a goal. What separates high achievers is the ability to translate a goal into actionable steps that can be put on your daily to do list.Tweet This
So how do you translate a goal into a plan? Glad you asked.
Create a (Written) Plan
Creating a step-by-step plan for how to accomplish a big goal is no easy task. However, once you have the formula, it becomes immensely simple (and rather therapeutic). Here's the basic idea for how to translate a big goal into actionable to do items:
You start out with a top-level goal. As an example, let's keep working with Mark and his goal to write a book.
Top Level Goal: Write a book.
The next step is to separate that goal into smaller action categories that have to occur in order to complete the goal. These aren't specific tasks. They're actually groups in which individual tasks can live. Think of these as something akin to phases of a project. (i.e. In order to accomplish a larger goal, you have to progress through action categories X, Y, and Z.)
Top Level Goal: Write a book.
Action Categories: Do basic research, create an outline, write your manuscript, copy edit, create graphics/illustrations, write a book proposal, find a publisher, create a launch plan, facilitate the launch plan.
Here are the criteria for an action category:
- Action categories are usually sequential. You progress from one action category to the next as you move towards your goal. There are occasional exceptions to this guideline, but you should usually be able to order your action categories like line items on a GPS. You do this, then this, then that.
- An action category has one (and not more than one) measurable endgame. Look at the example above. Things like "create an outline" or "write a book proposal" may have many different steps, but there is one overarching thing that is being accomplished within each action category.
- All tasks within an action category relate to the same endgame. You don't want to scatter your fire. Within each action category, all your focus should be towards the same thing. When Mark is writing his book proposal, he shouldn't
- Each action category has a measurable beginning and end. This means within each action category is a set of tasks and that when you complete all these tasks you will have fully completed the action category.
- Each action category should have a deadline. If you don't know you're behind until your final deadline for a goal begins to approach, chances are it's already too late for you to do anything about it. This is why each separate action category should have a time-based deadline as well. This way if you run late on one action category or phase you can adjust your course earlier in the process and make up for it in the next phase without affecting your ultimate deadline.
After creating your broad action categories, you can then go about creating the granular tasks that will go on your actual to do list. Basically, tasks are the tangible "building blocks" of each action category and your goal is comprised of a sequence of action categories.
By breaking down your goals like this, you guarantee that the stuff you're actually doing on a day-to-day basis is going to lead you to the completion of your goals.
One of the biggest issues people have is working way too hard, being way too busy, and still not accomplishing their goals. A breakdown in the goal-category-task sequence can lead to a feeling that you're working all the time but still not accomplishing your goals. It isn't that you aren't working hard enough (and goodness knows it's not that you aren't working enough hours)...it's because your goals aren't being accurately translated into daily tasks.
The reason it is explicitly important to have written goals is that there is something about the process of writing goals down (yes, with an actual pen/pencil and paper...like a caveman) that makes them more likely to be accomplished.6 It helps you commit more strongly to your goals and it makes you more likely to carry through on them.
Find Feedback Channels
One of the most important ways to ensure you aren't falling into this classic "work too hard and achieve too little" trap is to ensure you have good ways of collecting feedback on how you are progressing toward your goal.
Circling back to our car metaphor, working towards a goal without feedback channels is like getting in the car, turning off the volume on your GPS, then driving off with your eyes shut and not looking at the road once.
(Disclaimer: Please don't actually do that.)
Just like you need to see the GPS to tell you when to turn and see the road signs to ensure you're going in the right direction, you need waymarkers to tell you if you're getting closer to your goal and (if not) what's going wrong to prevent you from accomplishing what needs to be done.
Feedback markers can be internal metrics like how much time you devote to it per day or external metrics like performance reviews, numerical data on your progress, or some other analytics-type data. What matters is that your feedback markers are objective, preemptive, and highly visible.
- Objective: These should be tangible, quantifiable waymarkers. You wouldn't assess your progress on a car trip by whether you "felt" you were going in the right direction, and nor should you gauge your progress towards a goal by a metric that isn't clearly defined and objective.
- Preemptive: This just means you should see your feedback markers long before you either hit (or don't hit) your goal. A road sign does you no help after you've already missed the turn. Find yourself progress markers that let you gauge your progress when you're 20% to your goal, then 40%, etc.
- Highly Visible: Make sure you can easily and frequently access the data from your feedback markers. Make yourself a visible scoreboard for how you're doing. The more your progress (or lack thereof) is in your face, the better you'll do and the more productive you'll be in the long run.
Step 5: Tie the Goal to Your Broader Priorities
Any goal worth working for is going to take some time to accomplish.
This means that, unless this is your only goal and you're working in a family-less, distraction-less, white-walled room other things are going to come up that take time, energy, funds, or focus away from your goal.
It's incredibly tempting to lose focus, procrastinate, get distracted, or simply be too busy working on the million other things we have to get done on any given day. This doesn't make us bad people, nor does it mean we won't accomplish our goals. It does however mean that it takes extra effort and focus to ensure the goals that are going to benefit us most in the long-term don't get swallowed up by short-term survival and minutiae.
One great way to keep a goal in the forefront of your mind (even through the daily grind) is to tie it into your overall life priorities or greater sense of purpose.
Purpose and Intrinsic Motivation
According to research, one of the four things that create intrinsic motivation (aka the internal desire to do something for no other reason than really wanting to) is a feeling of purpose.5
Tell a kid to get straight A's and they'll roll their eyes. Tell a kid that their dream career demands a certain GPA and they'll adopt their math book as a pillow. Adults are no different. It's not very motivating to do something just for the sake of doing it. However, if you relate a goal to something you really want, something you would happily work and sacrifice to get, then it doesn't seem all that hard to find the time to work on it after all.
Goals are important because they give our actions purpose and direction, heightening our odds of success. A common pitfall is to stay perpetually busy, but with tasks that don't actually lead to the eventual completion of our self-determined goals. To set a goal that will further your success, you need to pick a goal that is difficult, specific and tied into a greater purpose, accept your goal, create a (written) plan, and find feedback channels to monitor your goal-directed behavior.
- Lunenburg, F.C. (2011). Goal-setting theory of motivation. International Journal of Management, Business, and Administration, 15(1), 1-6.
- Latham, G.P. & Locke, E.A. (1991). Self-regulation through goal setting. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50, 212-247.
- Bell, B. S., & Kozlowski, S. W. J. (2002) Goal orientation and ability: Interactive effects on self-efficacy, performance, and knowledge. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 497-505.
- Locke, E. A., Chah, D. O., Harrison, D. S., & Lustgarten, N. (1989). Separating the effects of goal specificity from goal level. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 43, 270-287.
- Graham, S., & Williams, C. (2009). An attributional approach to motivation in school. In K. R. Wentzel & A. Wigfield (Eds.), Handbook of motivation at school (S. 11–33). New York, NY: Routledge.
- McCarthy, T. (2004). Written goals produce sales success. Lodging Hospitality, 60(2), 28.
Liz Bayardelle, PhD
Founder at Six Key Skills , Contributor since 2019
Liz is the founder of Six Key Skills and a principal in five different small businesses, all of which were profitable in their first year of operations. With a PhD in Business Psychology from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Liz's area of research is the intersection of individual psychology and business achievement. Liz is also a certified digital nerd with experience in analytics, front- and back-end web development, and digital and content marketing strategies.
Take the Next Step
A step-by-step guide to translate a long-term goal into practical, actionable tasks.