Thoughts on Goal Setting

by Mark on March 25, 2010

Goal setting is one of the most popular topics in personal development, and there has already been plenty written about it, but since it is an important part of the 90-Day Challenge, I would like to share some of my thoughts on the topic. Everybody has heard about the importance of having goals, and it is widely agreed that we need goals if we want to be successful (which makes it all the more strange that so few people actually get around to setting goals). But what makes a goal a good goal? I don’t mean the subject matter of the goal. I mean how do we structure a goal so that it is most effective? The typical advice is to set SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely). While this is helpful, I think it is inadequate.

We have to remember that a goal is just a tool. In my opinion, goals are useful when they help focus our attention and motivate us to take action, so let’s take a look at some factors that might help us design our goals to be more effective.

Thoughts on Setting Effective Goals

  • The goal should really excite you. As Tony Robbins once wrote, “The way I usually know I’ve set the right goal is when it seems impossible but at the same time it’s giving me a sense of crazed excitement just to think about the possibility of achieving it.” If it doesn’t really excite you, you will have little motivation, and you will give up far too easily. In fact, there is a good chance you won’t even take the initial step towards achieving it.
  • It should be clear, specific, and measurable. There should be no doubt in your mind what it is you are trying to accomplish and when you have accomplished it. A goal to “Lose weight” is weak because it’s not clear what that means. Does that mean 1 ounce or 100 pounds? A goal to “Weigh 165 lbs. or less” is better because it is clear, and you know when it has been accomplished. Some goals aren’t easily quantifiable, but you should at least attempt to make it clear. If two people would agree on when it has been accomplished, then it is probably a pretty well defined goal.
  • It should be easy to visualize. If you can only generate a hazy picture of what it would look like when you achieve this goal, it will be far less motivational. It helps to be able to see how your life will benefit from achieving your goal. With the example of reaching a target weight, you might be able to develop a clear picture in your mind of what you will look like after you lose the weight and how much more energy and pride you will have.
  • The metric you use should be carefully chosen. My previous examples gave losing weight or achieving a certain weight as goals. I don’t think weight is a very good metric. You could lose weight by dehydrating yourself or starving yourself to the point of losing lean muscle, or you could gain weight by adding muscle. The first situation is obviously negative but consistent with these goals, and the second situation is positive but inconsistent with these goals. Body measurements are probably better metrics for health and for the way we look. Waist size is a much better metric for men, and hip measurements are probably better for women, because these are the areas where men and women tend to put on fat.
  • It should have a deadline. Goals without deadlines will continually be put off into the future. The deadline determines how much effort you are going to have to put in, and it determines the pace of goal achievement. If you set a deadline for June 30, 2010, you will obviously have to put in far more effort than if your deadline is June 30, 2015.
  • The deadline should be reasonably tight. See my post Parkinson’s Law: The Key to Being More Productive for an explanation of the benefits of setting tight deadlines.
  • You should limit the number of goals you set. The more goals you set, the more your focus will necessarily be diluted. This defeats the purpose of setting goals in the first place. Concentrate your power by limiting the number of goals you set, especially if you set a big goal for yourself.
  • You should set a Big, Hairy Audacious Goal, or BHAG (pronounced bee-hag). BHAGs are extremely challenging goals that can really make a difference. As Don Dodge of Google wrote: “Achieving 65% of the impossible is better than 100% of the ordinary” (How Google sets goals and measures success).
  • The goal should be believable. If you don’t believe that you can achieve the goal, you are doomed to failure. You won’t even try or your effort will be halfhearted. Your goal should be big, hairy, and audacious enough to be exciting, but not so big, hairy, and audacious that your brain rebels and says “No way!”
  • The goal achievement process should be intrinsically motivating. If you immediately think of the pain that you will have to suffer through in order to reach your goal, you will obviously have a tough time maintaining motivation. However, if the process is rewarding to you, then you will be drawn to it instead of repelled by it.

Some of these ideas are more difficult to incorporate in your goal design than others, but it should be helpful to keep them in mind when you set your goals.

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