The thing is, people fail to reach at least some of the goals in life that they set for themselves. Many people fail to reach most. It’s one thing to say you want to learn to fly, but another to spend years and thousands of dollars becoming a pilot—or trying to convince a doctor to surgically graft wings on your arms.
With the wrong goals, you set yourself up for failure from day one. If your goal is too hard, unmeasurable, or just so vague as to be meaningless, you won’t ever reach it. The simplest fix then, is to set the right goals. To set professional and personal goals that are achievable and reachable. You might need to set many small goals to tick off a big one, but you at least have some hope of getting there. Let’s look at how.
Goal setting is important in both your personal and professional life. Even if you aren’t sitting down at the end of every year to do an annual review, you probably have a few things in your head you’d like to achieve. It’s much better to take a conscious, proactive approach to setting goals at work and home. That way you’ll reap many more benefits.
Here are some of the benefits of setting professional and personal goals:
Everything I’ve said, however, only holds true for good goals. Set yourself the wrong goals in life and all you’ll have to look back on is a string of demotivating failures. So, what makes a good goal?
A good goal is SMART. This means it’s Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Constrained. Let’s discuss these one by one. A good goal is:
While all your goals might not be perfectly SMART, it’s a really great place to start when you’re setting yourself personal and professional goals.
There’s one other major concept you need to understand about goal setting: the difference between Outcome and Process goals, and the trap of the former.
An Outcome goal is a goal where there is a defined outcome. It’s something like “write for The New Yorker this year” or “have $50,000 in the bank by Christmas.” While these personal goals examples, at first glance, look like pretty strong SMART goals, they’re at the mercy of a lot of outside factors.
Let’s take a closer look at those personal goals examples. I’d love to write for The New Yorker, but I actually have very little say in whether I can do it or not. They’re pitched by thousands of writers every month, many of them very good. Having a pitch accepted is as much a matter of luck and timing as it’s about being an exceptional writer. I could be the best writer in the bunch and do everything right, but if they’re not looking for an incredible human-interest piece on small African tree frogs for their issue dedicated to the rodents in Chicago’s inner city then someone else is going to be selected.
A Process goal instead focuses on what needs to be done to possibly achieve a desired outcome. If I want to write for The New Yorker, I need to pitch The New Yorker. Maybe they don’t want my tree frog piece, but they might like my sand worm article or my sea otter photo essay. Rather than my goal being to write for The New Yorker, it becomes “to pitch ten article ideas to The New Yorker this year”. Not only is that SMART, but it’s also entirely within my control and each pitch will actually get me closer to writing for The New Yorker. I’ll both maximise my chances of getting lucky or hitting the zeitgeist and develop with each pitch. My tenth piece will almost certainly be better than my first.
This isn’t to warn you off outcome goals entirely. It’s just to make you aware of the danger of creating goals that rely entirely on other people. If there are four great candidates for a CEO job, three of them are going to miss out. You can be the best you possible and still not get the job. Outcome goals, however, often make the most motivating goals. They’re the easiest to fantasise about or to talk about around the dinner table. It’s important to have them too, but to recognise that you need process goals too.
Not all goals in life are on the same time frame. Some will be things you want to achieve in the next few weeks or months, others will be things you want to do before you die. In general, goals are split into:
There’s obviously lots of fuzziness around the edges when it comes to time frames.
How you set each goal will depend on what time frame you want to achieve it in. If you plan to grow your freelance revenue to $100,000/year over the next five years, you’ll need to approach it differently than if you’re trying to achieve that in the next one.
In general, short-term goals are often building blocks to longer term goals and therefore, you need to be much stricter with how you set your short-term goals. It’s okay to have vague, not-super SMART long-term plans, but you shouldn’t have unmeasurable short-term goals.
Now that you’ve got a good grounding in the concepts that underly good goal setting, let’s look at putting it into practice.
I’m not an astronaut. I’m not a vet either. Nor a garbage collector nor any of the other professions eight-year-old Harry so earnestly believed he’d be. Reflecting honestly, I’d be a terrible astronaut and probably wouldn’t enjoy being a vet very much. Just because those were my goals when I was young doesn’t mean they’re what I want now.
Your professional and personal goals will shift as you grow—whether it’s in age, maturity, or as a person. If a goal you set yourself a while ago is continually falling beyond your grasp, reassess it. Maybe it’s not achievable for you right now or maybe it’s just something you’re not motivated to strive for any more. Your actions speak way louder than words. So go ahead and change the long-term goals list when you need to.
Good goal setting is the simple part. The hard part is achieving them. Deciding you’re going for a five kilometre run three times a week is easy—it’s a very SMART, short-term, process goal after all. But actually getting out the door on a dark rainy Tuesday is a lot harder.