A Step-by-Step Guide to Goal Setting
Setting a goal and reaching a goal are two very different things. I’ve been serious about goal setting since I was 16, and I’ve failed to meet many of my goals. Nothing is more frustrating than looking over a list of goals and realizing you failed to achieve even half of them. This has happened to me more times than I can count.
Living on the passive income from my first company, I spend my time experimenting with ways to live life to its fullest. I am a dad, entrepreneur, and lifelong learner. This blog is where I share what I’m learning along the way, hopeful that it will help you on your path to becoming the most fulfilled YOU!
Through these experiences, I’ve come to learn that there is a lot more to goal setting than simply writing them down. If you truly want to achieve worthwhile goals, there are key principles of effective goal setting that you need to keep in mind. In this article, I'm going to walk you through the step-by-step process I use to actually reach the goals that I set.
Before we dive into those principles, though, let’s cover some basics. Goals are objectives that you desire to accomplish. In order to set the right goals, there are two other related concepts that you need to understand: your identity (who you are) and your actions (what you do).
Who You Are
What You Achieve
What You Do
Your identity is more important than anything else. Deep down, if you are a good person, you will consistently do good things without needing to be pressured into doing them. You will do them simply because that’s what a person like you wants to do.
For instance, I’ve always considered myself a morning person. This is why no one needs to remind me to go to bed early or set my alarm. It’s just part of who I am. My actions flow naturally out of who I see myself as. I see myself as a morning person and therefore I do what a morning person does.
For this reason, the purpose of setting goals is not to do something, it is to become something. The true goal of goal setting is transformation. After reaching a goal, you should be more like the person you desire to become than the person you are now. Goal accomplishment should lead to character development.
The purpose of setting goals is not to do something, it is to become something.
For example, when I was in fourth grade, I got made fun of for being chubby. To adults, my extra flab was cute, but to other elementary schoolers it was a target for ridicule. To end the abuse, I decided to go on what I called the “ten grams of fat" diet, which is exactly what it sounds like: I only allowed myself to eat up to ten grams of fat everyday.
Well, the diet worked great, and I lost some weight. But, after the diet was over, I went right back to eating the way I always had. My goal to lose weight didn’t help me. My 10-grams-of-fat-only eating habits didn’t help me. Why? Because they didn’t change who I really was, deep down. Goals need to be focused on achieving long-term character development and not short-sighted objectives.
So, before you start setting goals at random, it is important to decide on who you ultimately want to become, your dream identity. To assist you in this effort, here are 4 things I recommend that you do:
- Remember Who You Really Are
- Write Down Your Personal Mission Statement
- Write Down Your Priorities
- Write Down 1, 3, and 10 Year Visions
Remember Who You Really Are
Oftentimes, who we think we are and who we really are are two very different things. One reason for this is that the world is constantly trying to teach us a false message about who we are.
The world tells you that you are just one person out of billions, so how could you possibly make a difference?
The world tells you that you are nothing more than a mammal, so how can you take control of your life?
The world tells you that you are not living up to an impossible standard of beauty, so how can you be worth anything?
These messages slowly seep in, removing the clarity and confidence we had when we were first came into the world. Remembering who you truly are on a regular basis will help to restore some of that courage.
This is exactly what happened to Simba in The Lion King. After living away from home and taking in messages from the world around him, he stopped believing in himself (even though he is technically a king). Then, at the most pivotal point in the movie, he has a vision of his dead father, who tells him, “You have forgotten who you are, and so forgotten me. Look inside yourself, Simba. You are more than what you have become... Remember who you are. You are my son, and the one true King. Remember who you are.”1 After he is reminded who he truly is, he goes on to complete his mission in life.
Instead of believing the messages thrown at you by the world around you, you need to dig deep down and remember who you truly are. This is crucial to achieving your greatest objectives in life. For me, spending time in nature, meditating, doing yoga, and spending time alone help me remember who I truly am despite the false messages surrounding me.
Spend some quiet time, carefully reflecting on who you truly are.
Write Down Your Personal Mission Statement
Dave Ramsey says that all the people he’s met who have done great things with their lives have a “really big why.”2 Martin Luther King had a really big why ― to bring equality to all black Americans. Mahatma Ghandi had a really big why ― to free his people. If you are going to do great things, you need a reason that motivates and excites you.
Taking the time to carefully write a personal mission statement can help you discover your why. Stephen Covey taught, “Writing or reviewing a mission statement changes you because it forces you to think through your priorities deeply, carefully, and to align your behavior with your beliefs. As you do, other people begin to sense that you’re not being driven by everything that happens to you. You have a sense of mission about what you’re trying to do and you are excited about.”3
There are many ways to write a personal mission statement, but at its most basic level, it simply needs to answer the question, “what is the unique purpose for my life?" It can be a sentence long or even a page long. The important thing is that you believe it and remember it. If you are not sure where to begin, simply complete the following phrase: “The purpose of my life is to…”
Write down your personal mission statement.
And before you continue reading this article, pause and write this down. Reading this article will not change your life, acting on it will.
And simply thinking about your purpose is not enough. You must write it down. When it comes to purposes, visions, goals, and action items, if they are not written down, they are not real. Writing is the first step in committing yourself to act.
Write Down Your Priorities
It is important to realize that certain things in life are more important than others. For instance, developing deep and lasting relationships with your family members is far more important than watching television or playing video games.
When you reach the end of your life, you will not look back and say, “if only I had spent more time at work.” You will wish you had spent more time with the people closest to you and been of service to others.
When you reach the end of your life, you will not look back and say, “if only I had spent more time at work.”
For this reason, when it comes to goal setting, the first step is to “think about your life and set your priorities.”4 You need to make a clear decision about what things you will give the most of your time and attention to.
This can simply be accomplished by making a short list of 5-10 areas of your life and then ranking them by importance. Here are my top priorities to give you an idea:
- Other People
Write down your top priorities.
Write Down 1, 3, 10 Year, and Life Visions
Now that you have an idea of your purpose and priorities, you are ready to write down who you want to be at different time points in your life. As Joseph B. Wirthlin stated, “Marathon runners set explicit goals. You should look ahead now and decide what you want to do with your lives. Fix clearly in your mind what you want to be one year from now, five years, ten years, and beyond.”5
To start developing a clear vision of who you want to become, write down who you want to be at the very end of your life. Doing this will be easiest if you consider only a single facet of your life at a time. For instance, in the category of family, you might write a few sentences describing what you want your relationship with family to be like just before you pass away. Do this for each of your priorities, and soon you will have a fairly clear idea of who you want to be when all is said and done.
Now, don't get intimidated if you feel like you are currently nothing like the person you want to be. You won't get there in a day, a week, a year, or even a decade. It can and should take a lifetime.
As with all aspects of goal setting, you will need to break the long-term down into the short-term. To do this, write a detailed vision for who you want to be 10 years from now, then 3 years from now, and then 1 year from now.
You should now feel excited about the progress ahead of you. Within a year, you are going to be a different, better person.
Write down a life vision, a 10-year vision, a 3-year vision, and a 1-year vision.
Now that you've developed a clear idea of who you want to be, you are ready to set goals that will help change you into that kind of person. There are four key steps to setting your goals, what I call the 4 P’s of goal setting:
During the ponder phase, your objective is to brainstorm as many goals as possible. Any goal is fair game, and no goals are “stupid” at this point. You just want as many ideas down on paper as possible.
In thinking of new goal ideas, I find the following activities to be helpful:
- Review my previous goals
- Think about my personal mission statement
- Consider what goals I could set for each of my priorities
- Read my visions, and think of goals that will bring me closer to my dream identity
- Review a list of people in my life, and think of goals that would improve my relationship with each person
- Review each of my long-term goals, thinking of short-term goals that would help me make progress towards them
Write down as many goal ideas as you can think of for an upcoming time period (I personally like to set life goals, yearly goals, quarterly goals, and weekly goals).
Now that you have a nice long list of goals written down, you are ready to rank them from most important to least important.
Rank your goals from most to least important.
After ranking your goals, you will need to pick which ones you are actually going to work towards. For instance, I only work towards the top ten. The exact number that you decide to work towards isn’t super important, but as a rule of thumb, less is more. As taught by James Clear, “one of the greatest barriers to achieving your goals is the other goals you have.”6 That is, if you have too many goals competing for your time and attention, you may end up achieving none of them. This is what psychologists call “goal competition.”
Decide which of the goals on your list you are actually going to commit to.
Once you’ve decided on a few specific goals to work towards, you should polish those goals. I like to do this by carefully aligning each goal with the 5 key characteristics of a good goal, which you can remember by the acronym SMART:
- Specific and Clear
- Time Bound
Specific and Clear
Brian Tracy says that “Superior men and women invest the time necessary to develop absolute clarity about themselves and what they really want, like designing a detailed blueprint for a building, before they begin construction. Average people just throw themselves at life, like a dog chasing a passing car, and wonder why they never seem to catch anything, or keep anything worthwhile.”7
Setting a goal is very much like designing your dream home. The clearer your plans, the more likely you will end up with a desirable end result. For instance, if you only draw out where you want the rooms, but don’t specify where you want the windows, you will likely end up with a house that has windows placed where you wouldn’t like them to be. To get what you want, you need to first be as clear as possible about what you want.
A good goal is not only specific, but it is also usually quantifiable. For instance, “be more thankful for what I already have” is clear, but it isn’t measurable. A better goal would be something like, “write down three things I am thankful for every day.” Now, you will know when you’ve accomplished your goal or not.
Now, it is also important to keep in mind that, as Dean L. Larson reminds us, not every goal should be quantifiable:
It is important for us to bear in mind that worthwhile goals and objectives can be of a qualitative nature as well as a quantitative one; that is, they can relate to the quality of people, things, and relationships as well as to numbers and size. In a materialistic society much more attention and validity seem to be attached to quantitative goals, probably because they are more easily measured and reflect more directly profit and loss, material growth, and production. This should not lead to the conclusion that attainments of a qualitative nature are less important than those that lend themselves to easy numerical measurement. In fact, in the realm of moral and spiritual things, qualities may be much more significant than quantities. The nature of one’s relationship to others may have more significance and more value than his ‘productivity.’8
As we will discuss in the final section of this article, even if your goal is not perfectly measurable, you can break that goal down into action items that are.
A good goal is also actionable, meaning that it can be broken down into steps that will ultimately lead to the accomplishment of that goal. If a goal can’t be performed then there is nothing you can do to get closer to accomplishing it.
While you are setting goals, it is important to aim high. You can and should dream big. But, at the end of the day, you need to carefully consider your limitations.
As an example, it would not be a good idea to set a goal to run a 4-minute mile after just your first year of running, a goal that would likely result in burnout and injury (I would know from personal experience… ). Instead, you may want to set that goal for 4 years from now, and focus on achieving a 6-minute mile for the first year. The end goal is still the same, but you are accounting for reality.
When it comes to setting reachable goals, it is also important to remember the three circles: your circle of concern, your circle of control, and your circle of influence.9 When you focus on things that make you worry but that you cannot control, you are focused on your circle of concern. When you are focused on your own actions, you are focused on your circle of control. And when you focus on people or events that might be affected by your actions, you are focused on your circle of influence. When setting goals, you need to focus on your circle of control, otherwise, your goal isn’t reachable.
Without a specific time limit, you may get lazy or forget about your goal. Giving yourself a specific time limit will motivate you to act now, resulting in forward progress.
Polish each of your goals by carefully considering the 5 characteristics of a good goal (SMART).
Goals often feel like the size of an elephant, so you need to break them down into bite-size actions. And the smaller the bites, the easier it will be to achieve your goal. As Robert Maurer says, “By taking steps so tiny that they seem trivial or even laughable, you’ll sail calmly past obstacles that have defeated you before. Slowly—but painlessly!—you’ll cultivate an appetite for continued success and lay down a permanent new route to change.”10
I really like that idea. You need to break your goal down into laughably small steps. For instance, let’s say your goal is to perform a musical instrument at a nearby retirement home (one of my all time favorite hobbies ― people who can’t hear don’t complain about your music ). You might break this goal down into the following action items:
Step 1 - Call Covepoint Retirement Home on June 4, 2018 at 10 AM and schedule a time for me to come perform.
Step 2 - On June 5, 2018 at 2 PM, I will decide on the ten songs that I will perform.
Step 3 - On June 6, 2018 at 7 PM, I will spend an hour practicing all ten songs.
Step 4 - I will perform at Covepoint Retirement Home on the scheduled date.
Notice how the first step is so easy that it is almost laughable. All you have to do is call someone. It’s so easy, you can’t fail! That’s how you want all your action items to be, especially the very first action item.
Now to prevent yourself from getting overwhelmed, I would recommend writing down no more than the first four action items per goal. Not only will this decrease the level of intimidation, but it can also be necessary for very large goals since oftentimes actions need to be adjusted along the way as you make progress. Sometimes you can only clearly see a few steps down the road, and that’s okay.
For instance, as an MCAT tutor, I help my students set a goal MCAT score, and then we create a study plan. Some students will try to map out what they are going to do every single day, from now all the way to the day they take the test. This is a bad idea. Students who succeed adjust their study plan based on the progress they are making and based on the challenges they are running into as they study. A good study plan is flexible.
The same is true for achieving any big goal. You will need to adjust your action plan as you make progress and encounter unforeseen obstacles. Course corrections are a healthy part of any journey towards a big goal.
That being said, it is crucial to at least map out the first four steps; otherwise, you may never start working towards your goal.
Course corrections are a healthy part of any journey towards a big goal.
If possible, I’d highly recommend breaking a big goal down into repeatable actions (i.e. a habit). As Stephen Guise says, “Doing a little bit every day has a greater impact than doing a lot on one day.”11 You will be much more likely to achieve a very large goal if you get in the habit of moving towards it on a regular basis.
For instance, one of my goals right now is to have 100 ukulele tutorial videos on my Four Chord Simple YouTube Channel by the end of the year. This is a huge goal, but it doesn’t feel so big when I take small, repeatable steps towards it. The habit I decided on was to record 3 new videos per week. This only takes me 4-5 hours each week, and it feels very manageable. For me, it is bitesize.
The best part about converting your big goal into a habit is that it is extremely hard to forget about a goal when you are working towards it on a regular basis. But this doesn't mean starting a new habit is easy. Here are the 4 things I ask myself every time I decide to start a new habit:
- How will I use Habit Stacking?
- How will I use Temptation Bundling?
- How will I remind myself?
- What obstacles will I face and how will I prevent them?
Habit Stacking is where you attach the new habit you want to start to an existing habit that you already consistently do. To do this, I complete the phrase, “After [existing habit], I will [new habit].” For example, “After brushing my teeth before bed time, I will pray for five minutes.”
Temptation Bundling is when you do something that you want to do immediately after the new habit you are trying to establish. To do this, I complete the phrase, “After [new habit], I get to [thing I want to do].” For instance, “After running for 30 minutes, I get to play video games for 30 minutes.”
Now, oftentimes your reward for performing a habit will be as simple as checking a box saying that you did it. And that is usually good enough as this releases endorphins into your brain, making you feel good about your accomplishment. It’s best to save the most tempting rewards for the habits that you are really struggling to form.
If there is one thing I’ve learned more than anything over my many years of goal setting and planning, it’s that I am going to forget. I have a hard time remembering things. For this reason, whenever I decide on an action item or a new habit, I try to set as many reminders as possible. The best reminders are physical. For instance, you might put a big sign on your mirror that says, “Don’t forget to meditate and pray before bed!” The next best type of reminder is electronic, such as setting an alarm on your phone.
When you try to start a new habit, there will always, always be obstacles. You need to envision them and make specific plans for overcoming them. For instance, let’s say your new habit is to start going to bed at 9:30 PM every weeknight. What are you going to do if your friends invite you to do something fun on a Wednesday? What are you going to do if you have tons of studying to do the night before a big exam? What are the temptations that lure you into staying up too late? You need to think of detailed answers to these questions, and make clear decisions regarding what you will do ahead of time; otherwise, your new habit will never solidify.
Write down specific action items for all of your goals, converting them into habits when possible.
Now that you’ve set your goals and made detailed action plans for achieving them, there are two final steps. I like to say that these last two steps transform your goals from SMART goals into SMARTER goals, which will also help you remember them:
As you work towards your goals, it is essential that you “review them regularly.” As O. Leslie Stone said: “We should all constantly evaluate our progress... We must constantly review the past, determine our present status, and set goals for the future. Without this process there is little chance of reaching one’s objectives.”12
If you didn’t reach your goal, don’t give up. Evaluate what obstacles got in your way, and make plans to reach it by a later date.
After personally holding yourself accountable for your goals, it is important that you report on your progress to a mentor, someone who can help you see more clearly what you did well and what you can improve on. Not only will having someone to report to increase your motivation to reach your goals, but it will also provide you with the insights you need to make future goals.
This is one of my favorite quotes which captures the importance of evaluating and reporting your progress quite nicely: "When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and reported, the rate of improvement accelerates."13
Decide when you will evaluate your progress on your upcoming goals and decide who you will report your progress to.
In conclusion, there is a lot more to successfully reaching goals than meets the eye. You need figure out who you want to become (identity) by writing a personal mission statement, clarifying your priorities, and developing long-term visions for yourself. Next, you should create goals that will help transform you into that person. Finally, each goal should be broken down into laughably easy action items. By carefully considering your identity, goals, and actions, you will soon find yourself living a life of continual improvement.
- "The Lion King" by Disney
- "How to Set Goals" by Dave Ramsey
- "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" by Stephen R. Covey
- "Keeping Life's Demands in Balance" by M. Russel Ballard
- “Running Your Marathon” by Joseph B. Wirthlin
- "Goal Setting: A Scientific Guide to Setting and Achieving Goals" by James Clear
- "Goals!" by Brian Tracy
- "Some Thoughts on Goal Setting, Objectives, and Measurements" by Dean L. Larsen
- Stephen R. Covey discusses the circle of influence and circle of concern in "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People." I prefer to also differentiate between what you can completely control and what you can only influence, which is why I include a circle of control.
- "One Small Step Can Change Your Life" by Robert Maurer
- "Mini Habits" by Stephen Guise
- "Making Your Marriage Successful" by O. Leslie Stone
- Thomas S. Monson as quoted in "How Do I Use Time Wisely?"