The Beginner’s Guide to Goal Setting

When I speak publicly, I often ask how many people believe in the power of written goals. Every hand shoots up. Yet when I ask how many of them have written goals for this year, very few hands go up.

The Beginner’s Guide to Goal Setting

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/vernonwiley

This always surprises me, given the fact most people know intuitively (and research has proved) that those who write their goals down accomplish significantly more than those who do not write their goals.

Some of this, I suppose, is just inertia. But from years as a corporate executive and now as a mentor, coach, and occasional consultant, I know that most people have just never been taught how to write effective goals.

With that in mind, I wanted to offer a basic goal-setting primer. You can find plenty of advice online, but these are the five principles I follow in my own practice:

  1. Keep them few in number. Productivity studies show that you really can’t focus on more than 5–7 items at any one time. And don’t try to cheat by including sections with several goals under each section. This is a recipe for losing focus and accomplishing very little. Instead, focus on a handful of goals that you can repeat almost from memory.

  2. Make them “smart.” This is an acronym, as you probably know, and it is interpreted in various ways by different teachers. When I refer to smart goals, I mean this. Goals must meet five criteria. They must be:

    • Specific—your goals must identify exactly what you want to accomplish in as much specificity as you can muster.

      Bad: Write a book.
      Good: Write a book proposal for The Life Plan Manifesto.
    • Measurable—as the old adage says, “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” If possible, try to quantify the result. You want to know absolutely, positively whether or not you hit the goal.

      Bad: “Earn more this year than last.”
      Good: “Earn $5,000 more this year than last.”
    • Actionable—every goal should start with an action verb (e.g., “quit,” “run,” “finish,” “eliminate,” etc.) rather than a to-be verb (e.g., “am,” “be,” “have,” etc.)

      Bad: Be more consistent in blogging.
      Good: Write two blog posts per week.
    • Realistic—you have to be careful here. A good goal should stretch you, but you have to add a dose of common sense. I go right up to the edge of my comfort zone and then step over it. (If I am not out of my comfort zone, I’m not thinking big enough.)

      Bad: Qualify for the PGA Tour.
      Good: Lower my golf handicap by four strokes.
    • Time-bound—every goal needs a date associated with it. When do you plan to deliver on that goal. It could be by year-end (December 31) or it could be more near-term (September 30). A goal without a date is just a dream. Make sure that every goal ends with a by when date.

      Bad: Lose 20 pounds.
      Good: Lose 20 pounds by December 31st.
  3. Write them down. This is critical. There is a huge power in writing your goals down even if you never develop an action plan or do anything else (not recommended). Henriette Anne Klauser documents this in her fascinating book, Write It Down and Make It Happen. When you write something down, you are stating your intention and setting things in motion.

  4. Review them frequently. While writing your goals down is a powerful exercise in itself, the real juice is in reviewing them on a regular basis. This is what turns them into reality. Every time I review my goals, I ask myself, What’s the next step I need to take to move toward this goal. You can review them daily, weekly, or monthly. (I review them weekly.) It’s up to you. The key is to do let them inspire and populate your daily task list.

  5. Share them selectively. I used to advise people to “go public” with their goals—even blog about them. But in his 2010 TED talk, Derek Sivers makes the compelling case that telling someone your goals makes them less likely to happen. Now I counsel people not to share them with anyone who is not committed to helping you achieve them (e.g., your mentor, mastermind group, or business partner).

The practice of goal-setting is not just helpful; it is a prerequisite for happiness. Psychologists tell us that people who make consistent progress toward meaningful goals live happier more satisfied lives than those who don’t.

If you don’t have written goals, let me encourage you to make an appointment on your calendar to work on them. You can get a rough draft done in as little as an hour or two. Few things in life pay such rich dividends for such a modest investment.

Question: What is your experience with setting goals? Do you have written goals? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • http://www.workyouenjoy.com/ Adam Rico

    Michael, I find the secret sauce for me is the accountability portion. I need at least one other person involved who knows my goals and who I can update on my progress. If it’s just me I tend to get a little sloppy and not hold myself accountable as well as if I know there are others expecting me to hit my goals. Great post.

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      Great point, Adam! Sharing goals and updates can be helpful.

      When doing so, it’s also important to give permission to the accountability partner to ask you about your progress if they don’t hear from you.

  • Danielle Dahye Yoo

    Dear Michael,

    I came across your Twitter a while ago and found your blog through it. I gotta tell you that your blog has been giving me so much insight and wisdom. I am also your podcast listener. Thank you for all the work you’re doing.

    God bless you!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Danielle. I appreciate that very much!

  • Sagar Rakshe

    Goals written!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Congratulations!

  • http://www.charlessanger.net/ CharlesSanger

    Great post –– I liked that you defined “frequently” (point #4) as weekly –– I also liked that you brought out the purpose of the review is to move things to your daily task list –– I teach time management and this one of the biggest areas I see that keep even written goals from getting accomplished. (Evernote just announced an new feature Evernote Reminder that will make this easier).
    Oh, loved your examples of “SMART” goals.

    • Jim Martin

      Charles, thanks for pointing out these specifics regarding Michael’s post. As you highlighted these in your comment, I paid even more attention to the value of each one.

  • DefinitelyJon

    Great post, and just what I needed to hear too. I’ve been in the process of setting up my summer goals and getting everything planned (for the past month). Haven’t really made much happen, but now I know why and how I can do much better.
    -Thanks for all that you do!

  • Marcia Francois

    I’ve set and achieved goals for the last 14 years and so am a huge believer. I do write them out and review weekly too. My one downfall is I like to have many but I choose only some to work on at any given time, since I have a good mix of once-off goals (eg get a blog makeover) to semi-permanent goals (strengthening my core means I have to work out with my personal trainer at least twice a week). Love reading the principles that work for you.

  • Chris

    Michael,

    Thanks for your blog! I have been following closely for the past year. I have recently encountered an article that presents research with conflicting information: that thinking about goals can undermine the goal pursuit. Here is a link to the abstract.

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0749597812000222

    Also here is the article that summarizes it really well and this is how I discovered the reasearch – http://99u.com/articles/7198/How-Goals-and-Good-Intentions-Can-Hold-Us-Back

    It would be great to hear your opinion on this as I have for a long time been a believer in goal setting.

    Thanks,

    Chris

  • PaulVandermill

    Michael,

    Thank you for breaking this down. I have never been particularly clear and specific about my goals. I am looking forward to the increased focus that I hope will lead to improved outcomes

  • http://josuemolina.com/ J.Molina

    Can’t take action with out a proper strategy. Love it. Thanks Michael.

  • Janice Griswell

    In #5 above, you mention a TED talk by Derek Silvers that interested me. After some effort to locate it, I discovered his last name is Sivers, in case anyone else wanted to look it up.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Janice. I have corrected it in the post.

  • http://www.findingyourvoiceradio.com/ Joel Boggess

    Excellent tips Mike. I especially like the part about sharing your goals selectively. Here’s a quick two-sentence piece I shared in a blog in 2010 which gives my take.

    “Stand guard over your vision. Sharing it with the wrong people can quickly transform the dance of creativity into a sparring match of defense.”

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Amen to that!

  • http://www.irunurun.com/blog/ Travis Dommert

    Great post, Michael. I sometimes take for granted that everyone knows essential skills like SMART goal setting. Monday I had the privilege of sharing it with a local small business as part of a workshop on developing recurring performance behaviors…not a single person had heard it. I was so excited knowing how it would impact their lives!

  • http://alidavies.com/ Ali Davies

    These are great tips. If I could add one to the list it would be to ensure your goals are based on your core values and your own defintion of success on the basis that values based goals are the key to feeling truly fulfilled in life and business and living and working on your own terms.

  • Japhethoo

    I totally agree with goal setting. Without goal is like not having a purpose. Thanks for sharing about setting one’s goal in a SMART way, it shall surely inform my goal setting!

  • http://www.whiteboardbusiness.com/ Dallon Christensen

    I’ve been doing this for a while, but never in a systematic manner. This year, I finally decided to get more serious about my goal writing. My areas of responsibility are based on Zig Ziglar’s Wheel of Life. I only focus on 1 or MAYBE 2 goals in each area at a time (7 areas in the wheel, so I stay at 10 or fewer goals). I keep these goals in an Evernote.

    For each goal I’m reaching, I have a master goals sheet with links to the Master Project notes I have set up in Evernote. I also keep a log of what I’m doing to achieve those goals (usually done after I journal and release everything in my brain). This helps me document what I’m actually doing

    For each area, I also keep a Someday/Maybe list and tag it with the right AOR in Evernote. When I complete a goal, I just go to my Someday/Maybe list and pick the next goal. Once a month, I review all of my Someday/Maybe lists during a Weekly Review session.

  • Bruce

    Maybe I have too many things I’m doing. Just thinking of writing my goals makes my head ache and makes me want to run away. Fathering, Ministry, Husband, Hobbies, Church – and any of those have multiple sub-nightmares.

  • http://leadright.wordpress.com/ Brent Dumler

    I abosolutely have written goals. My mentor encouraged me to always have three current goals. Each time a goals is met, replace it with another. This keeps us constantly striving for something.

  • James

    Thanks for the post. Great advice.
    We have just put together a five year plan. Next week we will break it down into bite size achievable chunks and then plan our calendar accordingly.
    Having a goal to aim for give a light at the end of the tunnel to give you hope!

  • http://www.goalsontrack.com Harry @ GoalsOnTrack

    Great advice on goal setting. Also keeping a journal about your goals or just jotting down a few sentences each day about your goals, can be a great goal progress monitor and self-motivator. At least it will remind you about the goals you are trying to reach.

  • Pingback: Why Every Leader Needs a Mastermind | The Leadership Dojo

  • http://joshuajlutz.com/ Joshua J. Lutz

    Great article, Michael!

    Like you mentioned, just writing down goals helps me, but, it’s usually setting a deadline that on my calendar that does the trick. It’s not habit yet for me, but, I’m making progress!

    Thanks for laying it all out in a simple, to the point matter!

    I’m going to reassess my goals using these steps!

  • Layla

    THANKS ALOT

  • Vipin Mohan

    Came to your blog unexpectedly. I am a 26 year old engineer from India. A I am working in shifts I found it quite difficult to keep up with my personal-pro life balance. Here, in your blog, I find peace and wisdom. Even subscribed to your podcasts and also start using Nozbe (yup, after reading your review!) .Now seems everything will be under control. Thank you.

  • http://www.clientcloningsytems.com/ Kevin Donlin

    Great tips! Especially, Write them down and Review them frequently. I’ve found it very helpful to write my monthly goal on a 3×5 card and carry it *everywhere* so I can review it *anytime.* This turns waiting time (check out aisle, at the bank, etc.) into goal-reinforcement time.

    Also, for extra motivation, I write my goals down on the whiteboard in my office. It’s really helpful.

  • Andrew Hubbard

    Excellent point on “Sharing Selectively.” Sharing with a lot of people can take away from the time, resources and focus that could be actively spent on making progress towards the goal. Less talk, more action. It’s important to find the people to share your goal with that will give you a sense of balance as well as drive. You can be your own worst critic so it’s great if you can find someone that can share an objective viewpoint on the progress made as well as the distance still left to cover. And sharing too much also runs the risk of diminishing the impact of the goal. Some people will only lend a passive ear for the sake of polite conversation – no one should let the importance of their goal be depreciated by the lack of others regard for it.

  • Deborah MacDonald

    Your blog is very timely as our team goes into a 12 week business building blitz! I have always written down my goals, reviewed them and seen success because of it. But many of my team members have not, so giving them your blog post is ideal for getting them started in the right way. Thank you Michael.

  • Amada

    My question is: “What can I do to stop forgetting about my goals. I am absolutely able to write down clear goals but then, shortly after, I will forget about them for days, yes even for weeks. I am a paerson who is always focused on what is before their eyes. And if it is before my eyes for some days… well, then I don’t see it anymore. I really don’t know hwo to explain better. But for sure this problem mostly keeps me from going on and I am loosing a lot of time…

    • http://alidavies.com/ Ali Davies

      Hi Amada, I have found having what I call a goals planning cycle really helps with that. I have a cycle that runs like this – set goals then review then annually, quaterly, monthly, weekly and then have a specific action plan for each day. I schedule all of those things into my diary on set days and times just like an important appointment – that way they never get forgotten.

      • Amada

        Thank you for your input. I will sure try this out!!

  • Laura

    I started setting my goels about 5years ago… The first one I finished – Bachelor#s Studies. Now Im in Master.. But I am starting to have doubts about my next goals, because its left not enough time to earn a million :) Or I was just too much focused on actual,short term goals? Fun, my 10 years goals looked more realistic and achievable 10years ago :) Anyway,I just found this site and going to stay for a while and read.. Maybe I will get idea what to do next :)

  • Sherry Langland

    This year I had my grade 7, 8, and 9 students write down their goals for this school year and come up with one word that captured all their goals (from Jon Gordon). Every week we revisit these goals and journal about progress and next steps. I am seeing really good results from students and expect to see even more growth as we continue journaling.

  • Mark

    I would like to make a gift of my ebook Practical Goal Setting to you today. Please feel free to download a copy of it here: http://amzn.to/19WTLzZ

  • Dun

    Yes! I learnt almost a decade ago that “telling someone your goals makes them less likely to happen”. But most important, these goals must be written… Just the process of writing them down is enough to draw one’s energies and focus on achieving.

  • Listen to this guy

    Michael,

    True S.M.A.R.T goals actually have the A as ‘Agreed upon’, this is primarily because commitment in itself is ‘deadly’ for organizational effectiveness but also because accountability, and primarily feedback are central to goal-setting, with feedback allowing difficult and specific goals to be more readily attained, among other things..

    Did you alter the A from the original formula for copyright and legality reasons? Presuming there is no response to this, I though I’d share this for the rest of those who are reading.

    Cheers,

    Patrick

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I have never heard “Agreed Upon” used as the meaning of the “A” in Smart Goals. I have heard many other variations. As this Wikipedia entry shows, there are dozens of variations on the acronym. There is not an ”official version.” No one has a trademark or copyright on it.
      Apparently, the first person to write about SMART goals was George T. Doran in a 1981 article in Management Review. He says the “A” stands for assignable.

      • Listen to this guy

        That’s very interesting.
        I did not know that that assignable was the precursor to Agreed upon in one of the original documentations of the theory.
        Did you also notice that in your example measurable and actionable have overlap in terms of their practical use?
        No worries, I used the SMART goal setting acronym in my organization for about five years – my entire organization did, substituting the original version of the ‘A’ for Actionable as well. For reasons that are now obvious to me.

        Cheers,
        Patrick

  • Vanessa Leota

    I love this post Michael. I’ve set it as a bookmark to refer to.

    It even inspired my first blog post for the year and helped shape my personal Goal Setting Wall Planner for 2014. Here is the direct link to the PDF if anyone is interested in using it for their goal setting. http://goo.gl/XoAyLx

  • Glenn Daniels

    Do not forget to use your imagination in setting your goals. After all Albert Einstein states:
    “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and
    understand.” Take five minutes each day and imagine your goals as achieved. I write about this in my book and name the process, “Stepping to the End.” You must see the results; you must imagine the results.

  • Sabriyé Dubrie

    This is so true! Thats why we made a 2014 goal poster that you can download for free at http://www.yourkeytosucces.nl/realize-your-goals-poster/.
    The poster will help you get crystal clear on what you want to achieve
    this year and by hanging it in your office, it will be a daily reminder
    of how you want the year to unfold. Enjoy!

  • A P

    Hi Michael, I was wondering where do you keep your Someday/Maybe list? In Scrivener? Evernote? MindManager? Right now I just keep one in Word document but wonder if it would be best to have it connected to my other stuff rather than as a separate document that is rarely opened… or… if its best to do it just that way, so that it remains out of sight most of the time to prevent feeling overwhelmed or starting new projects before finishing current ones? Advice?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I keep it in Nozbe.

  • Kara Durbin

    Great post, Michael! I joined Platform University a week ago and one of the past member make-overs led me to this article. I’m thankful for the timing of this goal training! I was starting to get overwhelmed with the amount of information I was learning. The idea of short and long term, specific and actionable goals has helped me take a deep breath and create a realistic plan!

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      Awesome, Kara! So glad you joined!

  • Vincent Santiago

    Awesome tips on how to achieve any goal. Great! Author of “How to Set & Achieve Any Goal” http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00JM817R6/ref=rdr_ext_sb_ti_hist_1

  • Bob Goss

    Thank you, you have motivated me to get with my wife and get goals written down, and move forward !!

  • TracyBrinkmann

    great reminder on a very important topic “goal setting” i would only offer one small adjustment…. don’t just go to the edge of your comfort zone.. push it a little… not to a point of being unable to take action but go to the edge of your comfort zone and one step pace.. grow!!

    Think Successfully & Take Action!
    Tracy
    http://YourSuccessAtLast.com

  • http://www.goalsarecool.com/ Blake Lea

    Great post!