The Beginner’s Guide to Goal Setting

Five Goal-Setting Principles for Getting Bigger, Better Results

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.

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, business coach, and best-selling author on the topic of goal achievement, 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 5–7–10 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 “SMARTER.” In 1981, George T. Doran, a consultant and former Director of Corporate Planning for Washington Water Power Company published a paper titled “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management’s Goals and Objectives.” Since that time, various teachers have used and modified this acronym in various ways, including me. In my SMARTER version, as outlined in my book, Your Best Year Ever, goals must meet seven 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 Vision Driven Leader.
    • 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.
    • Risky—a good goal should stretch you, but not too much. 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: Increase sales by 2 percent.
      Good: Increase sales by 10 percent.
    • Time-keyed—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 (March 31). 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 June 30th.
    • Exciting—you should be personally excited about achieving the goal. If this isn’t the case, then you likely won’t have the motivation necessary to continue pursuing the goal when you encounter unexpected challenges—which you inevitably will.
      Bad: Take another one-week summer vacation.
      Good: Take a two-week vacation to Italy.
    • Relevant—your goal should be relevant—or aligned with—your values, your season in life, and your other goals.
      Bad: Start a new business at the same time you want to get a masters degree.
      Good: Do one or the other.
  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.

If you want to go deeper, consider enrolling in my goal-achievement course, 5 Days to Your Best Year Ever. More than 35,000 people have used it to get fit, lose weight, start a business, write a book, and achieve almost every conceivable personal and professional goal.