Seven Principles for Setting Goals that Work

Matt Perman is the former director of strategy at Desiring God and is now an author, consultant, and speaker on productivity and leadership from a faith-based perspective. He is the author of the recently released What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done. He blogs What’s Best Next and you can also follow him on Twitter.

Executives who do not ask themselves, ‘What can I contribute?’ are not only likely to be aiming too low, they are likely to aim at the wrong things.

— Peter Drucker

How do you make change happen? More than that, how do you make the right change happen? When there is a gap between what is and what you want to be, how do you cross that gap?

Winter Landscape in the Matterhorn

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/pchais

This is where we enter the realm of goals.

In my first job out of graduate school, I was given a massive task that was far beyond anything I had been prepared for: redesign the entire website for the major ministry I worked for—while launching a nationwide radio program and keeping several other initiatives in motion as well.

So how did I keep things together? I learned about setting goals.

At first, I got all caught up in all the different types of goals we encounter, and the detailed (and sometimes overly complex!) processes for defining our goals.

Fortunately, I came to discover that more important than the particular process we use to set our goals are some fundamental principles that can help us identify the right goals in the first place.

With those principles, I set our goals for the website redesign. When we released the site, it was a turning point for our ministry and our primary website metrics quadrupled within four months. I’ve since used these principles whenever I need to set goals (which is a lot!—I set yearly goals, annual goals, weekly goals, and much more), and they have never let me down.

So no matter what types of goals you are setting or for what time frame, here are seven core principles for setting goals that will help you make a bigger difference and get you to a place you actually want to be.

1. First ask “what needs to be done?”

Goals are about making a contribution. Therefore the first question you need to ask is not “what do I want to do?” but rather “what needs to be done?” Asking this question first focuses our attention on contribution rather than simply activity or what will serve ourselves.

The point here is not that our own interests don’t matter. They do matter—immensely. The issue is the end towards which you direct your interests. When setting goals, you need to ask first what outcomes your family needs, what outcomes your organization needs, and what outcomes your community needs, not first what outcomes you need. You need to put your interests in the service of others, not first yourself (see Philippians 2:4-5).

2. Then ask “where can I contribute best?”

When you ask the question of what needs to be done, there will almost always be more than one good answer. This is where you take into account what you are passionate about, your strengths, your interests, and what you want to do. When there is more than one thing that needs to be done, choose the one that is most in line with your interests, skills, and strengths.

The relationship between what needs to be done and what energizes you is iterative—thinking through each side can affect the other. What you are looking for is the overlap. Except for extreme cases (emergencies where there is no other option), don’t compromise here.

3. Ask “what are the constraints?” last, not first.

Most people put this question first, and that’s what ends up creating so many problems in the long run. This question must be last, not first, because as Peter Drucker points out, you will almost always have to compromise something—and you can never know what the right compromises are unless you first know the ideal state you are aiming toward.

Don’t limit yourself right out of the gate. Compromises will have to be made, but unless you start out with the ideal outcome, you will always make the wrong ones.

4. Aim high and lead.

Don’t simply jump on the bandwagon, and don’t be drug down by people with a militant commitment to mediocrity. Set large goals and make big plans.

5. Keep your goals aligned with your mission and values.

This is what discipline is. Discipline is not necessarily doing less, but making sure that all that you do is in line with your mission and values—especially for organizations.

In fact, many organizations that look disciplined because they seem to be very focused are actually very undisciplined, because their focus is not being determined by their mission and values. Don’t settle for mere appearances of discipline by simply doing less. Be truly disciplined by focusing on the things that embody and reflect your mission and values.

6. Re-consider all of your goals each time you accomplish a goal.

After accomplishing a goal, if you simply do what’s next on your list, you run the risk of being held captive to the priorities of yesterday. Therefore, always reconsider your priorities before setting a new goal, rather than simply doing what’s next on the list.

7. Pursue justice and mercy in your goals.

Goals have a reputation of being about how we can make our own lives better. But that is not the life of greatest meaning and significance. The life of greatest meaning is when we use all that we have to take initiative for the good of others—even to the point of making plans for their welfare.

Setting goals for using any influence we have to go the extra mile and bring benefit to those in need is a fantastic way to do this—and a great privilege. It helps us ensure that we are setting goals that really count and will really be meaningful in the end.

Question: What are some of the most important principles for setting good goals that you’ve found for your life and work? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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