How to set goals

by Jack on April 2010

Setting goals is one of the most important planning exercises in your personal development program. Without a high level of clarity in your personal goals, it’s difficult to know where you’re headed, whether you’ll get there, and when. As Lewis Carroll wrote, “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there”. How will you develop a high level of clarity about your most important goals?

Once you’ve identified what some of your major goals actually are, the next step is to organize your thinking about them. There are many ways that you can do this – in this post, I describe a structured method that has worked very well for me. I have used used a simple goals worksheet to set and meet goals such as eliminating body fat and building muscle, starting an exercise program, and creating a regular yoga and meditation practice.

I designed the worksheet according to the following structure.

Executive Summary

Goal statement

The most important starting point of defining a goal for yourself is to have a brief, clear statement of the ideal outcome of your goal, in the present tense. This gives your mind some raw material to work on. In this way, when you see situations that may help you take action on different parts of your goal, you will be able to recognize them without having to think too hard about it.

The acronym SMART is often used to describe the recommended process of goal-setting: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, Time-bound.

Specific – vague goals aren’t easy to achieve because it’s hard to determine whether you’ve actually gotten there or not
Measurable – if you can quantitatively measure whether you’ve reached the goal (e.g. 120 lbs, $1 million) it’s easier to define. In contrast, non-measurable goals are more ambiguous (is a “really good singer” better or worse than a “highly accomplished singer”?)
Actionable – it’s important to choose goals that you can realistically take action on immediately. Growing wings and being able to fly might be an cherished goal of yours, but if you can’t take the next tangible action step, then the goal is not actionable.
Realistic – stretch goals, that challenge you to work hard and break through your perceived limits and beliefs, are a good idea. Impossible or highly unrealistic goals that cross over into the realms of fantasy are not. Only you can define for yourself what’s truly realistic, based on your experience, beliefs and imagination.
Time-bound – goals that rely on something happening “someday” or “in the future” are unlikely to inspire urgent action. Since we all have many day-to-day responsibilities that consume our time, it’s important to make sure that we allocate some of our time every day for these big picture goals. Without a deadline after which we can ask “was the goal completed?”, it’s hard to define an endpoint to this process.


It’s useful to have a brief answer to the simple question of “why are you pursuing this?”. This will define the specific and tangible benefits that you will realize, either upon reaching the goal, or throughout the process of reaching the goal. It may be self-evident based on the goal statement itself, but attempting to answer the question is worthwhile nonetheless. If you pursue the chain of questions far enough, with enough “and why do you want that?” questions you will likely encounter a stopping point answer such as “because then I will be happy” or “because then I will be at peace”. At this point you can stop channeling your inner five-year old and asking “why? why? why?”. 😉

For maximum encouragement and motivation, it’s useful to set goals that provide ongoing benefits through the process of reaching them. It can be hard to stay motivated and connected to an “all or nothing” goal, in which the benefits are only realized at the end. It may be a cliche, but a focus on the “journey” rather than the “destination” is very beneficial.

Similarly, it’s more motivating to set goals that are based on your own efforts (“input-oriented”) rather than the response of the world or of other people to those efforts (“output oriented”). For example, if you are seeking new clients for your business by cold-calling prospects, it makes more sense to set a goal of “cold-call 100 prospects a week” rather than “sign 5 new clients a week”. You can’t control the response of the world to your efforts, but you can control your own efforts.


This answers the simple question – “when am I finished?” At what date and time can you clearly answer the question “did I reach this goal?”


Critical Actions

What are the most important actions that you take in order to move yourself closer to this goal? It’s important for you to identify as many actions as possible in detail, since the more specific you are, the more likely you will be to succeed.

For example, if your goal is to go running at 6:00 AM three times a week, some of your critical actions might involve laying out your running gear the night before, setting an alarm to remind yourself to go to bed early on “pre-run” nights, and drinking water right after waking up. In some cases, preparing the foundation and context for the goal is more important than the “obvious” steps. Once you have your running shoes on and are out the door – i.e. the “obvious” part – working on your goal is pretty much on autopilot.

It’s also important to pay attention to the timing of your different actions. Some major goals may have actions that you will perform on widely different time scales – daily, weekly, and even monthly. Recognize the different responsibilities that a goal introduces to your life at different times and you will increase your chances of success.

Time Allocation

It’s important to be realistic about how much time you will be able to devote to your goal daily or weekly. Goals never exist in a vacuum – to have a hope of being realized, they have to be good citizens within the ecology of your pre-existing schedule and responsibilities.

Resource Allocation

In addition to your time, any goal that you set will consume other resources. This could include both tangible resources such as money or equipment, and intangible resources such as emotional energy or physical strength and stamina. For example, working on your “sport climb a 5.10 route by the end of the summer” goal the day after working on your “become a professional bodybuilder” goal may be too much of a challenge, since each goal is very physically demanding on its own.

Outputs and measurement

Check-in Times

Even if your goal is something that you work on only infrequently – for example, a weekly class – I recommend checking in daily. This check-in process could be as simple as the Jack Canfield exercise of going over a card deck with one goal written on each card.

In the case of a project with more complex demands, daily or continuous checking in might involve more elaborate steps. This could take the form of a food diary in association with a weight loss goal, or a complete account of every expense in association with a financial goal.


One of the aspects of SMART goals is measurability. If you don’t have a tangible way of determining progress toward your goal, then you can never say for sure whether you’ve achieved it or not. In goal-setting always favor clarity in favor of vagueness.

Wherever possible, make your measurements quantitative and numerical. Don’t set a goal of “making lots of sales calls in the future”, instead make the goal “five sales calls a day over the next three months”. Don’t say you’ll “reach a healthy weight”, instead say you’ll “reduce your weight by 15 pounds by June 30”.


Sacrifices / Tradeoffs

Every goal that you set has a price built in. Are you willing to pay that price? Depending on the details of your goal, there may be costs in terms of money, time, emotional demand, physical demand, and impact on your social context and relationships.

For example, a major goal like running a marathon will involve all of these areas. There’s a financial cost for equipment such as running shoes and clothing. Training and extra rest for recovery both take plenty of time. The anticipation associated with competing with yourself – and possibly with others – places emotional demands on you, and the physical demands of marathon training are self-evident. Finally, pursuing this goal will influence your relationships with others – you may lose friends with unhealthy habits who feel intimidated by your example, or place stress on your relationships due to the time demands of training.

Obstacles and challenges

Every goal that you set requires making changes in one or more areas of your life. Generally speaking, the bigger the goal, the bigger the changes.

Change is not easy, and we often face obstacles when we attempt to make significant changes. Sometimes these obstacles arise in the form of resistance from other people or society. Other times they arise from our own internal barriers – for example, from fear of change, or from our limiting beliefs about what is truly possible for us.

It’s important to consider in advance what your response will be in the face of any and all adverse situations.

What if your progress toward your goal is a lot slower than you thought it would be? What if your motivation flags after the “honeymoon period” where working toward your goal is exciting and new and you’re making rapid progress up the learning curve? What if you start missing appointments with yourself to work on your goal, for valid and unexpected reasons?

What then? Will you give up and decide that the goal really wasn’t that important to you after all? Or will you persevere and go through a period of slow progress until you eventually get there?

Either one of these is a valid response. The most important factor in this situation is to be absolutely honest with yourself. If reaching a certain goal truly matters, then resolve to do “whatever it takes”, even if you aren’t moving as quickly toward the target as you had hoped. Conversely, after careful reflection, and listening to the input of trusted friends, you may decide honestly that a particular goal is not for you. In that case, dedicate your energies to pursuing a new goal that is a better fit.

There’s no shame in dropping a goal in order to pursue a better one. Just make sure that you’re dropping it for the right reasons, and not because of a little bit of adversity or discomfort.


Major Subgoals

Some large goals may divide naturally into different component parts. In some cases, it may be possible to work on subgoals concurrently, while in others there will be a natural sequence of stages.

For example, for someone seeking to start writing a blog, it’s possible to write new posts, set up hosting, and design a layout and style sheets concurrently. The subgoals are independent and can be executed in any order.

Conversely, for a person working on marathon training, there is a logical sequence of milestones. It doesn’t make sense to start off with a long run of 20 miles – instead, this is a stage that the runner needs to work up to after a sequence of easier long runs.


In some cases, a goal may depend on the completion of other goals. For example, most people who complete a Master’s degree have first completed a Bachelor’s degree first (although there are, of course, exceptions to that rule). In such cases, it may not make sense to work on one goal until an earlier one has been completed. It’s important to recognize such dependencies before you have invested too much time and effort in a goal that depends on something you haven’t yet done.

Some of your goals may depend on the contribution or cooperation of other people or entities. A talented 14 year old may set a goal of getting his drivers’ license, but until he satisfies the age requirements established by the government, he’s unlikely to have much success.

To avoid frustration, do your best to identify the dependencies associated with your goals. Pay special attention to the dependencies that seem to lie in the hands of others – they will most likely present the greatest challenges.


Sometimes different goals tend to support each other. In this case it’s possible to leverage this mutual support in order to accelerate your progress toward both goals at the same time. This usually happens when there’s some common basis for each goal.

For example, two such goals might be: setting up a habit of practicing yoga three times a week; and meditating for 20 minutes a day. These goals are highly likely to be mutually reinforcing since they both fall under the general umbrella of wellness, relaxation, and spirituality.


My goal worksheet condenses these principles into a simple document that you can use to organize and track your most important goals. With the investment of 20-30 minutes, you can quickly evaluate one of your major goal, figure out how best to approach it, and optimize your changes for successfully reaching it.

Now stop reading, and go out and work on your goals!


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