Why Goal Setting is Important and How to Do it Well

What separates those who accomplish a lot in life from those who idol away their time? Largely your ability to set and achieve goals.

Goals give our lives direction, something to organize our thoughts and action around. Well-thought-out goals can direct our time and attention, help motivate us toward action, and even help give our lives meaning and purpose.

Goals can significantly increase our performance and productivity, too: in dozens of studies by goal-setting experts Gary Latham and Edwin Locke, setting challenging goals has been shown to increase performance and productivity by up to twenty-five percent.

If you find yourself hesitant to set goals, it may be because you’re worried about failure and thinking ahead to all the things that could possibly go wrong en route to your goal. People who don’t set goals are often “saving themselves” from failure and defeat.

If this is you at times, remind yourself that in order to invest in a goal fully, you first have to believe that your goal is possible. This is why having a growth mindset — or believing that your efforts will make a difference — is so important to achieving high, hard goals.

It may also be helpful to remind yourself that the pursuit of goals is not all about the outcome. Learn to enjoy the process and all the learning and growth that happens along the way.

But while studies by the U.S. News & World Report show as many as 80% of people give up on their New Year’s resolutions by February, this doesn’t have to be you. Goal setting isn’t just about making a checklist once a year. It’s actually a skill that you can get better at with time and practice.

Below is a four-step process to setting goals you’ll stick to this year:

Step One: Find a Goal You Care About

The first step in the goal-setting process is to find something you care enough about to stick with for months, years, or even decades. After all, why waste time being gritty on something that doesn’t really matter to you?

But this crucial first step is easier said than done. Many people actually get stuck at this point in the process, trying to figure out something they’re passionate enough about to pursue long-term. They get so worried about finding the absolute perfect fit that they never end up pursuing — or even trying — anything at all.

On the other hand, some people dive right in and commit wholeheartedly to a goal, only to find out fairly quickly that they’re not that interested in that goal (or the steps it takes to pursue that goal) after all. This often leads to people quitting and feeling like a failure early on in the process.

Even worse, some people stick with goals that they’re not that interested in for a long time in order not to seem like a quitter. This often leads to unhappiness and missed opportunities to pursue other interests.

As Seth Godin writes in The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit: 

“Quit the wrong stuff. Stick with the right stuff. Have the guts to do one or the other.”

Rather than sticking with something you know isn’t the right fit long-term, keep trying new things until you find something that fascinates you enough to stick with it.

The key is to avoid putting too much pressure on this process. It may take years until you find something that feels like the right fit (it did for me!). Be patient, and try to enjoy the process of discovery.

Step Two: Connect Your Goal to a Larger Purpose

Another key piece of increasing your long-term grit is to connect your goal to a larger purpose related to your higher values. This often means figuring out how what you’re doing in your life or your career is helping others and making a difference in the world. Or, it may mean connecting your goals to higher values, such as maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle, pursuing educational opportunities to learn and grow, or showing kindness to those you love.

It may help to ask yourself questions like these:

  • Why do you want to maintain a regular workout habit? Possible larger purpose: Because you want to stay strong and independent as you age and be a good example for your kids, nieces, and nephews.
  • Why do you want to learn to play an instrument? Possible larger purpose: Because going after challenging goals is important to you in your life. 
  • Why do you want to travel? Because you want to open your mind to different perspectives and connect with people all over the world.

Connecting your smaller goal to a larger purpose makes it much more likely you’ll stick with your goals when things get hard (and they will!).

Step Three: Chunk Down Your Goal

Once you’re relatively clear on your long-term goal, the next step is to chunk down your goals into manageable steps.

For example, if you have a fitness-related goal of being able to do a pull-up but don’t know where to start, here’s how you’d begin to chunk it down:

  • Begin by seeking out resources (websites, YouTube videos, books, mentors, etc.) that will provide you with the knowledge you’ll need to begin tackling your goal. Usually, this means starting with a simple Google search or talking to people you know that might have some knowledge about the goal you want to pursue.
  • Summarize your findings into a simple plan. You may only know the first few steps to begin with (in the pull-up example, this might mean buying a doorway pull-up bar and finding a beginner pull-up program). That’s ok.
  • Take action. Give the first step a try. Do your first workout. Take your first class. Read a book. Try something, anything, to get started.
  • Seek out expert advice as needed (coaches, mentors, trainers, online programs, etc.). This is an important step, especially as you reach plateaus (more on that later) and points in the process where you’re not sure what to go next.

Learning to break down your long-term goals into small, manageable steps will help you make steady progress toward your larger goal without being too overwhelmed by the big picture.

Step Four: Track and Adjust

As much as we would all like to experience smooth, linear progress toward our goals, that’s not the way goal pursuit (or life) generally works. Two steps forward, one step back is more typical than not when going after a challenging enough goal.

The final piece in the goal-setting process is to find a way to track and measure your progress along the way. Metrics are a powerful motivating force because they help us pay more attention to that area of our lives (this is called the Scoreboard Principle in psychology).

As Ron Friedman writes in Decoding Greatness: How the Best in the World Reverse Engineer Success:

“Measurement begets improvement.” 

If you want to make progress toward your workouts, for example, keep a training log. Likewise, if you want to get better at singing, cooking, or managing your finances, you need to find a way to measure and track when you’re making improvements.

If you don’t measure it, how will you know you’re improving? 

Also, make sure to continue to tweak your plan as you go. The key to succeeding at your goals is to be flexible in the process. Even the best thought-out plans go awry at some point. When you learn to adjust as you go and bounce back from setbacks, you’ll be much more likely to achieve your long-term goals.

Questions to Ask Yourself if You’ve Reached a Plateau

If at any point in the process you feel like you’ve plateaued and aren’t sure where to go next, it may be time to reevaluate and ask yourself these questions:

Is this goal still something you want to pursue? If, after giving your goal a real shot, you decide your goal is no longer something you want to pursue, whether because of different interests or new priorities, quit and allow yourself to try something new.

In Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, psychologist Angela Duckworth suggests that parents have their kids stick with a new sport or activity for one to two years before allowing them to quit and do something else. This is a good rule of thumb for adults, too.

Many people quit too early in the process before they have a chance to make any real progress toward their goal. Aim to give yourself ample time to pursue a goal and decide if it’s something you want to continue to pursue long-term. If it’s not, or if your priorities or life’s circumstances change, give yourself permission to quit and free up your time and energy for something new.

Do you need to decrease the challenge? When we set a challenging goal, we often get so stuck on the outcome that anything less than that can seem like we’re coming up short. This is why the key to any goal-setting process is to first break down your long-term goals into smaller, manageable chunks.

If you’re not making progress because your current goal is just a little too challenging, break it down further. Rather than trying to make big leaps forward, aim to get a little better every day.

Do you need to increase the challenge? If you’re the type of person that tends to get bored with long-term goals, you may need to increase the challenge, not decrease it. Continuously pushing yourself out of your comfort zone will help keep you from getting bored. It will also make it more likely you’ll get into a flow state or in the zone on a regular basis.

“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Do you need more feedback? If you’ve been working toward a goal for a while and are feeling stuck, it may be because you’ve reached the limits of your knowledge base. In order to break through and keep making progress, you’ll need to get more feedback.

Usually, the best way to get this kind of feedback is to find someone more experienced than you to work with you, whether a coach, teacher or even an experienced friend or mentor. If you can’t afford to hire someone, there are countless free or low-cost resources like books, online courses, video tutorials, etc. The internet is an amazing place — you can learn nearly anything if you put your mind to it.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to pursuing their goals, too many people try and hack their way to success. They’re always looking for ways to bypass the time and work it takes to succeed at a long-term goal.

While hacks may work in the short term, they rarely lead to long-term success. Try to take shortcuts toward an athletic goal, for example, and sooner or later, you’ll get injured, reach burnout, or both. The same is true in any area of life.

The only way to make sustainable, long-term progress toward your goal is to be consistent. Consistency is the real “secret” to success. Put in the work, day after day, and all that hard work will add up over time.


Photo by Inspire Toud on Unsplash

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