I was looking at my goalmap dashboard the other day and counted that I have 56 ongoing goals – ranging from having a solid eight-hour sleep per night to learning Russian. So why is it important for me to set goals?
For about half of my life – I’m 35 if you want to do the math, I’ve been setting goals. Probably because as a teenager, I wanted to make sure that I would one day become the adult I want to be. It’s still a long way to go but that’s ok, I feel like I’m on the right track and getting there step by step. Goal setting for me is like drawing those steps, mapping how you will reach your dreams.
I won’t pretend that I have a secret formula that will transform you into Superman overnight. Still, I’ve tried multiple techniques over time and refined the way I approach goals. Let me try to share with you some straightforward advice that I have learned through trial and error. I would encourage you to apply these techniques if you are in the process of setting objectives for yourself and redesigning your life.
1. Listen to your heart
Setting goals is often described as a very rational process. True, it needs to be rigorous and well-defined, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. Emotions come first. There is no point in pursuing a goal which doesn’t truly move you. Your goals need to inspire you; they need to come from your gut. Make sure they are indeed YOUR goals, not things you believe you have to achieve because your parents told you so or because of peer pressure that pushes us to internalize socially valued objectives.
Be genuine. Have a serious conversation with yourself. Your goals should be a reflection of your identity. They must be deeply rooted in your personal values and the things you believe in. Aiming to have a Porsche because your neighbor has one isn’t a goal that will induce sustainable satisfaction and lasting happiness. Go with your instinct, follow your inner will. If you do so, you will identify goals that will make you grow as an individual as you set yourself to reach them.
2. Dream realistically
It looks like we have an oxymoron here! That’s all right, don’t freak out, and let me try to explain. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t dream big. On the contrary, if your goal is too easily reached, you’ll forget about it, it will fail to truly mobilize you and create a necessary sense of urgency. On the other hand, if you’re too aggressive setting your goals, you may feel overwhelmed by the difficulty and get paralyzed before making the first step. You might feel frustrated with the progress and give up too quickly.
The immediate task needs to match your current ability. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it the flow channel.
Get out of your comfort zone, but not too much. You won’t get stressed and you won’t get bored either. You will feel slightly challenged and excited by the task at hand and, as you succeed in performing it, both of your skills and your self-confidence level will increase. Then you can aim higher, your ability will increase a level, and so on. The flow channel is a virtuous circle!
It’s also fine to dream big. It’s perfectly ok to want to IPO your startup or complete an Ironman triathlon, but if you’re currently out of shape, give yourself some time before the Ironman (one year or two if you start from scratch) and introduce intermediate goals like running a 5k race or being able to swim 20 laps!
So yes, dream big but smart, taking into account where you want to go while not forgetting where you currently stand. Give yourself the time you need, set gradual and evolving targets, and define milestones if possible.
3. Quantify your goal
We talked about the emotional trigger of goals-setting earlier. Let’s now have a look at the rational side of goals. Once your goal is out there, you know already why you’re pursuing it. It’s time to flesh it out: What is it exactly that you want to achieve? When and how much? You have to be precise and define targets with a clear object, quantity, and timing.
Let’s take a simple example. Let’s say music is important to you and you want to set a goal to play guitar. Well, what does that exactly mean to you? Eliminate any vagueness. For me, playing guitar is practicing at least three hours per week on average, taking 15 lessons by year-end to kick-start the effort and being able to play Parisienne Walkways by Gary Moore. Now we’re talking!
You can’t leave room for interpretation. Your criteria for success need to be observable and clearly laid out. With target quantities and target dates, you set the standard and introduce accountability. Your goal is on a roll!
4. Follow through
Remember those New Year’s resolutions you got excited about for a week and then forgotten by the end of January? To achieve goals, you need to hit the ground running. There is a time for reflection, then there’s a time for action. When it’s action time, don’t think too much, it’s all about doing and building habits. Go for it! Nothing great comes without effort.
You may wonder why we’re talking about action in a post about goal-setting. A goal properly set is a goal that you act upon because you really want it (Rule number 1), you can do it (Rule number 2) and have a plan of action for it (Rule number 3). Planning comes before action but in the end they are intricately and dynamically related. Without action, there is no need for a plan.
Not only should you follow through, but also track your actions. It will boost your self-awareness and help you redesign your behavior as you internalize new habits and their positive consequences. A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed that people who rigorously logged what they ate lost twice as much weight as their peers.
Track, measure, and make yourself ultimately accountable. If you don’t, who else will? It’s your life after all.
5. Reset your goals regularly
You won’t always get it right the first time. Even if you do, the right target for a goal will change as you evolve over time. You should reassess your goals on a regular basis — every three to six months is probably right in most cases. This is the second benefit of self-tracking. It enhances self-awareness and it also helps you measure actual performance against the objective you had set.
That’s where you close the feedback loop: you (1) set targets which (2) trigger actions and by comparing the latter against the former you (3) measure results and are in a position to (4) draw conclusions and consequently (5) reset targets. As a result, you may modify or even abandon some of your goals, replace others, and introduce new ones. This is an iterative process.
We hope these rules will help you progress on your self-realization journey. If you struggle with any of the steps we discussed here, let us know, we will be happy to clarify things, focus on a particular aspect, or even discuss “case studies” with actual goals you have difficulties to handle.
To help you set and track your goals, feel free to try our app goalmap, it’s free ! Goal-setting and tracking will have a way larger impact on your life than any other activity which takes less than three minutes a day.