This guide provides you with a simple, step-by-step process for how to plan and execute your goals.
- Why Set Goals?
- Step 1: Brainstorm
- Step 2: Clarify
- Step 3: Simplify
- Step 4: Plan
- Step 5: Schedule
- Goal Setting Template
"The unexamined life is not worth living."
- Plato (Apology of Socrates to the Jury 38a5-6)
Goal setting is the most important thing you can do in your life (ironically, it's also one of the most overlooked.) Sometimes you'll see goal setting used in business, but rarely do people actively create and pursue goals for their personal lives.
The problem with not doing goal setting is that without it, you end up living your life on autopilot. Day after day, it's easy to fall into the same routine - doing the same things over and over again and producing the same results. If you want to improve, you need to be an active participant in your life.
It may not seem that important now, but a lifetime of being on autopilot can be devastating later in life. Bronnie Ware had a career in the palliative care industry where she spent a lot of time with people who had little time left, staring down their mortality. From her book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, the #1 regret that these people had at the end of their lives was:
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me
As she explained:
"When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. From the moment that you lose your health, it is too late. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it."
These people had all gone through life on autopilot - doing the day to day, but never taking the time to stop and determine what they really wanted to get out of life.
So, ask yourself:
- Are you living an examined life? Or are you just going through the motions?
- Are you really living at all?
If you're ready to get started, I've written this guide as a step by step so you can follow along and start your own goal setting as I take you through the process.
Ready? Let's dive right in!
How To Do Personal Goal Setting
The good news is, personal goal setting is super easy to do and doesn't take too much time. I recommend doing a goal setting session at least once a year. I like to do it at the end of the year in preparation for the next, but you could really do it anytime you feel like things need a bit more direction. I wanted to share a simple method for goal setting that I've refined and put together over the years based on many iterations and trial and error over the years.
Alright, let's get started with a brainstorming session. Rather than just starting to come up with random ideas all at once with no context (SUPER difficult to do), let's do some brainstorming around some particular categories. Everyone has various parts to their lives. I like to divide things up into the following:
- Health and Fitness
- Skills and Development
- Social and Relationships
- Fun and Enjoyment
- Wealth and Career
For each of these areas, I want you to think of at least 5 different goals you might have, so you're going to have a list of at least 25 goals by the end of this process.
IMPORTANT: During this brainstorming process, don't filter yourself by things you think you may or may not be able to accomplish. Also, focus on the things that YOU want out of life in these areas. Don't worry about what other people might think and don't try to write down things that you think others would want or what societal norms would want you to put. This is your life - make sure you're planning it the way you want it.
You can just do this on a piece of paper if you want, or I've also included some templates later on in this guide.
Your list might look something like this when you're done with this step:
Note: this isn't my actual list, but I'll use it as an example to walk you through the process :) Later on, at some point, I'll add a section to the website that tracks what I'm working on, but for now it's not important.
At this point, these goals will likely be quite general and unpolished. That's okay, we'll dial things in, in the next step.
Looking for some ideas and inspiration on goals to set? Here are a few resources for you to check out:
- Day Zero - A community of people sharing their goals and achievements. A great place to get some goal inspiration or even track your goal progress.
- Money Q&A - Hank from Money Q&A has a list of 100 personal goals that are great for some inspiration.
- BOHO Berry - Kara from BOHO Berry has another list of 100 personal goals that are well categorized for inspiration.
Now that you've got some ideas going, the next step is to make sure that these goals are clear. Many of you have likely heard of this acronym, but if you haven't heard of SMART goals, this is going to be pretty big.
Sidebar: I know there are many acronyms out there for this kind of thing and that even the SMART acronym has different meanings to different people. I use a version of the acronym that's slightly different than its original use in a business context (first published in the November 1981 issue of Management Review by George T. Doran). Usually, I'm not a big fan of using acronyms to describe a system, but this one I learned at an early age, and it's helped me immensely through my life this far.
Let's break it down - your goals should be:
- Specific - There should be no question about what you're trying to achieve.
- Measurable - There has to be some sort of metric or measurement of progress.
- Achievable - Feel free to stretch with your goals, but it has to be something that is possible.
- Relevant - It needs to tie in with an overall life purpose or motivation - not random.
- Time-Bound - When will the goal be completed?
Here are some examples of goals that wouldn't fit the SMART test and would need to be updated:
Get in shape
This goal fails the Specific, Measurable, and Time-Bound tests. After a rewrite, we could instead have something like:
Before: Get in shape
After: Benchpress my weight by the end of next year
Let's take a look at another example:
In one year, pay off my mortgage
Unless you're pretty close to paying off your mortgage, this goal likely will fail the Achievable test. After a rewrite, we could instead have something like:
Before: In one year, pay off my mortgage.
After: In one year, pay down my mortgage to $x.
One last example:
During the month of June, eat 50 hot dogs.
This goal is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, and Time-Bound, but is it Relevant to your overall life purpose or motivation? Why would you want to achieve this goal? I'd give an example of a rewrite on this one, but you're probably best off just replacing this one outright :P
Go back through your list and fix any issues with your goals not meeting the SMART criteria before proceeding.
This is one of my favorite parts, and arguably the most difficult part of this exercise. It's important that we don't try to take on too much all at one time. So our next step will be to pair down the list and get it down to just ONE goal from each category.
At this point, you might be thinking to yourself "Just ONE goal? But there's so much I want to get done! Do I really need to wait an entire year until I can get to other things?" Not at all. We're focussing on one goal in each category to make sure that they get completed. If you happen to get everything done earlier on in the year - Great! Go back and review your planning process early and keep moving forward. However, let's start simple from the outset, and you can make that determination later.
Step 1: Use the "5 Why" process to get to the heart of each goal - The 5 Why's process was developed by the Toyota Corporation for use in solving manufacturing problems. It has also been adapted for other types of businesses as well as general troubleshooting. The core idea is that the root cause is rarely at the surface. To get to the root cause, you can keep asking "why" until you get to the bottom of an issue. Here's a simple example to illustrate what this might look like from a manufacturing perspective:
- The vehicle will not start. (the problem)
- Why? - The battery is dead. (First why)
- Why? - The alternator is not functioning. (Second why)
- Why? - The alternator belt has broken. (Third why)
- Why? - The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced. (Fourth why)
- Why? - The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (Fifth why, a root cause)
To use this in evaluating goals, let's take an example goal:
- By this time next year, I'll be making a six figure income (the goal)
- Why? - I want to make more money (First why)
- Why? - I need to have enough money to retire on (Second why)
- Why? - I have to replace my current income with money I save (Third why)
- Why? - So I don't have to work anymore (Fourth why)
- Why? - So I can have flexibility with my time (Fifth why, a root cause)
In this case, the end goal isn't really to make more money, it's to be able to have more flexibility with time. There are other ways to make this happen - buy less stuff, so you don't have to work as much, figure out a flexible work schedule with your job, etc… You may find that some of the goals you thought were you wanted, may have better alternatives.
Step 2: Merge Similar Goals - after going through the 5 why analysis, you may realize that goals you thought were very different might be more similar than you thought. At this point, go ahead and merge any goals that are similar.
Step 3: Prioritize - Order the goals in each category by which ones you think will have the most impact in your life. Keep the top one, and move the rest to a "Someday / Maybe" list which you can revisit at some time in the future.
Congratulations! You now have your 5 goals to work on for the next year! You're all done!
Well, not so fast… We still need to put a system in place to actually accomplish those goals and make sure to check in on progress along the way. Don't stop here!
Goals don't mean anything without a plan of action in place to achieve them. Otherwise, they're just dreams and dreams never materialize on their own.
What we need to do now is break down each goal into actionable, bite-sized steps (objectives) that we can handle as part of the day to day stuff we're working on. What this does is to take the procrastination out of achieving goals. One of the major things that can cause someone to procrastinate is not to have a definite "next step." The project itself is intimidating when viewed as a whole and you end up pushing things off and not getting started.
I like to use the rule of 3's here and break each goal down into 3 actionable steps (objectives). These objectives can either be milestones on your way to getting to the goal or steps you need to take spending on what the goal is, but should generally be done in order. For example, if my goal was: "Complete a half-marathon race this year in under 2 hours", there are a few things that I could do to get started:
- Jog 3 times per week
- Run a mile in under 9 minutes
- Run 10 miles averaging 9 minutes per mile
The first item is an actionable step that can be taken and the other two are milestones to hit along the way of achieving the goal. For the first objective, we might need to break it down even further if the next step isn't entirely clear. Perhaps I don't have any running equipment, maybe I don't know the proper techniques for stretching or recovery, etc… So, we could break down the first objective further by giving it 3 sub-objectives:
- Jog 3 times per week
- Research what kind of running shoes to get and what kind of nutrition plan is needed for running
- Buy running shoes
- Create a shopping list to change diet while running
- Run a mile in under 9 minutes
- Run 10 miles averaging 9 minutes per mile
In this case, I'm going to complete these "sub-objectives" first to complete the first objective and then keep working my way down the list. Is your goal even more complicated? No problem! Just keep creating 3 sub-objectives under each objective until you have a bite-sized next step that can be taken on.
Once you do this, all of your goals should not only have a roadmap to completion but most importantly should each have a "Next Step" so that it's clear what needs to be done.
The last step in your personal goal setting session is to make sure that you have a plan to integrate working on your goals with your day to day workflow. There are many ways to organize the tasks that you're working on every day (whether it be personally or for work), and I won't get into it here - that's for another article. But, what is important is that each day in the morning, you review your goals list, look at the next step on each goal and ask yourself "is there any way I can complete one of these today?" Schedule your time as necessary, and you'll keep making incremental progress on your goals. If you find yourself going days or weeks without making any progress, it's time to re-evaluate and determine why things have stalled out (a great spot to use the 5 why's exercise as mentioned earlier).
Additionally, put it on your calendar each month to take a step back, and do a full review of your goals sheet to examine the progress made so far and make sure you're on track. It only takes a few minutes and ensures that you're on track to complete your goals within the time frame you're looking to achieve them. If you need to make adjustments, now's the time to do it.
I've included the goal setting worksheet that I use and that is discussed in this article here:
Feel free to download and use for going through this process.
Thanks for Reading!
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