Personal Goal Setting

Planning to Live Your Life Your Way

Learn how to set effective
personal goals.

Many people feel as if they're adrift in the world. They work hard, but they don't seem to get anywhere worthwhile.

A key reason that they feel this way is that they haven't spent enough time thinking about what they want from life, and haven't set themselves formal goals. After all, would you set out on a major journey with no real idea of your destination? Probably not!

Goal setting is a powerful process for thinking about your ideal future, and for motivating yourself to turn your vision of this future into reality.

The process of setting goals helps you choose where you want to go in life. By knowing precisely what you want to achieve, you know where you have to concentrate your efforts. You'll also quickly spot the distractions that can, so easily, lead you astray.

Why Set Goals?

Top-level athletes, successful business-people and achievers in all fields all set goals. Setting goals gives you long-term vision and short-term motivation  . It focuses your acquisition of knowledge, and helps you to organize your time and your resources so that you can make the very most of your life.

By setting sharp, clearly defined goals, you can measure and take pride in the achievement of those goals, and you'll see forward progress in what might previously have seemed a long pointless grind. You will also raise your self-confidence  , as you recognize your own ability and competence in achieving the goals that you've set.

Starting to Set Personal Goals

You set your goals on a number of levels:

  • First you create your "big picture" of what you want to do with your life (or over, say, the next 10 years), and identify the large-scale goals that you want to achieve.
  • Then, you break these down into the smaller and smaller targets that you must hit to reach your lifetime goals.
  • Finally, once you have your plan, you start working on it to achieve these goals.

This is why we start the process of setting goals by looking at your lifetime goals. Then, we work down to the things that you can do in, say, the next five years, then next year, next month, next week, and today, to start moving towards them.

Step 1: Setting Lifetime Goals

The first step in setting personal goals is to consider what you want to achieve in your lifetime (or at least, by a significant and distant age in the future). Setting lifetime goals gives you the overall perspective that shapes all other aspects of your decision making.

To give a broad, balanced coverage of all important areas in your life, try to set goals in some of the following categories (or in other categories of your own, where these are important to you):

  • Career – What level do you want to reach in your career, or what do you want to achieve?
  • Financial – How much do you want to earn, by what stage? How is this related to your career goals?
  • Education – Is there any knowledge you want to acquire in particular? What information and skills will you need to have in order to achieve other goals?
  • Family – Do you want to be a parent? If so, how are you going to be a good parent? How do you want to be seen by a partner or by members of your extended family?
  • Artistic – Do you want to achieve any artistic goals?
  • Attitude – Is any part of your mindset holding you back? Is there any part of the way that you behave that upsets you? (If so, set a goal to improve your behavior or find a solution to the problem.)
  • Physical – Are there any athletic goals that you want to achieve, or do you want good health deep into old age? What steps are you going to take to achieve this?
  • Pleasure – How do you want to enjoy yourself? (You should ensure that some of your life is for you!)
  • Public Service – Do you want to make the world a better place? If so, how?

Spend some time brainstorming   these things, and then select one or more goals in each category that best reflect what you want to do. Then consider trimming again so that you have a small number of really significant goals that you can focus on.

As you do this, make sure that the goals that you have set are ones that you genuinely want to achieve, not ones that your parents, family, or employers might want. (If you have a partner, you probably want to consider what he or she wants – however, make sure that you also remain true to yourself!)

Tip:

You may also want to read our article on Personal Mission Statements  . Crafting a personal mission statement can help bring your most important goals into sharp focus.

Step 2: Setting Smaller Goals

Once you have set your lifetime goals, set a five-year plan of smaller goals that you need to complete if you are to reach your lifetime plan.

Then create a one-year plan, six-month plan, and a one-month plan of progressively smaller goals that you should reach to achieve your lifetime goals. Each of these should be based on the previous plan.

Then create a daily To-Do List   of things that you should do today to work towards your lifetime goals.

At an early stage, your smaller goals might be to read books and gather information on the achievement of your higher level goals. This will help you to improve the quality and realism of your goal setting.

Finally review your plans, and make sure that they fit the way in which you want to live your life.

Tip:

If you feel that you're not paying enough attention to certain areas of your life, you'll find our articles on The Wheel of Life   and the Life/Career Rainbow   useful.

Staying on Course

Once you've decided on your first set of goals, keep the process going by reviewing and updating your To-Do List on a daily basis.

Periodically review the longer term plans, and modify them to reflect your changing priorities and experience. (A good way of doing this is to schedule regular, repeating reviews using a computer-based diary.)

SMART Goals

A useful way of making goals more powerful is to use the SMART mnemonic. While there are plenty of variants (some of which we've included in parenthesis), SMART usually stands for:

  • S – Specific (or Significant).
  • M – Measurable (or Meaningful).
  • A – Attainable (or Action-Oriented).
  • R – Relevant (or Rewarding).
  • T – Time-bound (or Trackable).

For example, instead of having "to sail around the world" as a goal, it's more powerful to say "To have completed my trip around the world by December 31, 2015." Obviously, this will only be attainable if a lot of preparation has been completed beforehand!

Further Tips for Setting Your Goals

The following broad guidelines will help you to set effective, achievable goals:

  • State each goal as a positive statement – Express your goals positively – "Execute this technique well" is a much better goal than "Don't make this stupid mistake."
  • Be precise: Set precise goals, putting in dates, times and amounts so that you can measure achievement. If you do this, you'll know exactly when you have achieved the goal, and can take complete satisfaction from having achieved it.
  • Set priorities – When you have several goals, give each a priority. This helps you to avoid feeling overwhelmed by having too many goals, and helps to direct your attention to the most important ones.
  • Write goals down – This crystallizes them and gives them more force.
  • Keep operational goals small – Keep the low-level goals that you're working towards small and achievable. If a goal is too large, then it can seem that you are not making progress towards it. Keeping goals small and incremental gives more opportunities for reward.
  • Set performance goals, not outcome goals – You should take care to set goals over which you have as much control as possible. It can be quite dispiriting to fail to achieve a personal goal for reasons beyond your control!

    In business, these reasons could be bad business environments or unexpected effects of government policy. In sport, they could include poor judging, bad weather, injury, or just plain bad luck.

    If you base your goals on personal performance, then you can keep control over the achievement of your goals, and draw satisfaction from them.

  • Set realistic goals – It's important to set goals that you can achieve. All sorts of people (for example, employers, parents, media, or society) can set unrealistic goals for you. They will often do this in ignorance of your own desires and ambitions.

    It's also possible to set goals that are too difficult because you might not appreciate either the obstacles in the way, or understand quite how much skill you need to develop to achieve a particular level of performance.

Achieving Goals

When you've achieved a goal, take the time to enjoy the satisfaction of having done so. Absorb the implications of the goal achievement, and observe the progress that you've made towards other goals.

If the goal was a significant one, reward yourself appropriately. All of this helps you build the self-confidence you deserve.

With the experience of having achieved this goal, review the rest of your goal plans:

  • If you achieved the goal too easily, make your next goal harder.
  • If the goal took a dispiriting length of time to achieve, make the next goal a little easier.
  • If you learned something that would lead you to change other goals, do so.
  • If you noticed a deficit in your skills despite achieving the goal, decide whether to set goals to fix this.

Tip 1:

Our article, Golden Rules of Goal Setting  , will show you how to set yourself up for success when it comes to your goals. If you're still having trouble, you might also want to try Backward Goal Setting  .

Tip 2:

It's important to remember that failing to meet goals does not matter much, just as long as you learn from the experience.

Feed lessons you have learned back into the process of setting your next goals. Remember too that your goals will change as time goes on. Adjust them regularly to reflect growth in your knowledge and experience, and if goals do not hold any attraction any longer, consider letting them go.

Example Personal Goals

For her New Year's Resolution, Susan has decided to think about what she really wants to do with her life.

Her lifetime goals are as follows:

  • Career – "To be managing editor of the magazine that I work for."
  • Artistic – "To keep working on my illustration skills. Ultimately I want to have my own show in our downtown gallery."
  • Physical – "To run a marathon."

Now that Susan has listed her lifetime goals, she then breaks down each one into smaller, more manageable goals.

Let's take a closer look at how she might break down her lifetime career goal – becoming managing editor of her magazine:

  • Five-year goal: "Become deputy editor."
  • One-year goal: "Volunteer for projects that the current Managing Editor is heading up."
  • Six-month goal: "Go back to school and finish my journalism degree."
  • One-month goal: "Talk to the current managing editor to determine what skills are needed to do the job."
  • One-week goal: "Book the meeting with the Managing Editor."

As you can see from this example, breaking big goals down into smaller, more manageable goals makes it far easier to see how the goal will get accomplished.

Tip:

A good way of getting going with this is to use the Mind Tools Life Plan Workbook. Supported by worksheets and advice, this guides you through a simple 5-step process for setting your life goals, and for organizing yourself for success.

Key Points

Goal setting is an important method of:

  • Deciding what you want to achieve in your life.
  • Separating what's important from what's irrelevant, or a distraction.
  • Motivating yourself.
  • Building your self-confidence, based on successful achievement of goals.

Set your lifetime goals first. Then, set a five-year plan of smaller goals that you need to complete if you are to reach your lifetime plan. Keep the process going by regularly reviewing and updating your goals. And remember to take time to enjoy the satisfaction of achieving your goals when you do so.

If you don't already set goals, do so, starting now. As you make this technique part of your life, you'll find your career accelerating, and you'll wonder how you did without it!

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Click here for more, subscribe to our free newsletter, or become a member for just $1.


Comments (17)
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Halie

    A very warm welcome to the Mind Tools Club. Well done for taking the first step - that's how every journey begins.

    I want to encourage you to the visit our Career Cafe Central forum at this link: http://www.mindtools.com/forums/viewforum.php?f=2 . If you'd like to, you can post about the challenges you’re facing, and we, along with other Club members, will respond with help, advice and ideas to help you.

    We also have a goal coaching forum where we help you work towards your goals. The link is: http://www.mindtools.com/forums/viewforum.php?f=11

    Finding "ME" again (as you said) is something that many people need help with. We become so busy with everything and everybody around us, we forget to pay attention to ourselves. And if there's nothing left of you, then you have nothing left to give of yourself.

    We really look forward to 'seeing' you on the forums soon to help you get going with this journey!

    Best wishes
    Yolandé
  • halieelam wrote Over a month ago
    Hello my name is Halie. My life and timeline is in total shambles right now. I'm taking my first step of trying to get my life back in order as well as working on myself. I've lost sight of my own happiness, children's and my husbands. Over the past few years I've lost my self confidence that I once had & motivation in every way possible. I want more than anything to be a better parent to my children, a better person and household very day tasks, and a better spouse. I'm ready to find ME again. I've lost so much of myself and I'm ready to take my life back. I may need some encouraging help along this journey of change.
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Jess,
    It's great to hear from you! I wish you the very best with your journey and look forward to hearing how you progress and helping you where I can. The forums are a great way to supplement your learning - ask questions, participate in discussions, share your opinion, and connect with the community. You will have fun while you learn and develop your skills.

    Let us know what we can help you with!

    Best!
    Dianna
  • jess01rod wrote Over a month ago
    I am new here, I am a 24 year old woman looking to build on my carrer as well improve myself in different ways. I look forward to this beautiful journey of change. Today wad my first step and that first step was joining " Mind Tools Club " !
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Wendy,
    I'm happy to be a source of accountability!! Try out some of the tools and check and back in in a few days. This is what makes Mind Tools so valuable so please use us for the inspiration and motivation you need.

    Best!!!!

    Dianna
  • Wendy_010 wrote Over a month ago
    thanks Dianna. I might visualise you checking up on me! Seriously I appreciate the direction. I'll give it a go.
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Wendy,
    All is not lost... and trust me there are many people who have the exact same problem with self motivation. If you aren't naturally self motivated it's tough to figure out how to kick start yourself. We have some great tools that I think will have more than a few strategies that resonate with you and inspire you. Here are the links:

    Motivating Yourself: http://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/article/newHTE_74.php
    Self Discipline: http://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/article/self-discipline.php

    We also have a Bite Sized Training session on self motivation: http://www.mindtools.com/community/Bite-SizedTraining/GetMotivated.php

    And in case you were wondering how self motivated (or not!) you actually are, we have a self assessment quiz with links to more tools to help you out. Here is the link for the quiz: http://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/article/newLDR_57.php

    These are some places to start your quest toward self motivation. Keep checking into the forums as well and maybe start a goal setting thread on your goal to become more self motivated. It's a great way to stay accountable and get ongoing support. You can start your own thread here: viewforum.php?f=11

    I know you can do it!! What do you think?

    Dianna
  • Wendy_010 wrote Over a month ago
    I hate to sound pathetic but any ideas on motivation. Its my biggest problem, particularly in my personal life. Work motivation comes from knowing I have to do a job or be in bother! Personal motivation I find really difficult. I can set goals to my hearts content and then happily ignore them. I do feel its a personal failing of mine and would love to know how to get around it. I do find that having to answer to someone helps?
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Dave,
    It's great to hear that you will be reviewing your goals for the year, before the end of the year! A great practice to have to ensure you stay on track ... or rather refocus after you may have taken a bit of a detour!

    Regarding maintaining focus and minimizing distractions ... one of the things that I am learning and practicing these days is simply ... to keep it simple! I have a tendency to get involved in many different things and some great ideas and projects come my way. I'm always eager to jump in, get involved and contribute. Yet, in the end, I feel stressed and strained because I have to much to do and not enough time.

    It is still hard for me to say no, and say things like ... it's a great idea and I'd love to run with it, however at the moment, I can't take it on. I am learning!

    What I am currently doing each week is I am refocusing on my priority project (currently my book on peak performance!) and what actions I intend to take. Definitely is working for me to keep my stress levels down, keep me on track and keep me progressing with things!

    Could any of those approaches work for you?
    Midgie
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Dave,
    I agree that we are more inundated with outside distractions in our plugged in/social media fuelled world and that makes it more and more important to set goals so that we don't find ourselves flapping in the wind and just getting by from day to day. Regular monitoring and reflecting is key to keeping your momentum strong as is making sure you include goal activities in your schedule. I like to do this on a quarterly basis so my goals remain fresh and relevant and it gives me an opportunity to celebrate what I have accomplished and give myself a much-needed pat on the back.

    I'm glad this article served as a reminder to keep goal setting in the forefront. We can all use those!

    Dianna
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