Golden Rules of Goal Setting

Five Rules to Set Yourself Up for Success

Learn five techniques for
setting effective goals

Have you thought about what you want to be doing in five years' time? Are you clear about what your main objective at work is at the moment? Do you know what you want to have achieved by the end of today?

If you want to succeed, you need to set goals. Without goals you lack focus and direction. Goal setting not only allows you to take control of your life's direction; it also provides you a benchmark for determining whether you are actually succeeding. Think about it: Having a million dollars in the bank is only proof of success if one of your goals is to amass riches. If your goal is to practice acts of charity, then keeping the money for yourself is suddenly contrary to how you would define success.

To accomplish your goals, however, you need to know how to set them. You can't simply say, "I want" and expect it to happen. Goal setting is a process that starts with careful consideration of what you want to achieve, and ends with a lot of hard work to actually do it. In between there are some very well defined steps that transcend the specifics of each goal. Knowing these steps will allow you to formulate goals that you can accomplish.

Here are our five golden rules of goal setting:

The Five Golden Rules

1. Set Goals that Motivate You

When you set goals for yourself, it is important that they motivate you: this means making sure that they are important to you, and that there is value in achieving them. If you have little interest in the outcome, or they are irrelevant given the larger picture, then the chances of you putting in the work to make them happen are slim. Motivation is key to achieving goals.

Set goals that relate to the high priorities in your life. Without this type of focus, you can end up with far too many goals, leaving you too little time to devote to each one. Goal achievement requires commitment, so to maximize the likelihood of success, you need to feel a sense of urgency and have an "I must do this" attitude. When you don't have this, you risk putting off what you need to do to make the goal a reality. This in turn leaves you feeling disappointed and frustrated with yourself, both of which are de-motivating. And you can end up in a very destructive "I can't do anything or be successful at anything" frame of mind.


To make sure your goal is motivating, write down why it's valuable and important to you. Ask yourself, "If I were to share my goal with others, what would I tell them to convince them it was a worthwhile goal?" You can use this motivating value statement to help you if you start to doubt yourself or lose confidence in your ability to actually make the goal happen.

2. Set SMART Goals

You have probably heard of "SMART goals" already. But do you always apply the rule? The simple fact is that for goals to be powerful, they should be designed to be SMART. There are many variations of what SMART stands for, but the essence is this – goals should be:

  • Specific.
  • Measurable.
  • Attainable.
  • Relevant.
  • Time Bound.

Set Specific Goals

Your goal must be clear and well defined. Vague or generalized goals are unhelpful because they don't provide sufficient direction. Remember, you need goals to show you the way. Make it as easy as you can to get where you want to go by defining precisely where you want to end up.

Set Measurable Goals

Include precise amounts, dates, and so on in your goals so you can measure your degree of success. If your goal is simply defined as "To reduce expenses" how will you know when you have been successful? In one month's time if you have a 1 percent reduction or in two years' time when you have a 10 percent reduction? Without a way to measure your success you miss out on the celebration that comes with knowing you have actually achieved something.

Set Attainable Goals

Make sure that it's possible to achieve the goals you set. If you set a goal that you have no hope of achieving, you will only demoralize yourself and erode your confidence.

However, resist the urge to set goals that are too easy. Accomplishing a goal that you didn't have to work hard for can be anticlimactic at best, and can also make you fear setting future goals that carry a risk of non-achievement. By setting realistic yet challenging goals, you hit the balance you need. These are the types of goals that require you to "raise the bar" and they bring the greatest personal satisfaction.

Set Relevant Goals

Goals should be relevant to the direction you want your life and career to take. By keeping goals aligned with this, you'll develop the focus you need to get ahead and do what you want. Set widely scattered and inconsistent goals, and you'll fritter your time – and your life – away.

Set Time-Bound Goals

You goals must have a deadline. Again, this means that you know when you can celebrate success. When you are working on a deadline, your sense of urgency increases and achievement will come that much quicker.

3. Set Goals in Writing

The physical act of writing down a goal makes it real and tangible. You have no excuse for forgetting about it. As you write, use the word "will" instead of "would like to" or "might." For example, "I will reduce my operating expenses by 10 percent this year," not "I would like to reduce my operating expenses by 10 percent this year." The first goal statement has power and you can "see" yourself reducing expenses, the second lacks passion and gives you an excuse if you get sidetracked.

Tip 1:

Frame your goal statement positively. If you want to improve your retention rates say, "I will hold on to all existing employees for the next quarter" rather than "I will reduce employee turnover." The first one is motivating; the second one still has a get-out clause "allowing" you to succeed even if some employees leave.

Tip 2:

If you use a To-Do List  , make yourself a To-Do List template that has your goals at the top of it. If you use an Action Program  , then your goals should be at the top of your Project Catalog.

Post your goals in visible places to remind yourself every day of what it is you intend to do. Put them on your walls, desk, computer monitor, bathroom mirror or refrigerator as a constant reminder.

4. Make an Action Plan

This step is often missed in the process of goal setting. You get so focused on the outcome that you forget to plan all of the steps that are needed along the way. By writing out the individual steps, and then crossing each one off as you complete it, you'll realize that you are making progress towards your ultimate goal. This is especially important if your goal is big and demanding, or long-term. Read our article on Action Plans   for more on how to do this.

5. Stick With It!

Remember, goal setting is an ongoing activity not just a means to an end. Build in reminders to keep yourself on track, and make regular time-slots available to review your goals. Your end destination may remain quite similar over the long term, but the action plan you set for yourself along the way can change significantly. Make sure the relevance, value, and necessity remain high.

Key Points

Goal setting is much more than simply saying you want something to happen. Unless you clearly define exactly what you want and understand why you want it the first place, your odds of success are considerably reduced. By following the Five Golden Rules of Goal Setting you can set goals with confidence and enjoy the satisfaction that comes along with knowing you achieved what you set out to do.

So, what will you decide to accomplish today?

How to Apply the Golden Rules to New Year Resolutions

Click on the thumbnail image below to see how you can use the Five Golden Rules for setting your New Year Resolutions represented in an infographic:

Five Golden Rules for Setting Great New Year Career Goals

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Comments (24)
  • Yolande wrote This month
    Thanks for taking the time to comment, Adam. We do publish our articles on various platforms and we post links on social media as well - so hopefully many others will benefit from this article too. We're glad that you found it helpful.

    Mind Tools Team
  • Adam wrote This month
    I really liked this part of the article, with a nice and interesting topics have helped a lot of people who do not challenge things people should know. you need more publicize this so many people who know about it are rare for people to know this. success for you !!!
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Thanks Sandy, Marco and Idy for your feedback.

    Setting goals and ensuring you take consistent action are critical to ones success! Yet, you also have to be flexible enough to be able to change as circumstances change.

    Mind Tools Team
  • Idy wrote Over a month ago
    thanks for this post!
  • Marco wrote Over a month ago
    Thank you ,real I appreciate .much thank.
  • Sandy wrote Over a month ago
    very useful and important. thx alots....
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Cos,
    So pleased for you that you've made that call and have arranged to meet the NICTA guy! Well done to you! So, when is it because I'd love to hear an update!

    I firmly believe that when you are interested in building a contact, it is important to chat about the company, the environment, the current workforce ... anything, but ask them directly for a job.

    I call these type of meetings as 'information gathering' rather than going to hit them up for a job! Although your intention might ultimately be that you want to ask them about a reference for a job, start by building up the relationship, expressing your interest and curiosity in their area. I'd even go so far as to ask them if they knew anyone else they could put you in touch with to help you on your search!

    In a way, it's like approaching them from the side angle with a softly-softly approach than going direclty straight in.

    Good luck and keep us posted.
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Good for you Cos. Networking is a big factor in getting the jobs we want. You don't have to ask George for a job, you just need to build a relationship with him so that he'll feed you information about what is happening and he might also become a great person to bounce ideas off of, given that he's in the industry you have targeted. Maybe the NICTA isn't right for you but one of their associate organizations is?

    Either way you need insider information so look at this meeting as a chance to learn.

    I wish you well. Please do let us know what transpires.

  • cobberas wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Miadanu

    What appeals to me especially about NICTA is the sorts of projects they do (life sciences), and also the fact that they have quite a number of them running here in the town where I live. Almost every other IT project run here is related to Defence, Finance or Admin - yuk, yuk, yuk!!!

    About the PhD - they're very costly things to do, both from a fees point of view and because of spending 3-odd years without an income. There is the odd scholarship and bursary floating by, and I have managed to nab a couple of these throughout my working/study life, but I wasn't burdened with rent payments at the time!

    I have made a time to have coffee with young George of NICTA, so thanks for your suggestions of what I might ask him. I just don't feel comfortable with a straight-out "How can I come and work with you guys?"

    Thanks and cheers
  • miadanu wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Cos,

    How about an alternative approach to the conversation... you mentioned above that you think you want a career in biomechanics but you weren't 100% sure. What is it that makes you want to work at NICTA in particular? Why aren't you in a position to go for a PhD (if it's true that this is a pre-requisite and that there isn't anyone working there without one)?

    Chat with this person about their experience of the field, the company, etc. It doesn't have to be focused around 'What do I need to do to get my foot in the door?' That could come later. Focus on building and maintaining the relationship with them as it may yield other opportunities that you have not yet considered.

    It's good to be focused on what you want. Just don't let that focus blinker yourself to other opportunities that may present themselves to you
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