Goal Setting – How to Set Goals To Ensure Success

One of the most common questions I am asked regularly is “What is the importance of goal setting?” or “Is it really necessary to set goals?”

I can personally attest to its importance in my own professional life, and I simply cannot overstate the fact that personal goal setting always has been and remains one of the first steps you will take in your journey toward finding your true calling and unparalleled success.

To quote another expert on the subject, philanthropist, and author Tony Robbins, “Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.”

I think this explains the importance of the goal setting process extremely well.

To dive deeper into the topic, I’d like to explain what goal setting is, give you some background on goal setting theory, and further explain the reason why I believe personal goal setting is of paramount importance when attempting to achieve success.

I’ll also share with you this short essay on goal setting and how to set yourself up for success, increase the likelihood of achieving life goals and career goals, and have your desired outcome.

goal setting

What Is Goal Setting?

Goals are your first step and the ultimate answer to achieving great things. Goals fuel motivation and define your roadmap to realizing your dreams.

Research in clinical and real-world settings has shown that goals can help you accelerate your success and personal growth. Setting goals helps us assess where we are currently in our personal and professional lives while allowing us to create the future we dream of.

It’s the process of living with intention and letting life happen FOR us rather than TO us.

What Is Goal Setting Theory?

Goal setting theory was devised by the researcher Edwin Locke. Locke published his groundbreaking study in 1968, titled Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentives (1968). Locke continued his research to develop more concrete advice on how to set goals and achieve more with goal-setting theory.

The primary insight provided by goal-setting theory is that having a conscious, purposeful goal increases the likelihood that the things you desire will happen for you. The theory demonstrates the importance of knowing what you want and creating plans to make progress and help you get there.

According to another researcher, T.A. Ryan, in the paper Intentional Behavior (1970), motivation separates those who succeed from those who do not, assuming similar capabilities. As setting personal goals is a proven way to nurture motivation, they are a large part of what makes some people more successful than others.

So what are the proven strategies for setting performance goals that will help you get what you want? Let’s talk about the core principles of goal-setting theory.

What Are the 5 Principles of Goal Setting Theory?

Locke and Latham have identified five goal-setting principles that can help you succeed.

Here are each of the five principles of goal-setting theory and how you might apply them to your goals for your professional and academic goals and personal life:

SMART Goals

1. CLARITY

Goals that are clear and have specific objectives are more likely to be completed successfully. For example, rather than defining a goal in general terms like “increase sales this month,” choose a more specific goal like “close 10% more sales in September.”

Clear goals should include a timeframe rather than being open-ended, like simply saying “sell more,” and define each smart goal with a time frame and an achievable target date where you can check in and analyze your progress.

2. CHALLENGE

More challenging goals will be more motivating than goals that are easy to achieve. Your goal must be challenging enough to require initiative.

Hitting manageable goals will give you a satisfying sense of accomplishment, encouraging you to continue on your path to success.

That said, be sure your goals are achievable so as not to discourage you when unreachable goals are not met.

3. COMMITMENT

Commitment means you genuinely wish to do what it takes to complete a goal. You must feel ownership and be sincere about taking on the short-term goals and long-term goals you are working towards.

Without self-regulation, a commitment to the process, and the growth that will come from it, you will be far less motivated to work towards them.

4. FEEDBACK

Create methods for receiving regular feedback on your progress. You can create a feedback process or invite others with insight to share their feedback regularly.

Seeking healthy feedback gives you opportunities to analyze your goal progress and adjust goals that are not working to set you up for more success.

5. TASK COMPLEXITY

When goals are particularly complex, be sure you have allowed yourself the time to learn and properly break up the challenge into manageable chunks.

The complexity of a task may not be evident from the beginning, but once understood, it should be broken down into a series of identified tasks.

As an example, if your goal is to update your website, you will likely need to break it down into stages for content, design, programming, testing, and so on.

Let’s move on to a concrete example of goal-setting theory to help you better understand how to apply it to your life.

What Is An Example Of Goal Setting Theory?

So, how can you apply the five principles of goal-setting theory to your life? Here’s a relatable example to help clarify each component.

Let’s say your long-term goal is to buy your first home.

To add clarity to your goal, you might identify how large a house you wish to buy and the neighborhood you want to purchase it in. This will help you establish a budget that will tell you how much you need for a down payment.

To challenge yourself, you may decide to save enough money to pay a 20% down payment within six months.

You can commit to the process by hiring a real estate agent, finding a lender, and sharing your goal with others.

After you’ve taken steps toward your goal, you can check in with yourself for feedback each week to see if you are saving enough (or possibly even more than you had planned) and reevaluate your goals based on how much you have saved.

When you’ve saved enough money, you can manage the complexity of the buying by breaking down the process into stages: find the home, get it appraised, get loan approval, close, move in, buy furniture, etc. Breaking the process into smaller steps will help prevent the buying process from overwhelming you.

6 Reasons Goal Setting Is Important

The outcomes of goal setting are greater success and satisfaction in every aspect of your life. However, the goal-setting process itself brings many benefits that make goal-setting important.

Here are six reasons to set goals and consistently strive for goal attainment.

1. Goals Give You Focus

Without personal goals or professional goals, your efforts can become disjointed and unfocused, causing you to lose sight of what you truly want to achieve out of life.

For example, a goal takes the flight of a hummingbird, which is chaotic and erratic, and focuses it much like a hawk swooping down for its prey.

It allows you to zero in on each day’s tasks with laser precision, weeding out wasted effort and idle movement.

2. Goals Let You Measure Progress

Being able to keep track of your progress toward achieving a goal is only possible if you set one in the first place.

Keeping track of how you are making progress on measurable goals is extremely rewarding and will help you maintain focus, and keep your head held high and your energy up. It will also apply principles of preventive psychology by keeping you from getting discouraged and avoiding negative outcomes.

Sometimes, when working towards success, it’s easy to become disheartened because you don’t feel you have “arrived” yet.

However, when you measure your current job performance while working towards a specific goal, you will be able to see that though you might not be where you want to be yet, you have made movements in the right direction and are a lot better off than when you started.

3. Goals Help You Stay Motivated

It’s easy to put off work until tomorrow when there is no goal on the line.

For example, let’s consider the life of an athlete. If they have to get in shape for a competition, you better believe they are going to be working out every day, whether they feel good or not, whether they are sore or not, whether they are tired or not, whether they want to or not, because they have a goal.

They have a clear understanding of the destination. They are striving for higher performance.

Their desire to achieve their goal keeps them in the gym, on the field, or the track when they would much rather skip.

In much the same way, having a goal will keep you intrinsically motivated for better academic performance!

4. Goals Help You Beat Procrastination

Procrastination is something we all battle from time to time, myself included. However, when you set goals in life, specific goals for what you want to achieve, it helps you understand that procrastination is dangerous.

It is wasted time. It is another day you aren’t moving closer to that goal.

Consider this inspirational quote from Pablo Picasso the next time you are thinking of putting off that next step toward your goal and rethink your stance:

“Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.”

5. Goals Help You Achieve More

When you set a goal and reach that goal, it gives you the taste of victory. You will want to taste that again. The goal setting process is a positive habit you can build.

What does that mean? You push yourself toward the next rung of the ladder, challenge yourself to improve your current performance, and you achieve even more.

Working towards meeting and surprising goals helps you achieve way more than you ever thought possible.

6. Goals Help You Determine What You Want In Life

The act of setting goals forces you to contemplate what you truly want out of life.

What is the level of success you want to achieve? What is the income level you want to have? What does your life of ease look like? What about your dream home? What do you need income-wise to achieve your dreams?

Once you set these outcome goals for ideal future, you then break your desires down into attainable goals.

These goals keep you motivated, helping you avoid procrastination and keeping you laser-focused on achieving your dreams. It is, therefore, the act of setting, achieving, and surpassing goals that make living your best life possible.

goal setting

What Does Research Say About Goal Setting?

Goal setting has been studied extensively in the scientific community. It has been linked to higher employee motivation, greater academic and organizational performance, higher achievement of team goals, improved positive and negative emotions both, and many other tangible benefits.

Here is a small sampling of relevant research to help provide insight into the benefits and outcomes of goal setting.

Goal Setting In Sales

Car manufacturer, Toyota, tested the use of “impossible goals” to see if setting seemingly unreachable goals would encourage their teams to think more creatively and “break free from established routines.” The impossible goals tradition began early in company history, in 1937, with founder Kiichiro Toyoda.

Toyota’s senior managing director, Zenji Yasuda, explained the advantages of setting vague, unattainable goals saying, “If he makes [the goal] more concrete, employees won’t be able to exercise their full potential. The vague nature of this goal confers the freedom to researchers to open new avenues of exploration….”

While Toyota sets impossible goals to encourage big-picture thinking, the company also breaks down its larger goals into challenging but manageable tasks. Toyota also measures managers’ success based on how they achieve goals rather than on the results, valuing persistence and resilience above other qualities.

“A goal is not always meant to be reached; it often serves simply as something to aim at.” –Bruce Lee

The Significance Of Setting Personal Goals

Researchers Cott and Finch (1991) studied goal-setting in improving and measuring effectiveness in physical therapy practice. Their work suggests that the patient’s participation in goal-setting was critical to showing measurable improvement. The key takeaway from this research is the importance of individuals participating in setting their personal goals rather than having others define goals for them.

Goal Setting In Neurological Rehabilitation

As in physical therapy, goal setting is a core component of neurological rehabilitation therapy. Researchers Holliday, Ballinger, & Playford (2007) compared two goal-setting methods with in-patients with neurological impairments. Their findings identified four ways that their patients made sense of goal setting. Their study suggests that healthcare professionals must help patients understand what is expected of them for goal setting to be meaningful in their recovery.

The Importance Of Setting Attainable Employee Goals

Jessica Höpfner and Nina Keith highlight the potential negative consequences of not reaching goals. The key takeaway from their study is that “the failure of a high and specific goal can damage self-related factors like effect, self-esteem, and motivation and can also have subsequent behavioral consequences.” Höpfner and Keith suggest that employers mitigate the adverse effects by creating “experiences of success” related to employee goals. In other words, ensuring goals are reasonable and attainable can help you to avoid demotivating your teams.

The Importance Of Writing Down Goals

Psychologist Gail Mathews studied the importance of writing down goals in 2015, finding that individuals were 33% more successful in reaching their goals than those who did not write them down. The study also found that more than 70% of participants successfully met their goals when they sent weekly updates of written goals to friends. This study supports the importance of accountability and the benefits of writing down your goals.

In his book, The 10×10 Rule: The Only Difference Between Success and Failure, well-known entrepreneur Grant Cardone suggests writing down your goals twice a day. Once when you wake up, and once before you go to sleep. He believes the practice helps keep your goals top of mind. “If they’re important to you, and if they are valuable to you, wake up in the morning and re-look at them. Remember, out of sight, out of mind. Let’s take a look at them.”

Neuroscience also supports the case for writing down goals. Researcher Mark Murphy’s study revealed that “people who very vividly describe or picture their goals are anywhere from 1.2 to 1.4 times more likely to successfully accomplish their goals.”

Goal Setting Rewires Your Brain to Make It More Effective

Research in neuroplasticity suggests that goal-setting can change your brain’s structure to make it more effective at achieving a specific goal. The groundbreaking research began when goal setting was used in multiple sclerosis treatments.

Researchers discovered that MS patients with defined ambitious health goals had fewer, less severe symptoms than a control group. In short, goal setting was proven to help heal the brains of MS patients.

How To Set Achievable Goals

Consistently meeting goals can help sustain motivation and keep you moving in the direction of your dreams. Additionally, recent research suggests that failing to meet goals can lead to confidence setbacks. That’s one reason it’s crucial to set achievable goals.

What are the best ways to define goal achievement that will keep you motivated? Here are a few of the qualities of achievable goals.

Align Your Goals With Your Values

When you set goals, be sure that they are in line with your values. Goals that align with your values will ensure that you feel comfortable with what and how you are working so hard for.

Before setting specific goals, take an inventory of your core values. You may already know which values are important to you, but having clarity about what matters most will help you keep them central to the goals you’ll need to create the life you want. Take the time to spell them out, prioritize them, and reflect on what they mean to you.

We live our values, and our values drive our actions. Goals that lie outside our values are unlikely to be achieved.

For example, if your goal is to lose weight, you may struggle to do so if you don’t value healthy lifestyle choices. You may value health, but it may fall below your desire for comfort and leisure, meaning it won’t be a priority, and losing weight may be harder to achieve.

You may not have recognized when setting your weight loss journey that your values were not in line with your goals. Taking stock of your goals and setting (or re-setting) your priorities will help make you more successful in defining and reaching your goals.

“The real value of setting and achieving goals lies not in the rewards you receive but in the person you become as a result of reaching your goals.” – Robin Sharma

Keep It Simple

Ongoing and incremental changes are better than changing too much at once. Focus your organizational behavior and efforts on just one or two primary goals at once.

When you have too many goals in mind at one time, you may run into a problem psychologists call “goal competition.” As the name implies, goal competition happens when too many goals compete for your attention, which zaps your time and attention.

As I mentioned, start by identifying one or two of your most important goals. Then break down these more complex goals into smaller increments to help make them more manageable.

goal setting

Create SMART Goals

What are SMART Goals? SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. The concept was developed by Edwin Locke and Gary Latham in their book, A Theory of Goal Setting & Task Performance, published in 1990.

SMART Goals are the five most important characteristics of goal setting. Those five characteristics are:

  • Specific: Identify what will be accomplished and what exact actions will be taken.
  • Measurable: Choose the data or metric that will allow you to know you are making progress.
  • Achievable: Ensure you have the resources and skills to be successful and that you are creating realistic goals.
  • Relevant: Make sure the task fits your broader goals and is related to your long-term goal, values, and life purpose.
  • Time-bound: Establish a specific timeline for completing your goal and break down your goal into short-term goals with their own timelines.

SMART goals are challenging goals but they are also realistic goals so you can actually attain them. They are within reach, but you need to stretch and discipline yourself to achieve them.

People who make specific and challenging goals that have a target completion date are much more likely to achieve them.

6 Extra Tips For Setting Yourself Up For Success In Goal Setting

To set yourself up for success once you’ve established your SMART Goals, consider these bonus tips that will help you to stay engaged and excited about your future success.

Align Your Environment With Your Goals

While we like to believe we can simply will ourselves into good behavior, we may often make quick decisions based on our surroundings. Set yourself up for success by creating a physical environment aligned with your goals.

Remove distractions, prepare and organize, create a vision board, and surround yourself with positive people and affirming media.

Removing distractions might mean putting your phone in another room to avoid late-night social media scrolling that robs you of sufficient sleep. It could mean removing junk food from your cabinets if you’re trying to eat healthier.

Taking away potential obstacles from your environment will align your habits with better strategies to attain your goals.

Organization and preparation can make your life much easier while helping you meet your goals. Nutrition researcher Anne Thorndike tested The concept of “choice architecture” in a study designed to promote the sale of fruits and vegetables by improving their visibility in corner stores.

The study determined that the higher visibility placement of fruits and vegetables improved sales. Convenience and visibility can help people make better choices.

You might prepare your gym clothes the night before to speed up the morning routine and leave time for a good workout. It could mean getting some noise-canceling headphones to help keep you focused in a noisy office. Or keep the floss next to your toothbrush, so you remember to floss your teeth.

Creating a vision board helps you visualize what you wish to accomplish and keep those goals in mind. In her book, The Source: The Secrets of the Universe, The Science of the Brain, neuroscientist Tara Swart says that vision boards (or action boards) prime the brain to recognize an opportunity.

Additionally, our brains assign a higher value to images than the written word, meaning a vision board can add to the impact of a written “to-do list.” The more we see the images on our vision board, the more important they become in our minds.

Engage with positive people and media to help keep you motivated. Scroll past the doom and stop for positive images, music, books, and inspirational stories that will keep you focused on the good you wish to achieve.

Analyze Your Goals Every Day

Take stock of your progress by analyzing your progress each day. Analyzing your goals can include measuring specific activities, progress toward your goal, and outcomes.

Did you complete the activities you had intended? Were your goals realistic and achievable? Did your goals today bring you closer to your long-term ambitions?

Tracking daily progress and making appropriate adjustments will help keep you focused and reinforce the good goal-setting habits you’re building.

If you have yet to achieve all you set out to do during your day, consider how you might offer more attention to your goals tomorrow.

You have to set goals that are almost out of reach. If you set a goal that is attainable without much work or thought, you are stuck with something below your true talent and potential. – Steve Garvey

Add Your Goals To Your Daily Planner

You are more likely to reach your daily goals if you plan your day in advance. Whenever possible, set a specific time, duration, and place where you will accomplish your goal.

You may use an online daily planner that can alert you of upcoming tasks, but if you like to keep things analogous, get a planner that gives you space to plan your meetings and tasks each day.

Set A Maximum Limit On Your Goals

More is not always better. Set some maximum limits to your goals each day. For example, you may want to make at least 15 sales calls each day, but you should also set an upper limit of outbound calls you’ll make to avoid burnout and maintain balance.

Develop The Skills You Need To Achieve Goals

Achieving your goals requires skills that may take time to develop. To be successful, you’ll need to manage your time well, display self-discipline, be flexible, and adapt to new challenges.

Say “no” when necessary, and persevere when you face new challenges. Take the time to develop soft skills like time management, work ethic, problem-solving, and flexibility as you lean into your goals.

Reward Your Successes

Achieving a goal is something to celebrate. Don’t be shy about rewarding yourself when you successfully reach a goal. Alternatively, there is no benefit to punishing yourself when you are unsuccessful. Stay kind to yourself and focus on the positive progress you are making over the long term.

The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do. – Steve Jobs

Set Yourself Up For Success In Your Goal-Setting Journey

You are already one step closer to achieving your long-term goals just by reading articles like this. The proven goal-setting strategies we have outlined above offer you a blueprint for successfully reaching your goals.

To help you get started right now, download my 14-Step Goal Setting Guide. Begin your personal goal-setting journey so that you can start creating the life you’ve been dreaming of.

goal setting

About Brian Tracy — Brian is recognized as the top sales training and personal success authority in the world today. He has authored more than 60 books and has produced more than 500 audio and video learning programs on sales, management, business success and personal development, including worldwide bestseller The Psychology of Achievement. Brian's goal is to help you achieve your personal and business goals faster and easier than you ever imagined. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Linkedin and Youtube.

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