Goal Setting: 4 Tips on How to Set and Reach Successful Goals
Effective goal-setting boils down to key characteristics and mechanisms
Process Goals, Performance Goals, and Goal-Setting Theory for Success
We all set goals. Whether it’s to complete a specific project at work, level up in a personal pursuit, or even just a nebulous New Year’s resolution locked in while we’re still in bed at 11am on January 1st, it feels great to decide to make a change.
But then…crickets. We abandon our goal, or make haphazard progress at best toward achieving it. Then we get frustrated and berate ourselves for failing to meet it. This inaction toward a stated goal can have longer-term consequences for our confidence levels — we fail to see the progress we desire, so we slow down, or worse, give up.
So — why is effective goal setting so hard?
Part of the allure of New Year’s resolutions and other goals we set is the seeming simplicity of the process. Just decide you want to lose five pounds, and then, do it. Right?
Well, actually…wrong! The reality is that effective goal-setting boils down to some key characteristics and mechanisms that make reaching our goals both motivating and manageable.
In fact, the simple goals you’re setting can even be working against you finding success. Continually setting goals that are too ambitious, or outside what you can reasonably be expected to achieve, can be detrimental to your motivation in the long haul. If you wanted to learn how to play basketball, you wouldn’t start by comparing your three-point percentage to Sue Bird’s. You’d start by learning how to dribble (or even…by buying a basketball!).
If you’re like most people, the idea of just learning to dribble might seem too small. But baked into these small tasks are what psychologists call microsuccesses, or small victories that help us mark demonstrable progress. Learning to dribble is more than learning to dribble — it’s a sign that you’re making progress and getting closer to Sue Bird.
So — how do you set goals that are within your reach and that expand your potential?
First, They Should Be Achievable
Achievability is a function of two characteristics: your belief that you can reach the goal, and a clear path to get there. So rather than setting the simple goal of, “I want to be stronger,” you would say, “I want to be able to do 20 pushups four days a week.” Assuming you believe that 20 pushups will make you stronger, you’ve also identified your path — 4x a week.
You can also do this for a skill like public speaking. If your overall goal is to improve your speaking, you could say, “I want to schedule and deliver three smaller talks the month before my big one.”
Next, Break the Outcome Goal Into Smaller Process Goals
This could look like “I’m going to start by doing one pushup a day and adding one more to that number the next day for 20 days.” Process goals are where we really get to see our microsuccesses boost our confidence. And they also allow us to have a more objective metric of progress. If you deliver a great talk, even if your audience doesn’t respond exactly how you want, you can still celebrate a good performance.
For a goal like looking for a new job, you could have the smaller process goals of connecting with three people in your field each week, then asking them to introduce you to three people each. So even if you don’t find a job right away, these connections mean you can be psyched that you’re meeting new people and becoming better known in your field.
Then, Pick Your Performance Goal
Performance goals are tricky, because they can get easily confused with outcome goals. Think of performance goals like mile markers on the highway. They aren’t the destination; rather, they’re clear metrics that we’re making progress. Your process (driving your car) gets you to the performance (hitting the mile marker) which gets you to your outcome (that Chinese food you’ve been craving). In the case of our pushups, a good performance goal would be to get 10 pushups in a row. Once you’re there, it’s clear progress toward your outcome goal of 20.
Finally, It’s Time To Commit!
The fourth element is to assess your commitment to the goal. Why does this matter to you? What underlying values are driving you to follow these process and performance goals? For our strength example — do you want to feel strong so that you can play hard with your kids? Or maybe it’s important to you because you want to place a higher premium on your personal health after years of focusing on stationary work and being “in your head.” The key is knowing how this goal is going to impact you on a deeper level than a chiseled chest.
Two direct questions can help you get to the root of your why and your commitment:
- Why is this goal important to you?
- How will committing to this goal fundamentally change your life and behavior?
Then as you go through the process of trying to reach your outcome goal through your process and performance goals, it’s useful to keep track of how things are going. Did you set your goal at 100 pushups within 5 days, only to realize that was too ambitious? Time to repeat the process with a lower number, more time, or a better process.
Oftentimes, not reaching our goal is as much a sign that we need to revisit how to get there and how we manage the goal attainment process as it is that our goal is too hard. Embracing the complexity of goal setting allows for these shades of gray and the minor revisions that allow us to stay on the path to imagined future.
So next time you want to set a goal, make it achievable, break it down into process and performance goals, and be clear on why it matters to you. This seemingly more complex process will actually yield a more simple result — success.
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