Throughout our lives, we’ve all heard things like “follow your dreams” and “do what you love.” But these approaches to life aren’t possible without setting and pursuing goals.
Even if we don’t realize that we’re setting goals for ourselves, we are. If our progress in life is partly determined by our ability to set and achieve goals, then why don’t we practice this skill more often? It’s probably because we don’t have an effective and reliable process to follow.
Given that, let’s break down the process of setting goals so we can better understand and pursue them.
Step 1: Write Down the Goal
What is it that you want to achieve? The first step in achieving any goal is to identify exactly what you want to accomplish, and then write it down.
Example: I’ll go on a river cruise in Europe next spring.
Step 2: Recognize the Rewards
Once you’ve articulated your goal, consider the rewards you’ll reap by achieving it. Rewards are all the positive things that will become a reality because you’ve reached your goal. These rewards may be related to your physical condition, personal relationships, work benefits, or mental health. Identifying all these rewards will help you mentally justify the importance of the goal, which means you’ll be more likely to do the work it takes to reach the finish line.
Example: I’ll get to relax, see new places, try new foods, and spend quality time with my partner.
Step 3: Consider the Consequences
On the flip side of rewards are consequences. Consequences are all the negative things you’ll experience if you don’t achieve your goal. These are the things that most people wish to avoid, so identifying them will help you realize the importance of the goal. After all, if you don’t achieve your goal, these are the consequences you’ll face.
Example: I’ll regret not going. I may not find a better time to go. I’ll miss an amazing opportunity to relax. I’ll disappoint my partner.
Step 4: Determine the Obstacles
The fourth step in goal setting is determining the obstacles you may have to overcome while you pursue your goal. These obstacles may be external (things you can’t control that come from the outside world). For example, the weather may be an obstacle for an outdoor event. These obstacles can also be internal (things that come from within you). For example, if you often struggle with motivation, that could be an obstacle!
Of all the goal-setting steps in this article, this one is arguably the most important. The more obstacles you identify, the more likely you’ll find ways to overcome them (in the next step), and the better chance you’ll have at reaching your goal. Even though this is one of the most valuable steps, it’s also the most skipped step in the goal-setting process. Why? Well, don’t we usually come up with a goal and immediately jump to how to get it done? Of course we do! This step takes us out of our regular routine of “getting right to it” and makes us pause to consider the challenges. So it’s not natural—and it might take some time to get comfortable thinking this way.
Example: There might be travel restrictions. The trip might be too expensive. I’m not very good at trip planning. I don’t know the river cruise provider options. I don’t have a passport.
Step 5: Brainstorm Possible Solutions
Now that we’ve identified the obstacles that could get in the way of achieving our goal, it’s time to brainstorm the possible solutions to those obstacles. Consider the solutions you could use to resolve the issues you could encounter.
Brainstorming should not be confused with decision-making. In this step, let your mind go wild and think of every possible solution to the obstacles you’ve identified. The more thoroughly you consider solutions, the more likely you’ll come up with brilliant ideas. Don’t just go with the first thing that comes to mind, since that will rarely be your best idea.
Example: I’ll learn how to get travel updates. I’ll save money. I’ll consider travel insurance. I’ll hire a travel agent. I’ll get help with the planning. I’ll get the proper travel documents.
Step 6: Articulate Action Steps
At this point in the goal-setting process, we finally arrive at planning action! It’s time to figure out what to do. We’ve identified what we want to achieve, why it’s important, what could get in our way, and how we could overcome those obstacles. Now, it’s time to decide what to do about it.
In this step, consider the actions you must complete to achieve your goal. Write out the action steps in a simple list that you can follow.
Example: I’ll research the latest travel restrictions. I’ll get travel insurance. I’ll save some of my paycheck every week as a vacation fund. I’ll ask my partner for help with planning. I’ll hire a travel agent. I’ll get a passport.
Step 7: Create a Timeline
To ensure you achieve your goal within an appropriate timeframe, it’s important to identify the due dates for each action item you listed in the previous step. If you must complete those action items in a particular order, this is the time to capture that and set deadlines accordingly. With a well-planned action step timeline, you can confidently achieve your goal within the timeframe you desire.
Example: I’ll immediately start saving some of my paycheck every week. I’ll ask my partner for help with planning by April 3. I’ll hire a travel agent by April 15. I’ll research the latest travel restrictions by May 20. I’ll get my passport by November 15. I’ll get travel insurance by December 5.
Step 8: Ask Others for Help
Many people feel like they’re alone in achieving their goals, but there are almost always people who can help you on your journey. If your goal is professional, you may be able to depend on colleagues or team members. If your goal is personal, perhaps you have a partner, close friend, or family member who can help. This help can come in the form of support, or it can involve delegation. If there are tasks on your action step list that others may be able to do, consider asking for help or delegating to them.
Example: I’ll ask my partner to get travel insurance and my travel agent to book the cruise.
Step 9: Identify a Completion Date
In this step, identify the date you’d like to complete your goal. For some goals, this deadline is given by your employer, or it may be a set date because of a scheduled event. For other goals, your target completion date could be completely determined by you. Choose a date that makes sense for you and your goal, then pursue your goal with that date in mind.
Example: I’ll complete my goal by next spring (the time of the cruise).
Step 10: Craft Affirmations
The final step in the goal-setting process is to craft affirming statements. Unfortunately, many people think this step is a little too “fluffy” and skip it. But science supports the idea of affirmations, and while they may feel uncomfortable or strange, they can be very beneficial.
An affirmation is a statement that you know to be true about yourself or various aspects of your goal, even in times of doubt. People tend to talk negatively to themselves, and affirmations give you space to speak positively instead. Tell yourself things that will increase your confidence and encourage you to pursue your goals, even when you don’t feel like it or you doubt yourself.
Example: I am a world traveler. I can be dedicated to saving money. I’m an exciting partner. I can successfully plan a trip.
By understanding and using an effective goal-setting process, we can set realistic goals and pursue them with confidence. While most of us were never taught these skills in clear and obvious ways, success awaits those who learn and apply this knowledge.
Happy goal setting! May you achieve many great successes.