We’ve all been there: you have a goal in mind, but you just can’t seem to achieve it. You write down important tasks on your to-do list, but somehow, they just never get crossed off. So how do you get from hoping to achieve a goal to actually achieving it? The short answer: goal-setting.

What is goal-setting, and why is it helpful?

According to Susan Ward’s Goal Setting Definition and Examples, “goal-setting is the process of deciding what you want to accomplish and devising a plan to achieve the result you desire.” This involves not only determining what it is you want to accomplish but also designing and following through with a plan to achieve it.

Goal-setting can help you to focus your energy, get organized, and improve your efficiency. It can also improve your confidence, help manage anxiety, keep you on track, and motivate you to finish a project.

Why do so many of us struggle with goal setting?

Goal-setting can be challenging. It’s easy to get caught up in the obstacles standing between you and your goal, rather than focusing on the outcome. Many of us struggle with setting achievable goals—we set a goal that is too large, rather than breaking it down into steps or smaller goals. And sometimes we struggle to achieve a goal because either we haven’t established a true purpose for the goal, or we don’t really believe in the purpose. The bottom line: if you don’t truly believe in the goal, is it really worth achieving? And how will it motivate you?

How do we set goals?

  • When you start goal-setting, it’s important to ask yourself:
  • What can I realistically accomplish?
  • Is this something I really want to accomplish? And why?

There are a few different strategies for setting goals, but two, in particular, stand out: SMART goals and HARD goals. At first glance, these strategies might seem to be at odds with each other, but they both offer essential advice for goal-setting, and they don’t have to be contradictory.

SMART goals are:
S – specific; that is, clearly defined;
M – measurable, so that you know when you’ve achieved it;
A – agreed upon; that is, all involved parties are on board with the goal;
R – realistic, taking into account motivation, knowledge, and resources available;
T – time-bound, with enough time to achieve the goal, but not so much that you lose focus.

SMART goals emphasize realism and demand that you be honest with yourself about your own motivation and what you can achieve with the resources available to you. This strategy is often used for setting smaller, task-related goals, but it is also helpful for setting broader life or career goals.

HARD goals are:
H – Heartfelt; what are your reasons (intrinsic, personal, or extrinsic) for wanting to achieve this goal? Think bigger picture.
A – Animated, with a clear picture of what life will be like after this goal is achieved; what do you imagine yourself doing?
R – Required; what needs to happen in the next week or month to accomplish this goal, and what steps can you take right now?
D – Difficult; what challenges you about this goal? What skills do you have, and what skills do you need to develop to be able to achieve this goal?

HARD goals emphasize challenge, growth, engagement, and performance. This strategy can be especially useful in the context of life and career goals, but it can also be applied to smaller task-related goals.

Making a plan and implementing it

To make an effective plan, it can be helpful to break the main goal down into chunks. Start by brainstorming what specific tasks need to be completed to achieve your goal. You can even break these tasks down further into smaller tasks. Think about how long each task will take and set deadlines for yourself. This will help you create a timeline for achieving your goal. Be realistic about how much time it will take to complete each task, and try to be firm with yourself about meeting your deadlines.

When it comes to creating timelines, sometimes it helps to work backward. For instance, if my term paper is due on November 30, I will want to have a full draft finished by November 26, to give myself a few days to revise, which means that I will need to have a first draft finished by November 23, so I will want to have collected all of my references by November 20, the outline should be finished by November 17, and my research question will have to be ready by November 14. If your tasks, like the ones listed here, are sequential, or if they lead into one another, try drawing a flowchart or a mind-map rather than writing a list.

How do you stay on track?

Keeping yourself accountable to your own goals and deadlines can be the most difficult part of goal-setting. This is where many of us lose focus and motivation. There are, however, a number of strategies that can help you to stay on track:

  • Be bold, talk yourself up for motivation and reassurance, and find other people who can spur you on as well.
  • Remind yourself why this goal is important to you. Throughout this process, it can be helpful to remind yourself periodically (or often) what your goal is and why you want to achieve it. This grounds you and provides focus.
  • “You’ve got to want it more than you don’t want it.” Success requires effort. As Connors & Smith explain, “success comes when you hit a tipping point and begin to desire your goal more than you dread the cost of reaching it.”
  • “Ask for feedback” (from Connors & Smith). Requesting honest feedback from a mentor or a colleague forces you to be accountable to others.
  • “Think as if your life depended on it” (also from Connors & Smith). If you give yourself no other option but to achieve your goal, you become a determined and creative problem solver.
  • Be kind to yourself. You might find that you just cannot complete a task in the time you had expected, but feeling guilty will only make you stuck. When you find yourself disappointed in your performance, try reminding yourself “this is where I am now, I cannot change the fact that I missed a deadline.” Then try to break down the tasks even further and reassess your timeline.
  • Be flexible and realistic. You will experience setbacks. When you are putting together your plan and your timeline, it is important to remember that sometimes tasks change, available resources change, or things might take longer than you expect. Your goal might even change, and you will have to find a way to adapt to the new situation at hand.

Measuring progress and “taking stock”

This aspect of goal-setting occurs in several parts and should be built into your plan for completion. First, when you are asking yourself why you want to achieve your goal, consider what successfully achieving this goal will entail. What do you think success will look like? How will you know when you’ve achieved this goal?

Second, when you are setting out the tasks to be completed and assigning deadlines, think about how you will measure the completion of each task. Try to assign measurable units. For example, in writing my term paper, I could ask myself what a complete list of references would look like. Similarly, how do I expect the first and second draft to be different? I might consider a first draft to be complete in point form, with all relevant evidence and discussion listed, while a second draft might be further developed into full sentences and paragraphs.

Finally, after you have completed all necessary tasks, compare what your completed goal looks like now with what you thought it would look like. Reflect on what went well and what could be improved, and think about what you might do differently the next time.

For more on measuring goals, see Janey Osterlind’s Get It Done.

At first glance, goal-setting seems like a lot of extra effort, but having a strategy to follow can help you to be more efficient and effective in your work, and can save you a lot of stress and frustration in the long run. With a little bit of extra planning, a goal that seems out of reach can certainly be achievable.

For more on goal-setting and related topics, visit:

Anxiety BC’s Guide for Goal Setting

MindTools’ Golden Rules of Goal Setting and Action Plans

Will Meek’s How to Set Goals

Mark Sephton’s Four Ways To Hold Yourself Accountable For Success

Tony Jeary’s Measure Your Progress to Achieve Your Goals

Marla Tabaka’s 5 Ways to Achieve Follow Through

James Clear’s The Akrasia Effect: Why We Don’t Follow Through on What We Set Out to Do and What to Do About It

Dartmouth College’s Performance Goal-Setting

Jeff Boss’ 5 Reasons Why Goal Setting Will Improve Your Focus

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