Smart Goal-Setting

Spending time clarifying my goals and understanding how I would achieve them has played a big role in my own process of growth and development. In my high school and college years, I was rather lazy and not motivated to do much at all. I had always known I was capable of doing something great and people always told me I was smart, but looking at my life you couldn’t really tell that. In 2013 I was working at a job that paid $10/hr, driving a car that was on the brink of catastrophic failure, and I had the looming feeling that something just wasn’t right in my life. If I was so smart and capable, then why wasn’t I accomplishing anything? Why was I wasting all my free time, eating junk food, watching television for hours on end, and failing to make any progress on the mess that was my life? As I began to hunt for answers to these questions, I started to see that part of the solution lie in training my brain to think about and anticipate the future. I spent hundreds of hours doing goal-setting workshops and writing programs, each one offering an inch of forward progress on my long trek. I spent countless hours thinking about the kind of person I wanted to become, making up goals for myself, and trying to enact plans to reach those goals. I failed to accomplish my goals far more frequently than I succeeded. The various goals I set for myself were broad in scope but include personal and self development goals, health and fitness goals, educational goals, and goals for contribution and positive impact on the community. The combination of all my efforts eventually started to pay off. I began to stop wasting precious time, got my finances in order, started to work on skills that would pay off for myself and others, and kept my sights on providing something of value to the world. I realized that I could actually turn my life into one worth living, a life that leaves the world slightly better off than it would have been without me. Ultimately, the process of setting goals can help bring about a transformation in your life, whether it be a transformation in your health, your capacity for creativity, your financial situation, your study habits, or your close relationships.

Why Set a Goal in the First Place?

Professionals across all disciplines set goals and use goal-monitoring processes to track their progress and performance. Writers set daily word or page count goals, athletes set specific daily goals for training, and musicians set daily practice session goals. Students at the University of Toronto at risk for dropping out or who were on academic probation completed a six hour goal-setting activity. The result was a 25% decrease in dropout rates and a 25% increase increase in GPA. A study on widowed caregivers of terminally ill patients showed that “well-explicated goals were related to better well-being at the time of bereavement, and better recovery in the following year.” Many studies have shows connections between goal setting and reduction in negative emotions like depression and anxiety. In my own professional experience as an educator, it is clear that students who are goal-oriented and plan for the future tend to have higher grades, perform better on standardized tests, and make the transition from high school to college more smoothly.

So why does simply having a goal or making a plan neccesarily lead you to a better outcome? As far as I can tell, there are two main reasons why setting goals can be beneficial:

  • Even if the intended goal isn’t reached, attempting to bring about a desired outcome and failing is better than not trying. Even when you make a mistake or fail, you learn something! We can often look back at our most spectacular failures and mistakes, and learn profound and life-changing lessons. When we fail to reach our goals, our brain goes into overdrive: we start to backtrack and find out where we miscalculated or what went wrong, and we begin to pay closer attention to details that previously seemed unimportant. When we fail to reach a goal, your brain has realized (though you may not have realized yet) that you could be wrong or miscalculated at any one of a number of levels of analysis – to stop what you’re doing, pay attention, and use all resources to recalculate is the best course of action. This is called the orienting response, and has been studied now for over a century by psycholgists such as Ivan Pavlov and others. You can see this phenomenon in your own day-to-day experience by paying close attention to your thoughts when something unexpected happens. Let me use as an example getting into a major car accident: you had a simple goal, to drive from point A to point B, when your plan was completely shattered by a careless driver running a red light. What happens next? Your plans are ruined, you definitely won’t be making it to your destination on time. Then, your thoughts start racing, you lose sleep that night, and you replay the scenario over and over in your mind trying to make sense of it. Your friends attempts to calm you down and advice not to worry about a silly accident seem to fade into the general hum and buzz of a frightening and confusing world. At that moment, nothing matters as much as trying to understand what just happened to you. Does this sound familiar? This is the orienting response – your brain is trying to protect you from a situation it wasn’t able to predict. Then, after you have mulled it over for quite a while, there is a detectable moment when your mind has finally pieced it all together, and you can finally take a hugh sign of relief. You can finally rest easy, you don’t feel anxious or panic-stricken anymore, and your body and mind start to relax again. This is often accompanied with a piece of new wisdom, you now understand something about how to avoid car crashes in the future. The saying that “you learn more from your mistakes than your successes” is literally true! It’s better to have tried and failed than to have never tried at all, and it’s better to try with a goal in mind than trying randomly.
  • Once you have a goal or desired outcome, your mind will very naturally start to judge your actions on whether or not they are likely to get you closer to that goal. This is done automatically by the parts of your brain responsible for managing complex tasks, emotions and feelings. Once you set a meaningful goal, you can use that goal to manage your behavior, and it can orient you in a world full of complexity and uncertainty. When your actions are likely to lead to the goal you have oriented towards, you will experience positive emotions like excitement, joy, and meaningful engagement in the task; when your actions are not getting you any closer to the goal, you will epxerience negative emotions like anxiety and confusion. This is a biological response to goal-directed behavior that your brain does for your automatically once you’ve decided upon a goal. This is all mediated by the dopamine system in your brain, which is the system of brain regions that allow you (or don’t allow you) to feel postive emotions. Setting a goal, then, can pretty quickly give us a rough approximation of what kind of things we should stop doing with our time, and what things we should do more of. Once you set a meaningful goal – one that resonates with your interests, potential, and talents – the path forward is obvious because it feels great. When you really understand how to set meaningful goals, acting in congruence with those goals is a huge rush, you can feel your brain releasing dopamine, giving you a boost of positive emotion to remind you that you’re aligned properly. You will also begin to notice that certain actions you take are not aligned with your goals, in fact they don’t represent you as a person at all. When you act out of accordance with your goals, your brain doesn’t give you any dopamine, and you can feel sad and confused. While this inevitably leads to some discomfort in the short term, negative emotions can orient your goal-directed actions and increase the likelihood of long-term feelings of satisfaction and happiness.

What Makes a Goal Great?

So now that I’ve convinced you (hopefully) that setting meaningful, reasonable goals can be a powerful force in your life, how do you go about setting a goal that will actually work? We all know the story of the person who sets a New Years resolution just to backslide and fall off the wagon a few days or weeks later, or the person who works and works and works but never feels satisfied with what they’ve accomplished. These situations can be avoided by setting smart goals. Personally, it took me repeated attempts to get my list of goals narrowed down to a set I really believed in and would actively pursue. It took a significant amount of time to determine what I valued in my life, who I am, what kind of person I wanted to become, and exactly what it would take to become that kind of person. But, once I had gone through this process and set some rock solid goals, I started to see my life in a new context. Rather than seeing myself as the person that never lived up to his potential or couldn’t seem to get his life together, I started seeing myself as a person who really could accomplish all these things!

I have created a simple three-point outline with suggestions for creating amazing goals that you’ll actually follow through on. I have written about each point below; you can also scroll to the bottom of the page for a table containing the condensed version of the process with specific written instruction for each step.

1. Make it meaningful and aligned with your deeper sense of purpose

Choose a goal or goals that are aligned with your life purpose, your larger vision, the big picture of things, or the kind of person you’re really interested in becoming. It’s really hard to get motivated to do something that isn’t aligned with the life you’re trying to live. If you don’t choose goals that are chosen thoughtfully in accordance with your beliefs, values, and your sense of purpose in life, you probaby won’t do them. For example, let’s say you just randomly decide one day you want to become a bodybuilder or mixed martial arts fighter because it sounds nice to be in such good shape. Unless you intend on radically changing your life path and taking on a brand new set of values and beliefs then you probably won’t actually go through with the difficult training programs required to make this goal a reality. You haven’t chosen a goal that is realistically aligned with your character, and you’ll end up wasting precious time and then feeling guilty for not meeting your own standards.

This condition of pursuing a goal that doesn’t lead you where you want to go leads to cognitive dissonance in the mind. Cognitive dissonance is the simultaneous holding of two or more contradictory beliefs, and is generally felt as an uneasy feeling in the gut. When that voice in your head starts telling you that you’re not doing what you know you should be doing and you can’t make it stop – that is cognitive dissonance. The person who set a New Years resolution to eat more consciously to take care of their health or to lose weight, but then finds themselves sitting in a fast food restaurant on January 15th stuffing their face with a triple decker burger and fries is experiencing cognitive dissonance. The student who decided she was going to start studying everyday and really work on improving her grades, but instead of studying just continues going out every night to hang out with friends is experiencing cognitive dissonance.

If you’ve ever experienced cognitive dissonance, then you know that it can evoke emotions of confusion, frustration, anger, and a deep dissatisfaction with ourselves. While it might be true that you need to work on living a more disciplined life, and I don’t want to overlook the value of discipline, it could also be that you’re just not setting goals that are aligned with your deepest sense of purpose. Does this describe you? Do you find yourself failing to pursue goals that seem like they would be good for you/improve the quality of your life? Let’s assume for a moment that you are in this category, and you can’t seem to stick with the goals that you set for yourself. Try working from the “ground-level” upwards, starting with trying to understand your deeper sense of purpose first and set goals that align with that later on. Understanding the kind of person you want to become, the kinds of things you really value, the types of people you’d really like to be around, can help determine what goals will be relevant and necessary to life your life. Once you know what kind of person you want to be, setting meaningful short and long-term goals to help you get there will be easy, obvious, and really exciting!

Common Pitfall: It is easy to mistake someone else’s ideas for your own. Thinking things through seriously takes a lot of energy, so we usually just settle for someone else’s recycled ideas and call them our own. Spend some time asking yourself if the goals you’re pursuing really reflect your own authentic desires, your own vision for the good life, what you want most out of your experience? If you continually set goals that you don’t end up following through with, they’re probably not your own authentic wishes.

Uncovering your life purpose takes some time and serious consideration, but will eventually lead you to being the kind of person who sets goals to accomplish great things. You may even surprise yourself, exceeding your own standards and accomplishing things you had no idea you were capable of. David Goggins, current world record holder for pull-ups, claims that uncovering his life purpose and deeper self helped him accomplish althletic feats that most people still think are impossible. Wim Hof, current holder of dozens of world records, states that his deeper self and sense purpose has always guided him towards self-overcoming and tackling challenges that appear to be impossible. Knowing why you’re alive, what you can do to improve the state of the world, and what inspires you and those around you, can go a long way in helping us accomplish our stated goals.

2. Make it as clear, definite, and measurable as possible

To reduce the cognitive dissonance and be able to move through life with a clear head and heart, it is best to work on setting goals that are as clearly defined as possible. If you can assign to the goal some numerical quantity that you can easily measure, this is even better. What you’re trying to do is take any guesswork out of the equation, you want to make a goal specific and measurable so that eventually you can look back and say with complete confidence that you either reached the goal or you didn’t. Setting a goal that is unclear or unmeasurable can leave you wondering, “Did I really accomplish what I set out to do?” So, instead of leaving yourself hanging like that, set a goal that is easy to measure and easy to decide if you did in fact accomplish. Here is what I mean:

Unclear Goal: I want to lose weight.

This goal is unclear and is not easily measured. If you improve your score on a single reading test by one point, does this count? What do you mean by better? If you try harder but your scores don’t improve, does this count as “better”? Instead, try setting a clearly defined, measurable goal like this:

Clearly Defined Goal: I want to lose 15 pounds.

This goal is more clearly defined. It is easily measurable, and you can tell at the end of the semester whether or not you accomplished your goal.

Making goals that are clearly defined and easily measurable will help make it clear exactly what work will be necessary to achive what you’re trying to do. One reason people avoid setting goals like this is because if they fail, it will be all the more obvious. If you said a vague and unclear goal, then you can make excuses or tell stories to yourself about why you’re not getting what you wanted, why you didn’t accomplish it, why you didn’t need that anywayas – if you’re looking for a way out this can be very convenient. People often prefer to live in the dark so that they never have to fully accept their failures. Failing is uncomfortable, and it is part of human nature to not want to look at that which is uncomfortable. However, if you really want to change your life and move forward with an authentic experience, you have to come to terms with your failures and setbacks. This means not giving yourself an excuse, a story, or a way out, but rather accepting completely when you do fail to reach your goals and then reacting appropriately. Setting goals for yourself that are clearly defined and easily measured can help you with the process of growth and development towards that higher purpose or vision that you uncovered.

3. Make it Time-bound, Create a Definite Deadline

A clearly defined and measurable goal is no help if you never finish it, or procrastinate indefinitely. Make sure you know when you want to get it done, setting yourself a deadline or creating a timeline to help keep yourself on track. Slow and steady wins the race, so I’m not saying you have to set a bunch of goals for yourself and then force yourself to do a bunch of uncomfortable things all at once. Setting deadlines and creating timelines should help you reduce anxiety, break up the work into smaller, manageable chunks that you can complete in a timely manner. Remember our example:

Clearly Defined Goal: I want to lose 15 pounds.

This was a clearly defined goal, and it’s plenty ambitious but reasonable enough that you could probably accomplish it if you put your mind to it. However, I didn’t put any kind of deadline or timeline into place to monitor when that 15 pounds will get lost. I could just tweak it slightly to reflect my timeline.

Clearly Defined Goal With Deadlines: I want to lose 5 pounds each month for the next three months, so that in three months time I will have lost a total of 15 pounds.

This is absolutely crystal clear, isn’t it? I have a clearly defined goal with a deadline. At the end of the three month period I can check in with myself and determine straighforwardly if I have reached the goal. Even better, I have divided the goal up into three smaller chunks, which might help me monitor progress over the next three months. Try setting a deadline when you’re setting your own goals to ensure accountability and measure progress.

Failing to set a dealine is sacrificing some clarity and measurability, and giving yourself the always-available excuse that you just haven’t accomplished our goal yet! It can be convenient of course to have a way out of admitting failure, you want to avoid this if you really want to grow and develop towards the kind of person you really want to become. Admitting that you need to go back to the drawing board isn’t really failure though, it just means you need to start over and try again!

Get out your calendar or timeline (I use the built-in calendar app on my iPhone), take into account all your other obligations such as work, school, and family, and then try your best to set a reasonable deadline. It should be far enough out that you have plenty of time to complete the task, but not so far away that you can procrastinate and put off doing the work for a really long time. If you have no idea how long it will take, asking someone who’s accomplished something similar can be a good ballpark. And remember that failing to complete the task before the deadline isn’t really failure. You can practice this skill of estimating deadlines, and as you set and accomplish many goals over time you can hone this skill. Eventually you’ll get really good at time-management and estimating times for completing common tasks.


So that’s it really, there are three main aspects to consider when going through the goal-setting process: creating goals that are aligned with your core principles and ideals, clarifying those goals so that they are explicitly defined and clearly measurable, and setting a deadline by which you want to have the tasks accomplished. Most people do not do this, as I have mentioned already. I think at best, people usually only consider one of these three: it isn’t that uncommon to see people making clear, measurable goals. But considering all three at once will compound your success, clarify to a great degree exactly what it is you’re trying to get done and why, and help orient your actions to achieve that desired outcome. Having a clear, measurable goal isn’t very useful if you end up not even starting because it isn’t aligned with your deeper sense of self, or it takes so long to complete that it has become irrelevant.

If you’re comfortable with my three step process and find that you want to elaborate on it feel free! You can use this template to heirarchically stack multiple goals or pursuing more complex projects. You could add sub-steps to further clarify, align, or create deadlines. After undertaking this process several times, you could add a fourth step to reflect back upon your successes and failures and tinker with the process as you see fit.

Setting Meaningful Goals – A Three Step Summary

Step 1: Alignment with your own Sense of PurposeThree Questions to write about:
1) Who are some people you automatically admire? They could be business, spiritual, or political leaders (or someone else that came to mind automatically). Just write down a list of several people you really think are exceptional beings.
2) What about those people do you admire? What kind of qualities or character traits do they have that you really appreciate and find inspiring? Write down, next to each name you picked for question 1, what traits or qualities about those people that you find admirable.
3) Look at your list of traits, and pick some that you want to see more of in yourself. These traits that you automatically admire in others, they are your own unconscious ideal of yourself – deep down you love and admire these traits because you want to embody them in your own life. Write for a couple of minutes about the qualities you want to foster in yourself, those characteristics that would help turn you into an authentic, powerful, competent human being that others would automatically admire.
Step 2: Clarify, Define, QuantifyRefine your traits and qualities into clearly defined, quantifiable goals. So you want to be more honest, industrious, creative, or you want to care more about the work you’re putting in at school/the office? This is great! Now you need to distill all these character traits into something more closely approximating an actual goal. See if you can turn each admirable trait or characteristic into a measurable, accomplishable task or set of tasks. For example, if you really like Elon Musk because of how innovative and productive he is, try and define some parameters that would help guide you to becoming more innovative or productive, like the creation of one useful product, article, or video. It’s wonderful to desire more creativity or innovation from yourself, but if we don’t tie it back to measurable quantites, we might keep ourselves in the rat-wheel of “never quite good enough.” This step will help to ground your lofty ideals into something clearly defined you can actually measure: you will be able to say at the end of the process that you made something that somebody could get some value from, or you didn’t. You’re taking the guessing out of the equation, and writing a set of clearly verifiable statements to yourself about what you’re trying to accomplish.
Step 3: Create a Deadline, or TimelineNow that you have something you want to get done that is clearly defined and measurable, the last step is to decide when you want to get it done. For each of your clearly defined and measurable goals, think about when you’d like to get them done and write that down. In some cases you’ll want to leave yourself more time that it’ll take, in the event you run into some setbacks or unforseen circumstances. This can be especially true if you’re trying something new, and out of your comfort zone. In any case, you want to set clear deadlines, and create a timeline if necessary, so that at the end of your process you can say whether or not the task was accomplished in a reasonable amount of time. If you set no deadline, you’re sacrificing some clarity and measurability for the convenience of not having to admit when you’ve fallen behind or failed. If you never set a deadline for yourself, you can always say “well, I just haven’t accomplished it yet!” For each goal you clarified in Step 2, create a deadline or time period in which you want to have the task completed.

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