How to set goals
How to set goals

Setting goals is something many of us do without really thinking about it.

Few of us think of goal-setting as what it really is: a skill. Learning how to set goals (and how to achieve them) takes practice and hard work — and can be made easier by learning the right skills, frameworks, and science-backed methods for choosing and creating goals that are truly achievable.

Becoming better at setting goals takes a good understanding of what goal-setting really means, as well as knowing how to adjust your goals, your behaviors, and even your environment to create the right circumstances for success. Read on to learn everything you need to know about how to set goals — and achieve them.

What is goal-setting?

Technically, the definition of goal-setting is: "the process of identifying something that you want to accomplish and establishing measurable goals and timeframes".

This definition can apply to both short-term and long-term goals, big goals and smaller goals, team goals, career goals and personal development.

The definition makes sense, sure. But productivity experts agree that there's actually more than that to setting an achievable, actionable goal. James Clear, who has written extensively about how to set goals, explains that there are actually 2 parts to every goal: the achievement you want to reach, and the sacrifices you're willing to make to reach it.

"​​Goal-setting is not only about choosing the rewards you want to enjoy, but also the costs you are willing to pay." James Clear

james clear goal setting

For example, it's easy to say: "My goal is to compete in a sport at the Olympic level". But achieving a lofty personal goal like that takes grueling sacrifice. You'll have to dedicate hours each day to training over the course of many years, carefully monitor your diet, work with professional trainers, risk injury, and more — which is why being an Olympic athlete isn't an achievable goal for many people. You may want to be an Olympian, but are you willing to make the sacrifices it takes to get there?

The sacrifices required to achieve a goal can take many different forms:

  • Time

  • Money

  • Relationships

  • Personal habits

When setting a goal, it's important to consider the potential reward, but also be realistic about what you're willing to give up.

How goal-setting affects your brain

It's not often that you meet a successful person who doesn't have any goals. But setting goals isn't just something the most successful people do out of habit — science shows that setting goals and working toward them actually restructures your brain to make it more effective!

How goal-setting affects your brain

An article in Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience Reviews breaks down how setting and working toward a goal works on a brain chemistry level:

  • First, your amygdala (the part of your brain responsible for creating emotion) evaluates how and why the goal is important to you.

  • Then, the frontal lobe (the part of your brain responsible for problem solving) starts figuring out how to achieve the goal, including the next step to take.

  • The amygdala and the frontal lobe then work together, keeping you focused on your goal and guiding you toward activities and behaviors that will move you closer to achieving your goal, while discouraging you from activities and behaviors that might derail your goal.

Here's the really amazing thing that study found: because of its neuroplasticity, the literal structure of your brain changes as you repeat and practice setting and achieving your goals. Over time, your brain becomes more optimized: the amygdala and frontal lobe become more primed to work together, making it easier to achieve more (and harder) goals.

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How to set goals you can achieve

Knowing what we know about effective goal-setting and brain chemistry, we can see that when setting and working toward goals, it's important to strike a balance between the emotional aspect of your goals (why you want to achieve them) and the logical aspect (what you need to do to keep making progress toward achieving them).

smart goals

There are a number of great goal-setting frameworks, but one that encompasses both the emotional and actionable aspects of goal-setting is SMART Goals. In this goal-setting theory, you make sure all your goals are:

  • Specific

  • Measurable

  • Actionable

  • Rewarding

  • Time-bound

Let's look at each of those in a little more detail…

  • Specific: Rather than being vague (such as "I want to get a promotion"), make a specific goal by saying: "I want to be promoted to assistant director of my department by next year".

  • Measurable: In order to achieve your goals, you have to be able to measure them. A good goal isn't something like, "I want to be happy". A better goal would be, "I want to be in a positive mood or state of mind more often than not".

  • Actionable: You must be able to create an action plan, with specific steps you can take toward goal achievement. For the promotion example, the first step might be meeting with your boss to ask about your current performance and see what extra training would be required to help you qualify for the assistant director position. For the positive moods example, the next steps might be to start journaling about your daily moods and practicing being thankful and mindful.

  • Rewarding: It might sound obvious, but your goal needs to be something you want to achieve. Whether it will come with intrinsic or extrinsic rewards, there needs to be a payoff that helps you stay motivated toward achieving your goal.

  • Time-bound: Finally, goals need deadlines. When a goal isn't time-bound, it's too easy to keep putting it off — to say, "I can start working toward that goal tomorrow". Deadlines put pressure on us to work toward our goals, especially when faced with the sacrifice it takes to achieve them.

Part of what makes the SMART Goals framework so useful is that just about any goal can be adapted to fit it — and therefore, made more achievable.

So let's put all the parts of SMART Goals together: let's say my goal is to travel more. That's not a very specific or actionable goal, but it can easily be changed to fit the SMART Goals framework.

  • Specific: I want to travel 3 times more than I have in the last 5 years.

  • Measurable: I will do so by visiting 5 new countries.

  • Actionable: I will start with a trip to Mexico in June of 2022.

  • Rewarding: Traveling is something I love to do, so this goal comes with intrinsic rewards.

  • Time-bound: I want to visit those 5 new countries by the time I turn 35.

By making just a few small changes to a goal, it has now become much more attainable, with clear next steps to make it happen.

Further tips for setting achievable goals

Using a framework is just one way to set yourself up for success when pursuing new goals. But there are many other tactics you can use to make your goals more achievable. Try some of these goal-setting tips to give yourself the best chance of success.

Prioritize your goals

Studies clearly show that trying to accomplish more than one task at a time takes a huge toll on your productivity. That's why it's important to be deliberate with your goal-setting. Try to narrow down your goals as much as possible so you're only focusing on one at a time, if possible.

If you have bigger goals that will take longer to accomplish, one way to better prioritize them is to break them down into smaller, more realistic goals. But even larger life goals can be prioritized—not all goals need to be accomplished quickly.

Break down and outline your goals

Once you've chosen the goal you want to prioritize, the next step is to figure out how you'll achieve it. It can help to brainstorm a series of steps, sort of like an outline or a map toward achieving your goal.

These steps will present the next steps you should take, but they can also act as milestones you use to measure your progress. For example, if your goal is to adopt a dog within the next year, your outline might look like this:

  • Step 1: Research breeds.
  • Step 2: Research rescues and adoption centers.
  • Step 3: Make a budget.
  • Step 4: Purchase supplies.
  • Step 5: Dog-proof your home.

  • Step 6: Visit the shelter and meet some dogs.

  • Step 7: Adopt your dog.

  • Step 8: Bring your dog home.

Stack your goals with existing habits

One way to help remember to work toward your goals is by "stacking" steps toward your goals with other established habits in the same areas of your life. What this means is trying to use an existing habit to trigger a step toward your goal.

For example, if your goal is to floss your teeth twice a day, you can plan to floss at the same time you brush, if that's something you already do twice each day.

If your goal is to go for a walk every day, you can plan to go for your walk at the same time that you go check the mail, if you already do that daily.

The key is having an action plan for your goal, and then finding a way to attach the plan to an action you already perform without forgetting or needing to be encouraged to do so.

Create the right environment for achieving your goals

The next tip is to make sure your environment is as conducive to your goals as possible. Say you have a goal to do 10 weightlifting reps each day. If your weights are tucked away in a closet or the garage, how likely are you to meet that goal? Now consider you pursue that same goal, but keep your weights out next to your desk where you work each day, or beside your bed where you see them when you wake up and before you go to sleep. In which scenario are you more likely to achieve your goal?

When setting a goal, an important thing to consider is whether you're setting yourself up for success through your environment. Making it easy to work toward your goal can be the difference between success and failure.

Use technology to help reach your goal

Our final tip is this: take advantage of technology when you set your goals and work toward achieving them. In today's digital age, there are so many technology tools that can help you take actionable steps toward a goal. For example, you can use GTD apps, or if your goal is to spend less time in your email inbox, Superhuman can help — our customers get through their inbox twice as fast with tools like Split Inbox and easy keyboard commands.

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Remember that using technology to make it easier to achieve your goals isn't cheating, by any means — it's simply making the most of the tools available that can make it easier than ever to meet your biggest goals.

How to measure progress toward your goals

The last thing to consider is how you're going to track your goal-setting process. Measuring progress toward your goals is one of the most important factors when it comes to meeting them — evidence shows that we're more likely to achieve our goals when we can track and quantify our progress toward them.

There are many ways to measure your progress: apps, habit trackers, journaling, or a personal life dashboard, to name a few. Measuring and tracking your progress over time staves off procrastination, and makes you accountable to your larger goals over time.

Further Reading: 17 best goal-tracking apps.

The best way to achieve a goal: start today

With these tips in mind, remember that your most important goals are the ones you're striving for right now. Reaching your goal takes hard work, discipline, and practice, but with these science-backed tips in your goal-achieving arsenal, it'll be that much easier to succeed.