How to Set Goals

Co-authored by Trudi Griffin, LPC, MS

Updated: January 8, 2020

Explore this Article Setting Achievable Goals Practicing Effective Goal Strategies Article Summary Questions & Answers Related Articles References

Whether you have small dreams or lofty expectations, setting goals allows you to plan how you want to move through life. Some achievements can take a lifetime to attain, while others can be completed in the course of a day. Whether you're setting broad overarching goals or planning specific manageable goals, you'll feel a sense of accomplishment and self-worth. Getting started can seem daunting, but you can build up to even the loftiest dream.

Setting Achievable Goals

  1. 1
    Determine your life goals. Ask yourself some important questions about what you want for your life. What do you want to achieve: today, in a year, in your lifetime? The answers to this question can be as general as "I want to be happy," or "I want to help people."[1] Consider what you hope to attain 10, 15, or 20 years from now.
    • A career life goal might be to open your own business. A fitness goal might be to become fit. A personal goal might be to have a family one day. These goals can be incredibly broad.
  2. 2
    Break the big picture down into smaller and more specific goals. Consider areas of your life that you either want to change or that you feel you would like to develop with time. Areas might include: career, finances, family, education, or health. Begin to ask yourself questions about what you'd like to achieve in each area and how you would like to approach it within a five year time frame.[2]
    • For the life goal “I want to be fit,” you might make the smaller goals “I want to eat more healthily” and “I want to run a marathon.”
    • For the life goal “I want to open my own business,” the smaller goals may be “I want to learn to manage a business effectively” and “I want to open an independent book store.”
  3. 3
    Write goals for the short term. Now that you know roughly what you want to accomplish within a few years, make concrete goals for you to begin working on now. Give yourself a deadline within a reasonable time frame (no more than a year for short-term goals).
    • Writing your goals will make them harder to ignore, consequently making you accountable for them.
    • To become fit, your first goals may be to eat more vegetables and to run a 5k.
    • To open your own business, your first goals may be to take a bookkeeping class and to find the perfect location for your bookstore.
  4. 4
    Make your goals smaller steps that move you towards larger life goals. Basically, you need to decide why you're setting this goal for yourself and what it will accomplish. Some good questions to ask yourself when figuring this out are: does it seem worthwhile? Is now the right time for this? Does this match my needs?[3]
    • For example, while a short-term fitness goal might be to take up a new sport within six months, ask yourself if that will help you reach your bigger goal of running a marathon. If not, consider changing the short term goal to something that will be a step towards meeting the life goal.
  5. 5
    Adjust your goals periodically. You may find yourself set in your ways concerning broad life goals, but take the time to re-evaluate your smaller goals. Are you accomplishing them according to your time frame? Are they still necessary to keep you on track towards your larger life goals? Allow yourself the flexibility to adjust your goals.[4]
    • To become fit, you may have mastered running 5K races. Perhaps after you have run a few and worked on improving your personal best times, you should adjust your goal from “run a 5K” to “run a 10K.” Eventually you can move to “run a half marathon,” then “run a marathon.”
    • To open your own business, after completing the first goals of taking a bookkeeping class and finding a location, you may set new goals to obtain a business loan to purchase a space and to apply for the proper business licensing through your local government. Afterwards, you can move towards buying (or leasing) the space, then obtaining the books you need, hiring staff, and opening your doors to business. Eventually you may even work towards opening a second location!

Practicing Effective Goal Strategies

  1. 1
    Make your goals specific. When setting goals, they should answer the highly specific questions of who, what, where, when, and why. For each specific goal you make, you should ask yourself why it is a goal and how it helps your life goals.[5]
    • To become fit (which is very general), you have created the more specific goal “run a marathon,” which begins with the short-term goal “run a 5K.” When you set each short-term goal—such as running a 5K, you can answer the questions: Who? Me. What? Run a 5K. Where? At Local Park. When? In 6 weeks. Why? To work towards my goal of running a marathon.
    • To open your own business, you have created the short-term goal “take a bookkeeping class.” This can answer the questions: Who? Me. What? Take a bookkeeping class. Where? At the Library. When? Every Saturday for 5 weeks. Why? To learn how to manage a budget for my business.
  2. 2
    Create measurable goals. In order for us to track our progress, goals should be quantifiable. "I'm going to walk more" is far more difficult to track and measure than "Every day I'm going to walk around the track 16 times." Essentially, you'll need a few ways of determining if you're reaching your goal.[6]
    • “Run a 5K” is a measurable goal. You know for certain when you have done it. You may need to set the even shorter-term goal of “run at least 3 miles, 3 times every week” to work towards your first 5K. After your first 5K, a measurable goal would be “run another 5K in one month, but take 4 minutes off of my time.”
    • Likewise, “take a bookkeeping class” is measurable because it is a specific class that you will sign up to take and go to every week. A less measurable version would be “learn about bookkeeping,” which is vague because it’s difficult to know when you’re “finished” learning about bookkeeping.
  3. 3
    Be realistic with your goals. It is important to evaluate your situation honestly and recognize which goals are realistic and which are a little far-fetched. Ask yourself if you have the all the things you need to complete your goal (skill, resources, time, knowledge).[7]
    • To become fit and run a marathon, you will need to spend a lot of time running. If you do not have the time or interest to devote many hours every week to running, this goal may not work for you. If you find this is the case, you could adjust your goals; there are other ways to become fit that do not involve spending hours and hours running.
    • If you want to open your own independent bookstore but you have no experience running a business, have no capital (money) to put towards opening the business, and you have no knowledge about how bookstores work, or you’re not really interested in reading, you may not be successful in achieving your goals.
  4. 4
    Set priorities. At any given moment, you have a number of goals all in different states of completion. Deciding which goals are more important or time-sensitive than others is crucial. If you find yourself with too many goals, you're going to feel overwhelmed and are less likely to accomplish them.[8]
    • It may help to choose a few top priorities. This will provide you focus when conflicting goals come up. If it's a choice between completing one or two minor goals and completing one top priority, you know to choose the top priority.[9]
    • If you’re working towards becoming fit and you have set the smaller goals “to eat more healthily,” “to run a 5K,” and “to swim 1 mile, 3 days per week,” you may find that you do not have the time or energy to do all of those things at once. You can prioritize; if you want to run a marathon, first running a 5K may be more important to your goal than swimming every week. You may want to continue eating better, because that is good for your overall health in addition to helping you run.
    • If you’re working towards opening your own bookstore, you may need to obtain a business license and be sure you can qualify for a business loan (if you need one) before you begin selecting specific books to carry in your store.
  5. 5
    Keep track of your progress. Writing in a journal is a great way to keep track of both personal and professional progress. Checking in with yourself and acknowledging the progress made towards a certain goal is key to staying motivated. It may even encourage you to work harder.
    • Asking a friend to keep you on track can help you stay focused. For example, if you're training for the big race, having a friend to regularly meet up with and work out with can keep you on track with your progress.
    • If you are getting fit by working towards a marathon, keep a running journal in which you record how far you ran, how much time it took, and how you felt. As you improve more and more, it can be a great confidence boost to go back and see how far you’ve come since you started.
    • It may be a bit more difficult to track your progress towards opening your own business, but writing down all of your goals and sub-goals, then crossing them out or indicating when each one is complete can help you track the work that you’ve done.
  6. 6
    Assess your goals. Acknowledge when you have reached goals and allow yourself to celebrate accordingly. Take this time to assess the goal process—from inception to completion. Consider if you were happy with the time frame, your skill set, or if the goal was reasonable.
    • For example, once you have run your first 5K, be grateful that you've completed a goal, even if it seems small one in comparison to your bigger goal of running a marathon.[10]
    • Of course, when you open the doors of your independent bookstore and you make your first sale to a customer, you’ll celebrate, knowing that you have worked towards your goal successfully!
  7. 7
    Keep setting goals. Once you have achieved goals—even major life goals—you will want to continue to grow and set new goals for yourself.
    • Once you run your marathon, you should assess what you’d like to do next. Do you want to run another marathon, but improve your time? Do you want to diversify and try a triathlon or an Ironman race? Or do you want to go back to running shorter distance races—5Ks or 10Ks?
    • If you have opened your independent bookstore, do you want to work on implementing community events, such as book clubs or literacy tutoring? Or do you want to make more money? Would you like to open additional locations or expand by adding a coffee shop inside or next door to your bookstore?

Community Q&A

Add New Question
  • Question
    How can I carry on trying when I keep slipping?
    Community Answer
    Assess why you're slipping: are you not sticking to your plan, or is your timeline unrealistic? If it's the latter, adjust your plan to something more reasonable. If it's the former, work on dedicating yourself to sticking to your target. Sometimes our plans are thwarted by outside influences, about which there's not much you can do; simply reorient yourself and continue onward. Keep in mind that failure is a part of progress.
  • Question
    What are the benefits of setting up goals?
    Community Answer
    By setting realistic goals, you will be able to achieve them a lot better because you are not setting yourself up for failure; instead you are setting yourself up for success. Also, setting more in-depth goals will make the task easier to accomplish.
  • Question
    Do you have advice for how to set goals to detox from a drug addiction?
    Community Answer
    Use a visionary board, support groups or reading self help books. Stay active and keep focused. Rely on people who support you, not ones who drag you down.
  • Question
    What are other goals I can set at work?
    Community Answer
    Consider improving on your old skills and completing tasks quicker; once you have that down, consider learning new and more challenging skills. You can also think of ways to complete tasks more efficiently.
  • Question
    If I have achieved one goal of coming first in the class, what will be my next goal?
    Community Answer
    it can be improving your grade because coming first in class doesn't mean you are getting the best grade you possibly can. After that, you can try competitions and races in your favourite subjects. You should also strive to stay at number one of your class, as this can change all too easily.
  • Question
    How do I start setting goals in terms of my online business and how to achieve my targets?
    Community Answer
    First of all you have to analyze your situation, starting with the number of your employees and ending with how your clients are treated and how they respond to your services/products. If you want to attract more clients you have to pay attention to the products/services that you offer, the web page should be client-friendly, but also don't forget to promote your business. It all depends on where you see possible improvements in your company.
  • Question
    How can I remember to practice?
    Community Answer
    If you really want to achieve your goal, you will think of it when you need to. Sometimes you forget, but no one is perfect. Also, you can write it on a sticky note and put it in a place you go every day, or put it in as a phone reminder if it is a specific time (i.e., I want to stretch for 10 minutes every day until I can touch my toes). Soon enough, your goal will become your habit!
  • Question
    How do you finish your goals if you never have the time for even one goal?
    Community Answer
    You have to prioritize. If you want to accomplish a goal, you have to make time for achieving it.
  • Question
    What's the process for starting my own business? What should be my first step?
    Community Answer
    The process for starting your own business includes taking a book keeping class, applying for a loan, looking for a location to lease or rent, purchasing merchandise, and hiring staff. Start with the book keeping class, it will teach you how to budget.
  • Question
    I am lost in my life and don't know what my dreams are. Where should I start?
    Community Answer
    Mistakes do happen, sometimes with our knowledge and sometimes without knowledge. Committing a mistake is not a sin; to not learn from it and not to emerge strong from the mistake is not smart though. Grab the moment, seek guidance if necessary, contemplate on the years that are left in your one and only life. There is always light at the end of the tunnel.
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    • Use the SMART method to create actionable goals. SMART is a mnemonic used by life coaches, motivators, HR departments, and educators for a system of goal identification, setting, and achievement. Every letter in SMART stands for an adjective that describes an effective way to set goals.

    Article SummaryX

    To set goals, make them as specific as possible so you know exactly what you need to do. Also, make sure your goals are measurable so you can keep track of your progress. For example, instead of saying "I'm going to walk more," make your goal specific and say "I'm going to walk 1 mile every day." Write your goals down and log your progress to help keep you motivated. If your goals are long term, break them up into shorter incremental goals so you feel like you're accomplishing things along the way. To learn more from our Counselor co-author on how to choose and achieve realistic goals, keep reading!

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    Article Info


    This article was co-authored by Trudi Griffin, LPC, MS. Trudi Griffin is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Wisconsin. She received her MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Marquette University in 2011.

    Categories: Featured Articles | Personal Goals

    In other languages:

    Italiano: Stabilire i Propri Obiettivi, Espa?ol: establecer metas, Deutsch: Ziele setzen, Português: Definir Metas, Fran?ais: se fixer des objectifs, Nederlands: Doelen stellen, 中文: 设立目标, ?e?tina: Jak si ur?it cíle, Русский: поставить цель, ??????: ???????? ?? ????????? ????, ???????: ????? ???????, Ti?ng Vi?t: ??t M?c tiêu, ???: ????????????, ???: ??? ??? ?, 日本語: 目標を設定する

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