How to set goals that work
You know you’re supposed to set goals, but you don’t know how to set them so that they actually work.
Maybe you tried it out a few times, but it didn’t work out.
That’s okay, you didn’t see the whole picture, so it’s not surprising that you didn’t succeed.
If you want to find out how to set goals that work, read on:
- Why set goals in the first place
- Why goal-setting is misunderstood → different types of goals
- Where to have goals
Let’s dive in.
Why set goals?
In the past, the “best advice” to be productive was to set goals.
But goal setting isn’t defined well. Everyone imagines something else. There are different types of goals. In which areas of life should you set goals? And how? This makes people confused.
People struggle with goal setting. Usually, even if they define a goal, they soon abandon it when life gets in the way.
Out of frustration, people came up with a new thing and that is habits... Don’t set goals, just have a good system in place. We are what we do every day. We’re in the chains of habits...
That sounds good in theory but it can lead to people getting a participation trophy just to feel good about themselves, without actually making real progress. I meditated for 5 minutes, hooray!
Now, doing something for 5 minutes is okay if you’re struggling and you’re just starting out. It is probably the only way forward because you don’t get overwhelmed with small steps and can start feeling like you’re making progress.
Doing something for 5 minutes is also okay if you just want to feel good about yourself, or you don’t care about performance at all.
However, this is not okay when you care about performance, want to actually improve, and want to achieve something.
If you’re a little bit more advanced in your self-development journey and want to ensure you will keep moving forward, goals are vital.
Goals direct attention and effort, both behaviorally (what you do) and cognitively (what you think about).
When you don’t have a goal, it’s hard to focus… so you spread out your attention between many different things.
When you have a goal, you start deliberately developing a plan to reach the goal, and even when you aren’t working, your mind will naturally drift towards the goal and how you might accomplish it.
Another advantage of goal-setting is motivation. When you start moving towards a goal, it sparks your motivation. This is especially true with goals that are difficult and challenging. When you see you’re succeeding, it makes you want to do more.
The only possible downside of goals is that they give you responsibility. This is a double-edged sword and also a reason why most people avoid setting goals. Without goals, you can be fuzzy about reality. With goals, however, you know how you’re standing. You know when you’re failing and you know when you’re succeeding. Most people don’t like that because that would mean being honest with themselves. Ignorance is bliss.
However, when you’re succeeding, you can get momentum going and your self-confidence goes up.
All in all, goals are super beneficial and should be used by everyone who wants to keep improving.
So first, let’s understand what the different types of goals are and what they’re good for. Then we’ll go into where to set goals and where not.
Why goal setting is misunderstood
Goals can mean many different things, so that’s why people get confused and struggle with goal-setting. There are different types of goals:
- Process goals
= What you do on a day to day basis
- Performance goals
= To check whether you’re on the right track
- Outcome goals
= Big, end of process goals that are your major targets of success
- Ultimate outcome goals
= What is the ideal, what you want to achieve
= What you do on a day to day basis.
This is the most important type of goal because this is where progress happens.
Process goals encompass the daily execution: intentions, discipline, and if you pursue them long enough, they develop into habits.
Imagine, you want to learn to play guitar, the process goals would be following:
Learn 2 new chords per day
Practice all the previous ones
This is what other people call system or habit building - but you don’t necessarily need to build a habit. What is the point of a habit when it’s a temporary behavior (attending a workshop, changing room decor,...)?
Habits are good in cases where you plan to do the thing for the rest of your life. Back to our example of playing guitar. Learning new chords all the time wouldn’t get you closer to being a good guitar player. It’s similar to learning new vocabulary instead of learning the logic of the language, grammar, and actually practicing the language.
So process goals can become habits when A) you want to do the thing for the rest of your life, and B) the habit gets you closer to your ultimate outcome goal.
Sometimes, process goals aren’t the only thing that is necessary. This is based on two factors:
- Whether you’re improving or just maintaining your current state.
- How well explored the area is
Let’s go through 3 different areas:
1. Brushing your teeth
A: You’re in maintenance mode.
B: The area is pretty well known… you know that brushing your teeth two times per day and flossing will take care of it.
If you have established process goals, you’re good. Additionally, most of us have a performance goal (dentist check-up twice a year will make sure you’re on the right track).
2. Learning new language
A: You’re trying to improve.
B: The area is less well explored - there aren’t steps that you could take in an exact correct order.
With just process goals, you’re risking that you will get stuck. Learning vocab, grammar, and practicing it regularly will probably get you somewhere. However, without tests and conversations (both count as performance goals), you can overlook mistakes and learn something badly.
3. Seasoned runner trying to advance further
A: You’re trying to improve.
B: You’re on the edge of knowledge.
Having only process goals won’t ensure progress at all. Without having performance goals and outcome goals in place, you will probably plateau and won’t progress.
You can have all the other types of goals perfected but without doing things on a day to day basis, no progress will happen. So spend most of your effort and energy here and don’t overthink the rest.
= To check whether you’re on the right track. Often described as milestones.
Performance goals don’t get you closer to your goal, they’re just there to see if you’re on the right track.
A dental check up won’t make your teeth healthy.
Weighing yourself 3 times per day won’t lose weight for you.
Measuring how many words you write per day won’t write it.
People often spend too much time worrying about performance goals. Instead, they could spend their time on process goals.
Performance goals should be:
Back to our guitar example, the performance goal would be:
Be able to play 1 new song per week
Be able to play to strum the new chords 70 BPM
When you fail to meet the performance goal, it gives you feedback. The caveat is that the feedback isn’t always correct because progress isn’t linear and sometimes it takes time to move forward.
Maybe it’s time to adjust your process goals.
The performance goals aren’t always obvious. Especially when the path you’re walking on isn’t linear or well explored.
This is also where most people thinking in systems fail because they get their participation trophy and are on their merry way. Without performance goals, motivation suffers because you have no idea how you’re doing.
Performance goals give you feedback along the journey.
= Big, end of process goals that are your major targets of success.
While performance goals make sure you’re on the right track, outcome goals define where you want to be heading.
Back to our guitar example, the outcome goal would look like this:
- Know how to play 10 new songs in the next 3 months
- Know how to play from a songbook by the end of the year
Other examples could be:
Be able to have a conversation in Spanish in 6 months
Lose 10 lbs by the end of your 12 week diet.
Outcome goals should be challenging but realistic.
If you don’t make them challenging you won’t get any sense of urgency. They won’t get your attention (because you can make them whenever you want).
Urgency can be created by setting a deadline.
If you make them unrealistic like learning 500 new songs in the next month, you will get frustrated and most likely give up.
People often set up unrealistic outcome goals because of impatience and wanting everything by now.
This is often where people look for magic bullets because they don’t want to deal with the hard work on a day to day basis. Process goals are unavoidable. You can only climb a mountain step by step, build a house brick by brick.
Outcome goals are often shared on social media. It’s getting to the mountain top at the end of the journey. This is the most noticeable part of the journey (people lost weight, people got promoted). Outcomes get a lot of attention, but once again they didn’t cause the progress, process goals did.
Ultimate outcome goal and desires
= What is the ideal outcome in our mind, what we want to achieve.
Now let’s take a step back and dig a little deeper into the whole idea of goals.
They usually come out of our dreams and visions and they’re mostly derived from our desires and life needs.
Often, we’re not consciously aware of our ultimate goals because they arise from our subconscious minds. If you understand what it is that drives you to get after a certain goal, it can be a great motivation boost.
However, it isn’t without risk.
When you start to dig deeper, you might realize that the actual pursuit is shallow and you don’t need it.
Maybe you will realize that you’re missing something in your life and there is a better way to fulfill this need or desire. For example, you might feel alone, so you decide that you want to get more followers on social media. However, perhaps a better way to do it might be spending the time meeting new people in real life or developing the friendships you already have.
Or if we get back to our guitar example:
You might say that your ultimate goal is: I want to be able to play the guitar at parties.
But this isn’t the ultimate reason, is it?
If you dig deeper:
I want to play guitar at parties → I want to sociable → a desire to be liked by others
Now, if this still appeals to you, good. Continue. If you realize the underlying desire doesn’t match the goal, a different goal is needed.
Generally, you want to derive your goals from your desires. This isn’t always possible because we don’t always understand what we want.
Your desires also don't necessarily have to be aligned with what is good for you. The desire to eat more sugar and fat causes a significant portion of the population to be overweight.
Reflecting on what you want and why is useful. It can save you a lot of time wasted in pursuit of things you don’t really want.
What do you want to do? Why?
When you have an answer that satisfies you (doesn’t have to be perfect), go from the why back to the what and how of goals.
Process, Performance, Outcome
Now we have the whole basic framework laid out.
Let’s return to our guitar example and it looks like this...
Desire: To be liked by others
Ultimate outcome goal: I can play the guitar
Outcome goal: Know how to play 10 new songs in the next 3 months → Then know how to play from a songbook by the end of a year
Performance goal: Be able to play 1 new song per week
Process goal: Review and learn new 2 chords per day + practice the song of the week
Overcoming procrastination might look like something like this...
Desire: I want to be a responsible human being or I don’t want to feel like a failure
Ultimate outcome goal: I don’t procrastinate on important things
Outcome goal: Get out of a rut in the 2 weeks → Improve my productivity in the next month
Performance goal: Time spent doing important work per day (writing, coding…)
Process goals: Do the important work the first thing in the morning
The next example is less abstract.
Desire: I want to be healthy and I want to look good
Ultimate outcome goal: Be strong and muscular
Outcome goal: Build 10 lbs of muscle this year
Performance goals: Weigh yourself every day in the morning + Increase weights over the weeks
Process goals: Eat in a slight surplus, mostly healthy food and ensure you get enough protein + Go to the gym 4 times per week, ensure progressive overload happens -
Of course, process goals could be more complicated but this is the gist of it. Without having the performance goals (weighing yourself in the morning and ensuring progressive overload - you increase the weights, reps, or sets over the weeks) you have no idea whether you’re getting closer to the outcome goal.
And let’s do one more that everyone can relate to: taking care of your teeth.
Desire: To not be in pain
Ultimate outcome goal: To last with my own teeth as long as possible
Outcome goal: To have healthy teeth
Performance goal: Get a dental check-up twice a year
Process goals: Brush your teeth and floss twice a day.
With the framework defined, the question is: where is it useful to apply?
Where to set goals and where not to
When you hear: YOU MUST HAVE GOALS, there are 1000s areas where you could have goals.
This can immediately overwhelm you and you think you won’t get it right anyway so you give up on trying to set goals.
You don’t have to set goals everywhere. When you do an activity without any goals it’s a hobby… and that’s okay.
You really don’t want to set goals everywhere, because then you’d be spread too thin.
There is a better way.
What about setting one goal? A single clear goal.
What to focus on? Usually, the area that you need to improve in the most. If that sounds too daunting and you might escape this problem instead of solving it. Then what about focusing on an area that seems interesting right now.
To simplify it for you, there are 4 main areas where to invest your effort.
learning a new skill, building your career, improving your financial situation
Fixing pain, building muscle, developing fitness, mobility
Mindfulness, developing a toolbox to deal with anxiety, stress, fears
Family, friends, romantic relationships,...
What matters to you the most depends on the phase of life you’re in. You can temporarily put certain areas on hold but it won’t work forever. In the long run, you have to have all the areas at least on maintenance level, otherwise something will break.
A good question to ask is: In which area are you developed the least?
If you feel you’re underdeveloped in all of them, ask in which area you need to get better at the most right now. If you struggle with procrastination, developing your mental side is probably the most beneficial thing to do at this point in time.
If you’re in college, you have the most free time ever and also you will have the easiest time developing your physique. You also have plenty of time for social development - meeting new people is easy. You can also build good habits when it comes to managing your responsibilities and or dealing with stress.
If you’re entering the working process, you will invest most of your resources into your intellectual development but you can practice your mental development and get a little bit of social development via cooperating with your colleagues. At this time, physical development should be put on maintenance because you will be stressed a lot, so developing it more is unlikely. However, putting it on hold is still unwise because then you’ll wake up 10 years later 20 lbs heavier.
If you already have a career, then it depends on what area is underdeveloped. A lot of people find out that they totally shirked their social or physical area and they’re paying the price. Other people realize that they never developed skills to deal with stress and anxiety and run away from it their whole life. Or they have no idea why they’re doing what they’re doing. They don’t have any philosophy of life.
So in short, pick 1 goal in an area that is most pressing for you right now.
Goals help you focus your efforts effectively. They give you a mission, they help you prioritize. That’s why it’s worth defining them.
There are 3 types of goals to define.
Process goals are essential. They dictate what you need to do day to day (e. g. write for 1 hour in the morning, eat 3000 calories,...).
Performance goals give you feedback on how you’re doing. They should be objective and measurable: tracking words written per day, weighing yourself,...
Outcome goals give you a concrete milestone to aim toward. Achieving them gives you great satisfaction.
There are also desires and ultimate goals that are sometimes conscious and sometimes subconscious. Reflecting on why you want to achieve a goal can help you realize whether it is actually for you or not.
So, what are your goals?