Goal-setting gives you the chance to experience the power of your imagination. Think about it. What you can dream, you can also work towards. Do you feel inspired and empowered already?
Imagination builds cities. Imagination conquers disease. Imagination develops careers. Imagination sets up relationships. Imagination is where all tangible values and intangible values begin. So what you’ve got to learn to do is use this powerful resource.
If you want to succeed, you need to set goals. Without goals, you lack focus and direction. Goal setting not only allows you to take control of your life’s direction; it also provides you a benchmark for determining whether you are actually succeeding.
Goal setting is a process that starts with careful consideration of what you want to achieve and ends with a lot of hard work to actually do it.
Setting goals is like planning a trip
We rarely set out on a journey without a destination in mind, yet most people never set their life goals and seldom plan actions to take them there. Goal-setting sounds dull and daunting mostly because of all the psychological pressure.
- We fear failure. The paradox is: you can still feel that you’ve failed in the end, without setting any goals in your life.
- It’s uncomfortable to make commitments and take responsibility.
- We’re busy most of the time. If we don’t dedicate special time, there’s always something more urgent to take care of.
- When almost everything is possible, it can be overwhelming to make choices.
- We are strongly influenced by media and social expectations, which can override our own needs and desires. So we find it difficult to figure out what WE want from life.
- We tend to do most of the goal-setting of the year at the time when we’re not at our mental best – during or after the holidays at the end of the year.
- We simply take on too much at a time. We don’t prioritize.
- We’re too impatient. We want to see results right away.
- We’re too harsh on ourselves and set unrealistic goals.
- We don’t make the goals concrete enough.
- We don’t have an implementation plan for what happens when obstacles arise.
- We’re reluctant to share goals with others and to seek social accountability.
- We don’t keep our goals in sight and simply forget them as weeks and months pass.
The pull of the future
Life is designed in such a way that we look long-term and live short-term. We dream for the future and live in the present. Unfortunately, the present can produce many hard obstacles. Fortunately, the more powerful our goals the more we will be able to act on them in the short term and guarantee that they will actually come to pass.
When done right goals are like a magnet—they pull. And the stronger they are, the more purposeful they are, the bigger they are, the more unique they are, the stronger they pull.
High dreams pull you through all kinds of down days and down seasons. They pull you through a winter of discontent. They pull you through distraction on every side. A bad day can almost overwhelm you if you don’t have something really purposeful to go for on the other side of that day.
If you’ve got excellent goals, though, they’ll pull you through all these things and very little of it will attach itself to you. You’ll be able to get through some of the most difficult times if you have this spectacular vision ahead of you of where you’re going and what you’re going to accomplish.
Learning to set goals
Learning to set goals can transform your life forever. There is power in reaching out into the future, designing something to the best of your ability, refining it as you go, tearing it up periodically if you want to, setting a whole new list. It’s your life. It’s your future.
So if you’re ready to purposefully visualize your goals, here’s how to do it.
1 – Imagine. From a traveling point of view, this is when you think, “I really want to visit THAT place.” Then your brain starts spinning up images of what you’re seeing and doing. You’re suddenly eating ramen in Tokyo. Don’t ignore those images. Explore them upside down and inside out.
How do you look when you reach your goal? Where are you? Who else is there? How do you feel while doing those activities?
2 – Write it out. It’s been shown repeatedly that those who write down goals are more likely to reach them.
Write down all of your dreams as you have them. Don’t think of any as too outlandish or foolish— remember, you’re dreaming! Let your thoughts and pen fly as you take careful record.
To make sure that your goal is motivating, write down why it’s valuable and important to you. Ask yourself, “If I were to share my goal with others, what would I tell them to convince them it was a worthwhile goal?” You can use this motivating value statement to help you if you start to doubt yourself or lose confidence in your ability to actually make the goal happen.
Use a positive approach – instead of setting negative, avoidance goals that have us working away from certain harmful, averse, or unpleasant outcomes, set yourself positive targets that you want to work towards.
3 – Prioritize. Now look at your list and prioritize those dreams. Which are most important? Which are most feasible? Which would you love to do the most? This is the hard part because most of us like to do a lot of things and come up with a long list of goals.
Take a lesson from the famous investor and entrepreneur Warner Buffett. Buffett wanted to help his employee get ahead in his working life, so he suggested that the employee list the twenty-five most important things he wanted to accomplish in the next few years. He then had the employee circle the top five and told him to prioritize this smaller list.
All seemed well until the wise billionaire asked one more question: “What are you going to do with the other twenty things?”
The employee answered: “Well the top five are my primary focus but the other twenty come in at a close second. They are still important so I’ll work on those intermittently as I see fit as I’m getting through my top five. They are not as urgent but I still plan to give them dedicated effort.”
Buffett surprised him with his response: “No. You’ve got it wrong… Everything you didn’t circle just became your ‘avoid at all cost list’.”
The logic supporting this observation is simple.
- Your highest priority goals return significantly more value per unit of time invested than your lower priority goals.
- In addition, your time and attention are limited.
- It follows that effort invested in your lower priority goals steals effort from your higher priority goals.
- If you spend time on the lower priority goals, therefore, your total quantity of value produced is reduced.
The lesson is particularly vital to our current age as that the behaviors that consume more of our time and attention — e.g., social media, web surfing, chronic networking — often fall onto the low priority end of Buffett’s list of twenty-five.
These behaviors are sold to us with the promise that they offer some benefit (e.g., “you never know, the contact you make on Facebook might end up bringing you new business”) — but they do so at the cost of stealing time from the harder efforts that are guaranteed to return a lot of benefit (e.g., make your product too good to be ignored).
It’s with this in mind that it’s useful to remember Buffett’s caution: Don’t just prioritize what’s most important, but support this prioritization by avoiding everything that’s not.
4 – Vision Board. The key to making the first step towards any goal is to have a strong mental vision. Visualizing builds desire, and desire is the fuel for motivation. If you’re lacking motivation for a goal, it may be time to return to your vision and make some adjustments. Adjust it until it lights a fire inside of you.
This is the point where would-be travelers collect the destination brochures, language learning materials, and possible prices for travel and lodging, even if they don’t have the money or a time frame. Do the same for your goals. Collect the images of what you want to see, who you want to be, and the information you need. Pinterest works great for this, but you can also download images from the internet and store them in a folder dedicated to your goal. If images don’t exist, make sketches.
Some people like to place a map, poster, or collage of where they want to go on their wall. You can find a beautifully designed Vision Board and lots of good insight by Bold Tuesday.
Check out what you need to buy or do to make it happen. It’s okay if you don’t have the money or time now. Usually, once you know what kind of investment it may take, you can often find ways to accomplish what you need at a reduced cost with whatever time you have. Often these discoveries come via serendipity.
If you don’t want to feel rushed, don’t imagine yourself running around doing everything. If you want to feel relaxed, imagine yourself reaching your goal in a relaxed way. What you plan to do and how you do it determines how you feel.
Put the goals to work
- Break your goals down into smaller chunks where possible. This is important for celebrating your wins along the way. Whether that celebration takes place on a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis will depend on your unique aims and the pathway you choose to follow. Nonetheless, research shows that it’s critical for momentum and motivation.
- Set performance, not outcome goals. Set goals over which you have as much control as possible–on your personal performance. E.g., if your goal is to read two books a month, it is pretty much up to you whether you achieve or fail this goal–it is your action. Whereas many outcomes depend on external factors such as other people, the global economy, etc.
- Try the SMART framework. S stands for specific (clear and well defined, the who, what, where, when, how, etc), M for measurable (so you know when you’ve achieved the goal and have to be honest with yourself), A for attainable (research indicates that the best goals are challenging, yet achievable), R for relevant (keeping your goals aligned with the direction you want your life to take), and T for time-bound (you need to set deadlines as it creates a sense of urgency).
- Use mental contrasting – first imagining the positive outcome of your goal in a lot of detail (really going into it) and then, in contrast, thinking in as much detail as possible, about all the obstacles you might encounter. It’s really important to have both sides of the equation in balance: by just looking at the positive, you’re more likely to give up as the first hardships arise, but just looking at the obstacles doesn’t work either – it will just kill your motivation.
- Create if-then plans – our automatic behaviors often mess up our good habits and goals. Here’s where small if-then plans can help you out. Essentially it’s another method of visualizing–imagining the situation where you might run into the obstacle or temptation (e.g. grabbing a pizza when you’re tired and busy), and then imagining doing the right thing that leads you closer to your goal (choosing the salad instead). The point of doing it is mentally rehearsing until this behavior becomes automatic and requires minimum effort and willpower.
- Use your environment for support – create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible, and vice versa, doing the wrong thing takes extra effort (hide those cookies and keep your workout gear at sight, get rid of all distractions if you need to focus, etc).
- Involve others – family and friends can be invaluable, but if you’re looking for more specialized and goal-oriented supporters it makes sense to join a mastermind group.
- Track your progress along the way. Make course corrections when you have to.
- Be ready to fail but don’t let it stop you – the first step is to acknowledge that there will be setbacks and that it’s ok. Then build resilience and think of ways to overcome the obstacles and find alternative pathways.