If you’ve ever encountered a difficult time, you know that it can be easy to get caught up in those moments and forget to look forward with positivity towards the future. Suddenly, you look up and find that many months have passed, and you feel let down by yourself and your lack of forward movement. I know, because I’ve been there, too. The simple truth is that it’s so easy to get caught up in the world around you and drop the ball on your personal, professional, and financial goals. But moving forward from any difficult time or bump in the road requires both active, positive intention towards your next goal as well as specific, intentional goal setting techniques. Why? Well, you have to make a point of setting an intention as well as a plan to implement it.
This is especially true for me when the new year rolls around. It’s a prompt for me to shift my way of thinking. You see, ever since I lost my parents, I’ve found the holidays more difficult. But in the new year, I like to take stock of the previous year and think about what I’m thankful for. Then I like to spend some time thinking about how I want the new year to unfold and create my personal road map for the year.
There are so many goal setting techniques you can use to help you figure out your own personal road map. Below I’ve shared some background on three popular and proven methods. I’ve also listed some steps to help you shape your goals, plus ways to help you organize and track them. I hope this will serve as an effective goal setting guide to help you on your path of personal development and wellbeing. Let’s do this!
Our modern ideas about goal setting began to take shape in the 1960s when Dr. Edwin Locke published his article “Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentives.” Later he joined forces with another researcher named Dr. Gary Latham. In 1990, Locke and Latham published “A Theory of Goal Setting & Task Performance,” which detailed five principles to guide goal setting: clarity, challenge, commitment, feedback, and task complexity.
There are now many different goal setting techniques available. While may have heard of some of these before, others may be new for you. Regardless, these three techniques will give you the tools you need to set your own goals and also provide you with some goal setting motivation. If one (or more) of these goal setting techniques appeals to you, I encourage you to explore it further. Remember, your goals cannot be achieved if you do not dive within and set your own expectations. You can accomplish a lot if you simply focus on your plan.
SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. The first of three goal setting techniques, it was first published in 1981 by George T. Doran and has been used by companies and individuals to help set personal goals, drive higher performance, and improve time management. It was then popularized in the 1980s when G.E. CEO Jack Welch implemented it to boost employee performance and job satisfaction.
In a nutshell, this technique advises creating a specific goal rather than using vague language (for example, swimming three times a week versus simply exercising more). You also want to be sure that your goal is achievable and relevant to your situation. So, make your goal big enough to challenge yourself, but not so big that it will likely be out of reach. Take a moment to write down one specific SMART-focused goal before reading the next section. And remember, you can do this!
HARD is another one of the popular and proven goal setting techniques that will help you. Researcher Mark Murphy publicized this technique in 2010 with the publication of his book, “Hard Goals: The Secret of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.” Murphy provides research-driven guidance on how to get outside of your comfort zone to grow. HARD stands for Heartfelt, Animated, Required, and Difficult. According to Murphy, goals must be emotionally driven, attached to a feeling or visualization (imagine how you will feel achieving the goal), involve a sense of urgency, and be outside of your comfort zone. Now, take the goal you set above and imagine what it will feel like when you achieve it. Visualize your success.
Who doesn’t want to try a technique with a fun name like WOOP? NYU researcher Gabriele Oettingen and her team developed this goal setting technique, which is also known by its more academic name, mental contrasting with implementation intentions, or MCII. Backed by 20 years of research, WOOP stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. To use this technique, you first think of your wish or goal. Then you envision the best outcome. Next you identify what is holding you back from reaching your goal. Finally, you come up with a plan to make your wish, or goal, come true. There’s even a WOOP app!
So, now that you have already identified your goal, visualized it, and felt it, it’s time to determine what’s holding you back from achieving it. Be honest here. This is a huge step to actually following through with your goals when times get tough. We all have bad habits we fall back on when times get tough. The key is to notice them so you catch yourself before you fall. And regardless of which of the goal setting techniques presented here that you choose, you're prepared to get started!
Now that you know about some proven goal setting techniques, here’s a list of tips to guide you as you consider your goals and figure out which method you might like to use. Some of these tips tie in with the goal setting techniques above. Others will help you to dig deeper into your goal setting motivation and gain clarity on what you want to achieve and why. Once again, you may find it helpful to get out your journal or a piece of paper and jot down your thoughts as you read through the tips.
As you consider where you want to go next, think about where you’ve been. How have you grown? What have you learned? On the other hand, are there any behaviors or relationships that you need to let go of to move forward? Keep in mind that we all make mistakes in our lives, but it is these “mistakes” that enable you to grow. Perhaps they aren’t mistakes but actually lessons to learn and grow from.
Now that you’ve reflected a bit on how you got to where you are now, it’s time to think about what comes next. And “next” can mean different things. It may mean simply the next area of your life you want to grow. Or it may be time-based, as in by “next month” or “next year.” Take a moment to add a timeline to your written goal. When do you plan to start implementing it and for how long?
Thinking in terms of categories can help you to examine your life in 360 degrees. You can decide on the categories you want to use. For example, you might want to consider goals for the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of your life. Or, you may want to be a little more specific and use categories like health, family, relationships, personal interests and hobbies, spiritual, work, and finance. Think about the categories you would like to address in your life and then write one to two goals in each category.
Personally, each year, I reevaluate three areas of my life and hone in on my overall goals— personal, professional, and financial. Then, I make a specific goal for each one to be accomplished by the end of that year. Every year, I advance my goals further, which results in growth over time.
When you set a goal, think big. By setting your goals a little further than your current ability, you will set yourself up to stretch. This may cause a feeling of anxiety. Channel that energy to help propel you forward. Pushing yourself a little bit beyond your comfort zone will provide enough challenge to keep you motivated while also being realistic. And if you don’t quite hit your goal, that’s OK. Chances are you still will have grown more than you would have if your goal was less challenging. Surprise yourself!
You can start simply by doing one thing you wouldn’t normally do. Maybe you want to speak in front of people, introduce yourself to a stranger, or even just put $5 more into your savings each month. A big goal for many people is to turn your electronics off every evening and instead do something with your family or for yourself. Don’t look at your phone again until the morning. Whatever you choose, make sure to push yourself a little.
Writing down your goals helps to make them more “real” and helps you to commit to them. Plus, it’s easier to keep track of your goals this way. It’s also important to be specific. Saying you want to eat healthy is a little vague and doesn’t give you a way to measure your results. But, if you say you want to start eating a plant-based diet and then specify steps to take, such as starting with doing “meatless Mondays” each week for a month, you have made your goal specific and measurable. Keep a journal or perhaps a white board at your desk. Simply seeing your goals in writing each day can help to keep you on track.
It’s important to know why you want to achieve a goal. This provides your intention and motivation. So, when you’re thinking about a goal, think about why it’s important to you. Your goal will have a lot more power if you are pursuing it for a meaningful reason. For example, maybe your goal is to work out more. Why is that important to you? Is it to improve your health? To lose weight? To feel better so you have more energy? The “why” will help keep you motivated.
And this goes for anything in life. Why are you spending energy on someone who doesn’t respect you? Why are you working 10-hour days? If your answer is something that’s positive and beneficial to you, then great. If it’s not, then it’s time to rethink that added stress and let it go.
Are there any pitfalls that may prevent you from accomplishing your goal? Continuing with our healthy eating example, is there candy in your kitchen that you need to throw away, so it doesn’t tempt you? Do you have a habit of getting a donut with your coffee each morning? Think about obstacles that may hinder you as you are working toward your goal and ways to remove them. Remember to consider emotional challenges as well. Many may find comfort in certain foods or activities that aren’t healthy or positive. These challenges can land you in a trap if you don’t learn how to reframe them.
A big goal may seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Don’t let goal setting stress you out! Make your goal manageable by breaking it down into smaller steps, or short-term goals. Small steps can lead to big results. So, again with our healthy eating example, you could start by ridding your home of junk food. Next you could introduce “Meatless Mondays.” Then you could start eating a salad each day and so on. Before you know it, you’ll be eating and feeling healthier. These short-term goals can be milestones on your way toward reaching your long-term goals.
Keep track of each milestone you complete toward your goal. Decide how you will reward yourself when you complete a step. Maybe you will take yourself to the movies or buy yourself a book you’ve been wanting to read. Or, maybe you will take a short trip. Perhaps you’ll take the day off. Think about rewards that will motivate you as you complete each smaller milestone and also consider a bigger reward for meeting your goal.
As you continue to work toward your goals, review them periodically. You may want to review them weekly or monthly. You may find that you need to tweak a goal or make some changes to your milestones. Keep checking in with yourself. Try journaling about your process.
Now that you have some goals in mind as well as some goal setting techniques you can begin using, you’ll want to find a way to keep track of them that works for you. Watching your progress will help you stay motivated. There are many ways you can organize your goals so that you can review them easily. I’ve listed five below. You can follow one or more of these or come up with your own solution. There’s no right or wrong way; do what works for you and keeps you excited about your personal growth.
This is just what it sounds like—list out your goals in a spreadsheet. Then perhaps you may want to list the milestones under each major goal. Add in a column for the date you plan to complete each milestone or goal. You can organize and personalize your spreadsheet in whatever fashion works for you.
Vision boards can be a fun and creative way to keep you motivated toward meeting your goals. First, find images that represent your goals. You can use personal photos or cut out pictures from magazines or print them off your computer. Then attach these images to a poster board and hang it or store it where you will see it. You can also create a vision board on your computer using a graphics program. Add quotes and affirmations for additional encouragement.
Simply write or type a list of your goals and/or milestones and keep it handy so you can review it regularly and note your progress. Mark each one off your list as you meet your milestones and goals.
This one is as simple as it sounds. Put your goals on your calendar to help you stay on track. Mark them off as you complete them.
There’s an app for pretty much anything these days and that’s true for goal setting. If you like to use your phone as a tool to help you stay on track, consider finding an app that will help you reach your goals.