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Goal setting: A guide to setting and achieving your goals

Goal setting: A guide to setting and achieving your goals

Travel more. Lose weight. Get out of debt. Exercise more. Buy a new car. You’ve probably laid eyes on one or more of these goals before — they’re a handful of the most common goals in America. But did you actually achieve them? Better yet, did you put yourself on the right path to achieve them?

This Thriveworks deep dive will help you better understand what goals are, why goal setting is important, and how to set yourself up for success. After reading this guide, you’ll be equipped to get started on those New Year’s resolutions or the goals you set any other time of year.

What Is Goal-Setting? Goal-Setting Explained

Simply put, a goal is something that you’re trying to accomplish. We achieve our goals by making (and sticking to) commitments, which can involve taking both big and small steps toward our target. Setting those goals means that you’ve committed to achieving them, usually by a certain time or date. Goals often revolve around personal or professional development. Here are a few examples:

  • Exercising more often.
  • Journaling for 5 minutes, Monday through Friday.
  • Spending more time with family.
  • Walking for 10 minutes every day.
  • Writing a book by the end of the year.
  • Getting promoted.

You may have noticed that some of these goals are more specific than others. This opens a larger conversation about S.M.A.R.T. goals, which we’ll talk about later.

There are many ways to set and achieve goals, but goal-setting specifically is the process of deciding what changes you want to make in your life and making a commitment to accomplishing them. Sometimes there can be a strict timeline accompanying those goals in order to put pressure on you to do them, and other times that timeline is much looser in order to accommodate how you function and your personal circumstances.

Small Goals to Set for Yourself

A small goal is usually a short-term goal, or something you want to accomplish soon — today, tomorrow, next week, or within the month. These are easier to achieve than long-term goals because they require less time and effort. Here are a few examples:

  • Updating your resume.
  • Applying to three jobs.
  • Putting away laundry.
  • Cleaning out the fridge.
  • Buying a new dishwasher.

Short-term goals can help you accomplish bigger goals — for example, updating your resume and applying to three jobs can help you secure a new job or career (a long-term goal). Or, they can simply serve as a roadmap or motivation for what you want to achieve quickly.

Why Is Goal Setting Important?

Goal setting and achieving are important because 1) it motivates you to turn the visions you have for yourself and your life into reality, and 2) it can lead to feelings of fulfillment (when you make progress toward your goals or achieve them), which is beneficial to your mental health. 

Here are a few additional benefits of goal setting:

  • It offers direction for the destination you’re trying to reach.
  • It gives you a life purpose.
  • It empowers you to create healthy habits and routines.
  • It provides a clear focus to spend your time and energy on.
  • It leads to greater productivity.
  • It helps you understand what’s important to you in life.
  • It holds you accountable for what you want and plan to achieve.
  • It guides your decision-making process and empowers you to make better decisions.

What Are the 3 Types of Goals?

Goals can be divided into three categories: outcome goals, process goals, and performance goals. Here are quick definitions and examples for each:

  • Outcome goals focus on the results you want to achieve. For example: “My goal is to get a raise by the end of this year,” or, “My goal is to lose weight in the next 6 months.”
  • Process goals aim to implement or achieve specific processes. These goals can contribute to achieving your outcome goals. For example: “I’m going to be the first to work each morning and the last to leave,” supports the outcome goal above to get a raise by the end of the year. And, “I’m going to exercise for 30 minutes each morning before breakfast,” supports the outcome goal to lose weight. Accomplishing process goals are largely in your control and come down to following through with the given action.
  • Performance goals are results-oriented and set the standard for your process goals. For example, “I’m going to get a 5% raise by the end of the year,” or, “I’m going to lose a pound a week to reach a total of 26 pounds in the next 6 months.”

If you accomplish your process goals, you have a good chance of reaching your performance and outcome goals, too.

What Is the Science Behind S.M.A.R.T. Goal Setting?

The goal-setting theory, developed by American Psychologist Edwin A. Locke, says that setting goals that are specific and measurable leads to greater success than setting unclear or broad goals. Locke debuted his theory in an article titled “Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentive” about how clear goals and constructive criticism can best motivate employees. 

The goal-setting theory outlines five main principles of creating effective goals, which share certain components with S.M.A.R.T. goals:

  1. Clarity: First, goals should be specific (which we’ve established many times now). This minimizes the risk of misunderstanding a goal.
  2. Challenge: Goals should be relatively challenging. If a goal is too easy, you might lose interest, or you might not reap the benefits that come from working toward and accomplishing your goals (sense of fulfillment, greater productivity, life purpose).
  3. Commitment: You should feel invested in your goals. You’re more likely to give up on your goals if the commitment isn’t there. 
  4. Feedback: You should obtain feedback to maintain momentum and stay on track to achieve your goals.
  5. Task complexity: Your bigger or long-term goals should be broken down into smaller goals that are more easily achievable. Once a smaller goal is achieved, the overall progress should be reviewed.

This theory was the basis used by George Doran, Arthur Miller and James Cunningham to create S.MA.R.T. goals, which are explained below. 

What Are S.M.A.R.T. Goals?

Smart goals, or S.M.A.R.T. goals, are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.

  • Specific: To make your goal specific, define the who, what, when, where, and why. Who is involved? What do you want to achieve? Which requirements must you be aware of? Where will your goal take place? Why do you want to accomplish this goal?
  • Measurable: To make your goal measurable, ask and answer questions like how much or how many? For example, if your loose goal is that you want to save money, consider how much money you want to save.
  • Attainable: To make your goal attainable, consider whether your goal is realistic. You don’t want it to be too far-fetched but, you also don’t want it to be too easy. Your goal is attainable if you know how you can accomplish it and have the means to do so.
  • Relevant: To make your goal relevant, choose a meaningful goal — one that will make a real difference in your life. It should be worth your time and effort and offer some (if not all) of those goal-setting benefits we talked about earlier. 
  • Time-bound: To make your goal time-bound, you have to decide when you want to achieve your goal and/or how much time it’ll require.

Creating goals with these five requirements in mind enables you to set goals you can actually achieve.

Which Comes First, Goal Setting or Planning?

The first step is goal setting—deciding what you really want to accomplish. As we mentioned earlier, most goals revolve around personal or professional development. You might also create goals around your finances, your spirituality, or your relationships. Once you set those goals, then you can begin planning how you would like to achieve them.

If you’re struggling to narrow in on a specific area of your life, take a look at the Wheel of Life. The Wheel of Life categorizes your life into a few major areas:

  • Health, which encompasses your physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.
  • Relationships, which focuses on the health of your interpersonal relationships.
  • Spirituality, which is the driving force behind your life or purpose.
  • Finances, which is about your ability to manage money — save, invest, budget.
  • Career, which engulfs your happiness and success at work.
  • Personal Growth, which relates to your personal capabilities, progress, and satisfaction.
  • Fun and Recreation, which is all about engaging in activities that contribute to a happy life.

Now, simply evaluate your current level of happiness and fulfillment in each area. Maybe you feel pretty good about your health and your relationships, but your finances could use some work.  Or, maybe you feel like you’re nailing personal growth, but you don’t feel very happy or fulfilled in your career. If there’s a certain area or multiple areas that are lacking, those are great areas to build your goals around. 

If instead, you feel pretty good about each major area of your life, you’ll have to do some more digging. Pick any given sector of the wheel and push yourself to see through your strengths to your weaknesses. For example, even if you feel good about your health — you eat well, you exercise often, and you receive a good bill of health from your doctor each year — consider how you could improve further. For example, you might benefit from picking up a mindfulness practice or another activity that helps you better manage anxiety. Now, you have some building blocks for your goals.

What Are the 6 Steps in Goal Setting?

We’ve talked about the concept of S.M.A.R.T. goals and outlined the first step in goal setting, but what comes next, and what about after that? Here are a few additional tips for creating and accomplishing your goals:

  1. Decide what you want to accomplish. Narrowing down your goals and making them specific will help you stay focused on what areas you want to work on and how you want your life to change.
  2. Turn your goals into habits. Science tells us that habits and goals are processed differently by the brain. And these differences make it easy to neglect our goals but less likely to forget about our habits. So, think about your goals a little differently: Work them into your day-to-day routine, carving out specific times to engage in the activities that’ll help you accomplish them.
  3. Put yourself in the right physical space to achieve the right headspace. Your brain associates certain surroundings with specific activities. This is why you’ve probably been advised not to work from the couch or from bed — because your brain doesn’t associate these two places with work but with relaxation, which means you probably won’t be as productive there. Consider what environment is optimal for achieving your goals and then stick with whatever drives results.
  4. Break your big goals into smaller, digestible pieces. If your goal is to save money, break that down into smaller goals you can accomplish each day or week. For example, moving X amount of money into your savings account every Sunday night or capping your coffee budget at X amount a day. Every time you accomplish one of these smaller goals, your brain will release dopamine, also known as the “feel-good hormone,” which will motivate you to keep going. 
  5. Don’t tell anyone else about your goal. You’ve probably heard about accountability partners — but we’re suggesting keeping your goal to yourself. A study published in the Journal of Psychological Science found that telling other people about your goal can lead to a premature or incomplete sense of accomplishment. If you keep your goal under lock and key, you might have a better chance of sticking with it.
  6. Make your goals enjoyable. If the journey is unbearable or boring even, you probably aren’t going to accomplish your goals. You have to make it fun and worthwhile. For example, if you aren’t a morning person, you’re going to dread waking up at 4 am to get your daily workout in. But if you’re a night owl, you might look forward to hopping on your Peloton at 8 pm while the latest episode of your favorite show airs.

What Are the Best Practices for Goal Setting?

Goal setting is most effective when goals are specific and measurable. You should set goals that will help you live a happier, healthier, or more fulfilling life. As we discussed earlier, the first step to setting goals is assessing your current life satisfaction and determining which areas might need improvement. Doing this might lead to your setting goals around personal development, finances, relationships, physical health, spirituality, career, or even fun and recreation. 

What Do You Do When Goals Are Not Achieved or Too Challenging?

If you don’t achieve your goals because they’re too challenging or otherwise, reinvent them — turn them into achievable goals using the tips in this article. While it can be discouraging not to accomplish your goals as desired, there’s always next time. Plus, the lessons learned from your previous go-around will help you find success on the next.

Not to mention that every single one of us has failed to accomplish a goal at some point in our lives. Whether we set a loose goal to journal more at the beginning of a new year or we configured a plan to lose weight that just doesn’t work. Failing to accomplish our goals because they’re too challenging and abandoning the ones that don’t serve us well are all part of the journey.

  • Clinical reviewer
  • Writer
  • Update history
Emily Simonian
Emily Simonian, M.A., LMFTHead of Clinical Learning

Emily Simonian is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) who has direct training and experience working with family and relationship issues, as well as working with individuals. She also specializes in treating stress/anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, as well as self-esteem issues and general self-improvement goals.

Picture of woman in front of flowers
Hannah DeWittMental Health Writer

Hannah is a Junior Copywriter at Thriveworks. She received her bachelor’s degree in English: Creative Writing with a minor in Spanish from Seattle Pacific University. Previously, Hannah has worked in copywriting positions in the car insurance and trucking sectors doing blog-style and journalistic writing and editing.

We update our content on a regular basis to ensure it reflects the most up-to-date, relevant, and valuable information. When we make a significant change, we summarize the updates and list the date on which they occurred. Read our editorial policy to learn more.

  • Originally published on 05/18/22

    Author: Taylor Bennett

  • Updated on 01/05/23

    Author: Hannah DeWitt

    Reviewer: Emily Simonian, LMFT

    Changes: Added new H2s and adjusted information about the origin of S.M.A.R.T. goals and how to make effective goals; sought clinical review to confirm factualness and enhance value.

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