Personal goal-setting enables you to learn about yourself, improve your well-being, and discover growth opportunities you never expected. However, achieving your goals isn’t something you need to obsess over or tackle all at once. What you do need is a plan to make your goals attainable and the willingness to follow through.
As the new year unfolds, take this opportunity to consider what you want to accomplish over the coming months. Whether you dream of designing a new product, traveling to a foreign country, or optimizing your finances, you’re more likely to succeed if you nail down a strategy early on.
Choose a goal you feel good about
When it comes to goal-setting, motivation is directly proportional to enthusiasm. In other words, you have a much greater chance of achieving your goals if they involve activities you actually enjoy.
All too often, we tell ourselves there’s something we should do. But we don’t genuinely want to do it, and the whole ordeal turns into a long, laborious chore. You can avoid falling into this trap by asking yourself these questions.
- Do you want to achieve this goal? Consider whether accomplishing this task provides you with meaningful benefits. How will you feel when you succeed?
- Are external forces compelling you to pursue this goal? If so, do you have to complete this task in order to achieve something that is important to you?
- What are the consequences of choosing not to pursue a particular goal? Distinguish between goals that have high and low stakes.
Of course, you’ll face hurdles when pursuing a goal. Not every moment of the journey will be enjoyable, so we aren’t advising you to avoid challenges. The point is to make sure you’re mentally committed to the goal to get the most beneficial results.
How to define your goals
No one would blame you for thinking that New Year’s resolutions are meant to be broken. At one time or another, most of us have made fleeting, half-hearted attempts to adopt a new skill or habit. What often happens is that we try to take things day by day without any direction. By choosing not to lay out the details in the first place, we let ourselves off the hook for giving up down the road.
Overcome this pattern and stay on track by using a goal-setting strategy. A vague dream or resolution doesn’t truly become a goal until you add structure and plot out a way to execute your idea. For instance, you’ve probably heard of S.M.A.R.T goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. This method encourages you to set clear parameters, so you know exactly what actions to perform to get results.
The key to achieving your goals is to have a distinct picture of what you want to accomplish, prepare for challenges, and maintain a consistent method of measuring your progress. Below, we’ll outline a few options for defining your goals.
Locke and Latham’s Five Goal-Setting Principles
Drs. Edwin Locke and Gary Latham are organizational psychologists well known for their research on promoting effective goal-setting in the workplace. In 1968, Locke popularized the theory that, from a cognitive perspective, choosing a goal that’s both challenging and specific leads to better performance. Building on these findings, Locke and Latham jointly published the book A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance in 1990.
Locke and Latham’s five principles of goal-setting are as follows.
- Clarity: in concise terms, explain the action or result you want to achieve and how you plan to approach it. Let’s say you want to create more resources to educate customers. Be more specific by stating that you want to develop 20 video tutorials and 25 buying guides over the next 10 months to drive customer engagement.
- Challenge: choose a goal that’s realistically achievable while motivating you to go outside your comfort zone.
- Commitment: to inspire dedication, the goal must be meaningful and personally rewarding to you.
- Feedback: set up a means of ongoing evaluation to ensure you’re progressing.
- Task complexity: give each task the appropriate time and attention. The more challenging the goal, the more you should break down the task into smaller milestones that are easier to measure and complete.
Who it’s for: Locke and Latham’s theory was designed to help organizational leaders get better at inspiring employees. This method fosters accountability at every level, so anyone can use it to improve goal-setting skills.
The benefits: The five principles work well for both individuals and teams. They promote clear communication, routine assessment, and a logical breakdown of work — elements every team needs to consistently perform at a high level.
The WOOP Method
WOOP is a goal-setting method that uses mental contrasting to help you identify inner obstacles and plan how to address them. Psychology professor Dr. Gabriele Oettingen developed WOOP for students as a way of building productive decision-making skills.
The acronym WOOP stands for:
- Wish: a meaningful goal that’s both challenging and doable
- Outcome: the positive results you expect to achieve
- Obstacle: internal factors that could hinder your progress
- Plan: a plan to combat the obstacles
The theory of mental contrasting suggests that weighing your desired outcome against a potentially negative outcome allows you to regulate your goals more effectively. Instead of just thinking positively, WOOP encourages you to envision what might go wrong and decide in advance how you’ll manage the setbacks.
When using the WOOP method, define your positive and negative outcomes with an if-then statement. For example: “If [the obstacle] occurs, I will [the plan you want to implement].
Who it’s for: Although WOOP was intended for students, it can work for anyone who wants to get better at achieving their goals through proactive problem-solving. WOOP is best for improving personal habits or learning new skills.
The benefits: WOOP teaches you to define a healthy reaction to failure and avoid negative self-talk. Instead of spiraling after a setback, you’re more likely to use your action plan and keep making progress.
PACT is a newer alternative to SMART goal-setting. While the latter emphasizes quantifiable, time-restricted goals, PACT was developed for ongoing goals that are not easily defined with metrics.
The PACT acronym stands for:
- Purposeful: the goal aligns with your personal values and will have a meaningful long-term impact on your life.
- Actionable: you can take immediate action to pursue the goal. Delivering output that’s within your control is more important than focusing solely on outcomes.
- Continuous: create a simple action plan that’s sustainable and repeatable. By avoiding overanalysis, you can get started sooner and adapt your plan based on what you learn.
- Trackable: metrics are limiting because they aren’t always an accurate reflection of growth. Track your progress in ways that are observable rather than measurable.
Consider using the PACT technique if you’re an instinctual thinker. This fast and simple method discourages overanalysis, which often stops people from taking purposeful action.
Who it’s for: PACT is best for individuals passionate about making a long-term commitment or establishing lifelong habits. As a leader, it’s useful to promote PACT for personal goal-setting on your team. The continuous model of self-improvement and valuing progress in qualitative terms is ideal for building soft skills.
The benefits: The PACT model is useful when you need both structure and flexibility. The continuous approach encourages you to start fast, experiment, assess the benefits of your current plan, and change it if needed. Since you decide how to track your progress, you have a greater chance of staying consistent and achieving your goals.
Quick tips for planning and tracking your goals
1. Make a goal pyramid
Once you decide what goal to pursue, refine the idea by creating milestones. Big challenges are far less intimidating when you split them into smaller tasks. Although there are many methods you can use, we recommend a goal pyramid.
Draw a large triangle and divide it into four to six tiers. If you need more, you can always add them later. In the pointed section at the top, write down your primary goal. Use the second tier to add the most important long-term tasks you’ll need to complete to accomplish the primary goal. In the third tier, break down these long-term tasks into smaller sub-tasks.
Continue this pattern until the last tier. The final level should list the simplest daily habits you can perform to make progress toward the larger goals.
2. Balance fixed and flexible deadlines
Deadlines can be your downfall or a motivational tool, depending on how you manage them. Start by writing down fixed deadlines that will impose a time limit on your goals. Then, chart out the supporting tasks for each fixed event using your preferred method, such as a Gantt chart, calendar, planner, or PERT chart.
The largest gaps between fixed deadlines are where you’ll have the most flexibility to include a time cushion for potential setbacks. If some tasks are highly dependent on others, mark them as critical. These are activities that could significantly slow down your timeline or bring your momentum to a crashing halt if you don’t manage them well. As you develop a schedule, allocate more time than needed for critical tasks.
If you don’t have any fixed deadlines, great! You have total control over how you tackle the goals on your to-do list. Let’s say you want to learn Python. You could start out by enrolling in an online course and practicing 30 minutes a day four days a week. In subsequent weeks, you could lengthen your practice time and complete increasingly harder assignments. When you have broad flexibility, focus on setting short-term challenges that you can improve upon each week.
3. Review and record your performance
Regardless of the method you choose for measuring your progress, always document it for future reference. One of the most powerful ways to motivate yourself is to reflect on how far you’ve come.
Keep a journal, and write your thoughts about your short-term goals for the week or month. That way, you can consult the journal at the end of each period and consider whether you’ve satisfied each goal. If you haven’t, either adjust your strategy to improve performance or re-assess your expectations to make sure they’re realistic.
If you prefer a digital option, use a personal task-management software to log goals, milestones, and progress. Since the data is stored in the cloud, you don’t have to worry about misplacing it and can easily access the information on the go.
Although it’s tempting to go in without a plan, goal-setting is far more effective when you work out the finer details. Everyday life, personal habits, and unforeseen circumstances can all get in the way of achieving your goals. Yet, even with obstacles, it’s totally within your power to make productive choices that help you upgrade your skills.
If your organization is developing team goals for the new year, project management software is your best resource for staying on track. Using task-management tools, real-time collaboration, and progress reports, you can design a workflow that makes your goals both measurable and attainable.