If you plan to excel, you must plan to excel (tweet this)
Conscious goal setting is the foundation of any successful venture.
While I am sure that you can find a few exceptions to the above statement, they prove the rule. You can see evidence of my assertion everywhere you look; from elite athletes to serial entrepreneurs. They all have a plan. They set goals to achieve great things.
You are not the exception that proves the rule. Whilst you may experience some success without much in the way of conscious goal setting, you will never reach your full potential (or anything close to it).
There are an enormous number of goal setting systems out there. I should know, because I have spent most of my adult life studying a huge number of them. And over time, I have developed my own system; a method that works very well for me. Today, I want to share it with you. It is the system I use to set goals for everything I want to achieve in life, and is one of the most important tools I have.
So, if you want to know how to set goals and motivate yourself to actually achieve them, read on!
When You Should Set Goals
Every January, a slew of new goal-setting posts are predictably released across the internet. I say “predictably” because the start of a New Year is a symbolically powerful reminder that you should seek to better yourself.
There’s just one issue: it’s completely arbitrary.
I am willing to bet that goals set on January 1st are statistically more likely to fail than goals set on any other day of the year. That is because those goals are fueled by temporary enthusiasm, rather than a a deep-seated desire.
I recently stumbled across an image shared by a friend on Facebook that perfectly encapsulated this:
There isn’t a single person in the world who hasn’t had a moment similar to the the above at least once in their life. Motivating yourself to achieve tough goals, quite unsurprisingly, is tough. And yet, when it comes to learning how to set goals, the above approach encapsulates everything you shouldn’t do.
My point is this: any goal that is worth setting is worth setting right now. Not next Monday. Not in the New Year. Today. If you find yourself procrastinating, that’s because the goal just isn’t that important to you.
The Logical Thought Process Behind Any Goal
Following directly on from that statement, I should make something absolutely clear: just because you don’t perceive a goal to be important enough at any given moment doesn’t mean that it isn’t a goal worth pursuing.
We should not be defined by our weakest moments; we should look to our moments of greatest strength to define what we do with our life. And in order to figure out whether or not a goal is worth aiming for, we must try to objectively analyse whether it is worth the effort.
Let’s consider two simple examples:
- I can’t speak French. The reason for this is because there is no real benefit to me knowing the language, beyond the pleasure of simply knowing it. Whilst I would like to speak French fluently, the time and effort investment it would cost is simply not worth it to me.
- I can use the WordPress blogging platform. I hadn’t even heard of it 15 months ago, and now I get paid to write for WordPress-related blogs. This blog is built on the WordPress platform. It was definitely worth my time and effort investment to learn to use WordPress.
If I had spent as much time over the past 15 months learning French as I had learning about WordPress, I venture to guess that I would be able to converse capably with native speakers. The reason that I am a proficient WordPress user, but cannot speak more than around 50 words of French, is because learning WordPress offered me more.
This logic applies to anything you want to achieve in your life. The question you must ask yourself is: “Will the necessary effort I have to put in to achieve this goal be matched or exceeded by the beneficial outcome?” If the answer is yes, you’ve just formed the reserve of motivation that you will need to rely upon in order to achieve that goal.
Knowing When a Goal is Worth it
If the above question were easy to answer (and enough to keep us motivated in the long run), we would all be overachievers. But we’re not, so other elements are clearly at play.
That brings me to an email I sent to my subscribers a couple of weeks ago in which I said the following:
Most of the time, our brain does a decent job of performing subconscious mental gymnastics and presenting us with the requisite level of willpower relating to any particular task (which may or may not be the required amount).
I use the words “most of the time” very deliberately, because there is a key factor that can skew our internal willpower calculator (as I have just coined it): ignorance.
I don’t mean ignorance in a negative sense; I simply mean a full lack of understanding of the benefits and/or required investment (whether that be intellectual, physical, emotional, financial, or any combination of the above).
Say for instance my brain doesn’t give me the required willpower to rock six pack abs because it simply doesn’t have faith. My brain doesn’t believe that six pack abs are possible without exerting more effort than the benefits I would gain from strutting my fine self up and down random beaches, and taking my shirt off at entirely inappropriate moments.
But what if a friend of mine, with a similar previous build and diet, showed up one day and boasted about a miraculous ab workout that has done wonders for him? Not only was it far easier than he thought it would be (lesser required investment), but it also gave him far more confidence than he thought possible (greater benefit).
You know what I’d do? I’d take interest. Who wouldn’t? I’d digest his advice, and my brain would suddenly have a whole lot more information with which to make a more informed decision. Perhaps under those newly formed circumstances, the required willpower would be matched by my actual willpower.
My point is this – don’t let your brain rule the big decisions in your life without consciously questioning your existing understanding of the matter at hand, and asking yourself if you have equipped your mind appropriately.
The biggest step to achieving a goal is in understanding the necessary undertaking, and appreciating the potential outcome. These are not absolute terms; unless your goal is very simple, you won’t fully appreciate those two factors. However, the closer you are to understanding the necessary undertaking and potential outcome, the better you will be able to motivate yourself.
So when it comes to setting goals, you need to be as educated as possible on what you set out to achieve. Seek to empower yourself with knowledge. As I said in the email to my subscribers:
Challenge your brain’s logic. Poke holes in it. Play devil’s advocate. Educate yourself better. Take advice from those who have already achieved what you wish for.
The more you know about what you want to achieve, the better equipped you will be to achieve it.
How to Set Goals: The Big Picture
In my opinion, there should be no delineation between “personal” and “business” goals. I don’t even like using those words in such a context, because it goes completely against the Leaving Work Behind philosophy.
Ultimately, you want to better yourself. Whether that is in becoming better at baseball or earning a six figure income, all of your goals should stand under the same umbrella. Your life goals shouldn’t be segmented.
That is why I refer to “the big picture” very deliberately. The first step you must take in setting goals is to take a top down view of what you want, based upon what I consider to be the main categories that define us as humans:
I believe that everything we want to achieve in life comes under one or more of the above categories. Here are a few examples of goals that might come under each category:
- Happiness: get a girlfriend, join a hobby group
- Health: run a marathon, cut out complex carbs
- Success: be interviewed on national television, sell a business for six figures
- Wealth: have $1m in the bank, own a custom tailored suit
- Giving: mentor someone, join a foreign aid program
- Growth: live in a foreign country, have lunch with a nobel prize winner
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you already know what you want. Take some time to consider each of the above six categories, and make a list of everything that you want to achieve. List liberally, indiscriminately, and selfishly. Take your time.
This is your bucket list, and you will want to keep it close, as it should continue to grow for the rest of your life.
Here are a few items from my (rather long) bucket list:
- Do a solo sky dive
- Visit Yosemite National Park
- Write a published book
- Shake hands with a President
- Drive across the USA
- Help a good cause with more than just money
I know that I won’t achieve everything on my list. But I know that I will achieve a damn sight more by virtue of the fact that I am consciously aware of them. There is a great power in having something written down.
Keep Goal Setting Simple
If you have followed my instructions, you will probably now have an impossibly overwhelming list of potential achievements. Whilst it is important to have this list, it is also an important reminder of how easy it is to get overwhelmed when setting goals. What you absolutely must not do is try to bite off more than you can chew.
With that in mind, I want you to pick out the one item on that list that you think will have the greatest beneficial impact on your life. That’s right — just one item. Now I want you to take as much time as is necessary to ascertain whether or not that goal is worth reaching. Ask yourself the all-important question:
“Will the necessary effort I have to put in to achieve this goal be matched or exceeded by the beneficial outcome?”
Then ask yourself the following questions:
- Does the goal excite me?
- Does the goal feel potentially life-changing?
The answer to both questions should be an emphatic “Yes!”
What you have come up with is what I like to call your “One Big Goal”. It represents the single biggest difference you can make to your life. If it doesn’t, you should go back to your list and think harder about what you truly want from life.
An obvious example of such a goal would be, “Quit my job”. That was my One Big Goal last year; the focus of all my efforts. It felt big. It excited me, and I felt that it would be life-changing (and it was).
By now you should have your One Big Goal.
Break Your Goals Down
When it comes to achieving goals, the key is to break them down to small, manageable, and actionable tasks. Your One Big Goal is likely to look large and intimidating at face value, but like anything else you do in life, its apparent scale can be cut down to size.
Let’s further explore my “Quit my job” goal from last year, and take a look at how I could better define how the goal was achieved:
Establish Freelance Writing Career > Quit My Job
Now let’s better define how I established my freelance writing career:
Submit Job Applications > Win Clients > Establish Freelance Writing Career
Achieving the apparent impossible is done by breaking it down into smaller constituent parts that don’t feel overwhelming. After all, what sounds more difficult: quitting your job or submitting a few job applications? One ultimately leads to the other.
So at this stage, I want to take your One Big Goal and start to break it down into smaller steps, just as I did with mine. These steps should be of a manageable size, and you must be able to complete them on a consistent basis. They form the practical basis for the achievement of your One Big Goal.
Given that your goal is likely to be rather big (by definition), you may find yourself listing a number of different tasks. If that is the case, it may help you to produce a mind map of the various elements that come under the umbrella of your One Big Goal. Revise and refine your mind map until you have drilled down to key actionable tasks, then prioritize them as you did with your bucket list goals.
Goal Setting: Combating the Unknown
There is every chance that you may not immediately know how to achieve your goal. I get plenty of emails from Leaving Work Behind readers who say that they have all of the willpower and motivation in the world, but don’t know what they need to do to achieve their goals.
This is an understandable concern, but ultimately a cop-out. Not knowing how to achieve something is no excuse not to achieve it. You were once ignorant of everything you have achieved in life, and yet here you are.
When I launched this blog, it was nothing more than an accountability journal for my own efforts in quitting my job. It has since become the focal point for everything that I do. It refers me more prospective clients than I could wish for — even though I never intended for it to do so.
My point is this: do something. Set tasks that you believe will further your chances of achieving your One Big Goal. You will make mistakes and you will waste time. You will also learn a huge amount and bring yourself closer to where you want to be. And in time, the path you need to take will likely make itself known.
The alternative is to simply conclude that the world is against you, that you face an impossible task, and give up. Your choice.
Goal Setting: How to Execute Your Next Steps
By this stage, you should have defined your One Big Goal and broken it down into manageable steps. None of which is of any use unless you start executing.
To be perfectly honest, assuming you have the required motivation, executing is often the easiest part of the process. Once you know what you want, and you know how to get it, all you need to do is afford yourself the time to carry out the requisite tasks. It may sound like I am oversimplifying the process, but on a basic level, that’s all there is to it.
Your One Big Goal should be a central feature in your life, so you should have little trouble in finding some time every day to work towards it. I believe that is the case for everyone. Sure — some people will have more time than others, but for the people who are about to tell themselves that they simply don’t have time, with the greatest of respect, I call bullshit.
No matter how busy your life is, there are a million other people out there still doing more. That shouldn’t discourage you, or make you feel like you are in some way inadequate. On the contrary, it should push you to match their achievements.
If you’re looking for some tips for making time to achieve your goals, check this out. And whenever you feel overwhelmed by the amount of work you have on, take a moment to step back and observe what you are actually doing. You are likely to notice that a proportion of the “work” you are doing is not actually contributing (or only contributing on a modest level) to the advancement of your goals. This thought process should be made part of your periodical review process, discussed shortly.
Taking Goal Setting One Step at a Time
You are probably aware that I have written all of the above with a specific focus on your One Big Goal. A reasonable question at this stage would be: “What about everything else?”
Everything else comes after. Not after you have achieved your One Big Goal, but after you have settled into your new routine. Please do not set out to achieve a hundred things at once. I want you to establish long-term habits, not burn out after a few days or weeks.
That in itself is the key — set one goal at at time, and carry out associated tasks until they become a habit. Once you have established something as a habit, go back to your bucket list and pick the next most important goal.
Don’t set yourself any arbitrary goals, like setting out to achieve something new every month: it’s meaningless. Go at your own pace.
The beauty of this process is that when followed correctly, you will take stock a few months down the line and realize that you are achieving a breathtaking amount; doing the kind of things that would have completely overwhelmed you in the past. But because you had a clear direction, and took on each new goal only when you were ready for it, you are able to handle it.
The Importance of Regular Goal Setting Reviews
In my opinion, one of the biggest problems with achieving goals is keeping your eyes on the prize. You may well have faithfully followed each of my steps so far, but it will all be for nought if you don’t regularly review what you are trying to achieve, why, and how.
When I say regularly, I mean weekly. Monday morning is an extremely important time of the week for me. It is a time where I take an hour or so to remind myself of what I am trying to achieve, why I am trying to achieve it, what I have achieved so far, and whether or not the work I am doing is actually taking me closer to that goal. I repeat this process for each of the main goals I am trying to achieve (such as “quit my job”, or “run a marathon”).
The review process should involve the above four questions, and should be done in writing. So going back to my 2011 “quit my job” goal again, my Monday morning would’ve looked a little like this:
- What am I trying to achieve? I am trying to get into a position where I can quit my job.
- Why am I trying to achieve it? Because I want control over my income and the freedom to work on my own terms.
- What have I achieved so far? I have launched my blog and made some job applications.
- How am I working towards my goal? Is it taking me closer to my goal, and if so, how? I am working on my blog and submitting job applications. It is taking me closer to my goal, because growing the blog will lead to more client referrals, and submitting applications will lead to jobs.
Each question has a clear purpose:
- Remind yourself of what you are trying to achieve.
- Remind yourself of your basis for motivation.
- Assess your achievements to date, and give yourself a pat on the back (or a kick up the ass).
- Re-focus on your actions, and whether or not you are on the best path to achieve your goal.
The above is a brief summary of what should be a considered and introspective process, with a strong focus on actionable tasks that you can carry out in that week. It should be repeated for every main goal that you have.
This review process can be a real eye-opener. The work that you do is only as efficient as you plan for it to be. It is all too easy to do “stuff”, and feel like you have worked hard, without having actually achieved a great deal. I don’t want you to be in that soul-destroying place where you realize that all of your hard work has led you nowhere.
Always remain focused on your One Big Goal. Review what you have done, then focus on what you plan to do. This review process is one of the most important factors in ensuring that you reach your goals, so do not neglect it.
Goal Setting Accountability
A lot is said about accountability, and quite rightly so. Holding yourself accountable when it comes to goal setting is an extremely powerful tool. Avoid accountability at your peril, because it is one of most powerful forms of motivation you can grant yourself.
The key to holding yourself accountable to your goals is to invest emotionally in what you are doing. Put yourself in a position where it will hurt to fail. Where it will be disappointing and embarrassing.
The best form of accountability is to partner with someone. But not just anyone. Don’t go casually tell a random friend what you plan on achieving, because they probably won’t care. You need to find someone who will be genuinely invested in your success. This can come either from someone who you are very close to (and who will push you), or someone who is on the same path as you, and can work with you as an accountability partner.
A great example of accountability in action is the running regime I currently have going on with my dad. Every Monday and Thursday we meet at the village square in Dunchurch and set out on a 7 mile run around Draycote Water. I know that I probably would have bailed on at least one of these runs had my dad not been waiting for me. I also known that I wouldn’t have pushed myself as far on those runs if it weren’t for his semi-suicidal competitive streak.
Mastermind groups are a great source of accountability, but must be carefully organized to be of real use. I have personally been part of two mastermind groups that just haven’t panned out — not for a lack of desire (amongst some participants at least), but simply because of poor planning and organization.
Fortunately, my third attempt at a mastermind group has been highly successful and I revealed our winning approach in this post.
Setting goals is extremely easy. Setting effective goals that give you a good chance of success isn’t too difficult either. But generating the kind of motivation that gives you the fuel you need to reach your goals can be seriously tough.
And that is why motivation has been a central theme running through this entire goal setting guide. It is the key to success, as much as anything is.
With that in mind, let’s run through the process you should follow in order to set and achieve goals. You must:
- Understand the necessary effort and the potential beneficial outcome of your goals
- Be able to break your goals down into manageable tasks which you can complete one step at a time.
- Review your goals regularly, and remind yourself why you are doing what you’re doing.
- Hold yourself accountable.
Those are the four crucial steps that you must follow in order to successfully achieve your goals. Do not neglect any of them.
No Goal Setting Worksheets?
Goal setting guides are often accompanied by a selection of worksheet templates that guide you down a very specific path, but I have very deliberately chosen to avoid anything of that nature. If downloading such worksheets has taught me anything, it is that I always ended up throwing them in the trash and figured out my own way of doing it.
I believe very strongly in the above system — it has helped me enormously and will continue to do so in the future. But I am not you, and you may have a different way of doing things. I want you to follow my advice whilst feeling free to follow your own path. If you have any questions at all or feel that you need further guidance, please do not hesitate to get in touch.
Now that you have read the guide, it is time to start setting goals. Then, it is time to start achieving them. I wish you the very best of luck!