hat do you want to do with your life?  This seemingly innocuous question is much harder to answer than it appears. Most people would simply say something like: “I want to be happy”, or “I want to be rich”, or “I want to travel the world”.  There is nothing wrong with the sentiment expressed by these answers, but they will not be very effective as goals. To improve your odds at success in life, you need to learn the skill of goal setting.

In order to set effective goals for yourself, you have to think deeper than these kinds of wishful statements. For example, if you want to be happy, you have to spell out what exactly makes you happy.  If you want to be rich, you have to identify exactly how much money you need to be rich. If you want to travel the world, you need to identify where you want to go, and what you want to see when you get there.

A life well-lived is one in which you are continually setting and achieving goals that have personal meaning for you.

The Goal Setting Definition of Happiness

Since being happy is such a common wish, you should think through what being happy really means for you. Philosophers through the ages have tried to define what happiness is, and after thousands of years they are still debating it. Here is a thought that can pretty easily put an end to that debate: happiness is setting and achieving personally meaningful goals. By definition, if you achieve what you really want out of life, you should be happy.

Thus, a life well-lived is one in which you are continually setting and achieving goals that have meaning for you. This is what makes you happy as a human being. Conversely, if you never get what you want out of life, then you are not very likely be happy.

If you agree with this definition of happiness, and you want to be happy with your life, you should get busy setting and achieving goals that have personal meaning for you.

Common Goal Setting Mistakes

Whether you recognize it or not, you are probably already practicing goal setting in your life. However, to make goal setting a truly effective agent for achieving happiness in life, there are likely many ways in which your goal setting can be improved.

Here are some common goal setting mistakes you should try to avoid:

Striving for goals that have been set by others. Young people often strive for goals that their parents or society at large has set for them. Some examples of these are, “Get all A’s on your report card”, “Keep your Room Clean”, etc.  Of course, these are not bad goals, but if you do not see value in these goals, the they are not very likely to make you happy if you achieve them.

Many young people subconsciously are striving for goals that have been given to them by parents or society at large without ever going through the exercise of setting goals that are personally meaningful for them. The sad part about this is that when they achieve the goals after spending significant time and effort, they realize that it does not have meaning and they wonder why they are not happy.

Setting Vague Goals. The examples cited earlier in this article such as “be rich”, or “be happy” are vague goals. The key problem with a vague goal is that you do not really know what you are aiming at.  Take weight loss for example.  You might set a vague goal of “losing weight”.  A stronger approach would be to set a goal to “lose 10 pounds by May 31st”.   This goal is much clearer, which makes it more motivating and powerful.

Setting Unrealistic Goals. Unrealistic goals tend to be demotivating because you cannot possibly achieve them. Using the weight loss example again, setting a goal to “lose 10 lbs. today” would be unrealistic unless you plan to cut off a limb.  When you fail to achieve your goal, you are likely to get discouraged.

Setting Too Many Goals. Even if you keep your individual goals realistic, if you are try to achieve too many goals at once, your efforts get diluted.  A better approach is to focus your attention on 2-3 goals that are realistic and meaningful.  For maximum effectiveness, you should be able to state your goals from memory at any given time.

Setting Goals that Are Not Aligned with Your Values – Before you can engage in truly effective goal setting, you need to think through what you value most in the different categories of your life.  Before going through this goal setting exercise, you should create a list of the values that are most important to you.  Please see this post: Creating a List of Values

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Effective Goal Setting: Positive and Negative Self Dialogue

The best way to identify and set personally meaningful goals is to start with self-dialogue. By asking yourself a series of questions and writing down your answers you can begin the process of identifying goals that will have meaning for you. If your goals have special meaning for you they will be motivating. If they are motivating, it increases your odds of achieving them.  So what questions should you ask yourself?

The first set of questions attacks the problem from a positive orientation:

1.      If I could do anything in the world, without limitation, what would I do?

2.      If I could have anything in the world, what would I have?

3.      If I could be anyone in the world, who would I be?

In order to get as wide a range of possibilities for your goals, you should answer these questions without judging the answers. In other words, do not limit yourself at this point.  There will be a time to apply a filter of realism to your ideas later in the process.

Write down at least 20 answers to each of these questions no matter how hard that may seem. This exercise brings out ideas from out of your subconscious mind, and they may be the very best ideas for you.

The next set of questions forces you to focus on the main categories of goals that most people set for themselves.  In this case, ask yourself what are the three most important goals you would like to achieve in each of the following areas at this moment:

1.      What are my top three career goals?

2.      What are my top three relationship goals?

3.      What are my top three financial goals?

4.      What are my top three educational goals?

5.      What are my top three health and fitness goals?

6.      What are my top three family goals?

7.      What are my top three spiritual goals?

Write down your answers to each of the above.  I like to write these answers on 3 x 5 cards so they can be sorted later.  If one or more of these areas are not important to you, skip that area.

You a can also have a self-dialogue from a negative perspective. Ask yourself the following questions:

1.  What are my top three career problems?

2. What are my top three relationship problems?

 3. What are my top three financial problems?

4 . What are my top three educational problems?

5. What are my top three health and fitness problems?

6. What are my top three family problems?

7.  What are my top three spiritual problems?

Write the solutions to these problems to these on 3 x 5 cards.

Identifying your Signature goal

You now should have a pretty large pile of cards sitting in front of you.  In order to identify those goals that will motivate you to achieve them, and those goals that will make you happy once you do achieve them, we need to sort them.

Sort them into three piles based on your level of motivation to achieve the goal::

1.       You would literally walk over burning coals to accomplish this goal

2.       It would be pretty motivating to accomplish this goal, but you would not walk over burning coals to do it

3.       You would like to achieve this goal, but you are not sure how much effort you would put against it.

Now take two from the first pile above and set aside one of the two that is least motivating to you. Next, pick another from the first pile, and again set aside the one of these two that is least motivating.

When you have gone through the entire first pile and are left holding a single card, that is your starting point for identifying your signature goal.  This is the one goal that is most important to you at this particular time.

Clarifying your Signature goal

Now that you have your highest priority goal identified, take a break from working on your goals and think about what you have learned about yourself.  This process will let the goals sink into to your subconscious.

After you have stepped away for two or three days, go back to your “walk through burning coals” pile, and do the pair sorting again.  Did you come up with the same top goal?  If so you are ready to refine it.  If not take another couple of days until you settle on the top goal from this pile.

Once you have your top goal, you will need to make it crystal clear so you can visualize it in your mind. For example, it your goal is to have a certain amount of money, write down how much money you want and by what date you want it.  If your signature goal is to lose weight, write down how much you want to lose and by what date.  If your top goal is to achieve a certain level of responsibility in your career, write down your desired job title, and what date you want to achieve that job title.

Now re-write your goal on a 3 x 5 card, as if you have already achieved it. For example, “I have no debts by July 1, XXXX”.

Setting Supporting Goals

You now have a signature goal.  This is your mission in life at this moment.  It is what you want more than anything else that you can think of.  When you achieve it, it will make you VERY happy.  So, what should you do with the rest of the goals that you wrote down? Set supporting goals!

Supporting goals are in the same “genre” as your signature goal. For example, if you want to lose weight a supporting goal might be to work out 3x per week (you probably wrote that on one of your cards).  Or, it might be to cut back on alcohol which has a lot of calories.  What you don’t want to do is try to set another goal in life that is in conflict with your signature goal – like trying all the four diamond restaurants in your state. That’s a fine goal but it’s not conducive to weight loss!

You should set no more than 2-3 supporting goals for your signature goal. Once you have set your supporting goals, you will be done with goal setting for the moment.  The very exercise of goal setting using this process should leave you motivated and give you a sense of purpose in your life that may be stronger that you have ever experienced.  You now know where you are going in life, and that is the crucial first step in getting there!


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The Foundation for Goal Achievement is dedicated to providing comprehensive resources for individuals from all walks of life to set and achieve meaningful goals. We provide a quarterly goal achievement scholarship for college and high school students and offer speakers to energize your organization, business or school to achieve more. This article is focused on goal setting.

List of Values