Setting the course: all about goal-setting

Seneca, an ancient philosopher, once said, “If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable.”

Consider this dialogue between another great philosopher, Cheshire Cat, and a girl named Alice (from the film Alice in Wonderland):

Alice: (As she approaches a fork in the road, she sees Cheshire Cat in a tree) “Which road do I take?”

Cheshire Cat: “Where do you want to go?”

Alice: “I don’t know.”

Cheshire Cat: “Then, it doesn’t matter.”

Much like Alice, if we do not have clearly defined goals and objectives, then no information will be able to guide us.

Setting goals will naturally set us up with a framework within which we can work. This will help us to identify best practices, as well as potential obstacles and pitfalls along the way.

Read on to learn more about how to set effective goals – ones that we will actually work toward and reach.

What are goals, anyway?

Put simply, a goal is a desired result.

You may have heard of SMART goals before. There’s a reason for that. They are not only smart: they work. Research shows that the more Specific, Measurable, Achievable,
Relevant, and Time-bound (SMART) a goal is, the more likely we are to
achieve it.

  • Specific: Vague goals lead to confusion, low motivation, and stagnation. Goals like “losing weight” or “getting healthy” is like saying someone wants to go to Europe on vacation. Where in Europe? Do you want to enjoy the warm weather on the beach in Spain or Portugal? Or would you rather experience a ski trip in northern Scandinavia? We must clearly define our destination if we want to know the best way of getting there.
  • Measurable: In order to reach a goal, we need to be able to track our progress toward it. If we can’t quantify and measure our goals in some way or another, we will never know if we’ve reached it. There are at least two ways to measure your goals:
    • Objective measurements are quantifiable by factual and unbiased measurements, such as numbers. For example, an individual wishing to gain muscle may aim for a specific number of inches in bicep circumference.
    • Subjective measurements are quantifiable by personal opinion. It is based on inner experience, rather than fact. For example, an individual wishing to improve energy levels throughout the day may keep a record of how energized they feel on a scale of 1-10 each day. As long as the general trend is increasing over time, they know they are making progress. With subjective measurements, it important to 1) clearly define your end goal: what does it feel like? what does it look like? what are you doing/able to do? and 2) create some sort of quantifiable scale or measurement that you can measure your progress with. Ask yourself, “how will I know I have reached my goal and which specific indicators will tell me I’m there?” and “how will I know that I am making progress toward my goal?”
  • Achievable: We want to set goals that are challenging, yet achievable. Goals that are too challenging leave us frustrated and hurt our sense of self-efficacy (our sense of how able we are). Goals that are too easy will leave us unmotivated and apathetic – without meaning. Ask yourself, “on a scale of 1-10, how confident am I in my ability to achieve this goal?” If you rate yourself at less than an 8-9, consider setting a smaller, more achievable goal or breaking this goal into smaller pieces. You can always build the skills to reach a more challenging goal later.
  • Relevant: Our goals should align with our deepest morals, values, & priorities. Otherwise, why are we striving to attain it? What are we hoping to get out of it and how will it benefit our life? Ask yourself, “on a scale of 1-10, how motivated do I feel to achieve this goal?” Be honest with yourself. If you rate your motivation as lower than an 8-9, ask yourself if this goal is really something you want. The “5 why’s” exercise is a good way to get clear on your motivations. Basically, ask yourself why you want to reach your goal, then ask yourself why you want that, and so on. Do this 5 times or until you find you compelling “why.” It will always be a mental or emotional motivation (i.e., I want to reach X so that I can X).
  • Time-bound: Is there a specific time by which you would like to reach your goal? Before a vacation? In a year? 6 months? Attaching a specific time-span to your goal will not only increase your motivation to take meaningful action toward your goal, but also help you set clear objectives (more on this later) and measurements along the way.

According to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, this is known as implementation intentions – getting clear on the what, why, how, and when you are going to implement a certain goal or action step, including the “thing before the thing.” Implementation intentions are especially beneficial for setting and adhering to process goals:

For example: “I will eat X amount of vegetables on X days, and at X meals. In
order to make that happen (the thing before the thing), I will shop for X
vegetables on X day, and do X to remind myself to eat them.”

Simply clarifying a goal, as well as how you will achieve that goal, can significantly increase the likelihood of us actually doing it.

James Clear also points out that focusing specifically on one feasible action step at
a time has been shown to lead to more adherence to a habit or behavior for a
longer period of time, as opposed to spreading our energy and focus across
two or more tasks/behaviors. If we spend all our time, energy, and focus developing just one habit at a time, then it is more likely that we will still be performing that habit 5-6 months, or even years down the road.

Contrast this to dividing our time and energy between 2-3 different habits. Focusing on too much at once often leads us to do none of them, and we stagnate.

What is an objective?

Objectives, as opposed to goals, are short-term goals and milestones that fit
into an end goal. They help you along the way, keeping you on track and
moving you toward the desired result. Objectives act as checkpoints, serving as indicators that you are on route to reaching your goal.

Good objectives help us reach our longer-term goal. For example, one may have a larger goal of losing 40 lb within the next year. He/she may set objectives, or short-term goals of losing at least 3.5 lb per month.

In the field of sport psychology, there are three different types of goals:

  • Outcome goal: a desired outcome. Usually a long-term goal that is out of the person’s sphere of control. For example, losing 20 lb of fat (objective) or feeling/looking a certain way (subjective).
  • Performance goal: a goal for performing an action with specific standards. For example, scoring X amount of goals or being able to lift X amount of weight. Generally, performance goals are objectives and indicators of our progress toward our outcome goal. However, a performance goal can simultaneously become an outcome goal. Performance goals are somewhat in a person’s sphere of control.
  • Process goal: a goal to perform a specific action that is totally within a person’s sphere of control. For example, exercising for X amount of minutes per day or applying a certain mindset to a certain task. Process goals are the tangible acts and behaviors that increase the likelihood of us achieving our performance goals, which, in turn, increase the likelihood of us achieving our outcome goal. They are the only types of goals that we have 100% influence over.

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