effective goal setting

The 5 steps to effective goal setting

Your habits are what will keep you motivated and consistent when working towards your goals. But what about setting the right goals in the first place?

To know which habits to work on, you still need to start by thinking about the goal you want to hit, and then work backwards. But that doesn’t just mean setting any old goal.

For the best chance of success, here’s a 5-step process you can use to set effective, realistic, and actionable goals:

Step 1: Write down your core values and set goals that align with them

Write down your goals

Before you think about goals, you need to understand why you want to reach it. In other words: What do you care about?

This can be a big question. And so a great place to start is to pick 3–5 core values that resonate with you from a list like this one. Your core values are the underlying structure that your habits, processes, and goals are built off.

Here’s a few examples:

  • Achievement
  • Boldness
  • Compassion
  • Creativity
  • Knowledge
  • Learning
  • Leadership
  • Recognition
  • Stability

Your values will help inform the kinds of goals you’re willing to actually work towards.

So, if one of your core values is “knowledge,” it will be easier to reach your goal of becoming fluent in Spanish and build the process and habits you need to get there.

To start, write down each of your goals and see which value it relates to. Or, another way to look at it is to go through your list of core values and write a goal for each.

Step 2: Eliminate the ‘good enough’ goals that are getting in your way

With your list of goals you want to achieve, it’s time to prioritize which ones you want to work on.

This is a difficult exercise as it’s hard to give up on goals. Especially when they connect to your core values. Pushing certain ones aside can feel like cheating yourself.

The biggest distractions towards “great” goals are the “good enough” ones. Click To Tweet

To get past this, you need to do a round of forced prioritization.

Look at your full list of goals—maybe it’s 15-20 right now. Circle the top five you want to achieve. You should now have 2 lists—one with five and the rest. Your five-goal list becomes your “must do” list, while the other is your “avoid at all costs” list.

Step 3: Create an action plan for working towards your goals

Action plan goal setting

Now we’re getting somewhere!

With your “must do” goal list, it’s time to create a plan—or process— for how you’ll reach them. While this comes down to your own schedule and preferences, there are a number of strategies you can try. Such as:

  • Breaking your bigger goals down into smaller pieces: Take your goal and write down every step you need to take to reach it. Then, take each of those steps and break them down further. Now you have a clear plan filled with small goals you can hit daily.
  • Use the SMART system: SMART stands for goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. Think about each factor and write down how it connects to your goal: What’s your timeframe for reaching it? How will you measure your progress? Is it the right time for you to be doing this? Is it realistic? How specific can you get with what you need to hit your goal?
  • Picture yourself 6+ months from now: Working backwards is a great way to define all the steps we need to get to hit our goals. Picture yourself 6 months from now. How are you spending your days? What do you wish you’d been working on for the past 6 months? Picture your perfect day and how it gets you closer to your goals.

Whichever path you choose, the purpose is to create a clear, actionable plan of what you need to do every day to hit your goals. Research has shown that you’re two to three times more likely to stick with your goals if you make a specific plan for when, where, and how you’ll work on them.

Step 4: Update your calendar and schedule to reflect your goals

With your goal and process worked out, it’s time to optimize as much as you can to build and support the habits that will keep you going.

One way is simply to schedule your habits:

  • Dedicate time every morning to work on your goals. For example, set a reminder or alarm at 7:30am to spend an hour writing.
  • Schedule working towards your goal for when your energy is highest. Our energy levels rise and dip throughout the day. To give yourself the best chance, schedule your habit for when you know you’ll have energy.
  • Use your calendar as an accountability partner. Look back on the past month and see when you worked towards your goals and how much. When were you most successful?
  • Set RescueTime Alerts for when you’ve hit your daily quota for working towards your goals. RescueTime can give you an honest look at the time you’re spending on your digital devices and alert you when you need to take a break.

Step 5: Optimize your work environment to make working on your goals easier

Workspace goal setting

Where you work has a major impact on the quality and quantity of work you do. And working in a place with too many distractions—people, unwanted noises, reminders of other responsibilities—can make it impossible to build the good habits we need to hit our goals.

Make sure that your environment is geared towards the work you want to do. This could mean keeping positive reminders around you, limiting distractions, or always having the right tools at your disposal.

If you want to know more, we put together this full guide on how to optimize your work environment for productivity.

How to measure your goals and build off them

As you work towards your goals, seeing progress will keep you motivated to stay the course.

Every time you recognize yourself getting even 1% better or closer to your goal, your brain gets a hit of dopamine. The more regular you can keep this going, the more likely you are to keep up with your goals.

We’ve written about techniques for reaching your long-term goals before. But here are a few simple ones you can use to start tracking and measuring your progress:

  • Smaller goals, more often: Just like when you’re building your process, writing down each step you need to hit to get your goal is a great way to track progress and give yourself motivational “wins” every day
  • Use visual cues to see your progress: A visual representation of your progress can help to push you forward and stay committed. One way is the paperclip method, where you start the day with a stack of paperclips in one jar and move them over whenever you do a part of your goal process. Another way is to post a large calendar in your workspace and cross off the days where you completed your daily process. Seeing that streak going is a powerful reminder.
  • Build accountability by tracking your time: RescueTime’s time tracking and weekly reports give you an honest look at how much time you spent working on your goals. While alerts and goals can help you stay accountable to your daily goals.

Why “1% better, everyday” is your best goal setting strategy

Your goals aren’t just results you want to hit. They’re metaphors for the kind of life you want to live and the type of person you’re striving to be. With this much pressure, they can feel overwhelming to take on. While failing to hit them can feel like the ultimate failure.

That’s why it’s important to shift away from focusing solely on results and remember all the other moving parts that get you there.

Living in a systematic way like this, with the right habits and processes, is certainly less sexy than just focusing on big goals. But you’d be surprised how quickly getting 1% better every single day will get you closer to your biggest goals.


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