When you're trying to achieve something big, like solving climate change or becoming a wildly successful entrepreneur, you need to find your north star. Since we have more entertainment options and distractions than ever before, it's almost impossible to stay the course when faced with a funny meme, useless trivia, an unintended hour-long Instagram scroll, or the constant dot dot dot of your Slack notifications. (Does anyone else hear those in their sleep, or is it just me?).
Goal setting can be that guiding light.
What's so great about goal setting?
Goal setting may seem akin to setting New Year's resolutions—and we all know how those tend to turn out—but if you pay attention to the science and get systematic about it, having clear goals can change your trajectory. Goals are blueprints for the life you want to build. They provide purpose and get you back on course when you deviate, as you surely will.
Show me all the science
A study that's often referenced in the world of high performance (think Tony Robbins and Brian Tracy) is the 1953 study at Yale proving the importance of goal setting. It showed that the three percent of research participants who set goals achieved more than the other 97 percent combined. They also had better health and relationships, even twenty years later.
This compelling and poignant study has been referenced by many, and although it makes a good case, it's not true. The results aren't false; it's just that no study ever happened. Consider this a friendly reminder that you can't believe everything you believe on the internet, no matter how many times it's been regurgitated or how authoritative it sounds.
Luckily, the idea was entrenched enough in the self-help community that Gail Matthews at Dominican University decided to conduct one of her own in 2015. Her very real study showed that folks who thought about their goals but didn't write them down had a 43 percent success rate, while those that followed a system had one of 76 percent.
If you're ready to learn what the participants did so you can create those results for yourself, read on.
How to get the most bang for your goal
Step 1: Set a reasonable timeline
Setting a timeline is imperative. Have you heard of SMART goals? Time-related is the "T" in SMART. Matthews asked people to think about what they wanted to achieve in four weeks, but the length of time it will take you to reach your goal depends on what you're trying to accomplish.
If your first language is English and you want to learn Hindi in a month, you might be out of your depth (not that I tried). However, if your trip to India is in six months, you could at least be speaking rudimentary Hindi by then. The key is to break down your big goal into smaller bits. More on that later.
Step 2: Think about what you hope to accomplish
In Matthews's study, the participants first considered how difficult and important their goals were. They took an inventory of the skills they had and the available resources. They also rated their commitment and motivation.
Doing this helps you hone in on the steps you will need to take to accomplish that goal. It's called process visualization, and it's been proven to be more effective than visualizing the outcome alone. Sure it's okay if you have a vague idea of what you want to achieve, but it's better if your vision is crystal clear.
Step 3: Write your goals down
Once you have an idea of your goals and what you will need to do to realize each one, it's time to put them in ink. It really is as simple as it sounds. A quick Google search or foray into the article linked above will give you plenty of resources and techniques.
The hardest part will be making time to do it, so pick a day and set aside two hours when you can be alone and uninterrupted. Sort through the abundance of tools at your disposal, and find a system that resonates. My favorite goal tracker and planner is the SELF Journal, but there are other great options. Pick something you'll actually use and get that pen moving.
If you're having trouble getting something onto the page, try writing a personal mission statement first. Sometimes writing down your values can help you identify your more tangible goals. Another way to clarify things is by looking at what you don't want. If this sounds intriguing, try fear-setting, a method that encourages action by helping you define your worst case scenario and calculate the potentially terrifying cost of inaction.
Step 4: Share your goals with a friend
When our goals are in our heads, there's no social risk when we don't get there. Once you share your goals, you'll feel some pressure to achieve them. The jury is still out on sharing your goal publicly, so don't litter your friends' news feeds yet. The Matthews study participants confided in a trusted companion, and those are the results you want to replicate, so tell your best friend and get on with it.
Step 5: Find an accountability partner and check in weekly
Having an accountability partner works because we're social animals, and we thrive when we're connected. There's also something about having to account for how things are progressing that motivates action. The people in Matthews's study sent weekly progress reports to a friend. To level up, enlist a friend who also wants to achieve a big goal. That way you'll know you can depend on them to keep you on the hook, especially if you offer to return the favor.
Priorities—the holy grail of goal setting
I imagine most of us have heard the idiom "get your priorities straight," perhaps in the context of overindulgence, but what is a priority and how does one get it straight? Are you ready for an etymology lesson? I can't say I blame you if you're not, but right now exploring the origin of the word "priority" serves a greater purpose. The secret is in the first syllable, which as it happens, means "in front of" or "first." My priority can either be walking my dog or curling up on my couch with a copy of The Other End of the Leash, but it can't be both.
This is not to say that we should strike the word "priorities" from the English language, because language evolves, but it is something to keep in mind when you're setting your goals. If you want to make progress toward your goal, you need to be able to identify your priority in every context and situation. And that's where the trouble can often lie. If you don't have a clear objective, you will be set adrift in a sea made up of everything you could ever want—or not want.
To get clear, get granular
The idea here is to let your goal guide you down to the granular level. For example, if my goal is to lose 10 pounds by April first, one of my daily action steps might be to pack a healthy lunch before work, so I'm not as tempted by Karen's seemingly endless supply of donuts (Thanks, Karen!). If I don't bring lunch, I'll eat more donuts, which while delicious, will not help me lose weight.
Revisit your timeline and whittle that big goal down into monthly, weekly, and finally, daily action steps. Once you have those daily action steps lined out, you must make sure they're congruent with your larger goal. And then make it happen—do the thing every day.
Your small, consistent actions over time will lead to big results
When you're in touch with the actions you need to take to reach your goal, you'll be able to make moment by moment decisions that keep you on track. Of course, there will be times when you're derailed, and that's normal. But if you follow Matthews's system and break your goals down into daily, weekly, and monthly action steps, you'll be well on your way to a waking life full of your wildest dreams.