The Art and Science of Goal Setting

Setting and achieving goals has been an important activity in my life. I’ve noticed that I achieve things if I write them down as a goal. Of course, I also achieve things (some that I wish I hadn’t “achieved”) that weren’t written, but what intrigues me is the simple fact of capturing something I want for my future by adding it to a list has corresponded with achieving that goal.

Though just making a list seems to be effective in achieving goals, I’ve learned there’s much more I can do to bring about the end results I want. This post summarizes much of what I’ve learned about identifying, setting, and achieving life goals.

Why Set Goals?

“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” ~ Lewis Carroll

Do you need goals? No, not at all, especially if you’re satisfied with your life just as it is. Most of us aren’t though, we see things we want, things we want to change, and things we want to give up. But setting and achieving goals is a choice. Having no goals is like leaving the house each morning with no direction or destination in mind, just traveling, following instinctive urges to stop, start, or change directions. There’s nothing wrong with that approach to life. It’s just not my way.

I like to be in control of my life to the extent that’s possible given all the things not in my control. Setting goals for my life gives me the feeling that I’m in control. (At this point, higher powers in the Universe are smiling condescendingly.)

Important Questions to Ask

There are four very important questions to ask yourself about any goal you intend to pursue. These are:

  • Whose goal is it?
  • Why do you want to achieve this goal?
  • Is the goal energizing?
  • Can you see yourself there?

Asking yourself these four questions and patiently uncovering your answers will set the stage for success; your goals will be challenging, energizing, and achievable.

Get the Time and Energy for Change

7773608896_aafb19567a_GoalYou may have some interest in change but feel you lack the time and energy to undertake major goals. Maybe you’ve been putting off a life goal until you have more time and energy. If so, you’ll be encouraged to know that you need not wait any longer.

Goals and the goal setting process will generate the energy you’re looking for. The act of moving from a hazy dream to a specific and concrete goal cranks up your energy generator.

Don’t worry about finding the time to work on the goal now that you’re energized, you’ll find that you make the time. And it won’t feel like you’re sacrificing. You’ll give up time-wasters, such as TV and whiny friends , and you’ll find blocks of time previously occupied with activities less important and less valuable to you than your new goal.

If you find time and energy still an obstacle, it’s likely the goal you’ve set isn’t really your goal. See the Common Goal Setting Mistakes section below.

The Prevailing Goal Setting Process – SMART

A prominent and often suggested guideline for goal setting uses the SMART acronym. It’s not the only way and may not even be the best way to set your goals, but SMART goal setting has some definite benefits. SMART is a catchy acronym for: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time (oriented).

The power of SMART is that it reminds you to set specific, detailed description goals, such as losing ten pounds, not just losing weight. Being measurable allows you to measure progress, and what you measure you tend to accomplish. It’s important that goals be achievable by you, because human nature will not allow you to devote time and energy to something you don’t really believe in. The time component commits you to the goal, assuming it’s a near-term date.

The Hazards and Pitfalls of SMART

The benefits of SMART are well documented. However, there are also some pitfalls and hazards in using this process for personal development goals.

SMART requires me to set a definite time to achieve my goal. This is a form of accountability, but it also provides an out for the subconscious. If the time target I set is too far out I can easily convince myself that I’ll work on it tomorrow or next week. If I put it off I might find myself realizing, too late, that now I don’t have enough time to accomplish it. The result of this is frustration and I am likely to give up or change the target date, which may start the procrastination cycle all over again.

SMART completely ignores very powerful—perhaps the most powerful—forces we possess for accomplishing what we want: Faith and Attraction. SMART is entirely a left-brain process using linear, logical thinking, logical analysis, and rational conception. SMART ignores the power of emotion, vision, faith, and attraction in human goal achievement.

The following method, SAFE, combines the left-brain features of SMART with right-brain powers and may be a more effective goal achievement process, especially for creative types.

Using Faith, Magic, and Attraction – The SAFE Method

SAFE is an acronym for See the end result, Accept it, Feel it, and Express it. SAFE brings into play the full power of the entire brain, analytical/logical and intuitive/visionary. Creative types may prefer SAFE since it builds on strengths they normally use, but analytical types can benefit by using SAFE to expand their ability to use whole brain functions for improved performance.

Don’t be surprised if you’re thinking to yourself you’ve never heard of SAFE. Most haven’t. I invented it. It hasn’t found traction (yet) in the literature, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be helpful to you. Try it.

The Role of Affirmations, Prayers, and Visualization

Whether playing it SAFE or SMART, affirmations, prayers, and visualization are powerful allies you’ll want on your side. Affirmations and prayers are two different versions of the same approach. Both recognize the power of declaring that what you want is available to you when you are open to receiving it.

An affirmation begins with I am. What follows after I am is your goal, but you state it as if it is already accomplished. For example, I am fit, trim, and looking good at 170 pounds. Or, I am the owner of a successful massage therapy business.

Prayers, like affirmations, acknowledge the goal is achieved, but are expressed as gratitude to a higher power. For example, thank you God for my good health, fitness, and attractiveness at my new weight of 170 pounds. Or, thank you God for my success as owner of a massage therapy business.

Visualization of your goal is very important. If you can’t picture yourself there, you won’t be able to achieve the goal. Visualization assures that the goal is specific and you have enough detail to be able to see it clearly. It’s not just the wisp of a dream, it’s a vivid picture filled out in brilliant color and detail.

Big Goals Little Goals

Never Too Old for GoalsThere are goals and then there are Goals. Little “g” goals address rather modest lifestyle changes, and are therefore more easily accomplished. These might include improved personal hygiene such as daily flossing, regular medical checkups, upgrading a wardrobe, or watching less TV.

Big G goals are more life altering, and therefore tend to be more difficult to accomplish but more rewarding if successful. These might include getting out of debt, stopping smoking, ceasing substance abuse, finding life purpose, getting a degree, settling down in a relationship, or leaving a bad relationship.

When you select a goal, it is useful to recognize whether it’s a big G or little g goal. Big G goals are tougher to accomplish. If your goal is to lose fifty pounds but you’ve never succeeded in losing weight before and keeping it off, perhaps you will be better served by deferring this Big G goal and setting a smaller goal of limiting daily fat consumption or having just one dessert a week. Succeeding at this goal will give you the confidence to take on bigger goals.

What Science Has to Say

Fortunately, personal development and growth is attracting the interest of scientists. Previously the purview of self-help gurus alone, information from the field of Positive Psychology brings us personal development suggestions that have undergone rigorous research validation.

The entire process of major lifestyle change has been studied and out of that we now have a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t. Undertaking a major life change without incorporating research findings may undermine your chances of successful goal attainment. A landmark book on successful change is James Prochaska’s Changing for Good.

Common Goal Setting Mistakes

We sometimes fail to achieve our goals. These six mistakes often account for our goal failures:

  • The goal is vague and general
  • The goal is not really our goal
  • We shared our goal with the wrong people
  • We tried to stop a behavior without providing a substitute
  • We failed to recognize the fears associated with some aspect of achieving the goal
  • The goal was too difficult or too easy

Develop a Support Network

For very tough goals, those Big G goals described above, consider your support network. The energy and enthusiasm you feel in the few early days or weeks when you work toward a challenging goal will fade at some point. When that occurs, and it will, a support network is critical.

Who will unconditionally support and encourage you even when you backslide? Who will listen and re-affirm you when you have doubts? Who can be your silent partner with no other agenda than to help you achieve your goal?

Think carefully about this as you begin working toward a Big G goal; it will be critical to your success.

An alternative to using a spouse, relative, or friend as your support network may be a professional personal coach. Hiring a good personal coach can bring you someone experienced at helping people make life changes. A trained personal coach will have the ability to keep you on track, motivated, and encouraged.

Because a coach has experience and no agenda other than your success, you may want to consider using a coach in addition to your personal network of support. For tough goals, the more help the better.


Featured image courtesy Flikr user blackplastic CC Attr; goal;

Goal image courtesy Flikr user Sean MacEntee CC Attr; goal;

Never too old image courtesy Flikr user BK, CC Attr Lic

Transform Your Habits by James Clear

Mindset by Carol Dweck

Changing for Good by James Prochaska

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