5 Guidelines for Setting—and Achieving—Personal Goals

01/07/2020 Personal Growth Inspiration Personal Growth Goals Success Psychology

Are you getting ready to set personal goals for your health, career, relationships, or other areas of life? Here are five powerful guidelines to make your lifetime goals as effective as possible.

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You would never set out on a road trip without a map, so why would you live your life without goals? Understanding the importance of goal setting will help you to accomplish many life endeavors. Setting goals is a vital step in planning your future, and research supports greater success and achievement in people who get clear on where they are going. Whether you set goals around your personal relationships, career, or health, understanding how to become an effective goal setter will pave the way to your success.

Here are five guidelines for setting and achieving goals that will help you direct your life toward greater joy, achievement, and fulfillment.

1. Write Down Your Goals

Research has found that people who write down their goals are significantly more likely to achieve them than if they simply plan them out in their head. On the most basic level, it makes sense that when goals stay in your head, they fall into the category of “out of sight, out of mind.” By writing down your goals, you create a simple target at which to aim because you can literally see your thoughts.

On a deeper level, by writing down your long-term goals you are showing your commitment to achieving them. When you put pen to paper, you create a chain reaction that makes your goals come to life. Suddenly, you proclaim your goals to yourself and to the universe, making them much more potent and powerful. Put another way: if you are not willing to write your goals down, how can you be willing to go after them? Having written goals proves that you are taking them seriously.

Pro tip: When you are formulating your goals, write down on a scale of 1–10 your level of commitment to each goal. By getting honest with yourself, you can determine how likely you are to achieve them, before you even start the process.

2. Get Clear on Your Why

Long-term goals are not meant to be set just for the sake of setting them; they are meant to create meaning, purpose, and growth in your life. By asking yourself (and writing down) why you want to achieve your goals, you get to the heart of the matter and are far more likely to follow through when the going gets tough.

Here is an example: a common health-related goal is to lose weight. Rather than simply writing “lose 10 pounds,” get clear on why you want to achieve this goal in the first place. Some reasons might be “to feel more confident when I am intimate with my partner,” “to reduce my chance of heart disease since it runs in my family,” or to “have more energy to play with my grandkids.”

The more specific you are, the better. By tying your goal to the deeper reason behind it, you create focus and meaning for the direction of your life. If you don’t know why you want to achieve your goal, you can bet that it will get tossed by the wayside at the first sign of a challenge.

Pro tip: Spend some time journaling about what makes your goals so important to you. The deeper you go and the more specific you get with this task, the greater the chances are that you will succeed in your intentions.

3. Make Your Goals Tangible and Measurable

When it comes time for setting a goal, many people fall prey to optimism bias, in which they feel motivated to become a brand-new person or to completely change their lives. While optimism is a wonderful trait, making grand, sweeping goals is almost always unrealistic and unsustainable. Instead of trying to change your whole life all at once, come up with realistic, achievable goals that are specific and measurable.

If you’ve never run a mile before, it is unrealistic to set a goal to complete a marathon next week. Instead, set a goal to “run for 10 minutes every day to train for a marathon in one year.” You are far more likely to achieve a smaller, more attainable goal that will eventually lead up to one day achieving the larger goal; set yourself up for success, rather than failure.

Pro tip: The best goals follow the 50/50 rule, in which your goals have a 50 percent chance of being achieved. You want to be sure your goals are challenging enough that you will have to work to make them happen, but are also possible to achieve with some hard work and dedication. In the marathon example, you would adjust your goals over time as you build up your stamina, increasing your daily running time as you work toward your ultimate goal.

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4. Have a Plan for Overcoming Obstacles

Part of successfully achieving your goals is following through even when you want to give up. There will undoubtedly be days that something happens that could potentially derail your progress; life happens. The best thing to do is to plan ahead for when you will be faced with obstacles.

Perhaps your goal is to meditate every morning before your kids wake up. What happens when one of your kids gets sick and wakes you up before your morning alarm? The wisest thing you can do is to be realistic and anticipate these types of life events so you don’t waste precious energy being angry that life didn’t go according to your plan. In this case, writing down “if/then” statements will help to direct you when your plans don’t quite pan out. In this case, you could write “If I am unable to meditate first thing in the morning, then I will take 10 minutes during my lunch break for a guided meditation.” When the opportunity arises for you to put this into play, you can rest easy knowing you were prepared.

Pro tip: Any time you set a goal for every day, it is a good idea to have a backup plan for when life throws a surprise your way. Author Gretchen Rubin has a goal to exercise every day, with the caveat that she can skip a day, but never two days in a row. That way, she stays on track but is prepared for the unexpected twists and turns of life.

5. Hold Yourself Accountable

Do what you can to garner support from the like-minded people in your life. If you are studying for the bar exam, hook up with another classmate and hold each other accountable to your study schedule. If you are trying to get healthier, find a workout buddy to attend group fitness classes together. If you are moving toward a vegetarian lifestyle, get your partner on board, and cook your meals together. Many people find they are more likely to follow through on their goals when they have someone else to support and motivate them.

You can also hold yourself accountable by writing down your plans and action steps, with clear deadlines in place. A good old-fashioned list gives you the opportunity to check off your goals as you achieve them. If you have a daily habit goal, hang a calendar at your desk and make a big red X every time you take action.

Pro tip: Whatever your goal, you can bet you aren’t the first person to attempt it, so gather your forces to learn from those who have come before you. Perhaps your friend or coworker has some strategies of their own and can help you improve your chances of success. Or look to influencers, teachers, or people you admire to see how they handled similar situations. As the saying goes, you want to work smarter, not harder, so release the need to figure everything out on your own.

Get to It!

Don’t float through life without any direction—steer the ship where you want it to go. With focus, clarity, and hard work, believe that you have what it takes to live the life of your dreams. Remember that no one goes through life alone, so surround yourself with positive people who want to motivate you and see you succeed. Lead by example, and you’ll inspire others to follow suit. Pick up a pen and get to work—your future self will be so happy that you did.


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About the Author

Karson McGinley

Yoga Teacher and Life Coach
Karson McGinley is the founder of Happy-U Yoga (a Holistic Approach to Positive Psychology & Yoga), based in San Diego. A teacher for over a decade, Karson works to bridge the gap between the ancient wisdom of yoga and the modern science of human flourishing through her classes, regular contributions to the Chopra Center’s catalogue of wellness articles, and leading the Happy-U Yoga & Positive Psychology Teacher Training program. Karson teaches Hatha, Vinyasa, and Anusara Elements™ classes, inspired by the teachings of Classical and Tantric yogic philosophy, positive psychology, and metaphysical texts like A Course in Miracles . By sharing spiritual themes, scientific...Read more