Personal Goal Setting: Why, How to and (much, much) more

Personal goal setting

"If you don’t know where you are going, you will probably end up somewhere else." – Lawrence J. Peter

You might brim with creative and constructive energy. You might have figured out all the intricacies of time management. You might have optimized your productivity to the max. You still need to focus your energy - or it very likely will be misdirected. Goal setting is the methodology to do just that.

This article will show you everything you need to know about personal goal setting. And quite a bit more. It explains why it is important to set goals, covers the different types of goals that there are, what timeframes you should think in, what makes a great goal, how to choose goals and how to achieve them, factors for long term success, helpful tools and pointers for further deep dives.

Table of contents

Why is goal setting important?

The importance of personal goal setting boils down to two basic aspects: Taking control of your life and optimizing your productivity.

If you don’t have goals in your life, you will basically be adrift. This can actually feel relaxing in the short-term - you don’t have to make hard decisions about your direction, take things as they come. Unfortunately, it is also quite risky in the long-term. If you decide later on that you want to be somewhere else indeed, changing direction might be much harder than if you had steered this way from the beginning. For example, by the time you realize that your comfy unchallenging job will not satisfy or support you till retirement, a career change might not be that easy anymore.

"If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much." – Jim Rohn

You will also be much more productive with regard to your chosen goals. Research has shown that people who set goals are way more likely to achieve them. Having defined your goals gives you focus. You can more easily balance the everyday responsibilities, recognize what advances your interests and be generally less impulse-controlled.

Note that all this does not imply that you need to turn yourself into a workaholic. The point of personal goal setting is to take control of your life and getting the most out of it. It is up to you to choose an intensity that is right for you. It is perfectly fine to set goals that go hand in hand with a leisurely lifestyle. The important thing is that you make a strategic decision to do so. Because otherwise, circumstances will decide for you - which will rarely be in your best interest.

Types of goals

So what kind of goals can you set? There is no universally accepted classification. There are, however, a few commonly used categories.

Temporal: Short term, long term and lifetime

A very common categorization follows the time frames for which goals are set.

Short term goals are those that you want to accomplish within a few months or up to two years. Careful though: Do not confuse goals for the very short term with tasks or todo list items. Short term goals (like all goals) should define a desired outcome or state, not a task. More about that later.

Long term goals are more aspirational. They typically take at least a year to accomplish but are more commonly targeted at 5 years. Sometimes they can even span decades. Use these to follow your dreams, like building a company or buying a house.

When your perspective is even longer than long-term, we are talking about lifetime goals. Things that you want to achieve in your lifetime. This might be your legacy or grand personal achievements. e.g. give your children everything they need for a fulfilled life, win a world championship, life off passive income.

An alternative terminology for these categories is short term, intermediate-term (long term above) and long term goals (lifetime above).

Contextual: Personal, business, professional, career

Our life is typically divided into the personal and work-related domains.

Personal goal setting revolves around what you want to achieve besides professional success. Achievements in your hobbies or sports come to mind. Family, personal development, finances and health are more areas for which people often set personal goals.

Career, professional and business goals are a bit tricky to distinguish because they all are work-related. Career goals, as the name implies, focus on furthering your career. They are the bridge between personal goals and work-related goals because they focus on your personal career, not the company you work for. Examples would be getting promoted, negotiating a pay raise, taking on more responsibilities.

Professional goals are closely related. The key difference is that these do not necessarily involve improving your personal career. Professional goals can be assigned to you by your superiors to achieve some business goal. e.g. improving customer satisfaction by 20% or establishing a quality assurance process. Ideally, there is some alignment between your professional goals and career goals.

Business goals are not the goals of a person, but of a business. If you are self-employed business goals are your own goals as well. In larger organizations, business goals get broken down into sub-goals which are then assigned to teams or individuals.

Topical: Health, learning, fitness, etc

Another extremely common goal categorization is by topic. Compared to the other categorizations, this one splits goals into plenty of subgroups. The exact categories vary depending on who you ask and many people make up their own. These are the most common:

  • Family
  • Fitness
  • Health
  • Learning
  • Finance
  • Social
  • Spiritual
  • Career
  • Lifestyle
  • Intellectual
  • Personal growth
  • Relationship
  • Retirement
  • Leisure

Outcome, process and performance

Thinking of goals in outcome, process and performance is predominantly common in sports.

Outcome goals describe the desired end state. For example, winning a tournament, finish in the top 10, hit a sales milestone.

Performance goals are benchmarks in your performance that you want to achieve. Like running 5k in 20 minutes, having a 3% conversion rate.

Process goals define how you want to get there. e.g. make 60 sales calls per day, run every morning.

Less common types

While most people think of goals in the categories mentioned above, there are plenty of other taxonomies that you might come across:

  • Being goals, doing goals, achieving goals, having goals
    Being goals describe the person that you want to be; your values; your qualities. Doing goals are about the activities in your life that you want to execute. Achieving goals are milestones or events that you want to happen. Having goals are about possessions or material gains that you want to achieve.
  • End goals, means goals
    End goals capture the desired outcome, the “what” of your aspiration. Means goals describe the milestones of how you want to get there, the “how” of your aspiration.
  • Strategic goals, objectives
    Similarly, strategic goals describe the destination, while objectives define measurable milestones on your way to your strategic goal.
  • Active and passive goals
    Passive goals define a state. Something you want to be or have. Active goals are activities that you want to be engaged in.
  • Positive and negative goals
    Negative goals focus on things you want to avoid like “stop being a couch potato”. Positive goals focus on gains and achievements like “run 3 times a week”.
  • Visions and action goals
    Similar to end goals and mean goals, or strategic goals and objectives; visions capture your big aspirations, the desired achievements while action goals are the milestones on the way to your vision.
  • Quantitative and qualitative goals
    Quantitative goals are defined by a clear measure like “earn $100k+/year”. Qualitative goals are more subjective and require judgment to define success. An example would be “find a satisfying job”.

What type of goal should I use?

Now that you have been adequately swamped by all these types of goals you might be wondering which approach is the best one to use. Fortunately, you do not have to make a strict decision. You can use many of these categorizations in parallel to help frame your thinking.

What you should do is taking your time defining your big goals. In the frameworks above these would be the long-term and lifetime goals, end goals, strategic goals and visions. Always make sure that these are clear before moving on to short term or means goals. Otherwise, you risk losing sight of where you want to go - which is one of the main advantages of goal setting.

When you use Focality to achieve your aspirations, only the big goals are indeed called “goals”. The milestones on your way to achieving those and other more mundane tasks are called “objectives”. You always have your goals in view while planning your objectives. This helps to keep the end in mind and stops you from getting lost in obligations of daily life.

What makes a great goal?

With this framing to think about your goals, you are ready to jump into the goal setting process. When you go about defining your goals you are probably wondering how exactly a great goal looks like. What are the attributes of great goals?

SMART goals

The most common framework for defining great goal qualities is called SMART. SMART is an acronym that usually stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.

Over time, the acronym accrued several alternative interpretations. Wikipedia has a great overview of the most common meanings and alternatives:

  • Specific
    or strategic and specific
  • Measurable
    or motivating
  • Achievable
    or attainable; Assignable; agreed; action-oriented; ambitious; aligned with corporate goals; agreed, attainable and achievable
  • Relevant
    or realistic; resourced; reasonable; realistic and resourced; results-based
  • Time-bound
    or time-limited; time-based; time-oriented; time/cost limited; timely; time-sensitive; timeframe; trackable; testable

Read on to learn more about the SMART goal attributes as well as even more helpful characteristics of great goals.

Specific

Make sure that your goal is really clear. Sometimes we fall into the trap of chasing vague ideas of a goal. You need to make sure that you understand what exactly it is that you want to accomplish.

“Getting rich” is not specific. What is rich? Do you want to be a millionaire? A billionaire? Live off passive income? Earn 6-figures? These all require different strategies. So make sure to be specific.

Measureable

Remember the categories of quantitative and qualitative goals? Measurable goals are quantitative. There is an exact measure that shows when you have achieved your goal. Without ambiguity.

Depending on what you want to achieve, finding a measure can be challenging. Although the SMART methodology requires goals to be measurable, you should take this attribute with a grain of salt. For example, if your goal is to become more resilient, how do you know if you succeeded? Having a purely qualitative goal is all right.

Do not give up on measurability too soon, though. With a little thought, you can find a measure for most goals. “Become a better public speaker” can turn into “Improve my average feedback rating after public talks by 30%”.

Ambitious / challenging

Something that can be done easily is not a goal, it is a task. Goals should be ambitious to motivate you to get the most of your potential. Without a challenge, you don’t leave your comfort zone and have a harder time progressing. To lean on Steve Job’s words, you should try to make a dent in the universe.

Achievable

"Keep your eyes on the stars, but remember to keep your feet on the ground." – Theodore Roosevelt

Actually, opinions are a bit split on this one. The origins of the SMART criteria are corporate goal setting. So if you set goals for this quarter, you definitely want them to be achievable. Employees who keep failing at their goals won’t stay motivated for long. Even then, the bar should not be set too low to encourage the best performance.

"A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at." – Bruce Lee

On the other hand, many people prefer to set egregiously big goals. Elon Musk aims to make humankind an interplanetary species, to cite just one example. For him, this is achievable - imperative even.

So you need to find the right balance for you. Big enough to motivate you to greatness and grounded enough to see a path to success.

Relevant

This one is kind of obvious. It is difficult (to say the least) to achieve goals that are not relevant to you. You will have to expend a lot of energy and stay motivated over a long period to complete your quest. If your goal has no relevance to you, why bother? The whole point of personal goal setting is to guide your way and keep you motivated. Do not choose a goal that leads you astray or sabotages your motivation.

Time-bound

The time frame will influence your strategy for achieving your goal. You will have to act differently if you have one year than if you have five years.

There is also the huge danger of postponing your dreams because “something urgent came up”. It is much easier to resist the urge of the urgent when your dreams have a deadline.

Personal

As mentioned, the SMART framework has its origin in the corporate world. If you are setting goals for yourself, make sure that they are really yours. Make it personal.

Valuable

Similarly, you should set valuable goals. What do you get out of it by achieving your goal? This does not have to be material gain, there is plenty of immaterial value to be gained. Be it emotional, spiritual or other.

Inspiring

Your goals should inspire. Inspire you, but ideally also inspire others. You will need the support of your peers at some point in your journey - this will be way easier if they can feel the vision of your goal.

Think about how to explain your goal to other people. Our inside-view, while inspiring to ourselves, is often not easily accessible to others. Spending a little time clarifying your vision will do wonders.

Positive

Although the term “positive thinking” has taken on a bit of a cliche at this point, it is actually grounded in research. Framing your goals in a positive way (achieving something vs. e.g. stop doing something) will set you in the right frame of mind to succeed.

Aligned

Make sure that your goals are aligned with who you are, your values, your path in life. Sometimes it can be tempting to pursue something that is, when inspected closely, not really aligned with yourself. Maybe a very lucrative project which plays a bit too loose with your ethics or does not go well with your character. Avoid those and choose goals that align well with yourself.

Timeframes / Deadlines

We already learned that goals can be categorized by timeframes and that time-bound is an important attribute. Goals with a deadline are much more likely to be accomplished and a deadline guides you while prioritizing your daily responsibilities.

So what are good timeframes?

There are two fundamental approaches to timeframes in personal goal setting:

  • Define a timeframe for a chosen goal
  • Define goals for given time frames

Define a timeframe for a chosen goal

Say you have set the goal to become a master broomball player. How long will it realistically take you to achieve mastery?

To make an educated guess (also known as an “estimate”) you can break your goal down into smaller steps. Lay out a path to your goal and estimate how long each step will take you. Don’t forget to plan for some delays or you will be behind schedule pretty quickly.

Note that some goals come with a “natural” deadline. Want to run the Boston marathon? It has a date that is not negotiable. You should still go through the process to make sure / guess that you can make it till the deadline.

Define goals for given time frames

Know the famous interview question “Where do you see yourself in five years”? It might be cliche, but it is indeed a good question. It boils down to what goal setting is all about: To know where you are going. To paraphrase Lawrence J. Peter's quote, if you do not know where you want to be in five years, you will probably be somewhere else.

So go through the most important time frames and see if you have a vision for them. Maybe you already set goals to cover these. If not, think about what you want to achieve until then.

Here are some common periods to inspire your personal goal setting:

  • Today*
  • This week*
  • This month*
  • This year*
  • In five years
  • In ten years
  • In 25 years
  • Until retirement
  • Within my lifetime

* These would be rather short-term goals. Focality, which will help you manage your life with purpose, calls these operational goals objectives to make a clear distinction.

The personal goal setting process in 3 steps

Now that you know all about what makes a great goal it is time to start choosing your goals.

First of all, take your time. Goal setting isn’t something that should be done on a whim. If you can’t wait to get started, set a few short-term goals (Focality makes this easy) while you work on your long-term strategy. Hint: Defining a long-term strategy is in itself a worthwhile goal.

There are three basic steps in the personal goal setting process:

  1. Understand
  2. Collect & create
  3. Prioritize

Understand yourself

To set the right goals for yourself, you must first understand yourself. What makes you tick? What motivates you? What is important to you?

Without this knowledge, you risk setting the wrong goals. Goals that sound nice on paper, goals that other people like, goals that are rooted in peer pressure. Goals need to be your own though.

To get a better understanding of what is important to you, define your core values. If you don’t want to do this freestyle there are some great resources out there that help you through the process. For example here is a simple 5-step process for defining your values. There’s also Schwartz’s Theory of Basic Human Values which identifies ten universal values you can prioritize and is based on extensive scientific study. And last but not least see our list of 570 personal core values for inspiration.

Create a list of possible goals

First, collect ideas for goals. Don’t decide if you want to pursue each goal just yet. You want to compile an extensive list so that you have a great base for a decision later. Do not worry about how you will get there or any specifics. Just focus on compiling an extensive list.

You can use the classical brainstorming technique and/or use goal setting questions to inspire ideas:

  • What do I want people to remember of me?
  • What is my ideal job description?
  • Where do I want to be in 5/10/20 years?
  • What do I enjoy doing the most?
  • What is the one thing that I should change about my life?
  • What would I do if I knew I could not fail?
  • What do you not like about yourself?
  • Which parts of my life conflict with my values?
  • > More goal setting questions

Do not rush this process. Collect ideas, then step away from the list and go about your life. Keep thinking. New ideas will come to mind, others will change. Our mind is remarkable in coming up with new ideas while doing something else - hence the famous shower thoughts.

Prioritize

By now you should have a list of potential goals that comprise much more than you can possibly accomplish. It is time to filter and prioritize.

Now you can start to think more critically. Let’s start with a quick elimination round. Go through your list of goals one by one. For each one, ask yourself:

  • Is this aligned with my values?
  • Is it relevant?
  • Is it worth my time?

If you answered “no” to any of these questions, remove the goal from your list.

Now sort the remaining goals by relevance. Here are a few pointers to help you judge.

Is it worth the sacrifice?

Any sufficiently challenging goal requires sacrifice. You will have to invest resources, be it time or/and money, that you could have invested elsewhere. There will be opportunity cost - the gains you would have received if you invested your resources in something else. So the big question is: Is this goal worth it?

Is it sustainable?

Similarly, is the required effort sustainable? Healthy in the long term? If your goal requires you to work 100 hours per week for many years, this is not sustainable. Elon Musk might be able to do this - juggling space exploration and transport electrification at the same time - and be a great source of inspiration for us all. But for most people, such workloads are a recipe for disaster. You will not achieve your goal if you burn out along the way.

Imagine your future once you have achieved this goal

How would your life look if you achieved this goal? How different would it be? How excited are you about your future life? If there is not much difference you should question whether this is truly a worthwhile goal.

Imagine your future without having achieved this goal

Do the same exercise in reverse: If you don’t do it - how would your world look like? Scary thought? Then this is a candidate for high priority. Doesn’t matter? Maybe it’s not that important after all.

Jeff Bezos’ Regret Minimization Framework

Relatedly, the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, described his decision to found Amazon by using what he called a regret minimization framework. He wants to look back at his life at age 80 and have as few regrets as possible. Suddenly, many things take a different perspective that otherwise might be clouded in short term worries. In Bezos’ case, he came to the conclusion that not founding Amazon - no matter if he failed or succeeded - would haunt him. While giving up his cushy, well-paying, steady career to chase this dream would probably not end in regrets - even if Amazon would not play out. You can listen to Bezos explaining this himself:

So imagine yourself at age 80. Would you regret setting this goal? Or would you regret not to?

Decision trees

If you managed to trim your list down to just a few options you can use a decision tree to decide which goal is the most promising one. Decision trees are used to help with decisions involving multiple steps. So you will have to think a little further and have to make some projections. As a result, you will have a clearer understanding of the possible scenarios.

Buffet’s 5/25 rule

There is an inspiring story floating around about a piece of advice Warren Buffet once gave to his pilot Mike Flint, who had been flying for him for more than 10 years. Worried about his career progression (“The fact that you’re still working for me tells me I’m not doing my job.”), he asks him to write down his 25 most important goals. Then he asks him to choose the 5 most important ones of that list. The clue? He instructs Flint to actively avoid the 20 unchosen ones. Do nothing for those, even if he has some spare time. Achieving the 5 chosen goals will require all his focus and the rejected 20 goals will produce the most tempting distractions.

Achieving goals

Strictly speaking, this would conclude your goal setting process. You have found and set your goals. Of course, the next part of the journey is to actually achieve them.

Much of this will depend on your actual goal. Here are some domain-independent strategies that will help you succeed.

Plan proactively

The whole point of personal goal setting is to take control of your life and proactively steer it where you want to go. It is not enough though to just set these goals. You need to keep planning constantly. There will be challenges, other things will battle for your attention and your path might not be as clear as you initially thought.

Make a habit of always having a plan. What do you want to achieve today? This week? This month? Focality makes this easy.

Visualize the way

A common technique in goal setting is to visualize your goals. Paint a vivid picture in your mind that shows your future having achieved your goal. Doing this frequently helps to keep your eyes on the ball and primes your subconscious to keep working on it.

Here’s a lesser-known twist, though: Don’t just visualize the outcome, visualize the way. The way is what gets you to your goal, so this is what you should focus on. Visualize the process and important decision points. This will help you master your progress, especially in more challenging times.

Break things down

"Most impossible goals can be met simply by breaking them down into bite-size chunks, writing them down, believing them and going full speed ahead as if they were routine." – Don Lancaster

For every goal, there is a series of actionable steps that lead to the desired outcome. The better you understand these steps, the easier it is to achieve your goal.

First, define the major milestones that you need to achieve. Then keep breaking those down even more into sub-milestones. Repeat this process until you get chunks small enough that they can easily be done.

You do not need to break every milestone down at once. This would lead to a hard to manage volume of steps. You can work at different levels of abstraction. What is important is that you always know your next step. Worry later about steps that are far out in the future.

An easy way to do this is deep planning. Don’t create long sequences of steps that would constantly need to be adjusted. Instead, think in layers of timeframes. What do I want to achieve this year that brings me closer to my goal? This month? This week? Today? With Focality you can easily create such deep plans and follow through on them.

Use the power of habits

Humans are creatures of habit. Use this to your advantage. Think about what parts of your goal can benefit from a habit. This is typically easiest for fitness goals. Frequent running is a habit. It can be more challenging with other goals. Founding a company is not easily transformable into habits. But even there you will find opportunities for habit building. Start each day with 5 sales calls. Or with a tweet.

If you struggle with establishing habits, the books Tiny Habits and Atomic Habits are great resources to improve your habit building.

Focus on process / build systems

In motivational theory, there is the advice to focus on process, not outcome. Obviously, this is a bit conflicting with goal setting theory. You definitely should place emphasis on your goals - which are the outcome. However, the underlying advice is sound. As mentioned above in the context of visualizing, it takes a toll on your motivation if you only focus on the destination - simply because a well-chosen goal will always be challenging and take a lot of energy to achieve.

Do focus on your way to your goals. Because this is how you will get to your goals. And don’t just try to map out one single path. Try to build a process, a system. A tool that will get you where you need to go.

Here’s a helpful article that will help you leverage systems thinking for goal setting: Systems Thinking — The Essential Mental Models Needed for Growth

No more zero days

Another inspiring technique is called “no more zero days”. It is meant for those of you who aspire to achieve the one great goal and not quite so for many goals in parallel.

The basic gist is to make sure that every single day you do something to bring you closer to your goal. Never stop. If you can’t do much, do a little or even tiny bit. But never let progress towards your goal on any given day be zero.

This concept started as a comment on reddit but since then took a life on its own. There’s a subreddit, countless articles and even an app.

Don’t give up on your goal but consider alternative paths

“Be stubborn on the vision, but flexible on the details.” - Jeff Bezos

Sometimes it can be challenging to find the right balance between stubbornness and flexibility. It is important to be persistent so that you do not stray from your goal in the face of difficulties. To achieve big goals you need to be stubborn.

How you achieve your goals, on the other hand, is subject to change. Along the way, you will learn, make new experiences, get new information. The strategies you chose might turn out to be inadequate. Don’t cling to them once you realize that there is a better way.

Be extra careful when balancing multiple goals

Avoid setting more goals than necessary. Balancing multiple goals at once is hard. Still, it is often not possible to limit oneself to just one goal. Many people fail to divide their attention adequately. Here are some tips on how to deal with multiple goals.

Be careful not to be consumed by a single one of your goals. Often, there is one goal that stands out. That inspires you the most. That is the most exciting challenge. It is easy to forget everything else. Don’t. Plan your time proactively. Decide how much effort you want to invest in each goal and then plan accordingly.

Plan frequently. At the start of each day (or the evening before), define what you want to accomplish. This is the moment to consciously take a look at your goals and make sure that all are represented adequately. Do the same for each week and each month. Focality makes this easy.

Reflect frequently

Goal setting revolves about not being blind regarding where you want to go. There is another common blind spot though: How you are getting there. It is important to look ahead, but every once in a while also look back. Take a good look at what you have done and how it panned out. Learn from it. Make your next steps even better.

This resonates closely with the recommendation to build processes and systems. You and your actions are a system. Optimize it. Get better at what you do. To do that, you have to take a step back and reflect.

A good time to do this is at the end of each planning period. Think about what you wanted to achieve. Have you achieved it? If not, what was the reason? What was good about this period? What was not? What can you do differently next time?

If you use Focality, you can also learn from the aggregated stats of your plans. Is there a goal where you are more often failing your objectives than with other goals? How much can you set out to do before your plans start breaking down? Are there recurring reasons that cause you to trip up? Use these learnings to find the issues that are most promising to work on. And take a look at your aggregated good moments to get a boost of motivation and happiness.

Further reading

Still hungry for more information about personal goal setting? Here are some more resources to still your hunger. Watch out for analysis paralysis though.

Motivational quotes

Much has been said about goal setting by many people. Learn from their motivational quotes.

Book recommendations

It’s hard to keep track of the avalanche of productivity books. If you want to drink from the firehose, take a look at the Goodreads list of goal setting books. Read on for some recommendations.

Tiny Habits

Much of our actions are controlled by habits. Actions that we should be taken as well as those that should be avoided. Tiny Habits will show you a captivating to establish new habits by building them up starting from a tiny version of the desired habit.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Don’t let yourself be fooled by the ill-chosen title. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is not actually about habits. Nor does it talk overly much about famous effective people. It describes the principles and strategies behind living a successful and satisfying life.

First published in 1989, Stephen Cophey’s book became a classic reading in the productivity space. Despite its age, it is still valuable and applicable today.

Goal setting research

A LOT of studies have been done on the topic of goal setting. Research papers are usually a challenging read, but if you want to dive in deep they are the way to go.

You can use Google Scholar to search through academic papers.

Dive into personal goal setting

Focality

Take your personal goal setting to the next level and sign up for Focality. Focality helps you to set and achieve goals. Shape your life proactively by creating plans for each day, week, month and year with ease. Reflect frequently and learn from data-driven insights. Focus on what is important. Improve yourself, become more successful and balanced.

Start setting and achieving your goals now