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Goal Setting: How to Set Goals For Maximum Success

Posted by Seth Elliott On November - 10 - 2009

GoalGoals are the underpinning for any success. Your business, your athletics, you hobbies, your life itself are all keyed off of goal setting. Every successful person I know is incredibly goal oriented. Successful individuals determine their desires and focus intensely on achieving them.

The last twenty years have seen an explosion in goal setting evaluation. Indeed, a number of studies have shown empirical evidence that written goal setting provides significant improvement in achievement.

If you accept that goal setting and seeking is so valuable, you must be asking yourself “Why don’t more people set clearly defined goals?” I will tell you that even I am astonished by how often I encounter individuals (particularly entrepreneurs) floundering about in pursuit of some ambiguous “success,” rather than following a road-map that ends in specific goals. I think there are three primary obstacles that prevent people from focusing intensely on goal setting.

  1. They Don’t Know the Importance of Goals. Before you read the preceding section, how critical did you think it was to set goals in your personal and business lives? It seems that most people don’t realize the value of goal setting. Most Americans receive no formal education regarding goal setting in either high-school or college. Given this, many people are raised in households where goal setting is effectively non-existent. As adults, many individuals work in environments and socialize with friends where goal setting is never discussed or addressed. Still not convinced? Make a list of your family, friends and colleagues. How many people on your list do you think regularly engage in goal setting activities?

  2. They Don’t Know How. Once someone understands the power and value of goals, they often find themselves facing another obstacle – what to do next. I received a Bachelors Degree from a well regarded institution in Washington, D.C. and a MBA from one of the top ranked schools in the nation. In six years of post-secondary education, not once did I receive any instruction in regards to goal setting. It seems clear that one of the major reasons for lack of goal setting is that people don’t know how to set goals in the first place. Please note, I’m talking about properly constituted goals (see below). Almost everyone has daydreams or wishes. A desire to “be rich” or “famous” or even “happy” is not a goal, however. The lack of a process and framework for goal setting holds many people back from determining and achieving their goals.

  3. They Don’t Want to Fail. The third primary reason for the lack of goal setting has to do with fear. People are afraid of failing. After all, failure is highly unpleasant. It hurts emotionally when we fail at anything. We’ve all failed at something at one time or another in our lives. Think about your reaction after a failure (large or small). What do you do once you’ve overcome the initial burst of emotion? Most people focus on avoiding failure in the future so they don’t have to feel that emotional pain. One of the easiest ways of avoiding failure is not to overreach yourself. As a result, many people that have overcome the first two obstacles to goal setting stumble at the end. They set goals that are too easily achievable in order to avoid failure. People that “soft-pedal” their goal setting go through life without ever employing their full capabilities.

LEAP to Success

I like to advise beginning goal setters that they need to LEAP into the process. LEAP, of course, is an acronym that sets forth four (of six) primary components of good goals. In order to achieve your goals, they need to be: Likely, Exact, Assessable, Personal. And just as you must take the action to LEAP, your goals themselves must also be actionable. Let’s examine each of these components in a bit more detail before proceeding:

  1. Likely. Although goal setting should begin with an “all-is-possible” approach, your final goals will be specific and achievable. It is important to make your goals challenging but realistic. Goals should be rooted in the world as it actually exists, rather than how you’d like it to be. A friend of mine, Tara, decided she was overweight. She weighed 160 pounds and wanted to lose thirty pounds. After some research, Tara decided that she wanted to lose 2 ½ pounds per week for twelve weeks (I’ll address the proper phraseology of this goal shortly). While this was a challenging goal, it was realistic. Tara could likely achieve her goal, if she determined an action plan and followed through. On the other hand, if Tara had decided that her goal was to lose all the weight in two weeks, the likelihood of her achieving that goal would have been small indeed. Bear in mind that if you do not set goals that you are likely to achieve, you will end up demotivating yourself due to regular failure to meet your goals.

  2. Exact. Remember my comment earlier about daydreams and wishes? Goals must be specific and exact. “I want to be rich” or “I want to be famous” do not qualify as goals. Notice that Tara decided upon an exact weight goal (and specific weekly weight goals). Without setting forth specifics, you will be unable to achieve your goals (or even assess your progress – our next goal setting component). Although this component seems easy, sometimes people have trouble determining whether their goal is exact. Usually this means that either the goal itself needs clarification or their end-goal needs to be broken up into a series of actionable goals (or both). Andrew, a friend’s nephew that was about to graduate high school told me “My goal is easy. I want to be an actor.” Andrew was on the right track, but his goal was not specific enough. There are all types of actors, ranging from film mega-stars, to successful Broadway performers to regional stage actors. It turns out that Andrew’s goal was to become a film star. That’s specific and it may even be likely – in the long term. This type of goal (like many) requires additional goal setting in order to achieve. Andrew might decide that his next step is to set the goal of acting as the lead in 4 staged performances over the next twelve months, for example. In all cases, the more exact your goal the easier it will be for you to achieve it.

  3. Assessable. How will you know if you achieve your stated goal? If you miss your goal, is there any way for you to determine how close you came to success? Your goals must be assessable – another word for measurable – in order to be most effective for you. As you can see, if you’ve articulated exact goals, your ability to assess your progress will be much easier. Remember Tara’s weight loss? By setting forth specific weight targets, Tara can determine if she’s achieved her goal. If she misses her goal she will know by how much, and she can use that information to determine if her goals need to be adjusted in the future (if she loses 1 pounds per week instead of 2 ½ for several weeks, she may decide that 2 ½ pounds per week is not a likely goal). Occasionally, your goals will not be assessable in this fashion. This is why ALL your goals should include some form of time frame. At the very least, you will then be able to assess yourself against the timing goal that you have set.

  4. Personal. This final characteristic may not mean what you think. You’re probably thinking, of course my goals must be personal in nature – I’m not formulating goals for other people. While that is true, what we are talking about here extends that concept further. First, you should be personally responsible for your goals. As such, each and every goal you formulate should begin with “I.” Additionally, your goals (as much as possible) should be achievable for the most part by your own efforts. If you formulate goals that rely significantly upon the actions, agreements, etc. of other people, you will end up with less control of the process by which you achieve those goals. Without personal responsibility and action, your likelihood of completing your goals declines significantly.

The Power of Positive Action

The LEAP system is a very powerful methodology for formulating achievable goals. There are two additional characteristics that accompany any effective goal setting approach: positive perspective and action.

  • Positive Perspective. Believe it or not, many people that understand the value and process of goal setting still get it wrong. One of the biggest mistakes in formulating goals is phrasing the goal as a negative instead of a positive. Let’s return to Tara and her weight loss goal. In actuality, Tara’s goals do not involve losing weight. Instead, she needs to identify the weight that she wishes to achieve and use that as the basis for goal setting. In Lara’s case, her goal should be to weigh 130 pounds in twelve weeks (instead of losing thirty pounds during that time frame). Lara will set each week’s goal as a defined weight (e.g., 155 pounds after two weeks) instead of a loss number.

  • Action Oriented. Finally, you must remember that your goal setting must revolve around action. After you articulate your goals, you develop action plans to achieve them. Accordingly, every goal that you formulate should lend itself to actions designed to facilitate your goal completion. This is closely related to the personal component of the LEAP characteristic. If you formulate goals that depend upon extraneous events or other individuals, you will not be able to control your success. There are no passive goals.

By following the LEAP system and formulating goals that are action oriented with a positive perspective, you will be in advance of 95% of your peers. In future posts, I’ll explore vision and mission statements, as well as placing goals in the context of your personal and professional values.

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About the Author

I have spent the last 15 years advising entrepreneurs on starting and growing their businesses, as well as assisting in financing those growth efforts. I have also been an entrepreneur on several occasions myself. By writing this blog, I hope to provide actionable advice on how to achieve your goals and become more successful.

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