Five Tips for Setting and Achieving Goals

99% of people report falling short of goals they set, and the other 1% lie.*

(*This statistic is likely in the Journal of Made-up but Believable Statistics, if that journal existed.)CHIANGMAI THAILAND NOVEMBER 16  : thai people launching sky lant

Research shows that the happiest people tend to have clear goals for the day and challenging goals overall. Setting goals can help us prioritize things that are important and meaningful. And accomplishing goals not only brings a sense of achievement and mastery, but, also, increased confidence. (See Flourish, by Dr. Martin Seligman, professor and the “father of positive psychology,” and Creating Your Best Life, by Caroline Adams Miller.)

Here are 5 tips to help us in this important but difficult area of goal-setting and goal-achievement.

  1. Don’t make your goals too SMART.

The acronym SMART is a popular and helpful way to remember that goals should be Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic and Time-bound. However, if you only set goals that are Realistic, you may be settling for under-achieving and mediocrity.

No goals will likely lead to no results. Easy goals lead to low results and mediocrity. And big goals – even if you don’t achieve 100% success – lead to big results. So why not set big goals?

(For further reading, see goal-setting expert Caroline Adams Miller’s best-selling book Creating Your Best Life, as well as Locke’s and Latham’s Goal-Setting Theory and Jim Collins’ and Jerry Porras’ Big Hairy Audacious  Goal proposal in Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies.)

  1. Make your goals important … to you.

Your boss, organization, spouse, parent or someone else may tell you what your goals should be. But if you don’t own them yourself, then you will be far less likely to achieve them when the going gets tough. And, you will be less satisfied when you do achieve them.

So do what you need to do to make these goals important to you so that you can fully commit to them. Push back, tweak and personalize them, talk to mentors or try to convince someone else to adopt these goals, too; these can all be steps towards owning your goals. And, if you can’t own them, then it may be time for new goals.

  1. Schedule it.

Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek Church and author of Simplify: Ten Practices to Unclutter your Soul, tells about the time he set a goal of being a better and more involved dad. Up to that point, he had set goals and a schedule in his work and career but not in his personal life. He felt compelled to shift his schedule to spend 4 evenings a week at home with his family; he marked his calendar accordingly and protected the time. He believes this practical but powerful step of scheduling helped him set the stage to accomplish this goal – even though it was difficult and required some tough choices in other areas.

  1. Reconcile hidden or competing goals.

Often, a goal we set will require us to make a change. And change is usually challenging. Leadership expert Ronald Heifetz distinguishes two types of changes: technical and adaptive. A change is technical in nature when the solution may be straightforward and require acquiring knowledge or analyzing information. However, an adaptive change requires a deeper solution, such as adopting a deeply held belief or mindset.

When we set a goal that requires adaptive change, we often run into what authors Kegan and Lahey call our Immunity to Change. These authors describe an emotional immune system that may be powered by hidden or competing commitments that derail our attempts to accomplish new goals. (See Steve Safigan’s helpful article for more on this topic.)

These hidden or competing commitments aren’t necessarily “bad.” One common example is the working parent who has a goal of being promoted next year. He realizes that accomplishing this will likely require 60+ hours of work per week with several evening commitments. Yet he is also deeply committed to being a good parent to his young kids, and he believes part of this means seeing the kids off to school, attending most of their after-school events, eating dinner with them and reading bedtime stories to them.

Until he clarifies and reconciles these competing commitments, he will likely experience frustration, guilt and disappointment in both goal areas.

  1. Go public with your goal.

Telling your goal to someone else amps up the motivation and accountability for you to achieve it. Here’s one example: a leader completes a 360 degree feedback process and circles back to those who provided feedback to tell them what themes she heard from them and what development goals she’s set as a result. If she “goes public” like this about her goals and follows up later to ask for their input about whether they see progress on her goals, then she will be more likely to make progress against these goals. And she’ll also likely receive higher marks from assessors in the next 360 assessment. (See Leadership is a Contact Sport, by Marshall Goldsmith and Howard Morgan.)

Setting and achieving goals can be difficult and costly. But following these tips can help you realize the pay-off.

Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults. In his work as a leadership consultant and executive coach, he often helps his clients set and achieve meaningful goals. You can reach him at or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr.