Goal Setting, Defined and Deconstructed


Many people are setting goals for the new year. I have been thinking about my goals: ones that I am contemplating now; those achieved in the last year; some abandoned; and a few unattained but possible. I realized that the type of goal, rather than its real or perceived difficulty, is a good predictor of fulfillment or frustration. Here are ways to define goals, deconstruct them, and plan for success. 

Process vs. Results-oriented Goals

Process goals are like resolutions. I might resolve to do strength training two times each week, and run or go to a cycle class three times per week. Or, I might decide to eliminate chocolate and ice cream from my diet, all but one time per week. A job seeker might decide to begin networking a few hours each week and set up at least four informational interviews each month.

Results-oriented goals are usually dependent on processes or a series of actions but are considered achieved based solely on the outcome. Examples are a certain weight lifted, race finished, or pounds lost. A job seeker may be successful if he or she lands a position with a certain organization or a specific salary (or gets any job at all).

Unless standards are set very low, the process goal is more readily achieved than the results-oriented goal because processes are more controllable than outcomes. However, if you are knowledgable about what it takes to achieve a certain result, then you can easily design your activities to assure that you'll reach your goal.

Independent, Cooperative, and Competitive Goals

Some goals can be attained alone while others may require (or benefit greatly from) cooperation among teammates, family members, or colleagues. Still other goals involve achieving a certain competitive position.

For example, one year, I set an independent goal of reading Pulitzer Prize winning books in the fiction category, inspired by the online catalog at my library. All I needed to do is set aside time to read the books, or so I thought. Sadly, not all of these books were available from the library; however, I redefined my goal to read all the titles that I could borrow, buy, or trade.

Cooperative goals might be debt elimination or money savings of a certain amount for a couple or family. Decisions on spending, buying a new house, setting aside money in an emergency fund, and earning more through freelance jobs, part-time work or a new job probably need to be made on a joint basis. Extra money needs to be designated for debt reduction or a savings account so that one person doesn't spend what the other earned or saved through savvy shopping or sacrifice.

Competitive goals are trickier to achieve. Examples are producing the most sales for your company, winning a college scholarship, finishing first in a road race, or even landing a new job. Though I would never discourage anyone from setting aggressive goals, newbies may want to set intermediate goals: establishing a list of prospective customers, writing and submitting an essay for a scholarship, or running a race for the first time.  

Multi-step or Project Goals 

Some goals require multiple steps. A goal that I have is to make a brick sidewalk to replace various pieces of slate placed in a path from my driveway to the front entranceway. I have no experience in this area but have attended a brick-laying demonstration and watched a video on building a sidewalk. My goal has multiple phases:

  • acquire the knowledge and skill to design and construct a brick sidewalk
  • obtain the money needed to purchase brick and tools and/or rent tools
  • design and plan the layout of the sidewalk
  • set aside an entire weekend (or more) to create the sidewalk
  • convince my family that I can actually make the sidewalk without causing irreparable damage to my home, yard, and self.

Deconstructing this goal by breaking down specific actions is helpful in defining individual steps and achieving the finished result. And, even if I don't accomplish the entire project this year, I could save the money and plan the project, and then complete the sidewalk next year.

Life-list Goals

Start by making a list of life goals. Some may involve setting aside time and money; others may be more complicated and require developing an expertise and getting some experience. 

For example, Jeff Rose may want to take another backpacking trip, and just has to carve out vacation time and find travel money.  My son, a Boy Scout who will likely be going on an extended backpacking trip in a couple of years, needs more preparation. I think it is good to start planning now by going on hikes, getting in shape, figuring out which gear works best in what circumstances, learning to set a fire without matches, and honing wilderness skills. Similarly, you may or may not be ready to tackle your life-list goal this year but can take steps now to get there in the future. 

Summary: Tips for Achieving Goals

1) Define what you want to accomplish.

2) Deconstruct your goals by figuring out what is needed to achieve them: time, resources (time is also a resource but tools, materials, and gear could be listed here), specialized skills and knowledge. Understand that goals may have various elements that complicates deconstruction: for example, my sidewalk dream is a results-oriented goal but still involves processes, multiple steps, and cooperation. 

3) Plan ways of achieving goals, which may involve setting aside time, taking a class, finding an expert, or just getting support from your family.

4) Redefine goals if necessary.  You may need to figure out if you are in the position to achieve a competitive goal. If you are reasonably accomplished in a certain area and now just need finesse or a creative boost to get to a certain level, then you are ready to set a competitive goal. If you are just getting started in a new field, then it might be best to set basic competency goals.

5) Go for your goals.

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Guest's picture

Great article goal setting is very important.

I especially like it when you talked about process goal setting. Focusing on goals, especially big ones can be overwhelming, but focusing on creating a new habits that will get those goals done instead can be a lot easier and can come with some great long term advantages.

Guest's picture

Once you've created your goals, the next - and probably the most important step - is to actively monitor them.
Research has shown that self-monitoring of your goals is the key to achieving them, no matter what they are. As well as reinforcing the motivation to succeed at a goal, and giving more attention to it, it also creates awareness into how you are progressing and what areas you need to improve. GoalHappy allows you to do exactly this. It also allows you to share certain goals with friends to get extra encouragement.

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks for the comments. Process goals are definitely more controllable and a great place to start when tackling a big goal. For me, as I progress, I can then start to be more strategic about achieving a certain result but can also see that the small, day-to-day things can make a huge difference in achievement; also, I may see that I need to adjust or change processes after getting to a certain point.

Also, thanks for the resource on tracking goals. Another idea there is to break down goals over the year so that you are only tackling one or two goals at a time and can more easily keep track of how you're doing.