Setting Great Goals...and Achieving Them


My life has always been pretty good. Bad things have happened, tragedies even, but even those things haven't stopped me from being able to do what I've wanted to do and try what I've wanted to try. I've never had to push hard or dig deep to fulfill a wish or a dream. In spite of all of this, I realized recently that the things I want out of life aren't going to happen if I don't go after them. Since then, I've started to explore setting goals to chase down some of these dreams. I wrote a little about that process here. Now, I want to offer some things about goal-setting that I learned in the process. (See also: Trade in New Year's Resolutions for Achieving Life Goals)

1. Set short, medium, and long-term goals.

Yeah, yeah, everyone says this. And they give all sorts of different reasons for saying it. MyGoals explains that we should do this because the long-term goals keep us focused while the short-term ones give you momentum. I agree with this to a point. But my main reason for having all terms of goals is that it keeps the gratification coming. As much as most of us don't like to admit it, we're focused on immediate or short-term gratification. This isn't always evil, as it's this instinct that kicks in when we need to eat NOW! or when we get ourselves out of a bad situation before it gets worse. But it can also keep us from achieving our goals if we don't have at least some that can be done in the short-term. First-time goalsetters tend to set high goals for themselves. This is fine, but they won't keep with the goals very long if there's not something they can do in the short-term.

Achieving a goal makes you feel good. When something makes us feel good once, we want to do it again. Thus, if we get a stead flow of feel-good chemicals in our brains, we will continue to repeat the action that produces them. If achieving a goal is that action, we'll stick with our long-term goals longer if we have short and medium-term goals that precede them. If we structure our goals right and achieve them on time, we can produce a steady flow of this feel-good motivation for ourselves. As much as we don't want to admit needing it, we do, and this process will help.

2. Make sure your goals are your own.

Often, when I'm setting goals, I'll bounce my ideas off another person before I choose exactly what goal I want to claim. This is good for me--talking helps me know what I'm thinking. But it can be bad when the other person has vastly different ideas about how I should go about doing what I want to do, particularly when that person is deeply invested in my life and me in theirs. Now, if the person is an expert in whatever you want to achieve, listening to their different opinion might be valid. In fact, it might be valid even if they aren't an expert. But if you end up setting a goal that you don't believe in because of what someone else says, it's time to re-evaluate. The lack of belief and passion behind the goal will keep you from going after it, because you won't believe it is right for you. You have to truly change your mind before you can change your goal.

Also, experts on a topic will disagree. How long into your marathon training should you go before you actually have a marathon in mind? How much of a manuscript should you send to an editor? There are exprets with different, contradictory opinions on these questions. To set a goal, you have to choose a philosophy and go with it. If it doesn't work, you can always change things later.

3. Do your research.

One of my goals is to publish a book. Part of that probably means getting an agent at some point. While I know a lot about the process of publishing a book, I know almost nothing about getting an agent. In order to set realistic goals for this, I have had to research (and I actually need to do more). If you want to set realistic, achievable goals, get on the internet or go to your nearest library or bookstore and do some research. It can't hurt and it might help you avoid major frustration later.

4. Don't be afraid of not achieving what you set out to do.

Honestly, it has been this fear that has kept me from setting solid goals for most of my life. What will it say about me if I don't achieve them? Will I be able to live with myself? What will people think if they find out? While I can focus on these questions more than many people do, they are not uncommon in the land of goal-setting. But the truth is that goals change. If I were to find out tomorrow, for instance, that I was pregnant, my goals would change drastically. Some of them would have to be put off, others sped up, and others put on hold for an indefinite length of time. If my car dies on the day that I'm supposed to meet my favorite author at a book signing and who knows when she'll be back, it's ok. If I get really involved in a project at work and don't write outside of that for several weeks or months, my goals still survive.

What is becoming important to me is setting the goals, having them there and part of my life. When I die, I won't want to wonder if I could have achieved my dreams. I want to have gone out there and tried. If I write 37 books and none get published I'll be disappointed. I will, though, feel better than if I had not written at all because I was afraid of not being published (and someday, maybe someone who really understands will find those 37 manuscripts and then? Then I'll be published!).

I'm still crafting my own goals, still looking at the things I love and trying to figure out what is really important to me and how to gel it all together into something solid and realistic. Thinking about these things has helped me and I hope it helps you, too. Look at the following links if you want more to think about on this topic (including some opinions that differ from mine!).

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Andrea Karim's picture

Hi, Sarah. I think the point about fear is especially poignant. I can't imagine how many of us never try for what we really want because of it. As always, a great blog post.

Sarah Winfrey's picture

I realized that a big irony for me was that I wasn't trying for what I really wanted because I really wanted it.  The fear of wanting it made it hard for me to go after it.  Crazy.

Guest's picture

I think goals are extremely important. However at first I didn't want to do them for the fear of failing. Or I didn't know how to get there.


Guest's picture

Hi Sarah,

Thanks for sharing these four tips. Good stuff and you've made it nice and simple. We asked a group of leadership development experts to give us their thoughts on how to set better goals. Thought you might find it interesting...