Last year, some writer friends and I ran a Mastermind group with the idea of helping each other to reach our goals. It was a huge success. And though much of that success is due to meeting weekly to seek advice from our fellow creative entrepreneurs, most of our success was due to setting smart, actionable, measurable goals at the beginning of the year.
To prepare for that planning meeting this year, I read a bunch of studies and advice around goal-setting. I decided to share it here.
Why not? The more people that make their dreams come true, the better!
Goal-setting is an art, and your chief goal must be to become a master. In setting your goals for the year, you’ll want to run each of them through the S.M.A.R.T. process below. And when you do, keep the follow two points of advice in mind, as they will become the backbone of both the goal-setting process and the goal-keeping process.
Write It Down.
Write down your goals in long-hand first. There is strong evidence that long-hand helps your brain assign greater importance to topic because the very act of writing with a pen and paper requires more time, more attention, and more of your brain power. Thus, goals written down in long-hand are more likely to get done.
Review It Often.
After you’ve written your goals long-hand, type them up and stick them somewhere you can access them easily. You want to be able to refer to your goals at a moments notice, so that they come first in your decision making. More on this later.
Setting S.M.A.R.T. Goals
The SMART criteria has been bouncing around the productivity, management, and self-improvement communities since 1981, and for good reason. The criteria make it really is to choose goals wisely. You might think a goal like “Lose weight” is good enough, but it isn’t. You need your goals to be SMART—as in, specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.
Stick to the following five criteria, and you’ll start the year on the right foot.
R is for Relevant Goals
Lots of people start the new year with half-baked resolutions like “I want to write a novel” or “I want to change jobs.” And most of those people don’t do either.
This is because they don’t know why they they set those goals in the first place, and they don’t know what the consequences are for not actually doing it. So they let a few weeks pass, and by February, the goals are forgotten.
What do you really want?
Seriously. What do you want? Do you want to get fit because you want to stave off heart disease? Or is it because you want a new girlfriend and you don’t think you look good enough to get back on the market? This sort of thing matters, because not only will it shape what goals you set, but it will also shape how you measure your progress towards those goals.
If your goal for writing a novel is to get your life story on paper, you’ll do things differently than if your goal is to sell a million copies. Hell, if your goal is the latter, you’ll probably drop any mention of your own life from the manuscript. And if your goal is the former, you might realize a journal is preferable to the long trek toward publication.
Know Your “Why.”
When first beginning to form a goal, figure out why the goal is so damn important that you’re going out of your way to get it. Ask yourself these questions:
- Why must you achieve this goal?
- What are the rewards of achieving this goal?
- What are the consequences of failing to achieve this goal?
As you look at the answers to these questions, do you find them compelling? Are the consequences scary? Are the rewards mouthwatering?
If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” you probably aren’t being honest with yourself. Are there some secret rewards and consequences you don’t want to admit?
If not, go back to the goal and shift it around until you find something that actually matters to your life. If a goal doesn’t matter to you, you aren’t going to accomplish it, and you’ll only be wasting time on something that isn’t making your life noticeably better.
Are Your Goals Compatible?
Goal-setting is a delicate art. We have only so much time, money, and willpower, so it’s important to pick goals that fit together realistically.
With each new goal you consider adding to your plan for the new year, ask yourself if, with all of the other goals you have planned, you can realistically give this new goal the time, money, and willpower it will need to succeed.
If not, consider throwing out or severely limiting the less important of your goals. In the wild, animals will allow the weakest of their litter to die so that the stronger can survive. Goals are the same. Be heartless, and put what’s most important first.
Consider All Areas.
When picking goals, make sure to take into account all of the following areas. I’ve found the best goals are those that hit multiple points on this list:
- Mind, body, and spiritual wellness
- Career, entrepreneurship, and creative endeavors
- Finance, investment, and security
- Friends, family, and social networks
- Education and personal development
- Leisure, travel, and entertainment
S is for Specific Goals
Once you’re certain a particular goal is worth aiming for, you’ll want to make that goal is specific as possible. You don’t want any ambiguity in the wording of your goal. Future-you will inevitably be more clever, and he or she will certainly find a way to twist your words against you.
We’ve already made your goal answer why. Now it has to answer, who, what, where, and when. Ask yourself how this goal looks day-in, day-out, and update the goal accordingly.
Here’s a bad goal: “Lose weight.”
Here’s a better goal: “Lose thirty pounds.”
Here’s a great goal: “Reduce my body fat by at least 2% per month until I’m below 12%, then sustain that BMI.”
Notice the switch from pounds to body fat. You could potentially satisfy the earlier goals by cutting off your left leg, but by getting more specific, you have severely narrow your options in what constitutes success. In addition, we’ve set body a definite rate (2%) and a definite finish line (12%). With a goal like this, you can be very specific about exactly what you should be doing to get there on any given day.
Do the Homework.
A part of setting any goal is doing research, because you don’t know what you don’t know. Don’t be afraid to take a few hours to investigate how exactly you’ll go about reaching your end game. Getting that data up-front will keep you from a lot of stress and failure later on. Research now both to define the boundaries of your goal, and to determine if this particular goal is right for you.
M is for Measurable Goals
Goals like “lose weight” and “paint more” suck. Why? Because you have no way of knowing how well you’re doing.
For a goal to be effective, you need some way to track your progress. I’d even go so far as to say without some quantifiable measurement of your progress, you don’t really have a goal at all, but a hope.
How Do You Know if You’re Succeeding?
This is the most important question you can ask yourself. Notice we’re talking in the present progressive tense. We don’t want to know how we’ve succeeded, but how we’re succeeding. We need to be constantly monitoring ourselves for growth, and we want to pick metrics that allow for that behavior.
Keep in mind, the answer to this question should be verifiable to the outside world. It’s easier to fool yourself into thinking you’re getting better at meditating, but you can actually measure the progress of a goal like “Keep my heart rate below 55 BPM while meditating for as long as possible each day.”
What Metrics Work Best?
Notice in the meditation example above, there are two metrics. Heart rate and duration. Heart rate in this case is a closed metric, where success is a yes/no answer. Duration is an open metric, where you can succeed to a greater or lesser degree.
You want goals to have both kinds of metrics because they’re good for different reasons.
Open metrics (using words like “as few as possible” or “as long as possible”) allow for incremental growth. Your goal can be to do 100 push-ups in one sitting by the end of the year, but each day, you’ll have done more push-ups per sitting than the day before. Open metrics are an excellent way to see if you’re headed toward your goal.
Closed metrics (typically using a specific measurement) are perfect for putting boundaries on your success. If you’re goal is “to write 1000 between the hours of 7am and 8am every day,” you have a concrete answer to whether or not you met your goal that day, so you know whether to tick off that box on the calendar or not.
Keep in mind, the line between these metrics are blurry. Your goal may be to write 1000 words per hour, but if you wrote 1500, you’re a 150% success. That data is important, and you’ll want to record it, because it will help you to choose better closed metrics when you update your goal the next time you assess how well you’re doing.
Keep Your Feedback Loops Tight.
This is just as important as selecting the right metrics. You want to do your best to get feedback on your progress as often as possible. Typically, this will mean daily check-ins with yourself. (Have you limited your caloric intake today? Have you spent a full hour reading to your kids? Etc.)
But sometimes, you’ll want to be a bit more specific. For instance, lots of people want to make more money, but they fail to take into account how much time they work to get it. Personally, I want to make more money in less time. Otherwise, what’s the point?
In this particular case, you want your grain to be hourly. Keep track of how many hours you give your job (or your projects, for freelancers and entrepreneurs), and calculate your hourly rate weekly. Did you make more per hour this week than last?
T is for Time-Bound Goals
Goals need to have definite finish lines. “Play Bach’s Fugue in Gm on guitar” is a great goal, but unless you put an end-date on it, you’ll be working on it until the end-of-days.
How Soon is Soon?
When picking an end-date for your goals, don’t give yourself too much latitude, but don’t give yourself too little either. Give yourself too much time, and you’ll spend a lot of it repeating work because you’ve put too much padding between efforts. Give yourself too little time, and stress will get in the way of your end-game.
By this point in the process, you’ve got a really good idea of what the day-to-day of your goal actually looks like. If you haven’t already, research how quickly others starting in a similar position to you have reached a similar position to where you want to be. Use that data as a guide for setting a challenging, but realistic end-date.
In the Meantime…
Don’t set only one goal post. Once you’ve decided on your finish line, figure out some sign-posts along the way you can use to mark your progress. If your goal is to finish a novel in four months, aim to complete your first draft in one month, your post-editor draft in two months, your post-beta-readers draft in three months, and you final, finished manuscript at the end of four.
A is for Attainable Goals
You’ve put in the time and energy to make sure you have a specific, measurable, time-bound goal that’s relevant to your life and congruent with your other goals. That should be enough, shouldn’t it?
Well… No. You need a plan. A real plan. And this last step is designed to make sure you have one.
Break it Down.
Earlier, you set sign-posts between where you are now and your finish line. That was just the beginning of this process, where you break down your goal into all of the many subtasks required to get from A to Z.
Sometimes, it’s easier to start with where you are now, and list each and every step along the way until you reach the finish line. But at other times, it’s easier to start with the end-game and work your way backwards. I typically find a mix of both methods to be the best, because the middle doesn’t seem so muddy when you’re cleaning it from both ends.
Remember also that each of your subtasks should follow the same rules as your overarching goal. A subtask should be specific, measurable, and time-bound. This doesn’t mean you have to go crazy and write three sentence descriptions of each subtask. But it does mean your subtasks can’t look like this:
- Buy new underwear.
- Get on the cover of Men’s Fitness.
Once you’ve teased out all your goal’s subtasks, take another look at your dead-line and at your why for that matter. Is this still a realistic goal? Is it still a goal you want to achieve?
If so, great. If not, scrap it and start over!
Now that you’ve got all your subtasks, you’ve likely come across a few spots where you think you might have some trouble. You know yourself well, and you know what sorts of things tend to knock you down.
Make a list of all the places you might have a problem on your path toward you goal. This does not mean you should make a list of everything that can possibly go wrong, because there’s infinite things that can go wrong. But you need to know if, for instance, your travel plans for this year might make it difficult for you to commit to your daily workout regime. Or if you new baby might make sleeping a full eight hours per night problematic.
Once you’ve listed what sort of obstacles might come up, research smart ways to get back on track when they do occur. If possible, find some ways to avoid them altogether.
Check Your Skill Inventory.
List the top skills reaching this goal will require, then rate yourself (honestly) on a ten-point scale on each of these skills. Ask yourself, are you who you need to be to achieve this goal?
Armed with the knowledge of who you (currently) are and who you (currently) aren’t, consider the following:
- What one skill, if improved, would have the biggest impact on my outcome for this goal?
- What resources can I draw on to improve my weakest skills?
- How can I shift this goal so that I can leverage more of my strongest skills?
After considering the answers to these questions, is this goal still realistic and desirable? If not, make some changes!
I mean it. If any of your subtasks require some special skill or resource that you don’t have, add another subtask right before it to find someone with that particular skill or resource.
And if you have questions so large you aren’t even sure if you can start on your path toward your goal, go and talk to someone now. The internet is filled with people willing to help you with whatever the issue is.
Keeping Track of Your Progress
60% of reaching your goals is setting goals smartly, but 40% is keeping track of them going forward.
There are a few levels of staying accountable. Do all of them.
Take a moment in the morning to review your goals every day. This practice doesn’t have to take more than a minute, and it will help you frame each day within the context of the future you want to have. Having your goals in mind makes it easy to make smart decisions all day, every day.
Every week, take stock of what you did the previous week and plan what you intend to do the following week. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What did you do last week?
- What blocked you last week, and how can you handle it better next time?
- What will you do this week?
- What might block you this week, and how can you counteract its effects?
If possible, find a group of likeminded go-getters to do this routine with weekly. This is often a function of a Mastermind group. If you can find them, develop a culture of problem-solving and accountability. Don’t allow each other to slack off.
Each month, assess your overarching successes and failures. With which goals have you done exceptionally well, and with which goals are you lacking?
At this interval, its okay to consider modifying goals. If you’re doing well across the board, consider making your goals more challenging. If you’ve finished a few projects, consider adding a few more. And if there’s a goal giving you a lot of trouble, do some research, modify the goal, create a new set of subtasks, and get back on track!
If you have a Mastermind group, this is another good activity to do with them. My group does this four times per year, and I run this routine solo in the other months.
Controlling Your Headspace
Think about your goals, and don’t think about anything else. That’s the rule. If you’ve chosen goals that are relevant and important to you, this should be easy. Focus on what will make you better.
Don’t multitask. I know you might think you’re the exception to the rule, but you aren’t. Nobody is good at multitasking. Period. And if you insist on dividing your time, you’ll only get less of everything done, and you’ll do it all worse.
Use visualization carefully. It’s been proven that visualizing the outcome of your goals too often actually removes your motivation to get it done. The human brain just isn’t good at separating fantasy from reality. On the other hand, visualizing yourself performing important strategies on the path to your goal has proven extremely effective in improving your performance. In a study of basketball practice, the group that spent a half of their time practicing and half of their time visualizing themselves performing expertly did better than the group that spent 100% of their time either practicing or visualizing alone.
Controlling Your Environment
Attend to the basics. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, enough exercise, enough healthy foods, and enough vitamins and nutrients to keep your body from shutting down on you. All that stuff matters more than you think, and if you’re deficient in any of these categories, making a change will have a big impact.
Devote a little time every month to assessing what people, foods/drinks, and activities are getting in the way of the life you want. Cut them out of your life. What do you do now that you wouldn’t do if you had the chance to do over again? What’s holding you down? Don’t let these things get in your way anymore.
Develop routines. Look into “habit stacking.” The more of your time you can put on autopilot the better. Figure out repeatable strings of tasks that you can chain together. I have a morning routine that includes essentials like showing and a healthy breakfast, energizing activities such as a bit of yoga and affirmations, leading right into my morning writing time. Knowing this happens the same way every morning reduces the amount of willpower it takes to get it all done.
In the same vein, get your most important tasks done first. This might mean getting up early to do goal-reaching activities before work. Don’t be afraid to tell people you need to go to sleep early. After all, it’s your future, not theirs.
Finally, make sure you allocate the right amount of time to all your goals. It’s easy to get heavily involved in one of them at the expense of others. Budget your time and stick to that budget. Devoting large blocks of time on one day to one task is fine if you’re still devoting enough time to your other tasks on other days. Just make sure you maintain strong forward momentum on all your goals.
The Right App is Half the Battle
Make it easy to achieve your goals. Use apps that sync across devices, and organize all of your current assets within them. These are some of my favorites. To my knowledge, they’re all cross-platform.
Progress tracking with HabitBull
HabitBull is a beautiful, easy way to keep track of goals you want to accomplish on a daily/weekly basis. It supports a lot of different schedule types (e.g. every Monday, four days per week, every day) and it has extremely configurable reminders.
Note-taking with Evernote
Evernote is hands-down the best place to store notes and files related to your goals. It syncs across devices and has a very, very, very generous free plan. In Evernote, I have a notebook for each goal, and a few other notebooks dedicated to collecting ideas for future projects. Thanks to Evernote, I’ve also gone 99% paperless, storing all documents related to my businesses and my investments where they’re searchable and backed-up for good.
Task lists with Wunderlist
Wunderlist is a great way to keep track of your tasks for all your goals. I have a separate list for each of my active goals. At the end of every day, I update the following day with whatever tasks are most pressing. And at the end of every week, I add new tasks, then try to plan my week as best I can.
Fitness goals with FitNotes
FitNotes is the best app around for keeping track of fitness goals. The UI is clean and intuitive, and it allows you to build sweet workout routines that can even cycle through circuit exercises. Don’t waste your time with its bloated alternatives.
Food goals with MyFitnessPal
MyFitnessPal is my least favorite productivity app. It’s clunky, slow, and is stuffed with crap you just don’t need. That said, it’s the best app I’ve found for tracking calories and macronutrients. Give it a shot.
Smart Goals for the Win!
One last bit of advice to keep you from getting stuck. Remember it when you feel like you’ve hit a wall:
If you aren’t getting the results you want, try things differently or try different things.
Make 2017 the year you change your life! I know you’ve got it in you. All it takes is a bit of planning, and you’ll see just how fast you can make your dreams come true.