The Importance of Goal Setting

The Importance of Goal Setting

Goal setting is a versatile skill for personal and professional reasons. It is something that can be used for organizations, families and personally. Goal setting in its simplest terms is the map and sets the direction for you to reach an objective. Goal setting can provide a method for continual growth, motivation and self-confidence if implemented correctly. It is a way to achieve an objective you have not mastered yet through the setting of achievable targets.

Some common reasons to use goal setting include improving a department's performance within an organization, retirement planning or becoming debt free, obtaining a degree or certification, planning a vacation or developing habits.

How to Set Goals

The entire process is determining where you are today, the ultimate goal, measurable steps to reach the goal and a realistic timeline. Sometimes you will start with a pre-established goal common among organizations but most of the time you will be determining personal goals from scratch.

First, you must determine your long-term goals. In order to avoid being overwhelmed, minimize your long-term goals to two or three. Long term should be one year or longer. This could be five years to obtain a college degree or to become debt free. It could also be 15 years to pay off a mortgage. Another long-term goal may be to retire in 40 years with $5 million dollars in the bank or to have $500,000 in 18 years to pay for your children's college tuition. Your long-term goal should be something that you have wanted to accomplish which will keep your motivation high throughout the process. If you are not sure, brainstorm some ideas and pick the best one to three to pursue further.

A SWOT analysis can help identify new goals. SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Studying a work process or yourself as an individual, identify what the strengths are. This will help to identify what you do well and can showcase what motivates you. The next step is to identify weaknesses. Weaknesses can make great long-term goals to turn them into strengths called opportunities. Opportunities are usually easier for business processes but can be applicable for personal use. A business opportunity may be expanding a strong blog into providing web content as a service to others. A personal opportunity may be capitalizing on a natural ability to relate to others by entering the marketing field. Threats are weaknesses that could harm the company or career growth. This could be identifying past failures to determine what went wrong and to build strengths that would minimize it from happening again. This could be taking a public speaking class if your last speech was a disaster.

Once you have your long-term goals, you need to determine where you are now and what steps need to be taken to reach that goal. These smaller shorter-term steps should follow the SMART acronym - specific, measurable, achievable/attainable, relevant and timely. Each goal should be specific. Rather than establish getting healthier as a goal, use indicators of being healthier. This could be losing a certain amount of weight within a specific amount of time or successfully run a marathon next year.

The more the goals are measurable the easier it will be to track progress. Using the previous examples, losing a specific amount of weight is measurable and can be broken down into smaller amounts that are cumulative to the end goal. The same is true for a marathon that is a specific distance. This distance could be broken down into a training plan that will build up endurance and stamina over time in order to achieve completion of the marathon.

The goals need to be attainable in order to stay motivated. They should not be too easy or it will not feel like an accomplishment but should not create frustration or sensation of being overwhelmed. Care should be taken to avoid conflicting goals. For example, quitting smoking may be a goal and losing weight may be a goal. It is unlikely one would lose weight while actively quitting smoking so they should be sequential to avoid becoming disillusioned or overly frustrated.

Make sure the goals are relevant. A goal to submit a monthly status report to your boss is great as long as it leads toward an accomplishment such as a promotion. Otherwise, submitting a status report for the purpose of saying it was done every month for a year may not be relevant to a specific outcome.

Finally, ensure the goal is timely or has a deadline. We tend to live busy lives with full schedules. This translates into putting things off that do not have a sense of urgency or specific timeframe for completion. Try to include at least one long-term goal that has a completion date of 5 years or less to increase successful completion and maintain motivation. Short-term goals can be any timeframe that makes sense and fits the other parameters of being relevant. If the long-term goal is to obtain a Bachelor's degree in 4 years, then the short-term goals may be to complete the annual recommended classes. This could be broken down further to each class to track the overall GPA and ensure all credits are received on time to graduate by the established date. If the long-term goal is to run a marathon then a short-term goal may be to successfully run a 5K, 10K and half-marathon throughout the year. This can be further defined with specific training targets. Goal mapping is a great way to visualize and document the path to achieve your goals.

Now that you have your list of the smaller goals, you will need to maintain motivation towards achieving the milestones. You need to make the smaller goals achievable but not too easy and not too difficult or you will lose motivation and focus. An example would be a long-term goal of losing 100 pounds in 1 year and a short-term goal may be 20 pounds in 2 months or two dress sizes in 2 months. Using the college degree example from above, you could either stick with the individual class grades towards the overall GPA or further divide it by graded assignments within each class. Remember goal setting is to help you reach the end. This means to use your personality and traits to determine how many milestones or small tasks to include. This will provide motivation to keep going as you complete the tasks. It also provides self-confidence that you can accomplish difficult challenges and some would argue improve your perseverance.

Mapping Goals

Goal mapping is a visual way to identify your long-term and short-term goals. Brainstorm all your long-term goals and choose the best one to three to keep initially. Do not throw away the other ideas because once you achieve the initial long-term goals, you already have a list to start from and may be able to choose another batch if they are still relevant as long-term goal candidates. You will also want to limit the amount of short-term goals in order to avoid becoming overwhelmed and to allow for agility to change the approach when necessary. Fortunately, there are a myriad of ways to goal map.


Visualization is similar to brainstorm mapping but can also include visualizing yourself accomplishing the goal. The most common methods include a diagram and collage. Some will use Pinterest similar to a traditional collage and the ability to change the images in order to keep motivation high. Brainstorm mapping consists of a center bubble that depicts the long-term goal. Lines extend from the large center bubble to smaller bubbles that represent the short-term goals. The smaller bubbles include information such as the order they are to be completed, due dates and sometimes the benefits for achieving the goal. The collage uses pictures or photographs that represent the tasks or goals.

Figure 1. (above) Example of a visual bubble goal map.

Figure 2. (above) Example hybrid of collage and bubble mapping.

Another common visualization technique in both business and personal projects is the use of a traditional project schedule that depicts the task, duration/deadlines, priority and roles. There are computer software programs specifically for goal setting and numerous smartphone applications (apps) available to make maintenance easier.

Figure 3. (above). Example of a project schedule.

Maintaining Goals

Tasks leading to the completion of the goals need to be maintained through monitoring, reporting and tracking. Marking your visualization method will show progress as you work towards the final result. This could be marking a task as complete on the project schedule, physically marking a bubble as complete, updating information in a goal setting software program or smartphone app. This will help create a pattern of self-confidence and enthusiasm for moving forward. It may be useful to create a "to-do" or task list weekly or monthly towards achieving the smaller goal. Do not be afraid to provide small rewards connected with a completed task. This could be going to the movies or having lunch in a park.

This process will also provide an opportunity to discover if the tasks are not being met as originally hoped. Were the timelines realistic? Do the tasks need to be more frequent to ensure the momentum necessary to achieve the goal? Are there too many tasks that prevents goal completion? Has something happened that would impact the original goal? There may be times when established goals do not align with your needs and goal setting is meant as a tool that can be adjusted if necessary. The goal may not need to be completely changed but may just need tweaking with a new timeframe or the inclusion of additional intermediary steps.

All of this information should be documented in an action plan. It does not need to be a tome and can be a few pages long including ways you will measure successful completion of the goal, data sources that could be used for tracking, the visualization created previously along with deadlines and established goals. For example, if a goal has been established to reduce the amount of time it takes to review a book by 5% then you need to know what is involved in the entire process, other measurable that must be met and the amount of time it traditionally took to review a book. This will provide you with information necessary to identify problems, propose solutions and determine methods to track progress. There are common key performance indicators (KPIs) for many business processes that could be useful in identifying measurable tasks leading toward goal achievement rather than reinventing the wheel.

Reporting and Tracking

Tracking progress towards your goals has gotten easier with technology. If a traditional method of task lists are used, then maintaining entries towards completion of the goal over time is imperative. If software is being used for either project schedules or tracking apps, then the program will calculate progress automatically. As tasks are marked as complete on a project schedule, the software will identify the next critical tasks to focus on completing and if the deadlines are still achievable. In addition, the budgeted amount of effort or the duration for tasks can be compared to the actual level of effort and duration. This provides a window to determine if original expectations are being met and provides an opportunity to take corrective action.

A smartphone app for weight loss will calculate if the caloric intake will meet the goal within the timeframe established. If the goal becomes unachievable, there is an opportunity to create an action plan that will adjust the goal or change the tasks necessary to meet the goal. The weight loss app may recommend eating different amounts per day, increasing physical activity and/or moving the date out accordingly. Google Analytics provides visualization and goal tracking for website traffic. Their Goal Flow program helps to determine how people use a website and if it matches what was originally expected. It also helps to identify weaker areas that need to be corrected in order to make the website effectively meet the established goal. Generally, tracking will be in the form of a graph in order to see the trends over a longer period.

Reporting can be annually, quarterly, monthly or even weekly depending on your needs. Monthly reporting makes sense for financial goals such as becoming debt free. This is a realistic reporting of the tracking since banks issue statements monthly and credit cards have a monthly payment and interest schedule. You may also roll up the monthly reports at the end of each year in order to ensure smaller goals were met and to establish new goals. You may report monthly for weight loss to ensure that at least 8.33 pounds were lost in order to reach a goal of 100 pounds in a year. Tracking daily caloric intake and exercise helps to identify weaknesses or areas that could be improved upon. Projects in a professional environment are usually reported monthly with quarterly or annual reports. Monthly reporting is long enough to make sure tasks are being completed on time without interfering with productivity required to accomplish project completion.

Reports should include a section discussing the status of last month, revised data for this month, what tasks or previous goals have been completed, what tasks are left to complete, if the goal is still achievable and any graphics that would communicate this information. This analysis will make it easy to identify when a goal has been completed, difficulties encountered and best practices used to reach your goal. This is also the time to identify if the goals continue to align with your direction. For example, if you have a medical emergency, then a goal to lose weight may need to be placed on hold.

Goals Have Been Achieved and What are the Next Steps

The status report has been completed and the identified goals have been achieved. Do these goals make sense to repeat such as continuing to improve productivity? Can you improve productivity by another 5%? Did you easily improve productivity by 10% and surpassed the original goal? Was the original goal too easy or was an extraordinary level of effort required to surpass the goal? Does achievement of one goal lead to the creation of a second goal? An example would be the successful completion of your freshman year in college. Do you want to add a minor, double major or change your major? These are decisions that should be considered while there is still time to achieve them without delaying the anticipated graduation date. Do you want to pursue your Master's degree? If so, would you want to complete it after you graduate or try to transfer into a combined degree program? Does it make sense to create a related but different goal? If you lost 100 pounds for example, does it make sense to lose additional weight or should you focus on endurance?

Do not be afraid to retire a goal as completed and do not feel compelled to create a new goal for the sake of creating a new goal. The SWOT analysis (or similar mapping techniques) will help guide you through this circular process. While the process may be similar the goals could be completely different such as performing a landscaping project to improve the outdoor space of your home in order to reduce stress. Some goals may be longer term and last multiple years such as working towards a promotion at work or paying off a mortgage. The important factor is staying motivated and moving towards a goal that is relevant to you. The likelihood of achieving goals diminishes once it becomes a chore to track or if you become disinterested in achieving the goal.

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