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How to Set (+Reach) Your Personal Goals in Life and Work in 2021

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Everyone sets goals, whether they’re an eight year old girl deciding they will be an astronaut or someone on the verge of a midlife crisis wanting to lose weight or get a tattoo.

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Goal setting is important in both your personal and professional life. (Image source: Envato Elements)

The thing is, people fail to reach at least some of the goals in life that they set for themselves. Many people fail to reach most. It’s one thing to say you want to learn to fly, but another to spend years and thousands of dollars becoming a pilot—or trying to convince a doctor to surgically graft wings on your arms. 

With the wrong goals, you set yourself up for failure from day one. If your goal is too hard, unmeasurable, or just so vague as to be meaningless, you won’t ever reach it. The simplest fix then, is to set the right goals. To set professional and personal goals that are achievable and reachable. You might need to set many small goals to tick off a big one, but you at least have some hope of getting there. Let’s look at how.

Why Are Goals Important?

Goal setting is important in both your personal and professional life. Even if you aren’t sitting down at the end of every year to do an annual review, you probably have a few things in your head you’d like to achieve. It’s much better to take a conscious, proactive approach to setting goals at work and home. That way you’ll reap many more benefits. 

Note: If you like this tutorial, you may also like some of our other Envato Tuts+ tutorials on productivity.

Here are some of the benefits of setting professional and personal goals:

  • They give you direction and help you make decisions. If your goal is to be a pilot and you've got a choice between flight school and clown college, it’s pretty obvious which way you need to go. Less facetiously, if you’re trying to lose weight and the choice is McDonalds or a homemade salad, an awareness of your goals makes deciding what to do much easier. Even in open ended situations, having a firm idea what you want to achieve with your life over the next few months will help you proceed with direction rather than just floating aimlessly from one situation to another.
  • They give you a way to track progress. If your aim is to lose weight, you can look back and see that in January you set out to lose four pounds and succeeded, you did the same again in February, and now it’s March and you’re down over half a stone. By laying out the route to what you want to achieve, you can see how far along it you’ve come.
  • Your progress is a huge source of motivation. Each time you succeed in reaching a goal, you'll be motivated to keep going; to push harder and reach other goals. When you’re bored or unsure of what to do next you can also visualise yourself sitting in that 747 cockpit coming in to land.

Everything I’ve said, however, only holds true for good goals. Set yourself the wrong goals in life and all you’ll have to look back on is a string of demotivating failures. So, what makes a good goal?

1. How to Set Goals Using SMART 

A good goal is SMART. This means it's Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Constrained. Let’s discuss these one by one. A good goal is: 

  • Specific. It’s clear and easy to define. “Make lots of money” is useless as a goal, but “become a Tuts+ writer so I can make lots of money” has at least some merit. You want your goals to be as specific as possible with no wiggle room.
  • Measurable. It’s easy to quantify success or failure. “Lose weight” is specific, but it’s actually not very measurable. Are you looking to lose an ounce or ten stone? Both are technically losing weight. The simpler a goal is to measure, the easier it is for you to track progress.
  • Achievable by you. I’m a five-foot-ten, twenty-eight-year-old, Irish guy. I’m not playing in the NFL next season no matter what I do. The goals you set now should be achievable for you now. As you grow as a person you can set goals that take you further. Don’t try and lose ten pounds in two weeks, go for four pounds in a month.
  • Relevant to your broader aims. If you want to be a pilot, you need to get at least a B in your math exams so, right now, your goal should be to get a B+ or better. If you’re looking to get a promotion in the next year or two, now isn't the time to try and climb all Seven Summits. 
  • Time-Constrained. It’s not a vague, open-ended someday. If your goal is to put on some muscle, then you can always start properly tomorrow. On the other hand, if your goal is to gain two pounds by next Thursday, then your actions today will determine whether or not you succeed. If you skip out on the gym now, you’re not going to reach it. 

While all your goals might not be perfectly SMART, it’s a really great place to start when you’re setting yourself personal and professional goals. 

2. Be Careful (But Not Too Careful) Of Outcome Goals

There's one other major concept you need to understand about goal setting: the difference between Outcome and Process goals, and the trap of the former.

An Outcome goal is a goal where there is a defined outcome. It’s something like “write for The New Yorker this year” or “have $50,000 in the bank by Christmas.” While these personal goals examples, at first glance, look like pretty strong SMART goals, they're at the mercy of a lot of outside factors.

Let's take a closer look at those personal goals examples. I’d love to write for The New Yorker, but I actually have very little say in whether I can do it or not. They're pitched by thousands of writers every month, many of them very good. Having a pitch accepted is as much a matter of luck and timing as it's about being an exceptional writer. I could be the best writer in the bunch and do everything right, but if they’re not looking for an incredible human-interest piece on small African tree frogs for their issue dedicated to the rodents in Chicago’s inner city then someone else is going to be selected. 

A Process goal instead focuses on what needs to be done to possibly achieve a desired outcome. If I want to write for The New Yorker, I need to pitch The New Yorker.  Maybe they don’t want my tree frog piece, but they might like my sand worm article or my sea otter photo essay. Rather than my goal being to write for The New Yorker, it becomes “to pitch ten article ideas to The New Yorker this year”. Not only is that SMART, but it’s also entirely within my control and each pitch will actually get me closer to writing for The New Yorker. I'll both maximise my chances of getting lucky or hitting the zeitgeist and develop with each pitch. My tenth piece will almost certainly be better than my first. 

This isn’t to warn you off outcome goals entirely. It’s just to make you aware of the danger of creating goals that rely entirely on other people. If there are four great candidates for a CEO job, three of them are going to miss out. You can be the best you possible and still not get the job. Outcome goals, however, often make the most motivating goals. They’re the easiest to fantasise about or to talk about around the dinner table. It’s important to have them too, but to recognise that you need process goals too. 

3. Set Short and Long-Term Goals

Not all goals in life are on the same time frame. Some will be things you want to achieve in the next few weeks or months, others will be things you want to do before you die. In general, goals are split into:

  • Short-term (less than one year)
  • Medium term (one to five years)
  • Long-term (longer than five years) 

There's obviously lots of fuzziness around the edges when it comes to time frames. 

How you set each goal will depend on what time frame you want to achieve it in. If you plan to grow your freelance revenue to $100,000/year over the next five years, you'll need to approach it differently than if you’re trying to achieve that in the next one. 

In general, short-term goals are often building blocks to longer term goals and therefore, you need to be much stricter with how you set your short-term goals. It’s okay to have vague, not-super SMART long-term plans, but you shouldn’t have unmeasurable short-term goals. The Getting Things Done Productivity System takes this approach to work objectives, but it’s a good one to take with your long-term goals list whether it contains professional or personal goals.

7 Tips for Setting Personal and Professional Goals

Now that you’ve got a good grounding in the concepts that underly good goal setting, let’s look at putting it into practice. 

  1. You want your goals to be (where possible) Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time Constrained. It’s okay to compromise on one or two areas, but not on all of them.
  2. The most important SMART characteristic is Achievable. If your goals in life are way beyond your abilities, you will never achieve them and you’ll be demotivated. This doesn’t mean only set yourself simple goals. It means try for things that are just out of your reach. If you want to write a novel, don’t aim for 10,000 words a week, aim for 1,000. You’ll be able to do it and you’ll end up actually writing the book!
  3. It’s okay to have some Outcome goals, but you need to be careful not to stake too much on other people’s decisions. Process goals are better because you're 100% in control of your success or failure. It’s a good idea to set larger outcome goals and then set smaller process goals that'll lead you on the road to achieving them. If you want to win a powerlifting competition, start by learning to bench press with correct technique every time. 
  4. Consider the time frame when you’re setting your goals. Short-term objectives need to be looked at more strictly than long-term things. Consider breaking long-term goals into short-term goals as well. For example, if you want to be an astronaut, you need a PHD. So start by getting really good grades on your SAT. Take the GTD approach and break everything down into small steps.
  5. There’s mixed research on whether telling people helps or hinders you with achieving your goals. See what works for you. Maybe you find it easier to work away in secret, or maybe you work better with an acountabilibuddy. You can also use services like stickK to keep yourself in line.
  6. For professional goals, talk to your manager and colleagues. They may be able to help you work towards them. If you’re trying to upskill, there’s a good chance your company will give you extra time off to attend conferences or pay for some of your studies. Setting and achieving your goals will also make you seem like a go-getter and might be exactly what nets you that promotion. 
  7. Remember that goal setting isn’t just limited to serious areas of your life. If you want to make new friends, set yourself a goal of attending a club or social event every week. If you’re looking for a romantic partner, spend 30 minutes every day reaching out to potential matches on a dating site. Good goal setting can be used to drive you to any end result.

It’s Okay to Give Up On Your Goals

I’m not an astronaut. I’m not a vet either. Nor a garbage collector nor any of the other professions eight-year-old Harry so earnestly believed he’d be. Reflecting honestly, I’d be a terrible astronaut and probably wouldn’t enjoy being a vet very much. Just because those were my goals when I was young doesn’t mean they're what I want now. 

Your professional and personal goals will shift as you grow—whether it’s in age, maturity, or as a person. If a goal you set yourself a while ago is continually falling beyond your grasp, reassess it. Maybe it’s not achievable for you right now or maybe it’s just something you're not motivated to strive for any more. Your actions speak way louder than words. So go ahead and change the long-term goals list when you need to. 

Good goal setting is the simple part. The hard part is achieving them. Deciding you’re going for a five kilometre run three times a week is easy—it’s a very SMART, short-term, process goal after all. But actually getting out the door on a dark rainy Tuesday is a lot harder. 

Editorial Note: This content was originally published in July of 2018. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.

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