Goal Setting as a Means to Success

“You can’t set a hen in one morning and have chicken salad for lunch.”  – George Humphrey (Time Magazine, January 26, 1953) –

Every January, I write down a set of goals. Some are financial. Some relate to my business. And some are personal. When I put my new list down on paper, I feel powerful and confident. Here are the things I will accomplish this year. Clean and simple. I imagine how I will feel when they are completed, and that feeling is good.

When I first started using goal setting as a means to success, I made one big mistake: I was too specific. Since then, I have learned that goals are best that govern least. That it is better to make them vague and oversized.

Now this runs contrary to popular advice, so let me explain.

When you set specific goals, as I used to, you set yourself up for disappointment. Plus, you are likely to miss out on what it is you really want or need.

Say you want to master the Spanish language. Following the advice of most goal-setting and productivity “experts,” you make this very specific. You determine that you will attain a “three-plus” level of proficiency in Spanish as measured by the standardized State Department tests.

You write that down as your goal and read it and repeat it every day. You set yourself intermediate goals (e.g., learn lesson 1 this week, lesson 2 next week, etc.). You check off your progress.

Sounds good, right? But what really happens? I mean, really? In my experience, it usually goes something like this: You sign up for Spanish lessons and quit after three lessons when basketball season starts. Or you quit after 16 lessons when you get sick and miss one class. Or you finish the classes without ever really learning Spanish well.

Once I realized that when I was too specific in defining my goals all I usually managed to do was juice myself up one day for disappointment later on, I made a change. The way I set my goals now still gives me that initial rush but allows me to accomplish a much higher percentage of the tasks I set.

Here is what I do …

After writing down the specific goal I want to accomplish, I ask myself what it is, in general, that I am trying to do by achieving it. Say, I write down “learning Spanish.” I ask myself, “What is it about learning this language that interests me? Is it just the learning of Spanish per se? Do I need it for my work? For my travels?” The answer, of course, is “no.” But for me, learning Spanish means I am becoming smarter — and being smart is very important to me. I want to feel as if I’m always in the process of self-improvement, and learning Spanish, or any foreign language, is just one way to do that.

So, in this particular case, next to my specific goal of learning Spanish at a certain level, I might write a broader alternative that reads something like, “Learn something big that makes you feel smarter.” That “something big” might turn out to be French or wine tasting or the history of the Roman Empire.

If I attach to my specific goal a bigger but less-defined goal (one that actually gets closer to what I really value), I accomplish two things:

1. I dramatically increase the likelihood that I will accomplish my goal.

2. I come to understand something about my interests, needs, and motivations.

By recognizing and articulating my larger, vaguer, and often unspoken desires, I am able to set specific goals that can be changed, so long as they generally adhere to my main objective.

I have been broadening and deepening my goal setting for several years now, and the process gets better every year. Not only am I meeting more of my goals, but the goals I set are getting better too.