We are often warned; if you fail to set goals you’ll fail to get anywhere. Ok, fine – consider us warned. But what about how to set goals that actually work? If you’ve ever experienced setting goals that you miss by miles, or bail on early in disgust, this is the question you need to answer. In fact, setting 20 goals at the beginning of a year and watching them all go up in proverbial flames can be more harmful than having not set them in the first place.
Can Goal Setting Be Counterproductive?
Here’s the thing, setting goals and failing to achieve them can do some damage. If you or I set a goal to reach 10 pull-ups in 12 weeks and only get to 6, our confidence and motivation take a hit. As a Rotman School of Management study suggested, failure to attain a goal can be counterproductive; it can result in deterioration of future performance.
We may just shrug, give up on it all and go back to eating pringles and watching reality TV shows. Let’s all agree now that we aren’t going to let that happen.
3 Techniques To Set Goals That Actually Work
So we don’t want to set a bunch of goals and miss them all. Equally we don’t want them to be a walk in the park, we’re looking for a challenge after all, it’s just key that we avoid setbacks when we can. The good news is that by following a few key evidence-based techniques, we can solve this problem by setting goals that actually work.
1) Eliminate the competition
If you work through a goal exercise and generate a bounty of goals you want to achieve, that’s a wonderful start. But a crucial step to achieving goals is to be merciless as you trim down the list, cut the fat and only keep the ones that get you the most pumped.
What’s the problem with too many goals? Psychologists say that ‘goal competition’ can divide and weaken your inner resources. Too many goals can be confusing. This confusion drains motivation as you desperately try to keep the plates spinning but they just crash to the ground.
“Goal competition says that one of the greatest barriers to achieving your goals is the other goals you have,” writes James Clear, goals expert and author of the bestseller, Atomic Habits. “In other words, your goals are competing with one another for your time and attention.”
Rather than trying to divvy up your time and energy across a jumble of goals, you draw from other parts of your life and pour it into one place. You wake up thinking about your goal, obsess about it during the day, think about it going to sleep. This is how you really get after something.
2) Get results with Choice Architecture
OK, so you’ve narrowed your focus to the one goal that really gets you revved up. Let’s say it’s entering a new race that you are excited to take part in and want to be prepared for. Now use the concept of choice architecture so that can’t help but bump into the right choices to make your goals happen.
Choice architecture is a marketing concept that mixes design and human psychology to lure you into buying decisions. To whatever degree that’s evil, you can use the principle to lure yourself into making choices in alignment with your goals.
Back to the race goal; your plan to achieve the goal includes frequent trail runs. To use choice architecture to nudge you along your exercise plan, you make sure your running shoes are set up the night before a morning run – prepped so that you’ll practically trip over them as you get out of bed. The ready-and-waiting shoes act as a trigger to help you make the right decision, so you’ll find yourself lacing them up in the morning instead of chilling on the sofa.
Choice architecture is a powerful tool when it comes to eating better. Stocking your fridge with all the right stuff, we’re talking fruits, vegetables etc. and hiding the junk food in some dark corner of the cupboard, is bound to help you choose healthier meals.
3) Get S.M.A.R.T with your goals
You’ve probably heard of S.M.A.R.T. in a business setting for goal strategies, to refresh your memory it stands for:
- Specific: A clear target (like setting a goal for a specific race).
- Measurable: You can objectively measure your progress toward knocking out the goal (like getting fit and ultimately finishing the race).
- Attainable: You have to put in the work to stretch yourself but the goal is not a fantasy.
- Relevant: Does the goal have meaning for you? (The race you enter is what you want to do and gaining the fitness and health to finish is appealing to you).
- Time-bound. You have a deadline for crossing off the goal. (The date of the race, in our example).
When it comes to setting goals that actually work, these are all solid tactics to put into action, but the stand out is attainability. Yes the goal should be a stretch for you, but make it realistic. When picking your goal, it’s wise to reflect on where you are, what you’ve accomplished in the past, and how much time you have to put in the work.
Remember the ideal goal should not be dependent on others to such a degree that it is out of your control. Like getting a promotion or winning an award. If possible, frame your goal in terms that doesn’t require subjective approval from others.
Eliminating goal competition, using choice architecture to trigger good habits and repel bad habits, and taking steps to ensure your goals are reasonable – these are three potent ways to turn your goals into achievements.
Here’s a quick checklist to follow to get you on the right track in setting goals you can really achieve.
Your Goal Smashing Checklist
- Brainstorm up a big list of goals.
- Think hard about them, trimming them down to a select few. Or even just one.
- Make sure they’re challenging but not out of reach.
- Make your plan.
- Organise your environment to be conducive to working toward your goals.
- Get after it.
Feeling inspired to make a Tough Mudder your goal? Grab your ticket. We’ll see you on Mudderhorn.