Personal Goal Setting: Powerful Strategies to Achieve More in Life

personal goal settingPersonal goal setting is one of those things that we all know we probably should do, but just never really get around to doing. It can be easy to go with the flow (sometimes that’s a good thing) but lack of direction often is the difference between living a mediocre life or living your best life. I, for one, want to set personal goals to make sure I live in the way that’s best for me. Here’s how to make the most out of life by setting personal goals.

Why Personal Goal Setting Is Important

Why Personal Goal Setting Is Important

Let’s be honest with ourselves, building the life we dream of doesn’t happen by accident. By the same token, it’s surprising how adding even a little intention to our lives can have such a huge impact on our happiness and success. What’s more, if we don’t set priorities in our lives, there are plenty of other people and companies that are happy to set them for us, only to their benefit, not ours.

personal goal settingI’ve found that setting goals does two main things for us: it gives us something to aim for and it gives us a guide to weigh decisions in order to keep moving forward. These two things are vitally important to a life worth living because they provide a purpose for our lives; purpose is what gets us up in the morning and it’s what carries us when times get tough.

When I think about the best times in my life, I consider them to be so great because I had purpose. The darker times in life were characterized by an aimless state of wandering. Leveraging goal setting, I was able to claw my way out of those dark spots to a brighter place.

That’s why personal goal setting is important: it gives you aim, it gives you guidance and it gives you a purpose that carries you through the good and bad times.

How To Set Personal Goals

How To Set Personal Goals

There are three parts to setting personal goals: identifying what you want to achieve, building a system to attain that goal, and finally, articulating what you’re willing to sacrifice or endure in order to achieve it. Despite the nuances within each part, I’ll be honest here and say the biggest challenge is you getting out of your own way.

When you’re setting new goals and executing them, you’re building new habits, which is incredibly difficult to do. I’ve written a good bit about this topic, so make sure you check out this post.

tools for building good habits

— TOOLS FOR —

BUILDING

GOOD HABITS


Identifying What You Want Out Of Life

Identifying What You Want Out Of Life

Obviously, the first step is to know where we are going, which can be easier said than done sometimes. There have been times when I knew exactly what I was going to do next, then other times I struggled for years to figure out my next step. I wanted to take some time here to dig in, because I’ve found advice out there to be thin when it comes to not knowing what you should do.

indentifying what you want out of lifeThe trick with a goal is finding that sweet spot between something that is difficult to achieve and something that lights a fire within you. The key component to a satisfying victory is proportionate to the amount of struggle: the more struggle, the greater the feeling of satisfaction. Too much struggle and your goal will take forever to achieve or it isn’t realistic.

Without struggle, wins around goals can feel cheap and hollow. If I map the greatest things I have done in life, they correlate heavily with the amount of struggle that occurred with it. I don’t believe this is by accident.

Along with the perfect amount of struggle, the goal needs to stir something inside you. I’ve had goals like earn six figures, live in another country, be featured in the NY Times, but they all left me feeling blasé. I was able to get hired pretty easily for that six figures, bought a ticket to Croatia with money I already had and realized being in the NYT didn’t change my life.

Compare that to my goal of writing a book and seeing it published on the shelf in a Barnes & Noble. After writing a blog for 7 years, I attracted a publisher who offered me a contract. I then spent 6 months writing every day, and editing the manuscript for 3 months after that. The feeling when I walked into my local Barnes & Nobles and saw my book on the shelf for sale was one of the top moments of my life.

When it comes to determining our goals, we fall into three main buckets:

When We Think We Know What Our Goal Should Be

When We Think We Know What Our Goal Should Be

When I was young, I was very money driven. I thought a large income, a big house, nice clothes and fancy things would lead me to happiness. When the 2009 recession hit, I realized through prolonged introspection that what I thought I wanted, was actually a narrative I adopted out of default.

american dream houseGo to school, get a good job, land a successful career, find a wife, settle down in a nice house and drive a red car. Some call it the American Dream, but I never stopped to think if it was right for me.

When you think you have landed on a larger life goal, spend some time picking it apart. Play devil’s advocate, think about what the daily realities would be like and maybe see if you could test out what it would be like in some way.

Me defaulting to the normal path of life was bought and sold to me by society at large. For some, a perfectly fine path, but one that I never stopped and asked: “is this what I want?” When I finally did get around to asking that question. I soon realized this clear-cut route really meant in a day to day reality, and it was not for me. I thought I knew what I wanted; boy was I wrong.

When We Don’t Know What We Want

When We Don’t Know What We Want

There have been a few times in my life when I just didn’t know what to do. I was floating along, “successful” by most people’s standards, but I wasn’t particularly happy. I spent a lot of energy trying to figure out what I wanted, but any idea that came to me kept falling flat. I struggled with it immensely in my early 30’s and the lack of purpose was a major negative force in my life.

I spent a solid year doing thought experiments, brainstorming ideas, testing a few of them, and reading a lot of advice, only to come up empty. Sometimes people say they don’t know what to do because they haven’t honestly put effort into it, but this was not the case. I spent a sizeable amount of time making concerted efforts.

I was so clueless about what I wanted. So, in a mild act of desperation, I decided to set aside my goals and focused on making myself better. I had no reason to think this would solve anything. My rationale for all of this was telling myself that I might as well work on myself, so by the time I do figure out what I want, I’ll be at my best to do whatever it is.

75 hard challenge

GET MOTIVATED WITH THE

75 HARD

CHALLENGE


I started with my diet, losing 90 pounds. I worked in some moderate exercise and started walking each day, then running a few times a week. Finally, I spent time alone with my thoughts on long walks through the woods, sorting through feelings and my mental state.

I’m not necessarily saying to do this exact thing if you don’t know what you want to do in life. Instead, think about what the proxy would be for you and pursue that. It is quite possible that what I did will work for you too.

I think the big part is to just do something that is going to make your life better in any dimension. It’s a mix of improving your life and gaining forward momentum. Basically, you’ll get out of your rut and since you’re focusing on yourself, it’s a way forward. I think the motion in any direction is important.

The beauty of this approach is if it doesn’t work for you, the worst outcome that can happen is that you’re better than you were. If nothing else, you’ll be wiser, healthier, and most importantly, moving in a direction.

After about a year and a half of focusing on my diet and health I also found I slept better, got dates easier, my neck pain went away and my mood lifted. In the end it was all worth it if for nothing else than that!

are you living a level 10 life

Then something funny happened, I started having clearer thoughts around what I wanted for my future. I saw possibilities and was excited by them. I could tell I was onto something. I didn’t know exactly what it was, but it was like following a rope and knowing you were getting to the end where the prize was.

Then one day clarity hit me like a lightning bolt, I knew where I was going.

When You Know Your Goals

When You Know Your Goals

Having an aim in life is super important, to my earlier point, having a purpose is what breeds a good life filled with happiness, contentment and interest. The only thing you want to be cautious of is false positives, meaning when you think you know what you want, but realize later you pursued the wrong goal.

Take time to really think through the life you want to build, what are the realities of living like that? Too often we idealize things. Make sure you’re willing to put up with the downsides, because every way of life has them.

when you know your goalsAn important step to this is we often think about how it will feel when things go right: the sun is shining, money in the bank, the car works, we’re healthy and we don’t have a worry in the world. But also think through what the worst day of that new life would be like: you lost your job, the economy dipped, you break up with your significant other, you’ve been sick for a week and the chores are piling up. What would those days feel like? Would you still want that life?

Another important thing to do is to understand how you arrived at this goal in the first place. Analyze the sources where the motivations or ideas for these goals come from. Was it a nostalgic memory from your past, was it something you coveted in your neighbors or friends, or was it a status symbol that might end up empty for us?

Understanding the drive behind a goal is important to make sure it comes from a good place. Always be cautious, examine your own thoughts around your goals, and check to make sure they’re right for you.

Building Systems To Achieve Goals

Building Systems To Achieve Goals

A key component to goal setting is not only figuring out what you want to set as your personal goal, but what you’re actually going to do daily in order to reach that goal. Training yourself to think this way is critical and will get you far in life because there are many goals that are complex, very ambitious and can take years to reach.

A system is a consistent set of actions that you perform daily, which will eventually accumulate in a way that reaches your goal. Examples would be:

  • Your goal is to write a book: your system is to write 500 words each day
  • Your goal is to lose 30 pounds: your system is to track calories for all your meals
  • Your goal is no debt: your system is to reduce spending and pay down your debt

This does a few things for you. First, it breaks down a goal into smaller parts so you can just focus on what is right in front of you: what do you need to do today?

build systemsIt also helps motivate you on long-term goals where the finish line may be very far off. You can draw satisfaction from a job well done today and the knowledge that it’s building towards something.

Finally, a system is repeatable, which means you can get more efficient with it. When you do something over and over again, day in and day out, you naturally get better at it. This means you might discover ways to achieve the same thing in less time, cutting down the time to achieve that goal.

You may realize that some things you were doing each day were bringing the impact you thought they would so you can adapt to having more meaningful results. If all else fails, you’ll get really good at what you do each day and you can “brute force” your way to a goal.

Systems are powerful and I’ve learned they are what separates successful people from less successful people. Successful people have a system or process for achieving their goals and they seek them relentlessly.

Below are some details about building systems that can help make sure you hone in on the right steps to achieve your goals through daily system actions.

Question Everything

Question Everything

I have talked about how just through some simple questions I was able to free up half of my time in a new job, which equates to about 30 hours a week. In challenging my assumptions around email, I took my email inbox that received 700 emails a day of real and actionable emails, not spam/newsletters, down to 40 emails a week! It also allowed me to question my housing, where I replaced my rent of $1,500 down to $15 (not a typo) a month.

simple office and work life

This willingness has proven very valuable. The ability to take a step back and question things objectively has saved me a ton of time, money and stress. In short, we need to question everything and challenge our assumptions.

Build A List Of Options

Build A List Of Options

Start by making a list of five distinctly different ways you could achieve this goal. The first option you write down will most likely be your personal favorite, your second option will be a good alternative. When you get to your last three options, you’ll have to start getting creative. You want these to be totally different from your other options, not just a slight variation.

bullet journaling

HOW TO START A

BULLET

JOURNAL


Don’t be afraid to ask other people how they would achieve the same goal. Don’t be afraid to press them for alternative options as well. It’s options four and five that often reveal some insights, opening you up to a better way or new way of thinking about your challenge ahead.

This process does a few things. First it allows you to potentially come up with a better path forward, forcing creative solutions sometimes gets you to think outside the box. It also provides fall back options if your first approach fails, saving you valuable time after a possible failure.

Take the time to write these down and brainstorm ideas, don’t be afraid to get really crazy.

Break Down Your Goals

Break Down Your Goals

Many goals are multi-faceted, complex or require many actions. It can be daunting at times to keep going or to know where to even start. The best way I’ve found to deal with this is to break down the goal into smaller steps.

You can approach this in two different ways: break goals down to what you need to do today or break down goals to a point that it seems easily achievable.

My preference is to break down goals into a daily to do list. Sometimes it’s easy, for example, “I want to earn an extra $5,000 this year.” You take $5,000 and divide by 365. What’s nice about this is instead of feeling overwhelmed by the thought of earning an extra five grand, you can set that feeling aside and realize today you only have to figure out how to earn only $15.

break down your goalsOther goals are a bit more complicated: For example, building my tiny house. To do this, I outlined all the steps I needed to do in order to build the house: determine a design, draw the plans, purchase the trailer, learn to use tools, etc. I then grouped them into what seemed like easy to do chunks.

If there is a section that is still too big, I looked for ways to break it down further: instead of “buy a trailer” I’ll first make a list of people I want to call to get prices. After that, I’ll call those people, compare prices, go see the trailer, make a decision, then finally purchase. That one item was broken down into six smaller steps that seemed easier on their own.

The other way for you to break down ambitious goals that seem daunting, is to break them down into approachable portions. The key here is to figure out the actions that are so simple, small or easy that you think you can manage it. For some people these actions may be bigger or smaller, the point is you figure out the thing you can manage to do.

Break it down into small pieces and then set a plan to get you from where you are today to where you want to be, one small step at a time.

Own The Pain Of Achievement

Own The Pain Of Achievement

Most guidance fails because it doesn’t include what you’re willing to endure in order to make the dream a reality. l Goal setting advice focuses on making SMART goals, dream boards, motivation etc. but doesn’t spend any time recognizing the pain required to achieve a goal.

We need to define what we are willing to undergo in order to achieve our goal. Inherent in our pursuit of our goal, we are going to have to give certain things up, say no to a few things, get up when we just want to be lazy, and keep pushing when everything seems to be against us.

Goal Setting is Easy, Achieving Goals is Painful

The space between where we are today and where we want to be in the future is filled with hard work and sacrifice. It’s going to be painful in some manner, so let’s adopt a mindset now that will set the stage for the daily actions of our systems.

Define The Pain We Are Willing To Endure

Define The Pain We Are Willing To Endure

Understanding what pain we are willing to go through is critical to this process. There are certain things we understand are more valuable in reaching our goals. Therefore, we are more willing to ride out the disadvantages because we realize they are necessary for success. Contrary to this, there are some things we come to recognize we are not willing to do.

This saves us time, but also attributes the lack of change to the proper source: ourselves. It allows the proper internal dialogue of “I want this in my life, but if I’m not willing to take the actions to make it happen, then I won’t have earned it.” It’s a hard pill to swallow and sometimes, just maybe, it’s this realization that makes us stubborn enough to preserve through those sacrifices.

Make sure you are setting your goals, but then make sure you outline exactly what you’re willing to sacrifice in order to make it happen.

Prepare For Failure

Prepare For Failure

There are times when we miss the mark and the critical part of failure is training ourselves to have the right response. Failure is an opportunity to start again wiser, but we should also own our faults and mistakes no matter the circumstances.

Another key to success is what is called failing forward. While we want to make sure we don’t have any catastrophic failures, learning to embrace small failures and learn from them is a valuable skill.

go for it

Be The One

Who Goes For It!


In my time working as an entrepreneur, I’ve found that failing provides useful data. I’ve often found I needed to fail in small ways (numerous times) so I could figure out what will work. Realizing this, the trick has been to reduce the time and cost between failures. By shortening the intervals between failures, I can get to a successful place more quickly.

In my personal life, I’ve found that failures often taught me more about myself than any other time. You go through a rough breakup; you learn a lot about what you do and don’t want in your next partner. You made a poor money decision, you are smarter the next time round. You let your house get really messy, spending hours cleaning it, so you start to clean a little each day instead.

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” — Henry Ford

Failure is traditionally seen as a bad thing and there are times when the shame and pain of such failure is necessary to reinforce good behaviors. In my opinion, failure also needs to be seen as a place of growth and learning.

Putting It All Together

Putting It All Together

Now that we’ve figured out what we want, it’s time to build a system to achieve our goals and get clear on what we’re willing to withstand.

Take time to get clear on what you truly want and examine the motivation behind it. Understand that you need to put in the work to make this happen. Finally, break your goals down into small daily actions that will allow you to make progress towards each day.

Your Turn!

  • What tips do you have for setting goals?
  • What goals are you going to work on this year?

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1 Comment
  1. Every couple of years I sink back into habits of procrastination that shortchange my future self. Then I look for a boost such as this to get me back on track! Thanks for your timely insights.

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