REACH is a webzine devoted to helping people live more consciously, offering articles and tips on health, community, the environment, and personal productivity and growth.

SETTING GOALS: A BEGINNER’S GUIDE

More than one person has likened life’s journey to a boat on a fast-moving river. Some people let the currents take them where they may, while others try to steer and control the boat’s direction. Whether we know it or not, we can spend much of our lives with our hands off the rudder, carried by the currents of life and hoping they will guide us to a safe harbor. But the best kind of life is one lived with purpose, one in which we thoughtfully steer through the currents and eddies with a clear destination in mind.

Living a life of purpose requires planning and thought. One must have clear values and a vision for the future, a sense of what things will look like in one, five or ten years. Do you want to be in the best shape of your life? Do you aspire to take your career to a new level? Do you dream of spending a year sailing around the world? Creating a vision of what we really want in life can be very challenging. It also can be wonderfully inspiring, even exhilarating. But even those of us who have a clear sense of where we want to go and what we want to do can struggle to turn it into reality. Fulfilling your dreams requires more than inspiration and even perspiration. If you really want to shape the important aspects of your future, you must be willing to articulate, commit to and execute clear, measurable goals.

We all set goals – whether we realize it or not – but few of us do so systematically or effectively. Indeed, much of the time our goals amount to little more than vague wishes and desires. Setting real, measurable goals involves more than wishing. Real goal setting, like anything else, is a skill, one that requires time, patience and a willingness to learn from mistakes and missteps. If you’re just getting serious about setting goals and living life of purpose, here is some advice that will make the process easier and more effective.

Envision the Future

Before you can set even one goal, you need to create a vision of what you want your future to look like. This is not something most people can rush. You need to take time – months if necessary – to think about all the important aspects of your life, from your career and health to relationships and spiritual growth.

You might want to start by simply making a list of all of the important parts of your life – like family, career, health and finances. Take a hard look at where you are now in each of these areas and be completely honest with yourself or this exercise will not work. Next, ask yourself where exactly you want to be in each of these areas in the coming year or years. At this point, don’t be concerned with how you’re going to get there. As long as the future you envision is even remotely possible, go ahead and paint a picture of what you want in your mind. For instance, let’s say you want to stop working for someone else and to start your own small business. At this point, don’t worry about the practical questions – such as where you might get the funds or how you would support yourself if you were not drawing a steady paycheck. Simply visualize the kind of business you would be running and what it would mean to you.

Once you’ve created a vision for what you want each important area of your life to look like, set each of them down in writing. Be as specific as possible. For example, just don’t say: “I want to look like Lance Armstrong or Serena Williams.” Describe in detail how you want your body to look and feel in every way. Visualize and describe what it will be like to wake up everyday with vigor and energy or how it will feel to fit into size 4 jeans.

Create Clear Goals

Once you have an end in mind in each important part of your life, it’s time to map out how you’re going to get there. As with creating a vision, it’s imperative that you write your goals down and that you be as specific and clear as possible. So, instead of just saying that you want to start an online business, create a detailed picture of what you will sell and how. Describe the mechanics of your business, from manufacturing to distribution to fulfillment. And supplement this description with metrics – such as the revenue and profit you will make in your first year and in successive years.

Or, going back to our physical fitness example: Don’t just say that you want to get into great shape and move on to your next goal. Describe your best state of health in as much detail as possible. In my own case, I’ve supplemented this detailed description with metrics such as an ideal weight and blood pressure. I’ve even envisioned myself crossing the tape in a marathon. The more details you can provide, the better.

Devise an Action Plan

Once you’ve set out clear goals, it’s time to figure out how to meet them. Each goal requires a roadmap or step-by-step plan to get you from where you are to where you want to be. As always, write down your plan and be as specific as possible. If, for instance, your goal is to finish a book, your action plan could be quite detailed, setting deadlines for each chapter and working out how and when you will accomplish the research and writing. Or you could set a goal of working on the book a certain number of hours a week or even minutes a day. Setting time goals is often more realistic, because you may not know how long something will take to complete. On the other hand, setting and even meeting a time goal can be counterproductive if you are not making enough progress on your real goal of finishing your book. Remember, process is important, but it cannot trump results. If you’re “writing” an hour each morning and producing little usable text, you may want to go back to setting chapter deadlines.

Make Goals Measurable

Almost every goal is measurable. Some goals, such as those involving losing weight or saving money, can easily be measured and tracked over time. Others require a little creativity. For instance, if your goal is to be the best salesperson at your firm, it’s probably inadequate to simply set a monetary goal. In addition to a monetary figure, you might set out to make a certain number of cold calls per week or a certain number of networking meetings with potential new clients. Or, a person who establishes a goal to buy a new house by a certain date could plan to view so many properties each week and to look at a certain number of real estate websites each day.

Include an Accountability System

Once you’ve created your goals and an action plan, it’s important to find ways to make yourself accountable. There are different ways to do this. For instance, you might make a regular appointment to share your goals and action plan with someone who agrees to hold you accountable. Make sure there is some reciprocity in the relationship as well as professional respect. The prospect of disappointing someone you admire and trust can be a strong motivator. There are even groups – known as Master Mind groups – where people get together regularly and encourage each other to set and meet goals. Look on the web for a Master Mind group in your area.

Another way to encourage accountability is to create a system of carrots and sticks connected to meeting your goals. Such a system could be simple. For example, you could reward yourself for finishing a large business project or reaching a certain weight goal with dinner at a favorite restaurant or even a vacation. Once, after a friend and I successfully completed a 10-mile race we had spent six months training for, we celebrated with lunch and a bottle of champagne at a favorite restaurant. Or, those who carefully budget and keep track of their money could create a system whereby they “pay” themselves small amounts for accomplishing steps along the way towards a goal.  For instance, you could pay a small amount into a “fun” account for every mile you run or every cold call you make.

Periodically Review and Change if Necessary

Reviewing your goals is essential. You may want to carve out a little time one day a week to walk through your goals and your plans and to determine how you’re doing. I try to take stock of the last week and plan for the next one each Sunday. This is the time to figure out what is and isn’t working and whether your goals are realistic. Don’t be afraid to change your plan or even your goal if you feel that something is wrong. It may be that you’re approaching achieving your goal in the wrong way, requiring you to review and amend your action plan. Or it may be the goal itself. If your heart consistently isn’t in it – maybe you don’t really want it badly enough. Sometimes goals, particularly audacious goals, sound wonderful and well worth doing in the abstract but are not ultimately important to you. That’s ok. Remember: you’re trying to create the best version of you, not trying to be someone else.

A periodic review also is necessary to help keep your dreams and goals front and center in your mind. So don’t just use the review to figure out what you’re doing right and wrong. It’s also a good time to give yourself a pep talk and to remind yourself why you’re doing this at all. Meeting goals is hard – especially after the first few days or weeks of enthusiasm wanes. Again, visualize what you’re working toward. I like to look at people who are in particularly good shape – often on the covers of fitness magazines – because it helps motivate me to go to the gym even on those days when it would be easier to stay in bed and sleep another hour.

Have Fun. Set Audacious Goals

While it’s always important to place your goals firmly in the realm of the possible, don’t sell yourself short by setting anemic goals. Small goals inevitably lead to small improvements. And while small improvements are better than none, the whole point of setting goals is to create a life that is fundamentally better. So go ahead, set big goals and challenge yourself. For one thing, you won’t really know your limits until you test them. And wouldn’t you rather accomplish 90 % of a big goal than 100 % of a small one? Also, it’s a lot easier to get excited about meeting goals when they are substantial, meaningful and even a little fanciful. For instance, it’s a lot easier to get juiced about swimming with dolphins than about swimming in a pool at the YMCA. Dreaming big is a lot more fun than dreaming small.

Setting and meeting goals is not easy. It’s a lot more challenging to consistently challenge yourself than it is to let the currents of life sweep us down the river. On the other hand, if setting and meeting goals is hard, the alternative is ultimately much harder. As Samuel Johnson once said, it is hard “for a man to consider what he has done, compared to what he might have done.”