5 Effective Steps for Setting ‘Why’ Goals

UPDATED: May 23, 2024
PUBLISHED: May 17, 2019
5 Effective Steps for Setting Why Goals

At the start of each year, we are inundated with emails and Instagram posts demanding to know: What are your goals for the new year? We clamor to figure out how to be our best. The gyms are packed and our bookshelves full as we commit to our goals, repeating in our heads, This year will be different.

But then the months go by. Goals are forgotten, resolutions covered in the dust of day-to-day tasks, and the mundane running-through-life resumes. Your goals are now just a guilty reminder of everything you haven’t made time for. You’re not even sure why you tried. And that’s just it: You don’t know why you set the goal in the first place.

As a leadership coach, I demand that all goals start with “why.” Why do you want to lose weight? Why do you need to read more? Why do you think getting a new job will bring you happiness? Once a client answers my why question, I ask it again. And again. I ask the question somewhere between three to five times (#brokenrecord), until we finally uncover what’s at the core.

Start With Why

For my client who wanted to lose weight—let’s call her Michelle—her first why was so that her clothes would look better. OK, fair; who doesn’t want to fit into their old jeans?

On the second why, Michelle said that having clothes that fit would give her more confidence. I heard something change in her voice—now we were getting warmer.

On the third why, she shared that she had never felt confident with her appearance. As a result, she’s resisted going after her dream of giving a TED Talk. She couldn’t stand the thought of a crowd staring at her body for 18 minutes.

And when I asked Michelle why she wanted to give a TED Talk, she broke into tears, “I want to share my story—my fight with obesity and body image—so that I can help even one young girl not suffer the way I have.” We both sat in silence. Michelle’s goal was about much more than weight loss. We had given voice to the why of Michelle’s goal, and it would never be tossed aside again.

When you surface the meaning behind your goal and give it a voice, a simple goal shifts into a mission.

Not all goals will have tears and a heart-wrenching story, but you’d be surprised at how many are grounded in values and purpose. And when you can surface that meaning and give it a voice, a simple goal shifts into a mission. With your why front and center, it’s almost impossible to turn your back and not go after it.

Why Why Matters

In his book, Start With Why, Simon Sinek shares the biology of why why matters. Inside that big brain of ours, we have two levels: the limbic brain and the neocortex. Our limbic brain holds the reigns of all feelings, human behaviors and decision-making. It has no capacity for language; it’s where our “gut decisions” come from. So when you do things that just “feel right,” know that that’s your limbic brain at work. Meanwhile, the neocortex is the responsible side of our brain, from where all of our rational thoughts derive. And while the neocortex can make a great argument, it turns out that the limbic brain is quite powerful, often contradicting and beating out our rational neocortex.

So now think about how this might work with your goals. Your neocortex has all the reasons why you should go to the gym, eat healthier, work harder, but your limbic brain knows what feels good. And getting up early or passing on that glass of wine doesn’t feel quite as delectable.

So, your goals have to feel good. And those feel-good goals come from giving voice to your why. When you hit on the values and emotions that drive why you want to achieve a goal, a light goes off in the limbic brain and kicks your body into action.

How to Set Why Goals:

1. Ask why until you hit a value.

Remember when you used to dig holes in the sand at the beach until you hit water? It’s like that—except “Why?” is the shovel and your value is the water. Keep asking why until you hit the value.

You can do this for yourself, with a friend, or work with a coach. Sometimes “Why?” can feel a little judgey or make you go too deep into your head. If that happens, ask the question a bit differently: What’s important to you about that? What makes you want it?

As you ask the questions, be on the lookout for emotions. As you notice a lump in your throat, or, if you’re doing this with someone else, a pause in your voice, get curious about what’s going on. Our feelings (hi, limbic brain!) tend to lead us to our values, and they’re useful for getting into action and staying engaged.

2. Create the vision.

Once you find the value, don’t stop. Explore what it is about that value that is so meaningful. Ask questions like: What would it be like to achieve that goal? What would life be like if you no longer had to second-guess your appearance? What if you were able to help one young woman overcome her body image issues? What would be possible for you?

Make sure you capture an understanding of what accomplishing the goal would feel like. Having a keen sense of awareness of the end-state is one of the most motivating factors when going after a goal.

Then capture it: Write it down in your journal, paint it or record yourself talking about it. You’ll come back to this vision when the going gets tough.

3. Get SMART about it.

You may have heard of SMART goalsSpecific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound. Once you have your why and your vision, it’s time to employ this method. Let’s see how Michelle used SMART goals:

The goal of “losing weight” is slippery. For some, losing five pounds might be really meaningful; for Michelle, that wouldn’t bring her one step closer to speaking on stage. When I asked her about what specifically she wanted, she didn’t hesitate: “I need to lose 30 pounds and bring my BMI to a 20.” This wasn’t only specific, it was quite measurable: She’d know exactly how she was progressing whenever she wanted.

Michelle’s goal might have seemed a little ambitious, but we made it achievable by creating a workout schedule that ramped up in terms of time and difficulty. We put together a healthy diet that included room for occasional sweets. Michelle knew that she needed to ease into it and leave room and acceptance for missed workouts and cupcakes if she was going to see this through.

To ensure her goal stayed relevant, Michelle posted the TED Talk application on her refrigerator. She wanted her why to be front and center each time she reached for a snack.

Finally, Michelle gave herself eight months to lose the weight; the time-bound nature felt doable (four pounds a month) and inspiring.

4. Give yourself permission to change course.

Too often we set goals and then refuse to bend our own rules. Rigid rules may work for some (for most, it results in giving up completely), but they can also lead you down a path that is no longer on purpose with your original why.

As with all things in life, the goal posts may change. Michelle might have originally wanted to lose 30 pounds, but as she shed the pounds, she might have felt great with losing 25 pounds. Should she continue to push forward, or if she felt confident enough to take the stage, could she stop there?

To ensure you’re staying true to your why, plan purposeful check-ins. These can be calendar reminders or a check-in with a coach. Ask questions like:

  • Am I still going after the right goal?
  • Do I remain as committed to my stated purpose? Why?
  • What do I need to shift?

5. Celebrate!

It’s easy to drive past our wins without even looking out the window. But if you’re going to stick to your challenging and meaningful goals, make sure you enjoy the view. As you create your roadmap to achieve your goals, include benchmarks and rewards. They should be activities or gifts to yourself that are motivating and cause you to reflect on what you’re learning and who you’re becoming.

Speaking of celebrations: Last month, Michelle nominated herself to speak at a TED event. She enjoyed a cupcake immediately after hitting submit.

Related: The Secret to Successfully Planning Long-Term Goals

This post originally appeared on Shine, a free app that’s a pep talk in your pocket.

Photo by Åaker on Unsplash

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