Master the Art of Setting Goals in 4 Steps

UPDATED: May 11, 2021
PUBLISHED: March 29, 2017
Master the Art of Setting Goals in 4 Steps

In early 2009, Ben Landers was setting objectives for Blue Corona, his year-old digital-marketing company in Gaithersburg, Md. The startup had earned $112,000 in revenues its first year but was still losing money. Landers wanted to nudge Blue Corona solidly into profitability, reaching $1 million in annual sales in three years.

He shared his goals with his mentor, Bob Perini, founder of the water-delivery company DrinkMore Water, which is in the same town. “That’s completely reasonable,” Perini scoffed. “It’s also completely uninspiring.” Perini suggested an alternate goal for Blue Corona: to earn a spot on a prestigious list of the 500 fastest-growing privately held companies in the U.S.

“Once you eliminate the fear of failure, you can accomplish amazing things.”

It was, Landers thought, “absolutely ridiculous. We would have to have a three-year growth rate exceeding 1,000 percent to make the list.” But Landers accepted the challenge, with Perini’s assurance that “even if you fail miserably, you’re going to learn way more and teach your employees way more than if you stuck to your puny goals.” And a funny thing happened. “Once you eliminate the fear of failure, you can accomplish amazing things,” Landers says. “A part of me felt that we were going to fall flat on our faces. But another, bigger part passionately believed we could do it. And that belief was like a lever leading us to do things differently.”

The result? Blue Corona actually exceeded its audacious objective.

Related: 4 Tips for Setting Powerful Goals

Today Landers says he thinks of goals not merely as benchmarks or endpoints but as a propulsive force. “A goal has the ability to sustain the mission when the going gets incredibly difficult,” he says.

Mark Murphy, a leadership consultant and author of Hard Goals: The Secret to Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, agrees. “If your goal is powerful enough,” Murphy says, “implementation won’t be such a big problem. In nearly all cases where greatness is achieved, it’s the goal that drives motivation and discipline—not the other way around.”

The task of setting goals is every bit as important as implementing goals, says Gabriele Oettingen, Ph.D., a psychologist at New York University and author of the new book Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation. “If we want to achieve goals, we need to set them in a way that maximizes their attainment,” Oettingen says. Here’s how.

Go Beyond Dreaming

First let’s talk about what a goal is not. It’s not a fantasy or a daydream, both of which seldom get past the mulling stage into concrete action; they’re simply notions that eventually tend to be discarded. And Oettingen, over the past two decades, has performed study after study to investigate why so many big wishes evaporate, with this conclusion: “Daydreams and fantasies may be pleasant in the moment, and they can spur us to perform easy tasks,” Oettingen says. “But they hinder us in handling the hard tasks.”

For instance, the more frequently college students fantasized about a successful career transition, the fewer applications they sent out and the fewer job offers they received. Overweight women who pictured their svelte post-diet selves breezing past the dessert table lost 24 pounds less than those who anticipated wrestling with temptation.

But dreams can play a vital role in helping us form goals if we juxtapose them with an acknowledgement of the impediments. Oettingen has developed a four-step method that can fully commit you to feasible goals and can help you let go of those that aren’t. She calls the method “WOOP,” outlined below.


Find a time and place where you can focus for 15 or 20 minutes uninterrupted. Identify a wish in your personal or professional life that you think is challenging but possible.


Keep holding the wish in your mind and imagine the very best things about making it a reality. What does the outcome look and feel like? Let yourself experience this in your mind as vividly as you can.


What is it that might hold you back from achieving the goal? Don’t think only of external obstacles such as the economy. Dig deeply to uncover the internal barriers, whether it’s a behavior (standing on the sidelines at networking events), an emotion (anxiety) or a self-defeating thought (I’m always the least interesting person in the room).


Name one action you can take to overcome the obstacle. An if-then approach can be helpful. If I’m always too pressed by deadlines to attend networking events, then I’ll pick two functions at the beginning of the month and schedule them as though they’re client meetings and can’t be canceled. If I feel anxious when I go to the mixer, I’ll find one person who’s standing alone and introduce myself.

Related: 10 Steps to Achieve Any Goal

To Do It, First Draw It!

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul,” the poet Emily Dickinson wrote. A well-set goal is something far sturdier—the falcon perched on your shoulder that pecks you, compelling you to action. These are what Murphy terms HARD goals, as described below.


You feel a deep-seated attachment to the goals.


The goals are vividly alive for you.


You are so convinced of the absolute necessity of the future payoffs of your goals that you’re able to overcome procrastination.


The goal hits your sweet spot of challenge, positioning you to push past your comfort zone into extraordinary performance.

At the goal-setting workshops he leads, Murphy directs participants to draw self-portraits of themselves achieving their goals. If you plan to open your own bakery, you might draw yourself standing in the middle of an empty storefront, moving an oven into the space, rolling out pastry dough, then standing in front of that building again, this time beside two other figures—representing your partners—with a storefront sign that says “Main Street Bakery.” If your goal is to achieve better work-life balance, your sketches might show you leaving your office as the clock shows 6 p.m., playing catch with your son and dining in a restaurant with your spouse.

The idea isn’t to get in touch with your inner Van Gogh—Murphy’s favorite tools are a pencil and legal pad—but to animate your goals into something that lives and breathes for you. Then Murphy has participants share their drawings with others and ask them to describe what they see. “If that person doesn’t have a clear understanding of what your goal is, chances are you don’t either,” Murphy says. So it’s back, literally, to the drawing board.

Now take another look at the picture. Could you have swapped in a photograph of your current life to represent your goals? If so, then your goal is not nearly ambitious enough. A goal that’s bold and transformative “is going to force you to learn something new and make fundamental changes in the way you operate,” Murphy explains. “It’s not a trajectory of the path that you’re already on.”

“To do big stuff, you have to set really big goals that are exciting to you.”

Landers agrees. “To do big stuff, you have to set really big goals that are exciting to you. You don’t achieve your maximum potential as a person or as a business by setting small incremental goals.”

From Big Picture to Daily Tasks

OK, you’ve focused on a bold goal, visualized it in detail and identified strategies for overcoming likely obstacles. Now it’s time to break that goal into small, measurable steps—what Casey Mulqueen, Ph.D., director of research and product development for the workplace training company TRACOM Group, calls “process goals,” the behavioral intentions necessary for completion of the outcome goal. Say, for example, an entrepreneur has an outcome goal of signing 15 new clients by the end of the year. Her process goals might be reaching out to five potential clients and setting up two lunches every week for the next six months.

“When you set a process goal, you begin to build a new habit in the automatic system of the brain,” Mulqueen says. “This means that even in the face of stress, fatigue or distraction, your brain remains committed to your goal and actively looks for ways to further that planned behavior.”

Murphy concurs, saying a specific daily activity needs to be prescribed. He suggests a strategy he calls “cutting in half.” If your goal is to run a marathon a year from now, cut the time frame in half and ask yourself what you’ll need to have accomplished at the six-month mark. Now cut the six months in half. What do you need to do in three months to be on target for your six-month goal? Keep cutting the time frame in half until you’re looking at what you need to do today to be on track for your one-week goal. The answer might be a 3-mile run at 6 p.m., a goal that’s a lot less intimidating than running a marathon’s 26.2 miles.

Minimize Goals to Maximize Payoff

If setting goals is good, setting more goals isn’t better—so nix that long list of resolutions.

“The worst thing that happens to goal-setting is lists,” says Ian Miller, a partner in the Chicago growth strategy firm Miller & Gruaz. “When I work with small companies, they inevitably have a list of a half-dozen goals.” At least one of these is what Miller calls “the oxygen thief,” a pet project that gets talked about endlessly at meetings and saps company resources but really isn’t worth doing.

To oust the oxygen thief, identify three- to five-year goals for your company. “Shorter than that, and you’re dealing with tactics, not strategy,” Miller says. “Longer than five years, and nobody really knows what’s going to happen.”

He cites a Chicago foundry as an example. This family-owned business, which had ambitious growth goals, was the main supplier of brass fittings to the city’s hotels, schools and large businesses. The company also had a foundry in Milwaukee that was working with a Japanese manufacturer of hands-free toilets. “Eighty percent of their business was being generated by 20 percent of their products,” Miller says, “and none of those were coming out of the Milwaukee foundry.”

Setting five-year goals revealed the necessity to shed the Milwaukee operation. “If they wanted to meet their growth goals,” he adds, “they had to recognize that they were in brass and not in porcelain.” The company sold its Milwaukee foundry to a Swedish company for a tidy sum, streamlined its product line and is thriving.

“I tell my clients to dream big, but with a purpose,” Miller says.

Related: 18 Motivational Quotes About Successful Goal Setting

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in January 2015 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy and comprehensiveness.