Goals are important for a genuinely success-oriented person. Without them, you’re just playing around. The difference between a goal-directed individual and someone without goals is like the difference between a Wimbledon champion and a kid batting a tennis ball around on a court with no net, no opponent to bring out the best in him and no way of keeping score.
Despite everything that’s been written about the importance of goal setting, very few people actually put it into practice. It’s always amazed me, the way the average person devotes more thought and effort to planning his or her two-week vacation than to planning his or her life.
Goals represent challenge in its most positive form. Leaders have their personal goals, as well as those of their organization, clearly in focus. In fact, one of the principle responsibilities of leadership is defining goals for the vast majority of people who aren’t able to do it for themselves.
Over the years, I’ve developed some ideas about effective goal setting, and I’d like to share those with you. I also want to point out some traps of goal-directed behavior that aren’t usually talked about but certainly ought to be.
When I was a kid, I used to dream what it would be like to buy a ticket on a train and just go someplace. I didn’t really think about where I’d be going or how long it would take to get there. I just loved the idea of getting on the train and letting it take me somewhere.
I guess there’s still something appealing about that idea, but it’s not really the way you should live your life as a mature human being. When you grow up, you buy a ticket on a train or a plane because you want to go someplace, and you know exactly where you’re going.
You might have to change planes in a different city; your flight might be canceled; you might have to switch to another flight; you might not feel like talking to the person seated next to you. But you will persist. You know where you’re headed, and you’re quite determined to get there. That’s goal-directed behavior in its simplest form.
There are short-term goals and long-term goals. Sometimes you’re flying across the country; other times you’re just walking down to the corner grocery store. Long-term goals are the equivalent of a major journey. When you reach the point where you’ve achieved your long-term goals, your life will be fundamentally changed, and the process of getting to that point will have transformed you into a stronger, wiser and higher-performing person.
How can you identify your long-term goals? On a sheet of paper or in a notebook, write these five questions:
What do I want to do?
Who do I want to be?
What do I want to see?
What do I want to have?
Where do I want to go?
Under each of these categories, write down several possible long-term goals. Be very relaxed about this. Just allow your mind to flow and come up with three to six ideas for each category. Don’t worry about a lot of details at this point, and don’t spend too much time describing a particular goal.
For example, refer to category one. Suppose you want to write a book about the history of your family going back to the arrival of your great grandparents in the U.S. Just quickly jot down, “family history.” Then it occurs to you that you’ve always wanted to see the pyramids in Egypt, so you write “pyramids.”
Keep writing down ideas as long as the list of categories continues to inspire you. You’ll probably be surprised at some of the things that turn up. You might have kept a great many desires and aspirations hidden in the back of your mind, but the opportunity to write them down will move them to the forefront of your consciousness. That’s one of the benefits of this technique.
When you’re satisfied with your list of long-term goals, read through the list once again. Then beside each item, write the number of years that you believe it will take you to achieve that particular goal.
It’s best to round off the numbers into one-year, three-year, five-year and 10-year time frames.
For example, you might estimate that it will take you 10 years to research and write the book on your family history, but you’ll need only five years to reach a position where you can take a trip to the pyramids. Create a time frame like this for every one of your long-term goals.
When you’re finished entering your time frames, there should be a fairly balanced distribution for all your goals. If there are many one-and three-year objectives but only a few in the 10-year category, maybe you need to think more about what you really want your life to add up to… what kind of life you really want to build over the long run. But if there’s a preponderance of 10-year goals and relatively few of the shorter-term variety, this might be an indication that you tend to put things off. Keep working on your list, adding and subtracting goals with various time frames, until you’ve created a more or less even distribution.
Now comes the really challenging and interesting part. So far you’ve just been adding things to the list. Now you’re going to start asking yourself what’s really important compared to what might just be fun.
Choose four goals from each of the four time frames: one-year, three-year, five-year and 10-year. You now have 16 separate goals. So far you’ve only referred to them in shorthand fashion., but now you’re going to start seeing them very clearly in your mind’s eye. You’re going to see each goal just as if it were being realized this very minute, and you’re going to write down a detailed description of exactly what you see.
Do you intend to open a handmade furniture store in three years? What will the store look like from the street? Will there be gold leaf lettering on the windows, or will there be a sign hanging over the door instead? How many square feet will the store contain? Will there be a showroom area for the furniture in front and a workspace in the back, or will the furniture be built at a different location? Do you intend to have any employees, or will you run the business entirely by yourself?
Think of all the questions that need to be answered in order to see your goal with absolute clarity, and then write the information down. That written record will become one of your most important personal possessions.
But that’s not all. Any goal is a powerful motivator only if there’s a powerful reason behind it. Why do you want to achieve your goals? Why do you want to own a handmade furniture store, or a private airplane, or a newspaper in a small town in Vermont? Why do you want to compete in a triathlon, or visit the Australian outback, or be the first woman in your family to earn a Ph.D.?
Write down your reasons for wanting each goal in the same degree of detail that you used to write your descriptions. If you can’t find a clear and convincing reason for each of your 16 goals, do some serious re-evaluating. You might have more whims or pipe dreams than real goals, and now is the right time to make that discovery.
Keep working on your list until you have 16 clearly envisioned, strongly motivating long-term goals. At regular intervals, review what you’ve written, and keep careful track of your progress toward these objectives.
Above all, persevere! Goal setting is a very important first step, but goal achievement is a continuous, lifelong process. That’s what makes it so challenging. That’s also why it’s so extremely rewarding to finally attain your long-term goals.
Adapted from Leading an Inspired Life