How to set goals (that actually work)

It’s the week of election day in the United States. For some inexplicable reason, you woke up inspired and energized. So jazzed about the world and its potential, that you decided to set two goals for yourself.

The first goal would take place over one day.

Tomorrow, you decided that you would do 50 burpees.

The second goal will span decades.

As the vote counts trickled in, you decided that one day you would become President of the United States. (And for a standard fare millennial, a corresponding runway of 30-40 years to make it happen.)

Armed with these two goals, you sit down to map out your personal blueprint to turn those goals into reality.

Burpees vs. the Presidency

Now we all know that burpees suck.

An innocuous set of 10 will make your throat burn while simultaneously firing lactic acid through your pecs and hamstrings.

Yet thanks to some simple math, the one day burpee goal has a high-probability of success. It’s actually quite easy: Do 3 burpees for each of the 16 hours you’re awake. (All made easier by the fact that you spend all day on Zoom calls wearing Lululemon.)

What about that presidency, eh? Planning for that goal gets a little dicier. For starters, the 30+ year time horizon makes the “slice-and-dice” exercise futile.

Next, there’s the path-dependency. While there isn’t a “presidential playbook” per se, you’d have to decide early on if your path will go through the Senate, Governorship, or Business/Reality TV. Then in turn, each step will look very different. (One thing’s certain, mandatory stops in the military and at McKinsey!)

And lastly, there’s a myriad of variables — many of which are completely out of your control and beholden to randomness.

The paradox of goal setting

Herein lies the paradox of goals. Intuitively, they make sense. But in practice, they are hard (even impossible) to implement effectively. That’s why goals just don’t work for many knowledge workers. The bar gets set either too high or too low and the entire process becomes self-defeating.

Yet in a rapidly changing (and highly unpredictable) world, can we use a select number of goals set our future selves up for a win? Are goals a useful framework for motivation, intentionality, and self-accountability?

A brief history of goals

The American psychologist Edwin Locke was an early pioneer in goal-setting theory publishing his first article on the subject Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentives in 1968. Management guru Peter Drucker brought goals into the corporation in 1954 with the introduction of Management by Objectives (MBOs).  And while there are countless goal-setting frameworks, a few of the most popular ones are SMART, OKRs, FAST, and BHAGs.

S.M.A.R.T goals

SMART goals introduced in the early 80s and stand for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Realistic
  • Time Bound


OKRs stand for Objectives and Key Results and are generally attributed to the late Andy Grove.

The venture capitalist John Doerr reportedly introduced the OKR framework to Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page and calls them a “vaccine against fuzzy thinking.” Here’s Wikipedia’s definition of OKRs:

OKRs comprise an objective—a clearly defined goal—and 3–5 key results—specific measures used to track the achievement of that goal. The goal of OKR is to define how to achieve objectives through concrete, specific and measurable actions

F.A.S.T. Goals

In the 2018 The MIT Sloan Review put out the article With Goals, FAST Beats SMART sought to address some of the criticisms of its earlier brethren. They defined F.A.S.T goals as:

  • Frequently discussed
  • Ambitious
  • Specific
  • Transparent

BHAGs (aka Big Hairy Audacious Goals)

We’d be remiss if we didn’t include the famous BHAGs (pronounced bee-hags) from Jim Collins’ 1991 business school classic Good to Great. BHAGs have the following attributes:

  • 50-70% of success
  • 10-30 year horizon
  • Requires vision (over tactics and strategy)

The presidential aspiration most closely resembles the BHAG – with one significant difference – an infinitesimally lower probability of success.

So now what?

Going through these various goal-setting frameworks, you see a wide range of diverging principles and irreconcilable dualities, including:

  • Measurable vs. Immeasurable
  • Private vs. Public
  • Rigid vs. Flexible
  • Short-term vs. Long-term (and very long term)
  • Achievable vs. Aspirational

Still confused? So am I. So what does the research say?

The case FOR goals

The academic research gives goals a resounding hellz yeah as they significantly improve individual performance. In the paper titled Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation a 35 year meta-study of shows how goals help you:

  • Direct attention: They focus your effort toward goal-relevant activities and away from goal-irrelevant activities.
  • Get energized: Having goals lets you direct more effort towards their completion.
  • Plan deliberately: Individuals develop strategies that enable them to attain goals.

We intuitively see this in action when we sign up for a 10k race. Surely we’ll splurge on some expensive running shoes and a Garmin watch. But as soon as the race date gets added to your calendar, the progress kicks in:

  • Planning: You download a training schedule (planning)
  • Execution: You start running
  • Accountability: There’s a social penalty for not completing them

That 10k race delivers your future self a great win. Does that mean mission accomplished?

The case AGAINST goals

But goals doesn’t always work. In fact, the evidence against them is also quite strong.

  • They are at odds with long-term progress
  • They restrict your happiness
  • They rob you of the present moment
  • They set you up for self-judgement
  • They are arbitrary

Goals are at odds with long-term progress

In his post Forget about Setting Goals, the author (and habits expert) James Clear points out that goals are at odds with long-term progress because they create a “yoyo effect of motivation:

Many runners work hard for months, but as soon as they cross the finish line, they stop training. The race is no longer there to motivate them.

What happens once the race is over? Without an extrinsic source of motivation, the progress fades:

When all of your hard work is focused on a particular goal, what is left to push you forward after you achieve it? This is why many people find themselves reverting to their old habits after accomplishing a goal.

Goals restrict your happiness

But Clear’s not done, launching another shot against goals: they restrict your happiness. He points to the when-then trap, which mistakenly says “Once I achieve [X] then I’ll be happy.”

Making happiness contingent on future success is one of the devastating effects of the hedonic treadmill. It’s the underlying force behind the striving that makes so many high-performers really unhappy.

Why? It turns out that our baseline happiness (aka happiness set point) is quite fixed. When something really bad happens, our happiness reverts back to this set point. Likewise, when something good happens (snagging that coveted promotion) the happiness set point remains stubbornly fixed.

Goals rob you of the present moment

In Dan Harris’ memoir 10% Happier, the news anchor discusses how difficult it was to be calm in the present moment. As a ultimate career striver (in the competitive world of news casting) Harris was always looking for the next goal. Until it brought him to his knees with crippling (on-the-air) panic attacks.

His meditation practice taught him to center himself in the present and he summarized his prior state of mind so eloquently:

When you have one foot in the future and the other in the past, you piss on the present.

And while in our heart of hearts, we know that happiness comes from the journey not the destination, goals can easily make us forget that. And instead, we end up subconsciously pissing on the present.

Goals set you up for self judgement

Goals also set you up for self-judgement. In the talk How to Set Goals the Smart Way, Jordan Petersen describes the Razor’s Edge of goal setting. Goals (and particularly stretch ones like becoming the president) are an idealized version of your future self. So they make for a great source of motivation. But when you fail to achieve them (and by definition, you’ll miss some stretch goals), you risk blaming yourself with hurtful self-judgement.

Goals are arbitrary

Lastly, goals are arbitrary. Allow me to present two commonly-held goals:

In both instances, the punishment for failing to achieve the goal doesn’t fit the crime. If you ran a 4:01 marathon, should you really beat yourself up for that extra minute? (We are, after all, hobbyist runners at best.)

And with Inbox Zero, consider the angst and agitation when you have 9 unread messages chilling in your inbox. While those 9 messages have zero impact on your life’s trajectory, they are likely to be accompanied by a heavy dose of cognitive load and anxiety.

Focus on process over outcomes

Clear’s remedy is to pick systems over goals, arguing that:

Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress. A handful of problems arise when you spend too much time thinking about your goals and not enough time designing your systems.

Citing the legendary 49er’s coach Bill Walsh, Clear adds:

The goal in any sport is to finish with the best score, but it would be ridiculous to spend the whole game staring at the scoreboard. The only way to actually win is to get better each day.

Said differently, if you trust your inputs (focus, kindness, self-accountability, habits, a growth mindset) the outputs should take care of themselves.

The danger of the “systems only” approach

If only it was that easy. You don’t need to have read Thinking Fast and Slow to know that human beings are quite good at getting in their own way and self-sabotaging. And for many high performers, throwing your hands in the air and saying “I trust my system” can be a sneaky way of absconding one’s self-accountability.

On the Todoist blog the post 7 Cognitive Biases That Make Us Suck at Time Management highlights a few of these goal-related self-sabotaging tendencies:

  • The Mere Urgency Effect lets unimportant tasks take over our days
  • The Planning Fallacy makes us underestimate the time it takes for a task
  • The Present Bias ascribes stronger weights to payoffs closer to the present

So if there’s only a system – chances are we’ll find a way to game it.

Goals: The final verdict

How can you combine the efficacy of systems with the intentionality of goals? One approach is to separate outcome goals and process goals. (S/o to @kylebowe4 for this concept.)

An outcome goal is binary, measurable and time-bound such as:

  • Grow my newsletter audience by 5,000 readers
  • Lose 10 pounds
  • Generate $250,000 in annual sales

A process goal is non-binary, iterative, ongoing and hard to measure:

  • Support my daughter’s remote-learning
  • Learn how to be conversational in French
  • Deepen my community involvement
  • Research a path towards career change

Step 1: Pick 3 goals for the upcoming year

Next, pick 3 goals that you will target over a one year period. The small number helps avoid the diffusion of effort (plus, our brains really jive with threesomes) and the one-year period provides enough of a runway for meaningful progress.

Step 2: Convert them into process goals (if possible)

Once you’ve identified your goals, try as hard as you can to convert them all into process goals. Here’s how you might convert the outcome goals above:

  • Grow newsletter audience by 5,000 readers → Send 2 weekly emails for 25 consecutive weeks
  • Lose 10 pounds → Start intermittent fasting and exercise 3 times a week
  • Generate $250,000 in annual sales → Make 3 prospecting calls a day and host one client event per month

It might make sense to keep an occasional outcome goal (like a revenue target) but be very careful about the associated dangers (arbitrariness, self-judgement, hedonic treadmill) listed earlier.

Step 3: Regularly review your progress

Now that you’re armed with some outcome goals, you can easily incorporate a check-in with your Weekly Review. If you’re quantitatively minded you can go through each input (i.e. Did I send 2 weekly emails?) or the right-brainers can answer a few reflection questions related to each goal such as:

  • Am I tracking?
  • Is the goal still relevant?
  • Is the process still accurate?
  • What are the biggest obstacles?
  • Can others help you achieve this goal?

Don’t feel daunted by these questions. If you’re weekly review is tight, these questions will only add a few minutes to the process.

And if running for president is still on of your BHAGs – the race for 2024 remains wide open!

Please join me on 11/24 for a workshop on Goal Setting that Works. Together, we’ll create a practical roadmap to tackle 2021’s biggest priorities. (Given the hands-on nature, I’ll be capping it at 40 attendees.)

You may enjoy

For instant Access, Enter your Details Below:

🔒 Privacy Protected by our “Zero Spam” Policy

For instant Access, Enter your Details Below:

🔒 Privacy Protected by our “Zero Spam” Policy