There are many ways to work on self-development and self-improvement, but setting specific goals for personal growth can increase your likelihood of success. When life serves up obstacles, as it so often does, having a goal that you revisit frequently helps you reset, recommit, and recharge.
It also gives you the motivation and accountability to stay focused and follow through on your plans. Setting goals can sometimes feel like a daunting task . That’s why it’s helpful to have a roadmap to guide you along the way.
Like most theories in psychology, goal-setting theory started with the ideas from Dr. Edwin A. Locke, in his article, Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentives . In it, he explained the need for clear and specific goals that are challenging and monitored with regular feedback and progress.
Locke, along with Dr. Gary Latham, came up with five principles of effective goal setting. These principles, which include clarity, challenge, commitment, feedback, and task complexity, are the necessary components when setting, working towards, and achieving a goal.
- Clarity : goals should be clear and well-defined.
- Challenge : goals should be achievable but also challenging to you.
- Commitment : you should fully commit to your goals to achieve them.
- Feedback : you should regularly evaluate and reflect on your goals to stay on track.
- Task complexity : you should give yourself time and space to reach complex goals.
Additionally, research done by psychology professor Dr. Gail Matthews points to an association between writing down your goals and eventual success rather than merely formulating and keeping them in your head.
How Motivated Are You?
If you’ve ever set a goal and quit before seeing any results, then you know all too well that it takes more than willpower to make a change. Licensed psychologist Catherine Jackson says setting and achieving goals requires motivation, thinking through the plan, and ways to navigate the possible challenges that may arise.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), research shows there are three factors to achieving goals:
- Motivation to change
- Willingness to monitor the behavior
- Willpower to make it happen
All three of these have a place within SMART goals, an acronym which stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable or Achievable, Realistic or Relevant, and Timely and Tangible.
When you make your goal specific, you set yourself up for success. Consider answering who, what, where, when, which and why when getting specific about your goal.
What benchmarks will you use to make sure you are moving forward? How will you know if you’re successful? How will you know if you need to make adjustments? Having a goal that you can measure will help you stay on track and reach any deadlines you set for yourself.
Attainable or Achievable
Is the goal you’re setting one you can reach? While you don’t want things to be easy, you also want to avoid setting goals that are out of your reach.
Realistic or Relevant
This goes along with attainable. Is your goal relevant to your life, and can you realistically achieve it, based on your current circumstances? This may be a goal you’ve set before and did not achieve because it was not realistic at the time. But now, under different circumstances, this goal may now be realistic.
Timely and Tangible
For a goal to be realistic it also has to be grounded within a time frame, and it needs to be real or tangible.
Developing SMART goals is critical to success. That said, they often limit you to the “what” and the “how” of your goals. For your goals to be effective, you also need to find your purpose or the “why” of what drives your motivation.
Determining Your Goals
You can set goals in any part of your life . Some of the more common areas include health, career, financial, and education. These broader categories set the stage for the smaller goals you will work on yearly, monthly, and daily.
While some of your goals may land within those categories, it’s important to recognize that self-development goals also encompass things like learning to paint, learning to golf, and giving back to your community. You don’t have to limit yourself to the most obvious parts of your life.
Take some time to think about your passions and interests. Brainstorm some ideas around things that excite you. Think back and try to identify if there’s something you’ve always wanted to do, but fear of the unknown—or fear of failure —prevented you from taking a risk. The ideas you generate from these brainstorming activities are like clues that can help you narrow your focus and set more specific goals.
Ask Yourself Why
The next step you’ll want to take is to ask yourself “why” that goal is important to you. For example, if you want to finish your college degree, setting smaller goals that revolve around “why” will help you get there faster. To define your why, consider asking yourself these three questions:
- Why is finishing my degree important to me?
- Why does that reason matter?
- Why do I feel strongly about that reason?
Once you have a better idea of your "why," it’s time to do one more self-assessment. Going with the college degree example, if you’ve determined that finishing your degree is the big goal, then, before you apply the SMART strategy to come up with smaller, more obtainable goals, it’s helpful to answer the following questions to determine if you’re truly ready to make this commitment.
- Are you emotionally ready to commit to something that might be physically and or emotionally uncomfortable?
- Are you ready to be honest with yourself about where you’re at and where you want to go?
- Do you have the time? Can you say “no” to the things that will interfere with your goal?
Now that you’ve done two different activities to get clear on your reasons, it should be obvious if you’re motivated to create change. If that’s the case, you’re ready to move forward with the goal-setting process.
Tips and Strategies to Reach Your Goals
Setting and working towards a goal requires more than just a piece of paper and pencil. There are also certain skills you need to have in place when taking on a goal.
Fist and foremost, you need to be able to plan out the steps for reaching your goal. And once the plan is in place, it’s the commitment and focus that helps to move you towards the result you want. But, of course, somewhere in the middle, lies self-motivation and flexibility. Here are some other tips and strategies to help you reach your goals.
State Goals With a Positive Tone
When setting a goal, try to avoid the temptation to state your desire in a negative way. For example, “I will not complain so much.” Restated positively sounds more like this, “I will find three positive things about my day and write them down before I go to bed.”
Focus on the Process, Not the Outcome.
This is one of the most difficult parts of setting and achieving goals. Because of the very nature of a goal, you start with the end in mind. But it’s really the steps you take to get there that matter the most. Let’s say the outcome you want is to lose 20 pounds. That’s the goal. But during the process of working towards this goal, you discover that your body is more comfortable at a weight that only has you losing 15 pounds. Did you fail at achieving this goal? Not if you believe in the power of the process.
Make a Contract With Yourself.
Once you’re ready to go, whether that’s in the preparation or action stage, Jackson recommends making a contract with yourself for success.
Clear Out the Old to Make Room for the New.
Jackson says to get started on the right foot, it’s a good idea to reflect on what you’ve accomplished thus far and forgive yourself and let go of regret for what didn’t come to pass. While working on clearing the clutter from your mind, it’s not a bad idea to do the same with your home and workspaces.
Visualize What You Want
“Visualization and mental workouts stimulate many of the same neural networks that connect the brain’s intentions to the body, so, take some time to properly train your thoughts before you begin setting your goals,” says Jackson. This helps you purposefully and intentionally imagine your goals coming to fruition.
Make a Specific Plan
List out your goal or goals and the steps you need to accomplish them. Then, Jackson says to break these into small attainable steps with realistic deadlines. “This is easier when you set aside time before the start of each week to write out specific things you want to accomplish within the following week that will move you closer to the goal,” she explains.
Seeking support from loved ones can help with reassurance and accountability. Tell a few friends or family members of your plans so they can encourage you and provide feedback when needed to help you stay on track toward your goal.
Keep it Visible
It’s a good idea to put your goals with the steps and deadlines in a place where you can see it often. “Seeing the goals and steps you have to take will keep you motivated and consistent to continue to work toward it,” explains Jackson. Her advice? Look at it weekly or better yet daily.
As you accomplish steps toward your goal, make sure to reward yourself along the way. Rewards should be simple, consistent, easy to acquire, and healthy. For example, you might reward yourself with a long walk with your dog at the end of a hard day of work, or after you've carried out a specific step in your change plan.
Reviewing and Reassessing Your Goals
One last thing before you get busy setting your goals , plan to review and reassess your goals several times before you reach them, especially if they are loftier goals.
You can set this up as weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, or bi-monthly, but a quick review is helpful to keep you focused on your goal and to review your progress. It really depends on the benchmarks you set and how long you’ve given yourself to meet your goal.
Regardless of how often you sit down to do this review, the most important thing is that you assess whether your goals—and the steps you’re taking—are still relevant and realistic.
This “date with your goals” also gives you the chance to monitor your progress, which the APA equates with a greater likelihood that you will succeed . Not to mention, these review sessions give you a chance to make adjustments and celebrate any successes you’ve achieved, which are both critical in this process.
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American Psychological Association. Harnessing Willpower to Meet Your Goals .
American Psychological Association. Frequently Monitoring Progress Toward Goals Increases Chance of Success. 2015.
Dominican University of California. STUDY FOCUSES ON STRATEGIES FOR ACHIEVING GOALS, RESOLUTIONS.
Jackson, C. Personal interview. 2019
Science Direct. Towards a theory of task motivation and incentives. 1968.