I believe that personal growth and professional growth are intertwined. Most people set goals as a way to help them achieve/accomplish/get closer to things they want, faster than they would if they didn’t set goals.
Plenty has been written on the subject, and some of the latest research on goal setting and deliberate practice is now starting to establish how goal setting leads to skill progression and goal attainment. In short, goal setting is increasingly being broken down to a science. It is a powerful set of tools that can help you get where you want to go.
This guidebook was create not to try to make a serious contribution about how to set goals, but first to help people take a step back ask “where do I want to go?”
What is Success?
One of the things that goals do is help you define success, which begs the question, what makes someone ‘successful’; how do you define success?
Is someone successful only if they achieve their goals? What about someone who sets really audacious goals and achieves only some of them? What is the relationship between success and achievement? What about things like financial security, career progress, happy relationships, or just simply being happy?
The answer is, of course: it depends.
It depends because we believe success is something that should be defined by the individual. And this is where we think this guidebook is especially helpful and where many goal-setting efforts go wrong.
The conventional wisdom is that you set a goal, work hard, achieve your goal, and that will make you happy. But that ‘wisdom’ is wrong. It turns out, most of us have it backwards.
Purpose Before Goals
Research shows that achieving goals isn’t guaranteed to make us happy. And depending on where you are in life, this may be very real. We chase goal after goal without ever stopping to ask ourselves why we’re pursuing these goals.
Pursuing a goal will not bring you happiness unless that goal is important to you. It’s the pursuit of meaningful goals that gives us purpose and ultimately happiness.
And this is perhaps the most misunderstood thing about goals. A goal is a tool that helps us on our path towards fulfilment. The goal itself is not the objective.
In a letter to his friend, Hunter S Thompson said, “We must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal.” The full letter is awesome and was part of our inspiration for this guide. You can read it here.
So the first, most important, and all too often missing component in setting important life goals is figuring out what’s meaningful to you and where goals will lead you on a path to feeling fulfilled.
With this context, here is the goal setting process we came up with:
First, find and articulate what’s important to you.
- Meaningful experiences
- Bucket List
- Values and Vision
Then, create concrete goals that help motivate you, that creates a clear path to achievement and that helps you learn and grow in pursuit of your purpose.
- SMART Goals
- 4 year, 2 year and 1 year goals
Finally, build your goals up and create an environment for achievement
- The Anatomy of a great goal: motivation, milestones, habits and obstacles
- Creating a story
One last thing before we dive into the exercises: it’s ok to change your mind. Think of everything being written in pencil — not in pen.
While the exercises are numbered in a particular sequence to start with big picture stuff and gradually get more and more detailed, in reality you may find yourself jumping around these exercises. For example, details in the last exercises may help you refine your purpose and vision statement.
This process is constantly a work-in-progress. So it’s definitely worth dusting off the guide on a regular basis and checking if everything still feels right, or if there’s anything you’d adjust.
OK, let’s begin….
Step 1: Meaningful Experiences
Significant periods of your life shape your values and beliefs. Values and beliefs are an important part of your goal setting process.
In this section go back through your life and list out all the moments, experiences and periods that stand out as especially meaningful. In a positive way, a happy way, an upsetting way, in any way that feels like in it’s contributed to who you are today.
Once you’ve done this, force yourself to narrow this list down to the five that you feel are the most meaningful to you. As much as you can, bring yourself back to that moment in time and focus on how you felt, why you think you felt that way and what your lesson or takeaway was from that experience.
The final step is to look for some themes across these meaningful experiences. This process is loosely based on Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why”.
Step 2: Bucket List
These are the things that inspire and motivate you. Inspiration is the platform from which you can achieve goals.
This is the flip side of the meaningful experiences exercise. Here, the objective is to look forward to what lights up your imagination and gets you excited about the future. It’s a bucket list of things you want to experience, accomplish, create, etc.
An important second step here is to force yourself to narrow this down to the 3–5 bucket list items that are MOST meaningful to you. This is loosely based on the way Warren Buffet once advised his pilot to focus on his MOST important…. It’s easy to spend our lives on things that are only moderately important, but aren’t the most important things. This will lead a person to be only moderately happy. Put another way, “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”
Step 3: Purpose and Vision
A clear purpose and vision will become important guides as you shape more concrete goals.
The first two exercises (meaningful experiences, bucket list) were to help you piece together your past and future and identify the common themes that tie these things together to help give you a better sense of what is most important to you.
The goal in this section is to translate that into a purpose statement and a vision. Both of these exercises hold a lot of value as they help you locate the target you should be aiming at with your goals.
In the first instance, you’re articulating your purpose in a short couple of sentences. This is like your personal mission statement. Now we’ll admit, mission statements have a bit of a bad rap because many companies tout lofty missions that feel incongruent with their actions. But don’t let them ruin it for you. Some companies (and people) are able to use mission statements in a way that is both genuine and motivating. Used properly, they can become a North Star for your life.
WARNING: this part is hard. Don’t be surprised if you feel stumped here — this is some heavy, existential stuff to sort through. But that’s also why it’s so valuable.
The benefit of a personal mission statement or a statement of purpose is that it provides a simple message that you can rely on to help guide you,especially when things get chaotic or difficult or you’re facing difficult decisions. It’s like commander’s intent for your life.
Your vision builds on your purpose by painting a vivid picture of your life in the future. This can be a series of scenes, or it can be a sense of you looking back on your life. It can take whatever form feels right.
But there are three key elements to this exercise:
- Create an image in your mind of the future you want to create
- Imagine that future in as much detail as possible
- Practice often
First, create an image of the future you want to create, with no limitations. This is the time to take the parking brake off your imagination. Don’t worry about what you think is “realistic” at this point. Just think of what would be ideal. You will probably notice a very strong connection to your purpose emerges here.
The second part is picturing this image of success in as much detail as possible. Really try to project yourself into that future reality, and spend some time there, in your mind’s eye, and focus on what it feels like. Try to tap into all five of your senses.
Research has clearly demonstrated that there is a powerful mind / body connection and that what we visualize in our mind translates to action and physical changes in the body. The neural connections between our brains and our body can be trained through rich visualization. Neural connections are a lot like muscles in that the more we train them — the stronger they get, or as brain researchers say, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” This is an exciting prospect as it means that many of the things we need to do to be successful can be trained through visualization. All we need to do is set aside time to practice.
But realizing your vision is much less likely to happen by accident. Setting concrete goals aligned to your vision for a happy life sets you on a better path to achieving happiness.
Step 4: Turn your Vision into SMART goals
Ok! We’re finally ready to set some goals!
This is where most goal setting exercises usually begin, but we believe that having done the exercises above, you’ll be in a much better position to now set better goals because they’re connected to what’s important to you and be much much more likely to stay committed to those goals.
I would imagine that most people still reading this post have heard of SMART goals before. In a nutshell, the idea is that by structuring your goals in a particular format, you will leave less room for interpretation, ambiguity, and generally letting-yourself-off-the-hook once things get tough.
One thing to note is that there are actually several variants of what SMART stands for. The definition we like best is: Specific, Measurable, Aligned, Realistic, and Time-bound.
The power of concrete goals, or SMART goals can be articulated in a few different ways. One is they can provide an added element of motivation. Breaking goals into a series of nested goals (one helps you build towards and achieve the next) is they can also help you focus on the right things at the right time. They help you hold yourself accountable. Depending on the ultimate success you’re envisioning, they can also help you measure progress towards your ultimate goal. Lastly, they can be a powerful way to help you learn more effectively and learn faster by providing tangible feedback that you can use going forward.
Step 5: Add structure to your SMART goals
By thinking through additional elements of your SMART goals, you increase the likelihood of success.
This exercise takes you beyond defining great goals and going through the details of how you can accomplish your goals.
Part of the idea here is to create a “business plan” for your goals, or at least a Lean Canvas. It’s one thing to have goal, or an idea for a business. This extra step makes the owner try to poke holes in their own thinking, and answer the tough (though somewhat obvious) questions that will need answering to be successful.
It starts by calling out how your SMART goals are aligned to your purpose and vision. This will help with motivation when it gets hard. Break this down into the habits you’ll need to create to be successful.
As an example, if a goal is to get healthy, or lose weight — think through the details of this. Your SMART goal may be to lose 10lbs in 6 months. To get there, one of your sub goals may be to exercise 3 times a week. If you know that you typically come home from work too tired to exercise, make working out in the morning the focus. Getting to bed too late will get in the way of being able to exercise in the morning, so three days a week, you’re going to make it a priority to cut out caffeine after lunch, have a relaxing routine when you get home and go to bed on time. If this all sounds hard, and like it’s too much work, you may need to remind yourself of why it’s important to you and how it connects back to your purpose. Losing 10lbs isn’t a particularly motivating goal — on it’s own. But if you tie that to, “I want to be healthy enough to hike through the Himalayas in 2 years and this is helping me get ready for that.” You’ll have a much better chance of sticking with it.
Bonus: Turn your goals into a story
This pulls together all the above work into a summary version you can take away with you that incorporates all the most important things to lead to success and happiness.
You’ve just gone through a lot of great exercises and hopefully you’re feeling excited and more confident that you’ll experience and accomplish all the things in your life that you feel are most important, most meaningful and will leave you with a deep sense of happiness and satisfaction.
On the other hand — there’s quite a bit of detail in all these exercises and if there’s one thing we don’t do naturally as humans, it’s remember a lot of details. But we do remember stories. And so that’s why the final exercise is turning your purpose goals, the detail and habits behind these things into a story. This will tie everything together and give you the rich mental imagery that you can use to visualize success (remember the earlier exercise?).
This exercise is optional — and it may be a bit overkill for every goal. But if you have one goal that you find particularly daunting (but also motivating), give it a try. It may just be the thing that gets you there.
I hope that you find this guidebook useful and that it increases the collective happiness of those who read it.