Personal goals are an expression of your will and a projection of your imagination into the future. By refining goal-setting techniques your vision becomes reality.
To have an outcome that you plan to achieve, you must have will and imagination. And to combine will with imagination you have to use your intelligence. So, personal goals require will, imagination, intellect, and emotion.
This article looks at the role each of these plays in setting personal goals.
Examples of motivating personal goals
There are many kinds of personal goals in the world. People set personal goals for work, school, helping others, social relationships, romantic relationships, health and longevity, leisure activities, and creativity.
But, some goals are more ambitious than others.
In Creating Your Best Life, (p.4) the authors tell the story of Ted Leonis, a billionaire businessman, owner of several Washington D.C. sports teams, and film producer. Leonis created a list of exceptional personal goals during a near-death experience.
When his airplane encountered engine trouble, he grabbed an envelope and quickly wrote down everything he would do if God gave him a second chance.
His list didn’t include making more money or further raising his status. Rather he quickly scribbled down high-minded goals like “take care of in-laws” and “support someone who makes a great breakthrough in science or art.”
Similarly, Phil Keoghan, a TV host, who had a near-death experience at age 19 while scuba diving, created an ambitious mission.
He committed himself to, “leaving no opportunity wasted and working professionally and personally to help others do the same.”
Near-death experiences are extreme and can push people into exceptional action. But you don’t need to face death to create goals that provide something that’s beneficial to others.
Goals that help others are inspiring. They will more fully engage your will, thus amplifying your effectiveness in reaching the goal.
It is deeply energizing to work for the benefit of others, but altruistic goals can also be complicated.
For example, Henry Ford had the goal to democratize the automobile.
He achieved this goal and opened the world of travel and freedom for billions of people throughout the world.
Yet, while the automobile created an opportunity for personal control and autonomy otherwise unavailable to millions of people, it also had the effect of creating disastrous environmental pollution.
So, it can be difficult to set goals that truly help others, because most phenomena in life have both good sides and bad.
It’s challenging to find a way forward that’s all good.
And this is why we like the Buddha’s goal: to do no evil, to all good, and be beneficial to all beings. A lofty, spiritual goal to which one could devote one’s entire life.
Therefore, we strongly recommend setting goals whose completion benefits all sentient beings.
If that feels overwhelming, that’s okay.
It should be exciting. And it can help you to achieve that goal if it excites and overwhelms you a bit. This is an energizing aspect of goal setting that we’ll talk about that later.
Why set personal goals?
Personal goals don’t only have to be personal in nature. They can also be universal. It’s human nature to want to improve life, to make the world a better place, and to help others. So, when we set a goal to help others we’re fulfilling our nature, and this makes us happy.
What can personal goals help you achieve?
Goals can help you achieve all sorts of things, but most importantly they can help you live life more fully and fearlessly with a greater sense of fulfillment, flow, and joy.
When you adopt the attitude of, “These are the things I want to do, and I will get to them now” as opposed to “I will get to that in the future” you are creating the causation for the life you want to live.
This is how John Duffy, Andrew Cullin, and Will DeRiso, survivors of 9/11, were transformed by living through their tragedy. Adopting life-altering habits post 9/11, they all reported adopting a new view on risk-taking and carpe diem — living for the day.
Living for your vision, you come to understand the joy of what it means to be human. You understand your purpose in life, which is to have wisdom, which, in turn, makes you feel happy, complete, and settled.
Sadly, the fate of those who chose not to have goals is that of serfs and slaves.
If you want to live a life in which you are always ruled and controlled by someone else, then don’t make goals.
To have true goals is to live a human life.
To live without imagination, passion, or thought is to give up on human life—a life that others will certainly appropriate if you don’t.
But you don’t have to take our word for it, research on life satisfaction shows that happiness requires clear-cut goals that provide a sense of purpose and direction.
And when you make progress in achieving goals in one area of your life, these achievements will reinforce and help you to make progress in other areas.
Goal setting techniques
Creating SMART goals — or goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-sensitive — is a good place to start. But this acronym doesn’t reveal the complexity or emotional motivation involved in setting and achieving a goal.
For example, a “realistic” goal may not stretch your reality far enough.
You need goals that are not too easy, something that excites your imagination and pushes you toward something that appears to be beyond your capability.
Something unattainable can also be seen as something that is not (R) Realistic.
The first technique or trick in setting a goal is to find the so-called “sweet spot,” where you feel challenged but not so much so that you feel like your goal is totally unattainable. Studies show that if you are seeking an outcome in a performance goal, your goal needs to be both challenging and specific.
Because goal setting isn’t as simplistic or as reductive as SMART goals, we teach clients different techniques to engage their entire being, with their imagination, emotion, intellect, and will.
Write your goals down
The second simple technique that all goal-setting experts seem to agree on, and that certainly cannot be overlooked, is to write a list of your goals.
Writing things down helps make them happen.
Write your goals where you can see them. Seeing your list or post-it note reminds you of your commitment to yourself. One idea is to write your goal on a business card so that it is always in reach.
According to Laura King, a journaling researcher, when you write down your goals, you begin to scan your environment — your mind — for people, things, ideas, and anything that will support you.
You can also share your goals with others, this brings us to the third technique: a behavioral contract.
In the business world, executives use behavioral contracts to set and achieve specific goals. Such contracts have been shown to have tremendous success.
Just be sure you are sharing your goals with the right people in a supportive environment.
You don’t want to destroy the goals with overexposure. Receiving negative feedback before the goals’ results have had a chance to sprout in the world can be destructive.
Review your goals
The fourth technique is to review your goals in order to keep them alive and fresh in your mind. Start with once a day. And then evaluate whether or not this is frequent enough to keep you on track.
Keep your goals within reach, ideally at your fingertips. You should be able to recite them on demand.
Cultivate your vision to set goals
The fifth and final technique is cultivating your vision. This is the number one technique we use and suggest people use to set their goals.
At a high level, one can think of goals as having a vision statement. Vision, as we understand it, especially as outlined in the work of researcher and scholar Jim Collins, comprises four parts:
- Core Values
- A Big Hairy Audacious Goal—a BHAG (pronounced Bee-hag)
- A Vivid Description
Once you have a vision, then you can apply your vision to strategy and tactics. Whether you want to be great as an individual or a multi-billion-dollar company, this formula works in thinking about goals.
Core values and beliefs can be thought of as a set of simple statements that guide your life. They should help regardless of your circumstances.
So, if one of your core values is “don’t steal,” even if you’re poor and hungry in the street, you won’t change your value and steal.
Purpose can be understood as the fundamental reason for your existence.
In Buddhism, for example, the purpose of one’s life is to realize the mind of Buddha—or to attain enlightenment.
For a great writer, one’s purpose might be to raise joy, compassion, and human understanding through the written word.
Lastly, Mission, or what we’re calling the BHAG, has, as Collins writes, “a clear finish line and a specific time frame.”
To set your goals in a serious way, we highly recommend reading Jim Collins’s book BE 2.0.
Though this is a business book on the surface, with imagination it contains a lot that can be applied to your personal life.
Reading books that excite and inspire you is also a good place to start cultivating your vision. You can read history books, literature, business, psychology, biography, poetry, or memoir. Picking up writing that impassions you is a great place to start thinking about your goals.
Once you have a good vision statement by contemplating your values, purpose, and mission, you can start thinking about how to realize your goal with strategy and tactics.
For this, you can use the SMART framework for setting goals, which we’ve written about elsewhere.
Once you’ve set your goals it’s important to set up a timeline and tracking system.
First establish a by-when date: the date you plan to finish your goal.
If your goal is for a large project like writing a book, break the project up into a series of shorter goals, and give each of the shorter goals a deadline.
Sometimes it’s good to work with a coach, mentor, or colleague in establishing realistic deadlines for your goals.
After your deadline is set, you’ll want to think about a way of tracking your progress.
For example, let’s say that you plan to write a 100-page book in one month. You might set the weekly deadline of writing 25 pages, and check in each week to see whether or not your 25 pages are written.
If so—great! Keep going.
But if you’ve only written six of your 25 pages, it’s helpful to debrief with yourself or a coach to analyze what happened. Perhaps you were too ambitious? Perhaps there was a family emergency? Perhaps work was too busy?
After tracking your goals for a while, and getting to know yourself, you can figure out what adjustments you need to make.
It might take a few tries to find your cadence, so it’s important to debrief without harsh judgment or self-criticism.
Simply observe the facts. Be honest with yourself about what’s important to you and what’s possible in your given circumstances. And then make the necessary changes to your goals and expectations.
After all—it’s your life, so you can live it and arrange it however you want.
To get started, be sure to review what we’ve written about SMART goals.
You can download this free Goals-Checklist to keep by your side, too.
It’s also a good idea to talk with friends or people who’ve done what you’re trying to do. Get a realistic sense of how long your project might take. A colleague who has written a book can realistically forecast how long it will take you to finish writing that book
And, of course, it’s an outstanding idea to work with a coach. Using a coach to help set and attain your goals will influence your self-determination. And your internal motivation will increase your performance, satisfaction, effectiveness, and ultimate success.