Ninety percent of the world’s motivational self-help books and courses seem to revolve around setting goals. And I see why — that’s the fun part, writing down what you want to achieve and imagining your ideal life. Yet there’s often a gap between setting those goals and making them a reality. As John C. Maxwell said, “positive thinking must be followed by positive doing.” I hear it from clients all the time: “I have so many great ideas, how do I set a goal and stick to it?” Or, “I’m great at setting goals, it’s just that I lose motivation and eventually don’t achieve what I want.” If you feel this way, you’re not alone. Read on to learn about the various goal-setting methodologies and discover which one works best for you.
Personal Goal-Setting Frameworks
First, let’s explore some methodologies for setting attainable goals. One problem I see often is that clients’ goals are either vague or broad. Rather than stating them as wishes, let’s frame them as actionable goals. There are four key frameworks to choose from:
SMARTSMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable (or Assignable), Relevant, and Time-Bound (or Timely). When using this framework, you must define each goal according to these characteristics. Specific: The goal should have a limited scope. Rather than saying you want to “be a better leader,” this could be something like, “Attend a leadership conference.” Measurable: If your achievement can’t be measured, is it really done? Let’s say you want to “grow your Twitter followers.” Give your goal a number, e.g. “obtain 100 new followers” so you know whether or not you’ve achieved it. Attainable (or Assignable): Is the goal feasible? There’s nothing wrong with big aspirations, but when we phrase goals as pie-in-the-sky, they already seem impossible. Keep the scope small enough to be actionable. If you’re setting team goals, the “A” could stand for “Assignable,” i.e. an individual person can take ownership of it without being overwhelmed. Relevant: Always consider how your goals support your overall aspirations. In the workplace, this could be identifying the company values you want to support with your achievements. Time-bound (or Timely): Following from “Measurable,” you also want to set an end date for the goal. If it’s an ongoing initiative, this would be the target date for a well-defined phrase. For both measurability and timeliness, don’t be too ambitious. Keep the timeframe realistic, but not too broad either.
SMARTERAs you may have noticed, the SMART framework primarily focuses on refining goals into manageable projects. However, it doesn’t include room for improvement. Even if you didn’t achieve your SMART goal, it’s rarely a simple pass/fail. How much did you accomplish? And what’s next? That’s where the SMARTER framework comes in. It adds two elements to goals: “E” for “Evaluate” and “R” for “Revise.” Once the target date has passed for your SMART goal, check in with yourself (and your team, if applicable). If you didn’t hit your “M” benchmark, why not? How much of it did you achieve? And how can you improve? Do you need to continue pursuing the goal? The answers to those questions will help you revise the goal for the future.
Stretch GoalsWhile the SMART methodology is meant to keep your goals realistic, the Stretch framework is meant to push the boundaries. This is where you can be a bit more aspirational. Your stretch goals are the more challenging goals that motivate you to think bigger and work smarter. This is also a mindset exercise; you may experience failure as you pursue your stretch goals, but you also have the chance to learn from those failures.
OKR – Objectives and Key ResultsThe OKR framework asks you to name something you want to achieve (your Objective), then identify 3-5 Key Results. The objective can be aspirational and broad; in fact, it should be. They’re similar to the stretch goals described above. The Key Results are where you get specific. They might include metrics or deadlines you want to hit, a certain number of deliverables, or simply a clear action item. You and your team can track your Key Results, then measure the overall progress toward the Objective. The idea of relevancy is already baked into those action items, so many leaders love OKR because it keeps teams on track with a set of clear priorities.
How to Set Personal Development Goals for Work
Which goal methodology you choose depends on your work style, the projects you have in mind, and your overall aspirations. Some frameworks, such as OKRs, are better suited to teams that find metrics to be motivating. Ultimately, it’s up to you. However, whichever method you use, you should be able to answer the following questions:
- What is it that you truly want? Dive beneath the surface and get to the heart of the matter. Do you want to “be a better leader” or do you actually want to improve your team management skills?
- Why do you want to achieve the goal? Identify what makes the goal important for you. How does it align with your values or passions?
- What would success look like? Define and describe what achieving the goal would entail.
- What will achieving the goal do for you? In essence, what impact will it have on both your personal and professional lives?
10 Steps to Setting and Achieving Goals at Work
Whichever of those goal frameworks you choose, setting the goals is only the first step. To achieve the goals, you’ll need to build a system that supports your endeavors. Some might call this is a productivity system, not to be confused with a project or team management. It comprises the resources you need to turn those specific goals into projects.
- Set a realistic timeframe to achieve your goal. Whether or not you’re using the SMART methodology, be honest with yourself. It may sound appealing to write your first novel in the next month, but that’s a moonshot that will leave you disappointed.
- Identify obstacles that could prevent you from achieving the goal. This isn’t meant to be pessimistic. Life happens. Stuff gets in the way. If you don’t know the potential pitfalls, how can you avoid them? Consider this your first-aid kit: make a list of the challenges, along with possible solutions to overcome them.
- Work with an accountability partner who can help you through the learning journey in attaining your goal. This could be a colleague, trusted friend, or an executive coach. Share your goals with them and keep in touch. This is the person who will help motivate you and remind you of your goals — especially if you’re feeling overwhelmed or lost!
- Set benchmarks or milestones. These are different from your SMART goal deadlines or Key Results. They could be a halfway point to a certain Key Result or simply a challenging action item you look forward to overcoming. Loop in your accountability partner or manager, and schedule periodic check-ins to discuss your overall progress toward your goals.
- Break down your goals into your to-do list. There are countless ways to craft your to-do list, but all that really matters is that you identify your priorities and track your progress. Being able to write down and process your tasks helps make your overall goals more concrete.
- Identify small achievements/successes along the way to celebrate progress. This is key. We often tend to focus on what is not working or going well for us and this can be discouraging. Celebrating success is important as it enables us to open ourselves up to positivity and accept the progress that we are making. This serves as a lever that helps us remain motivated to achieve the overall goal.
- Learn to say “no.” Many of my clients are struggling to achieve their goals because their lives are filled with tasks that don’t suit those goals. Set clear boundaries, be willing to delegate tasks, and don’t take on too much at once. Having clear priorities will help.
- Be willing to change your goals. There’s never any shame in lengthening your deadline, rethinking your approach, or even canceling a goal if it no longer serves your aspirations. It’s not “giving up” — it’s transferring your precious time and resources to something better.
- Stay positive. Your goal should never be phrased as a lack of something, such as “Don’t miss any days of work.” Keep it positive, for example, “Arrive at all my shifts with confidence and energy.”
- Take time to rest and reflect. The key element of productivity is actually rest. When you leave space to process your ideas and give your brain a break, you can come back to tackle your goals with greater confidence and focus.