Goal-setting strategies for success: The surprising science

a successful goal setting involves various elements

Growing up as the only child to a single mom in Queens New York, Daymond John didn't feel like he had a lot of options.

‘It had been taught to me and my boys that we would all be dead or in jail by the time we were twenty-one,’ he writes in his book Powershift: Transform Any Situation, Close Any Deal, and Achieve Any Outcome.

But today, John is an investor on the popular ABC reality show Shark Tank, he has a net worth of US$350 million and runs the iconic fashion brand FUBU.

How did John, who came from humble beginnings, rise to such success? A lot plays into it, but one thing is for sure: goal-setting was a major part of his strategy.

‘For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a goal in mind,’ he shares in his book.

And as John tells CNBC Make It, he started writing his goals down at the age of 16, and he reviewed them every single night and day. He dreamed big, and he was specific. Once, he wrote down that he wanted to cash a check that was $102,345,086.32.

‘Most people don't do the kind of goal-setting we need to do in order to move ourselves forward,’ John continues. ‘I've talked about this a lot over the years. ... It's an essential tool.’

And we couldn't agree more.

What if you could instantly infuse a sense of meaning in your life and improve your long-term happiness? Research has shown that is exactly what  goal-setting strategies can do. Goals form the roadmaps of our lives, helping us see an alluring vision for the future. Planning helps us get there in a realistic time-frame.

There's already plenty of goal-setting advice out there. But if you're reading this, it's likely that none of it has worked for you.

You know what you want, but for some reason, you feel blocked from obtaining it. You've tried writing down your goals, finding accountability partners, and setting big, ambitious New Year's Resolutions all to no avail.

That's okay. It's likely that you, like many of us, have a blind spot when it comes to working out which of the 5 key elements for achieving goals you're missing.

But before we outline those elements, let's review what goal setting is. The different types of goals, and how you can boost your chances of success.

Table of contents
What is goal setting?
Why are goals important?
Goal setting theory: The fundamentals of goal setting
The different types of goals
What are OKRs?
The 5 reasons you're failing at goal setting
How to set effective goals in 2024
Goal-setting tools and resources
Common goal-setting mistakes to avoid
Put these goal-setting strategies into action today

What is goal setting?

a person setting goals using a step by step plan

Goal setting is the process of determining an objective and creating a plan for achieving it. It includes 3 parts:

  1. Defining what you want
  2. Determining how you'll achieve it
  3. Committing to carrying it out

Why are goals important?

Human beings have a high need for meaning and purpose in life, and research shows that goals can provide a sense of direction.1 By setting clear goals, you'll have a map that guides your behaviors and decision-making. Research has also found that goal-setting can improve attention span,2 and if those goals feel attainable, they'll improve well-being too.3

Goal setting theory: The fundamentals of goal setting

Much of what we know about goal setting is based on Edwin Locke's goal-setting theory, which we will discuss throughout this article.

Goal setting theory posits 2 main points about goals. Through his research, psychologist Edwin Locke determined that to inspire the highest effort, goals must be:

  • Specific: A more detailed goal is better than a vague one. For example, ‘I want to go on a two-hour hike every Saturday morning’ is better than ‘I want to get outside more.’
  • Challenging: If a goal is too easy, you won't feel motivated to achieve it. But if a goal is too difficult, you'll lose motivation too. Locke found that you need to strike the right balance. You need to set a goal that's challenging enough to inspire you, but not so challenging you deem it impossible.

For example, if you're a hobby runner, you've probably run many 5Ks. Setting a goal of running another 5K (3.1 miles) probably won't inspire you much. But setting a larger goal of running an ultra marathon (100 miles) will likely intimidate you. However, if you set a goal of running a half marathon (13.1 miles), that distance stretches you beyond anything you've done before without being so difficult that you feel demotivated.

When is the best time to start a goal?

a person holds a trophy and a target with a bullseye as they set goals and succeed

January 1 is an obvious choice, with people around the globe setting resolutions to begin the new year. The beginning of anything new is a popular time to set an objective, too, such as the start of the week, the beginning of a new job, or the start of a new quarter.

Researchers have also found that people are more likely to set goals at the start of a new decade of life (in other words, people who are 29 are likely to want to set a goal for their 30s).4

But the truth is, any time is a good time to set a goal and it can actually give you the feeling of a fresh start.

What about SMART goals?

You've probably heard the term SMART goal setting before. It's an acronym for an effective goal-setting method developed by George Doran, former president of a consultancy.

In 1981, he published, There's a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management's goals and objectives outlining his method for writing meaningful goals. Doran notes that you don't have to have every element mentioned in the SMART method, you just want as many as possible.

Over the years, many have modified the SMART approach to goal setting and added more details. But in its original form as Doran suggested, here is what it means:

  • Specific: What specific area do you want to improve? Recalling Locke's research, the more detail you can provide the better.
  • Measurable: How will you measure progress on this goal? If you have an outcome goal, this will be aimed toward a specific end result. If you have a process goal, this will be aimed toward ensuring you take the necessary steps (regardless of outcome).
  • Assignable: Who is responsible for carrying out this goal?
  • Realistic: Given the resources at your disposal, what can you realistically expect to accomplish?
  • Time-related: When will you achieve the results? You can break this down into smaller goals and deadlines on the way to the bigger goal and deadline.

Setting SMART objectives provides you with a framework of goals that may increase your chances of hitting your targets.

The different types of goals

a woman surrounded by a house key, money, books and plants shows her different goals

Not all goals are the same. There are different kinds of beneficial goals that might serve you better in different situations and in various areas of your life. By understanding the type of goal you're setting, you can ensure a well-rounded sense of accomplishment.

Personal goal

This is an individual goal related to your personal life, such as in your friendships, romantic relationships, health, or hobbies. An example of a personal goal is to try to make friends by attending one social event every month and introducing yourself to at least 3 new people.

Professional goal

A professional goal or business goal relates to your work or career. An example of a goal that relates to your professional life might be to find a mentor who holds a position you aspire to be in. Or you might set a goal related to business objectives, such as increasing annual revenue by 15%.

Academic goal

An academic goal centers around school and learning. For example, you might set an academic goal to study two extra hours each week or to go back to school and get your Master of Business Administration (MBA).

SMART goal

Here's an example of how to structure a SMART goal. Let's say you're on the HR team and your team goal is to improve employee engagement.

Using the SMART goal-setting technique, here's a strategic plan for achieving that goal:

  • Specific: We want to improve employee engagement across the entire organization.
  • Measurable: To ensure we are setting measurable objectives, we will track progress by taking our eNPS score every month and by measuring employee engagement through an annual survey.
  • Assignable: Sandra is in charge of survey design and distribution. Max is responsible for analyzing results and implementing them. The HR Director will share high-level results with the organization at all-hands meetings.
  • Realistic: In the short term, we expect to be able to adopt new employee engagement software. And as a long-term objective, we expect to improve employee engagement by 25%.
  • Time-related: Our organizational goal is to adopt the new software by January, start conducting eNPS surveys by February, and conduct the annual engagement survey by October. Our long-term vision is to improve the engagement score by at least 20% by November 2025.

Outcome goal

An outcome goal is probably the most common. This is a goal in which we commit to a desired result. An outcome goal focuses on the end, not the means.

Examples of an outcome goal include:

  • Achieving good grades in school
  • Coming first place in a half marathon
  • Being promoted to Director of Marketing
  • Winning a short story contest

The problem with this kind of goal is that it focuses on things you can't control. You can't control whether you get a promotion because your superiors decide that. You can't control if you win a writing contest because you don't know who you're up against, and the judges determine who wins.

Process goal

A process goal is when you commit to carrying out a set of steps to achieve a result. A process goal is an actionable goal that focuses on the means, not the end.

Examples of a process goal include:

  • Studying for one hour every day
  • Training for a half-marathon 4 days a week
  • Applying for a promotion
  • Writing a short story and getting it critiqued by an editor before submitting it to a contest

Process goals support successful goal setting because they focus on what you can control.

What are OKRs?

a person with a megaphone cheering as their goals are achieved  and seen on a chart

OKRs are one method of goal setting popularized by Google. They stand for Objectives and Key Results. An objective is a goal, and a key result is how you will measure progress toward that goal.

Here’s a little bit of information on how Google uses OKRs, as explained on re:Work:

  • You shouldn't have more than 3-5 performance objectives at a time. Any more than that, and you're probably biting off more than you can chew.
  • Keep it at around 3 key results per objective.
  • Key results are graded on a scale of 0-1.0.
  • The ideal grade for an OKR is 60-70%. The reason is that if someone frequently reaches 100% of their objectives, they aren't setting ambitious enough goals.

While OKRs are commonly used in workplace settings, you could certainly apply them to personal goals as well.

The 5 reasons you're failing at goal setting

If you've followed all the goal-setting advice out there, but you still fail to achieve your strategic goals, you are likely missing one (or more) of the following.

1. Self-efficacy

The American Psychological Association defines self-efficacy as ‘an individual's subjective perception of his or her capability to perform in a given setting or to attain desired results.’

Based on research by Edwin Locke and colleagues and published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, self-efficacy plays a big role in goal attainment. In fact, the study authors wrote, ‘The most unexpected finding of this study was the very powerful effect of self-efficacy.’

So if you're struggling to achieve a goal, it may be time to evaluate whether you truly believe you can do it

2. Ability

We all have limitations. Having the self-awareness to realize when you lack the skills to achieve a goal will save you a ton of time and frustration. Your ability is tied to self-efficacy. But self-efficacy, remember, is one's ‘subjective perception’ of ability.

To get an objective opinion on your ability, ask for feedback from someone who knows the particular domain well or take assessments. For instance, if you have a goal to become a professional dancer, a dance instructor (not your mom or a friend) would be a great person to ask for an accurate assessment of your ability.

3. Commitment

Often, a lack of commitment occurs when a goal is pushed onto you by someone else (such as a manager) or when you feel pressured by external influences (such as society or your parents). These are all elements of extrinsic motivation, which means you're being motivated by outside factors. It may be time to develop your intrinsic motivation, meaning you're driven by internal factors, such as a deeper sense of purpose or enjoyment.

Other times, your commitment decreases when you can't see any progress toward your goal. It could be that you are making progress but just aren't seeing it because you're not tracking progress and appreciating how far you've come.

Try keeping a journal, spreadsheet, or chart that measures your progress in small milestones along the way. That way, you have proof that you are not where you were when you started.

If you find that you lack commitment to your goal, it's time to reassess whether you want to keep striving for the goal or not. You could try to increase your commitment by revisiting your values or you could modify the goal or even scrap it altogether.

4. Feedback

Feedback is a necessary part of setting and achieving strategic goals, so if you're feeling stuck, this might be what's missing. Because we all have blind spots, we all benefit from having someone who will shine a light on those so we can improve.

For example, as a writer, I would never grow without an editor to tell me what I'm doing well and what I need to work on. If you need feedback on your goal progress but feel like you have no one to ask, consider coaching. A coach is an outside observer who is trained to spot areas for improvement and help you gain insights you couldn't get on your own.

And if you're looking for free coaching, look no further. With our Goal Catcher coaching program, you get online personalized coaching through our AI-powered Coach Marlee app. Marlee has a framework for helping you set and achieve goals, based on more than 20 years of research.

5. Resources

And finally, if you've followed all the advice but still can't seem to reach your goals, take stock of your resources. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to the necessary resources to get where they want to go.

If you want to be a professional singer, for example, it helps if you have parents who have connections in the music industry and can afford to pay for your voice lessons from a young age. A child without access to those resources is less likely to achieve their pro-singing dreams, though it can still happen!

The powerhouse singer Celine Dion, for example, grew up in poverty as the youngest of 14 children. She didn't even have her own bed. But through determination to hone her talent (she sang at bars from age 5), she eventually landed a contract, and the rest is history. Today, she's a 5-time Grammy award-winning artist and household name.

So if you've been slogging through the process of achieving a goal for a long time and haven't gotten to it or made progress, take a step back. Look at what you've tried in the past and review the 5 items mentioned above. If you're missing one of them, figure out if there are ways you can work around that. If not, consider adjusting your goal.

How to set effective goals in 2024

a person in front of their computer with their and raised with excitement for their goal setting strategy

1. Define your desired result

Goal setting begins with that simple yet often difficult question: What do you want? The answer may begin as nebulous, but through a proper goal-setting approach, you will shape it into something more distinct.

For instance, you might know that you want to grow more in your career as a business professional. That is vague and could lead you down all sorts of paths. Remember the different types of goals we went over earlier? Decide which one you want this to be. If your goal is to simply enjoy the process or learn something new (regardless of outcome), set a process or learning goal. If your goal is to improve your previous performances, set a performance goal. If your goal is a specific end result, set an outcome goal.

So professional growth could look like any of these strategic goals:

  • Outcome goal: Get my Master's degree.
  • Learning goal: Learn as much as I can about supply chain management.
  • Performance goal: Improve my department's employee performance over last year's employee performance.

Next, be as specific as possible about what the objective will entail. Lastly, make sure it's a challenging goal so you'll feel excited about it.

2. Identify your why

Significant life goals like going back to school, switching careers, and moving abroad, need a strong purpose. Knowing your ‘why’ will help you power through the ups and downs that inevitably follow anytime you're setting out to achieve an ambitious dream.

So before you dive into the details of how you'll accomplish what you want, ask yourself this: ‘Why?’

  • Why do you feel the need to achieve this goal?
  • How would you feel if you never achieved it?
  • What are the alternatives to this goal?

There are shallow reasons for achieving a goal, and there are deeply meaningful ones. The latter are more likely to keep you going.

Often, goals fail because you don't have a clear understanding of your deeper motivations. You may know you want to get your MBA, but when you have to pull in late nights to study for your graduate school entrance exam or sacrifice a social life while you take online courses, your willpower will fail.

To find the underlying ‘why’ behind your goal, answer questions on what motivates you. Our science-backed questionnaire scores you across 48 motivational traits and offers insights into how to keep yourself motivated toward a goal even when times are tough.

F4S dashboard shows your motivations, goals, and coaching programs
Your personalized motivational insights in F4S

3. Identify the resources you'll need to achieve that result

This is a crucial step in goal setting that many people, in their excitement, overlook. What list of resources will you need to achieve your objective? And, do you have access to these resources?

For example, if you decide to obtain your MBA, you'll likely need:

  • An undergraduate degree
  • Money to pay for tuition
  • Time and energy to attend classes
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Passing scores on the admissions test for graduate school

And this is where you'll need to be honest with yourself about whether it's a realistic goal. If you're working full time, for example, will you really have the time and energy to study for the entrance exam and then attend MBA courses?

4. Set a deadline (actually, set multiple)

Picking a date for when you'll reach your goal prevents you from drawing it out indefinitely. If you decide on an outcome goal of obtaining your MBA within the next 3 years, you'll likely have a higher commitment to that goal because of the time urgency. With a clear due date in mind, you'll have greater motivation. Plus, it helps with accountability and your accountability partners will know when to check in with you.

In reality, though, you'll likely have more than just one deadline. When you break your goal down into milestones and baby steps (highly recommended), that makes it more manageable to achieve. So even though you want to graduate from an MBA program in 3 years, you'll have smaller deadlines like the due date for taking the entrance exam, submitting the application, and so forth.

5. Bring in relevant support

a woman celebrates her goal setting strategy with her mentor

It's rare that anyone achieves a goal completely on their own. Having emotional support from friends and family and accountability from someone like a colleague or a coach can be the difference between success and failure.

Need help finding an accountability partner? Here are some suggestions:

  • Search relevant groups. If you're trying to train for a marathon, ask people in a running group. If you're trying to transition to a new career, ask someone who's in your desired field or has experience making a career transition.
  • Ask directly! You never know until you ask, so instead of waiting around hoping someone will take the hint and offer to be your accountability partner, personally invite them. Say something like, ‘Hey, I have a goal to [insert goal] by [deadline]. I really look up to you because [reason], so I was wondering, would you be my accountability partner?’
  • Create structure. Additionally, let them know what accountability will look like. Ideally, you'll check in with each other at least once a month. For example, if you're trying to land a manager position in aerospace, you could send them an email once a month with bullet points recapping the steps you took, such as revamping your resume, applying for a few jobs, etc. If you're trying to write a novel, perhaps you let them review new additions to your manuscript at the end of each month.

But what happens if you can't find anyone who can support you as you tackle your strategic objective?

Goal-setting tools and resources

1. Streaks

Goal setting and good habits go hand in hand. Streaks is a mobile app that functions like a to-do list and habit tracker. Within the app, you create a habit and break it into manageable steps (such as studying every night for 30 minutes), and then try not to break the streak. By doing this, you make your goal-aligned tasks an everyday habit!

2. Fingerprint For Success (F4S)

Another way to track and measure your goal progress is to use the F4S app. After a you can set a goal within the dashboard. AI Coach Marlee will then recommend personalized coaching programs to guide you to success.

We've even got a Goal Catcher program, where you will receive personalized coaching online at your own pace. This program supports your personal sense of accountability.  It will help define your goal, create action plans, and monitor your progress. Best of all, Coach Marlee will regularly check in to keep you on track. Plus, track your progress by seeing how the motivations crucial to your goals change over time.

F4S dashboard shows recommended coaching programs based on your goal
F4S coaching plan

Read our handy guide with more goal-tracking apps.

3. Asana

How to track and measure the progress of your goals

Tracking goals is essential to ensuring you're on the right path. Too many people don't track their goals in life, and eventually, fall off the bandwagon. Asana is a project management tool with a feature that helps you set and track goals, as well as tie them to specific projects and tasks to ensure you and your team are aligned.

Common goal-setting mistakes to avoid

When it comes to setting goals, avoid these common pitfalls:

Being too vague

When setting goals, most people are too vague in their planning process. They use language like, ‘I'm going to get good at writing’ or ‘I'm going to get better grades.’

Words like better, good and best are not measurable. By being vague, you have no way of knowing when you've achieved your goal. You need to define and get specific. Attach a number and metrics to your goal setting process.

Biting off more than you can chew

Another common goal-setting mistake is being unrealistic. This results in you becoming deflated when you realize you can't actually achieve your goal, which usually leads to giving up. To prevent this, be sure to take an honest assessment of your current ability and take stock of your resources to ensure your goal is attainable.

Giving up too early

Speaking of giving up, most people quit their goals too early. On the way to goal achievement, you should expect setbacks, that doesn't mean your goal is unattainable. Failures happen because life is beyond your control.

Remember when we talked about process goals earlier? That's precisely why they can be better goal types than outcome goals. Outcome goals will inevitably cause you to encounter things beyond your control. For instance, you might stick to your training plan and still not achieve the time you were hoping for on race day because the weather was hotter than expected, that was a factor beyond your control.

To prevent yourself from giving up too early, reframe failure and try to create a process goal instead of an outcome goal.

Put these goal-setting strategies into action today

Setting goals is critical to obtaining what you want in life. Without it, you're merely daydreaming.

Be sure to set actionable, measurable goals, and ensure you have the right goal-setting process, sufficient resources, and commitment. If you don't have a strong ‘why’ behind your goal, you'll give up as soon as you face any unexpected obstacles.

Achieve your goals with AI-powered coaching from Marlee

Unlock the power of AI-driven coaching with Marlee to support you in setting and achieving your goals. Based on 20+ years of research, our assessment questions provide deep insights into your motivations in just 15-20 minutes. Leverage your detailed report and Marlee's personalized guidance to create a winning goal-setting strategy and smash your targets.

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Show References
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  1. Schippers M and Ziegler N, 2019, Life Crafting as a Way to Find Purpose and Meaning in Life, Frontiers in Psychology https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6923189/#:~:text=Prior%20research%20has%20shown%20that,sense%20of%20purpose%20in%20life
  1. University of Texas, Arlington, 2021, Feedback, goal-setting improve attention, ScienceDaily, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/10/211028143651.htm
  2. University of Basel, 2019, Live better with attainable goals, University of Basel, https://www.unibas.ch/en/News-Events/News/Uni-Research/Live-better-with-attainable-goals.html
  3. Alter A and Hershfield H, 2014, People search for meaning when they approach a new decade in chronological age, PNAS, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4260584/

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