How to Set Smart Goals—and Make Them Happen

By Mark Hannum on May 15, 2019

A little boy draws a space ship on the wall using chalk.

There is a lot of neuroscience involved in goal setting, and the logic of neuroscience is relatively simple: The brain’s basic function is to keep us safe. And completely adapting our behavior to meet a goal may not be the “safest” thing to do. In particular, setting an audacious goal is not a safe thing to do. In essence, we can take the risk, work hard and change our behavior to meet the goal, or we can lower the goal.

Most of us set goals that are safe and don’t set off alarm bells in our brains. Goal management behavior in general is very much related to both procrastination and to impulsivity. Half of us are impulsive, and half of us are procrastinators, and both personalities are highly correlated with goal management behavior and goal failure behavior.

In other words, goals are easy to put off and even easier to forget about. It’s much more fun (and distracting!) to go out and do something cool, instead of working diligently through our goals list. And the broader or more long-term the goal, the easier it is to not get started or pay attention to deadlines. What’s worse is when the goals we’ve set for ourselves are too close to our current behavior. Then we may find that it’s not worth working very hard to achieve it and put it off entirely.

Here’s something else we know for sure: Deadlines aren’t motivating for many of us. Estimates are that as high as two-thirds of us aren’t motivated by having a deadline. Second, audacious goals are too intimidating and too scary for a lot of us. We shut down if the goal seems impossible or requires too much of a change. Third, many of the things we want in life require us to make big changes. Hence, we have to outsmart the goal-setting barriers in order to be successful.

What is a great goal?

A great goal is audacious, yet very specific or narrow.

A long-term goal should be challenging. In fact, if the goal isn’t challenging, our brains perceive that it’s not worth working on. Conversely, the brain also perceives it as scary and risky. So the goal has to be something short of impossible. It also needs to be written in a way that removes some of the danger. Pictures and visual language do that. Write your long-term, audacious goal in the most visual language you can. This is an extremely important part of the process. Audacious yet specific or narrow.

For example, I play golf. I have goals for my golf. My goal isn’t “to be a great golfer.” That’s way too broad and impossible, and “great golfer” is very ambiguous. My golf goal is “par or better on every hole I play.”

In a round of 18 holes, I tend to fail at this goal about four or five times. I used to fail 10 times a round. And if you know the game of golf, par or better on every hole is audacious for an amateur who plays once a week at best. Annika Sorenstam, the greatest LPGA player ever, wrote her golf goal when she was 16: “Birdie every hole I play.” She fails to meet her goal about 12 times a round. She also shot the lowest round ever recorded in LPGA history. On that day, she achieved her goal 13 times in 18 holes.

A great goal is approachable and positive.

Don’t create “avoidance goals,” which rely on negativity and failure. For example, reframe “stop eating junk food” into “start eating healthier” “or “get healthier and stronger every day of my life.” Your goal should not be a failure that you want to stop. Instead, goals should be designed to have a positive finish line.

A great goal is important and interesting and should never conflict with your core beliefs.

If you’re not interested in a goal, you’re not going to focus on it. And if a goal isn’t aligned with your values or core beliefs, you won’t be able to do your best work and show up in support of that goal. A great goal inspires you, motivates you, maybe even incentivizes you to want to achieve it.

A great goal is informed by the question “Why?”

As you work to develop your goal, ask yourself an important question: “Why are you pursuing this goal? What will you get from achieving this goal?” And take it one step further: Forget what other people want from you—and when you’re helping members of your team to develop their own goals, always avoid imposing your goals on others.

A great goal is segmented into sub-goals.

When it comes to developing a long-term goal, you must segment the overall goal into specific and measurable sub-goals. Make these sub-goals progressive to your larger goal. The key is to develop three to five sub-goals, but never more than seven. These sub-goals should then be sub-divided into specific processes or tasks that are immediate or daily tasks that you can check off your list every day.

These process goals are action-oriented, like “Write 30 sentences each morning before 8 a.m.” or “Exercise 30 minutes on the row machine every day.” You want your process goals to be simple statements that tell you what to do each day. They should be measurable in the simplest of ways—you did it or you did not do it. Nothing more complicated than that.

Remember: Reaching a great goal is quantifiable with checks and balances.

If five major outcomes will create the great goal, and you have set up two or three processes to achieve each outcome, then you can always measure your progress. Are you doing your daily goals? Are your daily goals helping you to achieve the outcomes? If not, maybe you have the wrong process? If you are achieving your outcomes but your audacious goal is no closer to becoming a reality, maybe you have decided on the wrong outcomes?

With this simple framework, you can develop great goals that you can ultimately achieve.

Ready to start setting smart goals? Download the Purposeful Leadership: “Build a Smart Goal” Tool to get started.


Tell us: How do you set and achieve great goals? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

Posted in Coaching, Executive Development, Leadership Development Tagged with: ,

About Mark Hannum

Mark Hannum is Chief Research Officer at Linkage. He partners with clients to create better business results that incorporate both organizational justice and effectiveness. An organization development consultant by training, Mark’s focus has been on understanding and improving executive processes and decision-making.

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