the art of Effective Goal Setting

-   James Stevenson, Accredited Wellbeing Coach and Positive Psychologist -

Have you noticed that sometimes your goal setting can be effective and sometimes not? It's an art. A skill. Here's how get it just right...

Effective goal setting means you setting goals that work. The truth is that there is a big gap between ineffective and effective approaches when it comes to how you set goals.

The most ineffective way I've seen happens around the world each year on January 1st... New years resolutions. Now THAT is how you set goals if you don't want to achieve them! Saying that, I do love new year resolutions because they present the single biggest opportunity for widespread successful goal setting. 

There is so much you can do to make your goal setting more fruitful, more successful. I've chosen what I believe are the 8 most relevant factors in making your goal setting effective.  

  1. Set a goal that gives you accurate feedback 
  2. Base your goal on your current ability
  3. Choose an outcome that really matters to you or find meaning 
  4. Create a plan - don't do it randomly 
  5. Support your self-efficacy (self-encouragement, role model, harness past success) 
  6. Attainment is fuel so create that with small victories or stepping stones 
  7. Find the contribution goal within your goal 
  8. Work with a suitably qualified and accredited coach 

Is it time to take goal setting ability to the next level?

Set a goal that gives you accurate feedback 

It's really important that you know when you're off to a good start, when you're half way there, and when you're almost there. It's encouraging. This means, like the SMART goal setting method advises, setting a goal that can be measured.

You need to be able to know if you're going in the wrong direction... that you are actually making progress and not just deluding yourself. You can do this by getting accurate.

Accurate feedback will give you a genuine sense of accomplishment as progress is made. It's naturally motivating. Or it will give you the important feedback that you're are not making progress yet. Both of these are equally important. Operating outside of this is fraught with risks.

Some things are straight forward when it come to getting feedback. Weight in kg. Km ran. Number of people met. % increase in earnings/savings. Hours devoted.

However, we're fortunate that almost anything now can be accurately measured with validated scales. A few interesting examples include, positive and negative emotions, optimism, body appreciation, self-compassion, grit, coping, meaning, savouring, self-esteem, job satisfaction, authenticity at work.

I'd go so far as to say, there isn't much that you can't measure. Feel free to send me a message if you want me to point you in the direction of a useful scale.

Base your goal on current ability 

One of the main purposes of a goal is to create commitment. i.e. you feel committed, determined. This is why I'd suggested that effective goal setting takes into account where you are ability wise right now.

Where current ability is low and your goal is high... well, you can see this is not a recipe for effectiveness. Goal setting is a growth causing exercise. This means, be honest about where you are, be realistic with your goal, and your ability will increase. As ability increases, so will what is realistic for you. 

Realistic is the A (attainable) in smart goal setting. It means appropriately challenging. Also, connecting your goal and progress solidly with your current reality (ability, resources, strengths, restraints, past experience and on and on and on) is the R or Reality in the GROW and GROWTH models.

If your ability is on the low side in one particular area at this time, it's a good idea to get support or resources to help with that.

For example, when my ability was low in terms of training physically at home I asked a friend for help. Someone who was very good at that kind of thing and he was more than happy to support. I said something like I want to get fitter but don't want to go to the gym. I don't really know what I'm doing. I'm struggling to get going. I feel like I'm doing it wrong. I'll owe you one.

Fast forward a few years and because I asked for support, I now have far more ability so what's realistic for me is far more than what it was before.

Choose an outcome that really matters to you or find meaning 

Your goal is more effective when it's personally important.

Once you've decided on a goal ask yourself "what makes this important to me?". If the answer flows and there is a lot to say that's a good sign. 

When things matter they are usually in alignment with core values... 

  • Acceptance
  • Achievement
  • Acknowledgement
  • Altruism
  • Adventure
  • Authenticity
  • Autonomy
  • Balance
  • Beauty
  • Creativity
  • Family
  • Friendship
  • Fun
  • Good Salary
  • Happiness
  • Harmony
  • Health
  • Helping others
  • Honesty
  • Humour
  • Independence
  • Influence 
  • Integrity
  • Privacy
  • Productivity
  • Profit
  • Promotion
  • Reaching potential
  • Recognition
  • Respect
  • Responsibility
  • Results
  • Romance
  • Routine
  • Security
  • Self-determination

When you look through the list of values above which are the one that stand out to you? That stir resonance? Which ones make you think, "now that's what life's all about!". Can you connect the dots between your goal and your values? 

Of course values can shift over time and with different experiences. A new friend might make you think differently about friendship. A traumatic event may cause you to value privacy more highly. In terms of your goal setting right now, it will be more powerful if it feels meaningful. 

Create a plan - don't do it randomly 

Plans may well change but that doesn't mean you shouldn't make one in the first place. 

If you know where you want to end up it's a good idea to consider ways you might get there. If it's a bit of complex journey, you can have milestones, or sub-goals, to keep the motivation going throughout. 

Taking on your goals in a random way without attempting to think through the different stages, the different resources that might be needed etc could create avoidable frustration. Planning can help you prepare for obstacles further down the line. It can help with the order of things. It can help instil confidence.

There is a goal-based planning activity I like to do with my clients sometimes. You can try it yourself. To do it you need:

  • A3 paper
  • Post it notes (various sizes, shapes, and colors ideally)
  • Colored pencils or pens

On the top right hand corner you draw or write or bullet point your outcome. On the bottom left corner you do the same for your resources, and anything else that supports you, that you can use. You then fill in anything that comes anywhere in the middle.

Some clients like to fill in a load of post it notes first, then stick them and move them around. Others like to write one, stick it, and repeat, moving as they go. I'd struggle to do this without my coach saying things like, tell me more about that, and what makes this meaningful, and asking various questions to pull all my ideas out. Maybe you can try and ask yourself various questions that help, or do it with a friend?

Support your self-efficacy (self-encouragement, role model, harness past success)

Self-efficacy is your belief that you can do it. There are lots of building blocks you can use to build up that belief. 

  • Role Model - If you can connect with someone who you know has done what you're trying to do... If you can see them doing it... If you can ask questions... This will gradually add to your belief levels that it is in fact possible for you too. There is a risk here. Many of today's so called role models are on YouTube etc and there may be a gap between what they claim to have achieved and the actual reality. It's important to choose well, ask the right questions, get the evidence, so you're choice of role model is the real deal.
  • Past successes - Searching for and finding lots of evidence that you can do it will build goal confidence. Some of your past success might be directly linked. Some might be indirectly connected. Even if seemingly small, you no doubt have lots of experiences that prove you are capable. Remembering these in detail is an ingredient of effective goal setting. 
  • Self-encouragement - praising yourself within yourself is not as common as you might think. Telling yourself, "I'm doing well. I can do this. I'm capable. I've done it before" or "that was great. I can do more of that definitely" or "I'm getting better all the time. I'll be there in no time". This kind of self-talk that creates courage and hope will help over time. The same if it comes from supportive others whose opinion you value and trust.

Attainment is fuel so create that with small victories or stepping stones

An extension of the last step is to also add more small and relevant victories. Don't worry about how small they seem to be. Seeds are tiny, but they grow in to humungous trees. 

What can you do to create that feeling of achievement? Something that gets the ball rolling...

If you're struggling to find lots of past victories and progress that feel relevant this step becomes even more significant along with the getting support from others (payed professional or friend) . What is small to one person might be huge for another. Try and make it "challenging enough" for you. A few steps in the right direction can create momentum which is your friend.

Find the contribution goal within your goal

The research behind the power of attaching your goal to positive meaning is some of the most fascinating I've read. When your goal feels rich and heavy in meaning (which takes conscious work), it has a stronger effect on you.

One way of doing this is to ask yourself what contribution your goal makes. There is something innately powerful about doing this. Contribution goals have been found to be more effective than achievement or acquisition goals. Making that shift from self-interest to providing a benefit to others, or from what I can get to what I can give, if harnessed will make your goal setting far more effective. 

So what benefit will your goal provide for others? What will you give? How will other people be impacted?

Work with a suitably qualified and accredited coach

A coach, well chosen, is an expert in all of this and can support you with your goals and progress. Be careful though. Make sure to ask questions to your coach about their qualification and level of accreditation.

Unfortunately with coaching being an unregulated industry, some coaches have taken a free weekend course, and some have done a full diploma or masters degree (2/3 years of training). This doesn't exist in the world of therapy for example where every single therapist must have trained at a certain level.

Also accreditation will ensure your coach has a professional practice, a certain level of experience, has done a proper course, and that your coach works with a supervisor. The experience of working with this kind of coach and someone trying to blag it can be huge! Imagine one of your untrained friends pretending to be a therapist and you're not far off!

A highly trained and experienced coach is expert in psychology. They have honed their skills of high level listening, demonstrating understanding, questioning, and giving feedback expertly. They have the ability to guide the session in an empowering way. It's easier to open up with a professional coach and share your impossible dreams.

A quality coach has the tools and skills to help you with all the tips on this page, goal planning, discovering your meaning, growing self-confidence, getting the goal levels right, maintaining motivation. They are masters in effective goal setting and facilitating growth and achievement. They can make sure you don't spend the next year climbing the wrong wall! Getting the start bit right can save a lot of time don't the line.

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James Stevenson is the owner of and a qualified and accredited wellbeing and philosophy coach.

He works with clients in an patient, understanding and creative way to help them apply great philosophical ideas and psychological scientific findings so they can flourish in a way that leads to them also contributing to a better world.

The development of a strong sense of mattering and agency, alongside deep understanding of inner and outer obstacles give clients a powerful coaching experience. More about James here

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