Smart Goal-Setting Ideas

There will always be a goal or a couple of goals that are most important to you, like finally losing weight and keeping it off or getting more exercise; quitting smoking or paying down debt; going back to school or getting a new job; saving for retirement or buying a new home. These are the kind of goals that would make the biggest difference in your life if you were to achieve them. These are the goals you’ll want to give the most attention to. But make sure you’re only setting goals that really are meaningful to you so that you’ll be enthusiastic about working toward accomplishing them.

It’s going to be important for you to create a plan for accomplishing your most important goal. What are the steps you think you’ll need to take to reach the goal? Even if you don’t know the exact steps, try to define them the best you can and you can make corrections along the way. And to help you with this, here are some ideas that can help you set your goals and accomplish them.

Start with the End in Mind

Make a list starting with your goal being accomplished as the first item and work backward, step-by-step. With each step, think about what step might have come just before it and write it down. When you’re finished, you’ll have a list of action steps leading to the accomplishment of your goal. Here’s a sample list:

Goal: To drink a great cup of tea

  • Drink Tea.
  • After 3 minutes, remove tea bag from cup.
  • Pour hot water over tea bag.
  • Turn off burner.
  • After water comes to a boil, remove kettle from burner.
  • Put tea bag in mug.
  • Get tea bag out of tea tin.
  • Remove mug from cupboard.
  • Put kettle on burner; turn burner on HIGH.
  • Fill kettle with water.

There are other steps that would possibly be needed, such as deciding whether to brew loose tea or bags, buying tea from a store or online, maybe researching kettles or types of tea, or filling up my car’s gas tank with gas so I can go to the store to buy what I might need, and maybe I’ll need to set up a budget to purchase what I need–you know how expensive those high-end hot water kettles can be. I don’t have to list every single detail, just the broad steps as well as I can determine what they may be.

The next step is to rewrite the list in reverse order so that the very first step appears at the top (fill the kettle with water) and the end goal is at the bottom (drink tea). So to actually work toward my end goal, I might begin by researching hot-water kettles if I don’t already own one, or I might research different types of tea. Next week, I might buy a tea kettle then buy some loose tea or tea bags…etc. Those steps aren’t on my list but they may need to be accomplished before I can achieve a specific action from my list.

Basically, you’ll look at the first action step on your list and figure out what you need to do to achieve it. Then you start working on the second item…leading, eventually, to the pleasurable experience of drinking a good cup of hot tea or achieving whatever your specific goal is.

Tips on Setting Deadlines

  • Do set a deadline for your most important goal.
  • Consider setting deadlines for action steps on your plan for accomplishing your primary goal.
  • Assume a 1-year deadline for all secondary goals (if you set more than one).
  • Don’t be overly optimistic–set a reasonable deadline considering your specific life conditions.
  • Adjust deadlines when conditions in your life require it–they’re not written in stone.
  • Take your deadlines seriously and do all that you can to honor the dates.

Be Flexible

There is no right or wrong way to set deadlines for your goals. Adjust your plan, dates and action steps, if needed, according to the results you’re getting along the way. If you realize that you’re missing a step, add it to your list of action steps for the specific goal that you’re working on. Try to be flexible and give yourself permission to make adjustments as your circumstances or needs change. You’re not locked into any action steps or dates once they’re written down. Neither are you locked into any specific goal.

Life changes every day. Unexpected opportunities may come your way; opportunities that you couldn’t have planned for when you initially wrote down your goals. Don’t ignore them just because you want to stay on track with a goal. New opportunities might make the original goal unnecessary, and that’s okay too.

Keep adjusting your goals and your action steps so that you’re always moving forward in life in a more positive direction. And if you ever find yourself a little confused about what action steps are needed, try to find someone who has already achieved the same goal and learn from them either by contacting them or reading about their approach. If you’ve lost your motivation to achieve the goal because it’s no longer important to you, cross it off and work on a more meaningful goal. Don’t waste time on goals that you don’t really care about.

Accountability – the Key to Success

It helps to keep yourself on track if you’re accountable to someone. But I’ve observed that it’s extremely difficult for most adults to hold themselves accountable. Find a partner–someone you trust–and tell him or her what your goal is. Schedule a weekly check-in day and be sure to share your progress with them on that day.

For me, checking in with someone every week is never enough to push me to keep taking action when I’m working on a particularly challenging goal. And it’s especially hard for my wife or a close friend to hold me accountable since they have little or no meaningful leverage to use against me. From what I’ve seen, this is also true for most people. I don’t know of anyone who can check in with their spouse or friend and it’s enough to hold them accountable. So you may want to set up a reward after a specific milestone or goal has been reached. I also suggest that you select a weekly or bi-weekly task that you can work toward that will move you closer to your primary goal. In some cases, you only have to prove that you’ve made progress, not that you’ve completed an action step. If you fail to meet your commitment, then a pre-selected negative consequence will kick in, according to your agreement with the person holding you accountable. But that person must hold the power to enforce your negative consequence or it won’t motivate you.

Setting a consequence for not achieving a goal or a specific action step is very effective since people work harder to avoid pain than to gain a pleasure. I used to think that if a goal is so important, we would be automatically motivated to take consistent action to achieve it. Unfortunately, I’ve learned that this is usually not the case because people tend to avoid change since change can be stressful.

Be careful when selecting a consequence; you may have to try a few before you find the best one. If you choose a consequence that is too severe or too weak, it will be ineffective. The best negative consequences are short-term and they sting a little when you discover the right one. When you feel a shudder of fear ripple through your body, you’ve come up with the right consequence to hold you accountable.

Examples of Effective Consequences:

  • No Sunday football game.
  • Missing your favorite TV show(s) for a week.
  • Can’t play video games for a week.
  • No Facebook for a day or week (whatever is more effective).
  • No non-essential phone use for a week.
  • Can’t go to your favorite restaurant.
  • No date night for that week (ouch!).

Whatever consequence you choose, you must be 100% committed to following through and will accept the penalty, if you deserve it. That means you must be completely honest with your partner. If you lie about it, you’re really only cheating yourself. Lying undermines your natural drive to accomplish a meaningful goal–a goal that you chose in the first place. Think about it. This goal, if you accomplish it, has the potential to change your life and move you in a more positive direction. So don’t be easy on yourself!

It’s important to only set goals that you are serious about achieving. Sometimes it’s hard enough just trying to manage all the distractions and interruptions we encounter every day, let alone applying the effort needed to achieve goals and guide your life in a better direction.

Achieving a goal takes time and energy; it takes drive and consistent action. The tips and goal-setting ideas I’ve given you should make a big difference. But if you’re not ready to roll up your sleeves and get to work, don’t even bother setting a goal. I’m not trying to bring you down, I’m just trying to make sure you start out with the right frame of mind.

Just remember, the more you do the same things, the more you’ll have the same results. If you want the year ahead to be different than the year behind; if you want your life to be better than ever before, find your purpose, set a meaningful goal, and change your life.

Got any questions or tips of your own that you would like to share? Leave them in the comments.


  1. another consequence would be to run through walmart clucking like a chicken…. lol great stuff bud

    • Tommy,

      If this would work for holding you accountable, I hope you succeed with your goal. 😉 But if you don’t, let me know when you’re going to be clucking so I can bring my video camera. LOL


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