How to set achievable goals

We formulate goals all the time, although we may not recognise them as such or call them goals. If we didn’t, we would never do or achieve anything. Even the absence of setting goals is a form of goal setting, where instead of overt goals we have hidden ones that become our default. We might not like our level of fitness, but not going to the gym is a choice to avoid developing a fitness programme. Because your life is filled with goals, overt or hidden, it makes sense to make your goals work for you rather than against you.

35 Years of Theory on Goal Setting and Task Motivation

In a 2002 American Psychologist article, Edwin Locke and Gary Latham summarised 35 years of empirical research on goal-setting theory. They found that goals affect performance through four mechanisms;

  • goals help you focus your attention,

  • goals help you mobilise and direct your energy,

  • goals provide an incentive for you to develop strategies to achieve them,

  • and finally, goals help you increase your persistence.

Defining your personal goals is an involved process requiring thought and discussion, it isn’t as simple as following a template from the internet. The research shows that your goals need to be carefully considered and are more likely to be achieved if you’ve considered the positive and negative impacts.

Helping my clients set realistic goals is one of the most important parts of being a professional development coach. Achievable goals do not start out fully formed, and a lot of coaching is about helping you develop specific statements about what you want or need. The goals that come out of this dialogue are more likely to be achieved because they’ve been designed to be both realistic and challenging.

To help you define your goals, think about the following questions:

  • Is my goal stated in outcome or results language?

  • Is my goal specific enough to drive my behaviour?

  • How will I know when I have accomplished my goal?

  • If I accomplish this goal, will it make a difference?

  • Will it really help deliver the opportunities I have identified?

  • Does this goal have substance?

  • Is it realistic? Is it doable?

  • Can I sustain this goal over the long haul?

  • Does this goal have some flexibility?

  • Is this goal in keeping with my values?

  • Have I set a realistic time frame to achieve this goal?

Here is one of my professional development goals as an example.

‘I want to become a better coach by completing a certificate in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) by 30th June 2017.’

It is stated as an outcome rather than an activity. – If I say, “I want to become a better coach by learning about mental health counselling and therapy”, I am talking about the activities rather than an outcome or a result. Saying “I want to become a better coach by completing a certificate in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy” means I’ve defined an outcome I want to achieve instead.

It is specific enough to be measurable and drive action. – Good intentions become broad aims, which then become specific goals. The desire to progress my career is a good intention, and a broad aim identifies the area, such as I need to study coaching theory and practice. A measurable goal is taking a certified course in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy by a certain date.

It is substantive and challenging. – Substantive means that your goal has some significant contribution to developing your opportunities and challenges you to exert more effort to achieve it. I choose my goal to complete a certificate in CBT because the best practices in mental health therapy make for the best practices in professional development coaching. It is substantive because it helps me be a better coach, it gives me a certification that validates my professional practice and it is challenging because evidence-based mental health counselling has an educational and professional standard that I need to achieve.

It is realistic. – Nothing breeds success like success, but constant failure breeds despair. Your goals are realistic if you have access to the resources you need to achieve them. When we set our goals too high and constantly to fail to achieve them, we lose motivation. I’ve tried and failed goals because they have been unrealistic to achieve because I didn’t have access to the time, financial or emotional resources I needed. You need to consider all of these aspects when setting realistic and achievable goals.

It is sustainable over a reasonable time period. – Sometimes the reason why we fail to achieve our goals is because we’ve not considered the effort needed to achieve them. We choose our goals because of the positive outcomes we want. But nothing is 100% positive benefits, there are downsides to everything we do.

CBT certification requires a financial investment, but also a stronger emotional investment. Mental health training is about looking at yourself first and foremost, and I’ll have to address some uncomfortable truths about myself. The emotional cost is sometimes the biggest barrier we have to overcome to achieve our goals.

It is flexible without being ineffectual. – In many cases, your goals have to adapt to changing realities. Very little is actually within our power to control, the only things we can control are our actions, thoughts, and our environment. Some of these things are also influenced by others around us to a greater or lesser degree. You need to consider your goals based on the context and environment you are in currently. We all have a tendency to be over-optimistic on what we can achieve. Choose your goals based on what is realistically achievable and has the greatest positive impact on your life.

It reflects my values. – There is no point choosing goals that do not reflect your core values. I value evidence-based practice and theory. I also value self-awareness, compassion and understanding. Studying mental health best practice and theory delivers all those values. Pick your goals based on your core values and you’ll find them more motivating to achieve.

And finally, it is set in a reasonable time frame. – Goals that are to be accomplished sometime or other probably won’t be accomplished at all. Goals with a sense of urgency built into them while remaining realistic help us achieve them. I could achieve my certification in eight weeks if I wanted to, but that requires significant time to be devoted to the process. I need to have time for my clients, my family and myself, so I’ve given myself six months to complete the certification. Six months is too far to be urgent, but committing to weekly blogging about concepts and theory provides a different sense of urgency that helps me achieve my goal.

Of course, these guidelines or principles aren’t a step-by-step programme, and you might not need all of these characteristics when defining your goals. It all depends on what is right for you. For some, identifying broad aims might be enough to help kick-start the professional development process. Others might need to formulate more specific goals, but the principle is clear. Designing your goals with some form of built-in agency, like clarity, substance, realism, values or time frame can help make you more likely to succeed.

If you are looking to develop yourself professionally, why not book a free coaching session to help you get started?

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