Setting Goals Helps – Here’s How it Works

A relaxed business man feeling the joy of accomplishment while walking through a field.

One of the most important aspects of any positive life journey is setting goals. Learning to set the right goals can sometimes be as difficult as pursuing them. The most effective and successful goals are ones that are well-defined and targeted towards our own self-improvement. It is very important that we set goals that are specific so that we know how to approach them. When we develop goals that are vague, regardless of how they are intended to positively impact our lives, it becomes challenging to make them a reality. After all, we can’t travel unless we determine what path we’re going in. We may change course along the way, or determine new goals during our journey, but the point is that we need to start by having at least some established idea of what we want or the kind of person we aspire to be.

The Importance of Setting Goals

Regardless of context, well-defined goals are essential. This is particularly true in therapy, especially with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT. In such sessions, it’s not uncommon for a therapist to ask their patient what their goals are, both short and long-term. When we determine what exactly we want in life, we can then begin to develop strategies to help us attain these goals. The information can also help therapists guide their patients in the most effective manner, by providing advice and support according to what it is they truly want and need.

Therefore, before we embark on any journey of self-improvement, we should first think about and set our goals. What are we trying to accomplish? Why? How important is this goal to us? What will we do to achieve it? And so on. This train of thought encourages honesty and authenticity, both with ourselves and with others.

What Makes a Good Goal?

So what exactly makes a successful goal? Below are three key characteristics of well-defined and attainable goals.

1. Importance

Truly significant goals are ones that are important to us. If we don’t truly care about our goals, the chances that we will actually meet them is minimal at best. Moreover, we should make sure our goals are truly ours. The most effective goals are ones that are personal and not imitative. We should be focused on what we want for ourselves, not what others want for us. When we establish goals that are important to what we want in our lives, we are more motivated and confident in our respective journeys. Dr. Seth Gillihan, clinical assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania says that “when we know what we’re aiming for, we work harder, especially if we feel a deep connection with our goals.”

2. Specificity

The most successful goals are ones that are specific. We are more likely to achieve what we want when we know exactly what that is. In other words, we won’t reach a particular destination if we don’t know where we’re going and are instead meandering without direction. When we are specific in setting our goals we can also be more precise in how, when, and why we want to achieve them. We can even work to develop a flexible timeline, so that we have a better idea of when our goals have been met. Dr. Gillihan provides an example of the difference between wanting to “‘exercise more’” versus wanting to “‘exercise 30 minutes 3x/week.’” One is specific and measurable – we know when we’ve accomplished what we’ve set out to do. By contrast, the other goal is more vague and difficult to measure. What exactly does “more” mean? Once a week? Once a month? The more vague we are with our goals, the less likely we are to truly commit to them.

3. A Good Challenge

A third characteristic of successful goals is that they are appropriately difficult. We shouldn’t shy away from challenge, as long as it’s within reason. Goals with challenge inspire us to be persistent and, in essence, “fight” for what we want. On the other hand, goals that are too easy have a tendency to leave us unmotivated and unwilling to continue pursuit. At the opposite end of the spectrum, however, goals that are too difficult to attain make us want to give up, rather than continue pursuing them. Dr. Gillihan explains that “there’s a sweet spot in picking the difficulty of our goals. Too easy and we’ll be uninspired, like spinning in a bicycle gear that’s too small; too challenging and we’ll be disheartened, like barely turning over the crank up a massive hill.” Thus, when establishing goals we should aim for moderacy. Just challenging enough to be interesting without being overwhelming or stressful.

Change can only be successfully initiated when we develop an idea of what we want to change or what direction we want to grow in. Goal-setting is therefore essential to any self-improvement journey. Goals are, in essence, aspirations, which offer inspiration throughout any positive transformation.