3 Best Goal Setting Techniques For Business And Life

Goal quote Aristotle

Goals determine the direction of your success. Goals are also yardsticks to check whether you are lagging behind or pushing ahead on your path to success.

But people set goals all the time it’s downright easy. Each new year, at least a few thousand people around the world set an ambitious goal of writing that book of their life. And it stays unfulfilled or gets abandoned, year after year.

What do they miss when they set those goals? Simply put, those goals didn’t have the right elements that could have made them successful.

And that’s what successful goal-setting is about — setting goals that drive you to achieve them.

How To Set Goals To Achieve Them

We all set our goals, in some way or another. Even not setting goals is a way to set goals. Think of this: “I won’t do the smallest bit of work the whole of tomorrow.” Now, isn’t that a goal?

So, it is quite apparent we all have goals in life, but we don’t always set them the right way. What we often do instead is let them settle as some fuzzy, faraway targets in the back of our minds.

By knowing the proper goal-setting techniques and setting purposeful goals, you become clear about where do you need to focus your attention and efforts to reach success in life.

But how do you go about the business of setting goals so that you achieve them?

Here is a brief answer to how to set goals one is highly committed to:

For the maximum probability of staying committed to and achieving one’s goals, the goals being set must have two primary factors: importance and self-efficacy. (Locke and Latham, 2002).

Importance refers to the factors making attaining a goal important, including the expected outcomes (Locke & Latham, 2002). Self-efficacy is the belief that one can attain their goal (Locke & Latham, 2002).

Importance and self-efficacy enhance the goal commitment by the individual.

— Locke & Latham, 2006

Goal-setting is a highly practical process that helps you choose where you want to take yourself in life. The right goals prod you to take charge of your life. But with no goals, you get no direction, attention, or motivation for success.

The question, therefore, is of setting productive and valuable goals — ones that are the best real-world images of our hopes, aspirations, and dreams.

Goal Commitment Scale

How do we set rich and rewarding goals that we won’t abandon? Moreover, how do we find out if we are committed to our goals so that we get the best shot at realizing them?

For that, we need to find out our goal commitment, which is the degree of determination we use to achieve an accepted goal.

Klein, Wesson, Hollenbeck, Wright, and DeShon (2001), developed the following five-item scale for assessing goal commitment. The responses to the questions on the scale are provided on a five-point Likert scale using “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree” end-points.

Here are the 5 questions of Goal Commitment Scale:

  1. It’s hard to take this goal seriously.
  2. Quite frankly, I don’t care if I achieve this goal or not.
  3. I am strongly committed to pursuing this goal.
  4. It wouldn’t take much to make me abandon this goal.
  5. I think this is a good goal to shoot for.

1 Game To Play With Your Mind: Write Down Your Goal

Goal-setting can be an incredible game we play with our minds. Once you set a goal, the simple act that you have set a goal makes you more inclined to hold on to it. That is human nature.

Psychologists say when we set a goal, we put out a part of ourselves into that future goal. You don’t just set a goal, you own it as a part of yourself.

It is called the “endowment effect  – a phrase coined by Richard Thaler in 1980. It says when you own something – a gift or a dream or a goal – you cling to it and don’t want to give it up. And you do so because once it is a part of your identity, you price it at a much higher value than anyone else around you would.

A second related feature is that if you were to write it down instead of just telling it to yourself, your desire to hug your goals even tighter becomes stronger.

In 1992, a study inside two busy orthopedic hospitals in Scotland gave us the proof that writing down goals can achieve spectacular results. They found in just 13 weeks, the patients recovering from either hip or knee surgeries, who had written their plans (“This week I’m going to…”) started walking almost twice as fast as the ones who had not.

In another study, psychology professor Gail Matthews of Dominican University, California, carried out a goal-setting experiment with 270 participants. He found one were 42 percent more likely to achieve their goals if they wrote them down.

Now, a third related phenomenon needs a mention here: the confirmation bias.

The “confirmation bias” is a condition when your mind tries to find or interpret things in a way that confirms your preconceived ideas. So, if you set a goal, your mind tries to find ways to make it real as if through a self-fulfilling prophecy.

2 Signals To Watch Out For: Set You Own Goals And Keep Them Secret

There are two caveats to keep in mind while you set your goals, however:

  1. If others are setting a goal for you, and you find the goal a stretch, then you may end up using unethical ways to achieve it, or lie about having achieved it. However, if it’s you who’s setting them, you will be more committed to those goals. So, don’t let other set your goals.
  2. If you are broadcasting your goals to anyone who would listen to praise you, you will end up sabotaging yourself. Because receiving compliments for being a guy having a lofty goal might fool your mind into feeling as if it has already achieved the goal. This will take away your motivation to make efforts for realizing your goals. So, don’t tell your goals to anyone.

Set your goals yourself; don’t let others do it for you. And once you set your goals, keep them to yourself; don’t tell others.

Psychology says those who write down their goals and keep them secret, accomplish much more than those who don't. Click To Tweet

3 Highly Effective Goal Setting Techniques For Business & Life

Goal Setting Techniques
3 Highly Effective Goal-Setting Techniques

Here are the three highly effective and most popular research-based techniques of goal setting:

  1. SMART Technique
  2. HARD Technique
  3. WOOP Technique

Now, let us dive into the three highly effective systems of goal-setting, and learn how to best set our goals.

1. The SMART Technique

It is a highly efficient method of goal-setting, especially for the beginners.

This method takes a cue from George T. Doran’s 1981 paper in Management Review to identify how we could find out if our goals are worthwhile and purposeful.

What he described in that original document has almost become a gold standard today, that effective goals should be: S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable/Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound).

  • Specific – you know exactly what your goal is
  • Measurable – you can measure and track your goal
  • Attainable – your goal is realistic, and you can achieve it
  • Relevant – your goal is exciting and meaningful to you
  • Time-bound – you have a clear deadline for your goal

It became famous when one of the most successful CEOs ever on this planet, Jack Welch, inducted this model in General Electric in the early 1980s.

There was a change Welch introduced into the SMART setup — he declared the goals should be Stretch goals instead of Attainable goals. He felt the attainable goals make one work from inside their comfort zone. While the Stretch goals meant they must be set at the outer limit of one’s capacity.

Let’s talk about the Specific and Measurable parts of SMART.

  • Specificity is the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the expectations from the goal.
  • Measurability is numerical dimensions of a goal so that it is able to provide progress feedback and to inform when the goal is achieved.

Think of some of the common goals people make at the start of the year: lose weight, eat healthier, spend less, save more, exercise more, learn new things, spend more on charitable activities, make more real-world friends, sleep more.

What’s wrong with those goals is that they are vague and hazy.

To make them worthwhile of your efforts, you must make them Specific and Measurable. Like losing 20 pounds by March, following an intermittent fasting diet plan, saving 10 percent of what comes to me, giving away 5 percent to charity, exercising 20 minutes every day, going for sleep by 11 pm.

  • A stands for Assignable (instead of Attainable), as the present ideas go.

It means a goal must be Assignable to an individual or a group. When a goal is not assignable, no one is held responsible for achieving the goal, and thus the goal may never be achieved.

  • R stands for Relevance and/or Realistic.

Many goal-setters spend a good few years of their life pursuing a goal that, when achieved, doesn’t give them any pleasure. As they sit with their “trophy” at the end of their grueling race, they wonder where did it all go wrong.

It was this that went wrong: their goal was irrelevant or unrealistic or both.

When starting, they might have set that goal based on what others expected of them. It lay outside the boundary of their own values. Often, such goals are irrelevant targets to aim for when it comes to personal growth.

Instead, they should have fixed a goal that was Relevant to their overall idea of success in life, and Realistic to their resources.

While setting a self-worthy goal, never buy into other people's realities and aspirations. Click To Tweet
  • T is for Time-bound.

A goal that is not Time-bound and lacks a definite end does not allow for feedback — as there is no definite date to work toward.

The SMART technique was later modified to include E. (Evaluate) and R. (Reassess) to make the model even more useful and productive. So, the SMART technique became a SMARTER one.

SMART Way To Set Goals
Source: How To Set Goals And Achieve Them
  • S — Specific — should target a specific (clearly stated) area for improvement.
  • M — Measurable — should have numbers or indicators to measure progress.
  • A — Achievable — should stretch you a little, but stay within your skill/knowledge range.
  • R — Realistic — should say what results can be achieved in realistic terms, with available resources.
  • T — Timely — should specify when the results are due, so that a sense of urgency is there.
  • E — Evaluate — by evaluating your goals every single day, you’ll be much more likely to achieve them.
  • R — Readjust — means to try various approaches until you find yourself getting closer to realizing your goals.

2. The HARD Technique

This is an easy and effective way to follow when you want to set personal goals.

Mark Murphy ideated this second method in his well-researched 2009 book Hundred Percenters. To set productive goals, he says the proper way is: H.A.R.D.

Research for Murphy’s book revealed people who set HARD goals were up to 75 percent more fulfilled than those who set easy goals.

Murphy explains how success comes from knowing how to set HARD goals:

  • Heartfelt – have an emotional attachment, and they “scratch an existential itch.”
  • Animated – driven by a vision of future success and achievement.
  • Required – imbued with such a sense of immediacy and urgency.
  • Difficult – great achievements come from difficult challenges, but they also leave you feeling stronger, smarter, and happier.
Set Goals HARD
Source: How To Set Goals And Achieve Them
  • H — Heartfelt — have emotional attachment with your goals when setting them.
  • A — Animated — imagine vivid pictures of the positive feelings you’ll have after achieving them.
  • R — Required — build a sense of urgency and necessity into the goals you’re setting.
  • D — Difficult — make your goals difficult and be prepared to take their challenges head-on.

3. The WOOP Technique

The third goal setting technique is the newest one. Gabriele Oettingen and Peter Gollwitzer, psychologists at New York University, created WOOP as a result of their 20+ years of scientific research. It has proven to be effective across ages and life domains.

WOOP has been shown to improve effort, attendance, and even GPA among students by significant margins. WOOP reduced insecurity-based behaviors (e.g., looking through the partner’s phone log) and increased commitment in romantic relationships. WOOP doubled regular physical exercise over a time period of four months and increased fruit and vegetable intake by 30% over the period of two years.

There is a WOOP app too on your Appstore and Playstore.

Set Goals WOOP
Infographic Source: How To Set Goals And Achieve Them

It is based on a visualization technique known as Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions (MCII) in the scientific literature. WOOP stands for:

  • W — Wish – wish something you want to accomplish for real, one that’s exciting, challenging, realistic.
  • O — Outcome – imagine the best outcome of your goal, and feel how would the outcome make you feel.
  • O — Obstacle – imagine the personal obstacles that prevent you from accomplishing your goal.
  • P — Plan – make an if/then plan to name an action you could do if your obstacle occurs.


PDF: The 3 Goal-Setting Techniques

Download the PDF of the three techniques here.

Why Is It Important To Set Goals

Goal-setting is the first step towards success. Without goals, successes remain undefined wishes.

Aristotle, philosopher and tutor to Alexander the Great, said some 2300 years ago:

Man is a goal seeking animal. His life only has meaning if he is reaching out and striving for his goals.

And it was Benjamin Mays, the minister who laid the intellectual foundations of the American civil rights movement, who said:

The tragedy in life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach.

A book by Edwin Locke and Gary Latham based on more than 1,000 studies into business goals suggests:

There is strong evidence that the increase in job performance produced by goal-setting have important economic and practical value.

A meta-analysis by Tubbs (1986) supported that specific, difficult goals are positively correlated to improved performance.

But with the setting of goals, our wishes and aspirations take concrete shape. A well-set goal inspires us into action and gives us a definite direction to move.

  • At its heart, the act of goal setting is a deed of motivation. The primary purpose of your setting goals is to increase your motivation levels.
  • When you start setting goals, instead of letting others pick choices for you, you take control and make decisions about what you want for yourself. You take control of your life.
  • When you set goals, you have a clear mission to work for. As they say, you create everything twice: first in mind, and then in the real world. Goals are that first creation in your mind.
  • Goal-setting makes sure you are looking and pushing yourself in the right direction. It makes it likely to get your desired results within a set time-limit. You decide what you would do with your life, instead of waiting for things to happen to you.
  • When you set goals, you see, plan, and think ahead. And even when they do not work out exactly as you planned them, they make you self-confident that you will succeed. They put you in a position so that you can adjust your actions while on your way to success.
  • Goals show you the best point to focus upon for success. Your goals give you a laser focus on exactly what to spend your time and energy on.
  • Having goals makes you feel responsible and accountable. You can then hold yourself to answers for doing things that do not align with your goals.
The tragedy in life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. — Benjamin Mays Click To Tweet

Science of Goal-Setting Theory

Now, a little history of the science of goal-setting.

Since it was first laid down, the goal-setting theory has been the most researched, utilized, and established theory of work motivation in the field of industrial and organizational psychology.

Edwin A. Locke, Dean’s Professor of Leadership and Motivation (Emeritus) at the R.H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, College Park, is a pioneer in the Goal Setting Theory, which he first presented in his 1990 book, A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance.

Locke based his theory on studies involving about 40,000 people from eight different countries over 25 years. A thought-provoking conclusion he pulled from all those studies was this: In 90% of the cases, specific and challenging goals led to higher performance than easy goals, “do your best” goals, or no goals.

Goal setting involves the conscious process of establishing levels of performance in order to obtain desirable outcomes. This goal setting theory simply states that the source of motivation is the desire and intention to reach a goal.

Brian Francis Redmond and Nathan Janicek

Locke defines a goal as “the object or aim of an action.” A goal has two main features:

  1. Content, and
  2. Intensity.

The content of a goal is the desired result while the intensity is the needed effort.

The 5 Golden Rules of Goal-Setting

According to Mind Tools, the 5 golden rules of setting goals are:

  1. Set goals that motivate
  2. Set SMART goals
  3. Write down the goals
  4. Make an action plan
  5. Stick to the plan
Five Rules of Goal Setting: How to set SMART Goals

Final Words

When you set effective goals, you feel better about them immediately after. That itself sets the dice rolling. And remember that happiness for most of us, most of the times, isn’t a thing that just happens; it comes from planning and setting goals for things that are important to us.

By the way, what is your personal definition of success? Share with your friends a simple one-line Facebook post about what you mean by success.

Let that be your goal today.

[This article was recently featured on Mint’s blog: How To Set Goals And Achieve Them.]

Further Reading

  1. Asplund, J., & Blacksmith, N. (2013). Strength-Based Goal Setting.
  2. Buchanan, L. (2012). How to Achieve Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals.
  3. Baker, T. H. (2016). Wells Is Exhibit A of Employee Incentive Failures.
  4. Collins, J. C., & Porras, J. I. (2004). Built to last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies.
  5. Muzio, E. (2010). Setting SMART Goals [YouTube Video].

• • •

Author Bio: Sandip Roy is psychology writer, happiness researcher, and medical doctor. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related topics.


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