How to Set Goals That Actually Work

Setting goals is probably one of the easiest ways to get from where you are now to where you want to be in the future. There is no shortage of literature showing that those who set goals are more successful than those who don’t set goals. But not all goals are created equal. Here are three minor distinctions in how you set goals that can make the difference in whether your goals are accomplished.

Behavior versus Outcome Goals

An outcome goal is when you focus on the results. For example, a sales professional may have an outcome goal of acquiring five new clients each month. Someone on a diet may want to lose five pounds. The problem with an outcome goal is that it is, to at least some degree, outside of your control. The sales professional may be affected by the recession or an off-season while the dieter may be retaining water or gaining muscle. While the impact of external factors is arguable, the point is that there is indeed something else at play – whether it is the economy or your hormones. This setback due to an external force too often leads to a cycle of frustration, negative thinking, and possibly defeat.

As a solution to that, behavioral goals isolate your actions from outside influence. A behavioral goal is solely focused on what you, and only you, are doing. To hone in on your behavioral goal, think of your outcome goal, and then ask yourself, what would it take for you (not Tom, not Nancy…. you) to achieve this goal? What do you have to do to make it happen? Those actions are your behavioral goals. Personally, I set both, but I keep outcome goals in the back of my mind, and I measure my success by behavioral goals. Learn to set behavioral goals for yourself. It can make the difference between frustration and success.

Approach versus Avoidance Goals

An avoidance goal is when you seek to avoid a negative outcome, which can too easily set off a pattern of negative thinking. It can also mentally reinforce that which you want the least. Examples of avoidance goals:

  • Don’t fail that test
  • Try not to get fired
  • Avoid junk food

On the other hand, an approach goal is when you seek to attain a desirable or positive outcome. The approach goal lifts your mood. You may have noticed that it’s more of a semantic difference than one of content, and it may seem trivial at first. But it does have an impact on your motivation. If you have been setting avoidance goals, all you have to do is work on rephrasing them a little. Examples of approach goals:

  • Ace that test
  • Be the superstar at work
  • Eat healthy food

Abstract versus Concrete Goals

I broke this rule in the prior example, but it illustrates how easily and often we do this. Abstract goals aren’t motivating and they don’t provide much guidance when faced with daily decisions.  Rather than using a vague phrase, get as specific as possible. What defines a healthy food? What actions will you take on Monday to perform at the superstar level? How many hours of studying will make you comfortable enough with the material to get the grade you want? Make your goals even more concrete when you tie your aspirations to a visual image, say your goal out loud, picture yourself achieving it, or tell others about it.

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