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The Ultimate Guide To Goal Setting For People Who Never Set Goals

These five steps can help even the most goal-allergic person accomplish something meaningful.

The Ultimate Guide To Goal Setting For People Who Never Set Goals
[Photo: Flickr user Kurt Bauschardt]

Having a goal comes down to knowing where you want to be. And sometimes, that alone is enough to put people off from goal setting. For those of us who, for whatever reason, are allergic to goals, not knowing where we want to be later can feel liberating or just fend off the anxiety of falling short.

But there almost always comes a time when setting up a goal to work toward is the only real way to get something important done. And for those times, the late, great salesman and author Zig Ziglar offered a timeless framework for goal setting that even the most goal-resistant person can find useful when it really counts. Here are a few key steps, drawing on Ziglar's approach, that can help you get started.

1. Know Why Your Goal Matters

Whether you’re looking to create a product from scratch, hire a new team, or set out on a new career path, you first need to understand why. Goals need to have a purpose, otherwise why bother? So ask yourself: What are the benefits? Will it advance your company or career? Make you happier? Connect you to someone important?

If you can't decide why a particular goal is important, read no further. Successful goal setting is predicated on picking goals that are actually of your own choosing: Is whatever you're setting out to accomplish intrinsically meaningful to you, or are you taking it on because everyone else is or someone's told you to?

Once you've nailed that reason down, set it in ink. When you write it down, you make it real. Sounds simple—and it is—but Gail Mathews of Dominican University did a study that found that those who wrote their goals down accomplished significantly more of them than those who didn’t.

2. Set A Deadline

One cardinal rule to live by is that if there isn't a deadline, the project isn't real. If you want to get coffee and you don’t send me a calendar invite, then the date probably won’t happen.

Same goes with working on any meaningful project: It’s easy to thrash around, postpone, and over-polish. That can alleviate some of the anxiety and fear you may have when you're about to complete it, but it can also throw you off course.

All professionals know that deadlines—a mark on the calendar or a pink Post-It staring you in the face—make the work more likely to happen. Writers know this all too well: "I’ll get it to you by next week," is already a dead goal, expressed in the language of an amateur, whereas, "Expect an email from me by Tuesday at 5 p.m.," is a goal with a deadline—and an affirmation that you’re working like a pro.

3. List The Obstacles That Will Get In Your Way

Make no mistake: There will be obstacles, and they come in many forms—time, money, other people, etc. Remember how you wrote down your goal? Great, now write down everything that threatens it.

Now look at that list. Reread it to yourself, then add your own name to the bottom. One of the most subtle yet least recognized of these obstacles—and subsequently one of the hardest to acknowledge—is yourself, your own fears and doubts. Any goal that's meaningful to you will be beset by anxieties of your own making. If you can first get to the heart of why you want to accomplish something, and then to why you're afraid you won't, then you’ve already made significant progress.

4. Find Helpers

I tried for years to get in the habit of exercising regularly. I've tried 5 a.m., "when I felt like it," and late at night. Each time, I failed horribly, no matter how frequently my calendar notifications went off.

Over the last two years, I finally developed the routine of exercising daily. I learned that I was most motivated to go to the gym in the afternoon, after three or four hours of intense creative work. I also hired a personal trainer because I knew I couldn’t reach my end goal alone (I'd tried that) and needed to find someone who could help get me there.

The same goes for other types of goals. If you’re working on a project and you’ve fulfilled the first three steps alone, there's no shame in finding someone who can help propel you forward. Accomplishing goals doesn’t have to be a lonely endeavor, and when others see that you're serious about making a big change or doing something new, they'll often be glad to lend a hand.

5. Find Out What You Don't Know, And Make A Plan

If you want to build an app, for instance, ask yourself what skills you'll need to do it. Make sure that isn't just "app-building skills." Be more specific. Ask someone who's actually built an app what level of coding knowledge and design expertise it will take to get it done—and be honest with yourself about what you'll need to learn first.

Breaking down your goals into components like this is supposed to be scary—it’s about making the path so clear that just how attainable it is actually frightens you. How long will it take to learn the first skill, then the second? How much will it cost, in terms of money as well as time? When can you realistically get started?

Once you've outlined all the steps, go back to your initial notes about why this goal matters to you and ask yourself, "Is it still worth it?" By now you can probably feel the answer in your gut.

I recently went though this process when relaunching my personal website. I wrote down the goals and why they were specifically meaningful to me, along with the obstacles that would get in my way: myself (creating an editorial calendar I could stick to) and money (what is my budget?).

Then I figured out what I needed to learn, and the help I needed to enlist: I wasn’t going to learn coding or graphic design, so I hired a fantastic designer and creative brand strategist. I listed friends and peers who could help me gain some momentum for when the site went live, and I hired an editor.

I also set a deadline after getting a quote for how long it would take for the back-end projects to get done. Because the developer is a professional, he gave me a spreadsheet of the estimated hours for each part of the project. Finally, I had a launch date.

Looking back, was it worth it? Absolutely. The ducks were lined up and ready to march all before I made my first move. It’s something I’d wanted to do but had been putting off, and this exercise helped me stop procrastinating and follow through all the way to the finish.

As the writer Hunter S. Thompson said about goals in a letter to his friend Logan:

In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life—the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.

The most important thing to remember is that although goals are like finish lines, it’s the marathon toward the goal that builds character, as Thompson suggests. The happiness of a successfully launched project will fade, but the lessons of your struggles and triumphs will last much longer.

And they'll be there to fuel the next goal you set your sights on.

Paul Jun is the founder and editor of Motivated Mastery, a blog where he connects the dots on mastery, creativity, and change. He is also a senior coach at the altMBA.