We all have to deal with different projects in life or at work on a regular basis. Our decisions about where to focus our efforts and spend our time depend a lot on our goals – for a particular project, the business, or in our personal lives.

Having a clear goal is the first thing we need to get any project or business started. But how to set goals that will help us to succeed?

During my many years of working with different types of organizations, from corporations to startups, I have often witnessed situations where teams start to discuss the project activities BEFORE stating and clarifying the goal of the project itself.

It is so easy to get carried away with creative ideas and actual implementation, that we often forget that successful implementation IS directly connected to a specific goal.

The main question

“What do I / we want to achieve, and why?” should be the basis for the next steps and the implementation plan, not vice versa. It also serves as a clear benchmarking tool to see if achieved results are satisfactory or not.

Just recently I observed a similar situation in a client’s team where they sat down to discuss the functionality of a new product. As the discussion progressed, new ideas started to flood the table and the list of “must be implemented” items started to grow. About 30 minutes into the conversation, one of the team members suddenly paused and said, “Folks, let’s not forget about the initial goal of this product, because now it sounds like we want every possible feature to be implemented.” He was right, and his comment helped the team regain its focus and cut out some ideas that were not really important to reaching the initial goal.

Do we need to set goals at all?

My opinion – absolutely! Otherwise, how would you:

  • know where to go, at all?
  • tell if your achieved result is good or not, if you do not have a specific and measurable goal set beforehand?
  • provide feedback to your employees, if they do not understand clearly what is expected?

When asked about the necessity to set goals I always recall a story from the book “Alice in Wonderland”, when Alice meets the Cat and asks him about which road to choose:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

If you don’t know where you’re going, you will get somewhere, but it might not be where you’d like to be 🙂

Studies also have shown that specific and ambitious goals lead to a higher level of performance than easy or general goals.

How to set goals: A goal properly set is halfway reached - Zig Ziglar quote

Once you start to concentrate on a specific goal, your efforts become focused and aligned with the goal, which means that you don’t waste time on unimportant activities that don’t contribute to reaching this important goal. It also helps other team members understand expectations and have clear measurement criteria, reducing the possibility of personal interpretations.

Setting goals affects outcomes in 4 ways

In her book “Historical Perspectives in Industrial and Organizational Psychology”, Laura L. Koppes mentions that setting goals affects outcomes in four ways:

1. Choice

Goals help us choose where to focus our attention, directing our efforts toward goal-relevant activities, and away from undesirable and goal-irrelevant actions.

2. Effort

Goals can lead to more effort; for example, if one typically produces 4 widgets an hour, and has the goal of producing 6, one may work more intensely towards the goal than one would otherwise.

3. Persistence

The tendency to work through challenges is greater if pursuing a specific goal.

4. Cognition

Goals can lead individuals to develop and change their behavior.

How to set goals to ensure success?

I like the S.M.A.R.T. approach to setting goals, since it is easy to remember and it contains the essence of the goal setting process.

How to set goals - SMART approach to goal-setting

(S) Specific

To make goals specific, they must tell you or a team exactly what is expected, why is it important, who’s involved, where is it going to happen and which attributes are important.

(M) Measurable

If a goal is not measurable, it is not possible to know whether you are making progress toward successful completion. A measurable goal will usually answer questions such as:

  • How much?
  • How many?
  • How will I know when it is accomplished?

(A) Attainable

Goals should be realistic, but ambitious enough to stretch you a bit. If the goal is ambitious, but not realistic – it demotivates. The theory is that an attainable goal causes goal-setters to identify previously overlooked opportunities to bring themselves closer to the achievement of their goals.

(R) Relevant

A goal that supports or is in alignment with other larger goals, would be considered a relevant goal. A relevant goal can answer “yes” to these questions:

  • Does this seem worthwhile?
  • Is this the right time?
  • Does this match our other efforts/needs?
  • Are you the right person?

(T) Time-bound

Goal should have a specific date. A commitment to a deadline helps you and a team focus efforts on completion of the goal on or before the due date.

A time-bound goal will usually answer the question:

  • When?
  • What can I / we do within the next six months?
  • What can I / we do within the next six weeks?
  • What can I / we do today?

You can read more about this approach in the book by Paul J. Meyer “Attitude is Everything”.

Here are a few examples of measurable goals: 

1) GOAL 1

Not measurable: Increase awareness of Product A

Measurable: Increase awareness of Product A from 10% to 25% among 25-35 year old women by the end of this year

2) GOAL 2

Not measurable: Increase number of clients

Measurable: Increase number of clients in the youth segment (18-25 y.o.) from 10,000 to 35,000 by the end of this quarter

3) GOAL 3

Not measurable: Lose weight

Measurable: Lose weight, from 90 to 75 kg (from 198 to 165 lb) in the next 4 months

REMEMBER THIS: Generally speaking, a goal that is not specific and measurable and WRITTEN DOWN, is not a goal. It just an idea, or a wish, and won’t direct our behavior.


  1. Make a list of 3 goals you have at your work or in your personal life
  2. Evaluate them using the S.M.A.R.T. approach and convert general goals to specific ones.

I guarantee you will see positive change in your thinking and time planning once you set clear goals in your personal life and at work.


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