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Setting Achievable Goals

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Who sets your goals? Is it your boss, spouse, friends, children? If you're responsible for achieving a goal in your life, you should be the person who set that goal. Adopt Pat Brans' WILL DO acronym for setting acceptable, achievable goals that will improve your present and future by making you accountable for them.
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Research shows that at any given time, each of us has around 100 goals. Ranging from trivial (stopping at the store to buy toilet paper on the way home) to ambitious (creating a new system of thinking for the western world), our goals also fit into many categories—career, romance, family, health, spirituality, and so on. Whether our goals are difficult or easy, important or trivial, the ways in which we set those goals, and then how we try to meet them, make a difference in how likely we are to reach them. [1]

This is no small matter. Dr. Brian Little, a psychology researcher at Ottawa's Carleton University, believes that the best predictor of life satisfaction is project outcome—more precisely, how likely people feel they are to complete their projects and reach their goals. [2] Few things in life are as frustrating as failing at something you've worked hard to achieve. Over time, a string of failed projects diminishes your sense of competence. By contrast, if you set goals that are difficult but achievable, and you generally reach those goals, you'll augment your sense of self-worth.

What Prevents Us from Reaching Our Goals?

Since it's essential to our happiness that we be able to identify what we want, plan how to get it, and execute the plan to completion, why are so many people unable to finish what they set out to do? Studying the problem within a large number of people working toward a variety of goals, I've found three common causes for failing to reach a goal:

  • Not knowing what you really want. If you don't know what you want, it's easy to set your sights on a project that seems meaningful at first, but turns out not to be what you truly want. Once the shiny object loses its luster, any motivation to obtain it fizzles out.
  • Setting unreasonable goals. Sometimes we set goals that are beyond our control, or we shoot for an objective that simply can't be achieved in the amount of time we've allocated to work toward it.
  • Losing site of the goal. We have to stick to the plan we've laid out to reach our goals. Sometimes we get distracted by a new opportunity, and we put aside what we originally wanted to accomplish.

This whole business of setting and reaching goals is important enough to open up several lines of research, with results that might help software engineers and IT administrators to bring both work and home projects to completion faster and more predictably. Let's consider some of the more salient findings.

Research in procrastination shows that people easily turn their attention away when they're doing something they feel forced to do, or when they aren't comfortable with the expected outcome and what it means to their self-image. If you don't have choices, you feel like a slave; and when you feel enslaved you do poor work, tending not to bring projects to completion. [3]

People who are afraid of what a project outcome means to their self-image also seek to avoid working toward the objective, or are easily distracted. Think of all the people who have trouble finishing a book, a thesis, or a presentation. Going on stage is always a scary prospect.

According to Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University, if you set out to do something with the attitude that the results are purely a way to prove you have talent (as opposed to skills developed on the way to your goal), you're more likely to put off working on that project, and you won't work as well. You'll probably interpret all minor setbacks on your way to achieving your desired outcome as indicators that you don't have the talent you wanted to display.

Dweck says that a healthier and more productive approach is to maintain a learning-oriented attitude. All you have to do to reach your outcome is learn. With this kind of attitude, obstacles that stand in your way say nothing about your "core self." Whenever you come to a hurdle, you just learn the things you need to know to jump over it. [4] [5]

The goals most of us set have different attributes. Brian Little and his colleagues have developed a system for classifying pursuits along a variety of dimensions. One such dimension is control—how much control you have over project completion. Another dimension psychologists use to catalog personal projects is community, along which you can plot the extent to which a goal is of value to people who are important to you (your community). Pursuits that are relatively low on the community dimension may be blocked by those around you. Conversely, you're likely to get help from other people for goals that have value to the community.

Researchers have found that some of the biggest problems in goal attainment start with what the objective means to the person who sets the goal. How you define your goal and your attitude toward the outcome are key determinants.

A Simple Technique for Setting Goals

To avoid most mental obstacles that might prevent you from achieving what you want, you need to have the right attitude from the outset. Here's an easy method that will help guarantee completion of both personal and professional pursuits by helping you to define goals in a way that will keep you motivated throughout the project. Try setting goals with the following essential characteristics:

  • Everything that has to be done is within your control.
  • The outcome is important to you.
  • Working toward the goal requires learning (as opposed to something you do as a way of showing off your talent).
  • The outcome is important not only for you, but for other people close to you.
  • The project is challenging.
  • The project is something you freely choose to do.
If you find this list hard to remember, try using the acronym WILL DO, where the letters have the following meanings:

  • W = within your control.
  • I = important.
  • L = learnable.
  • L = love. (The goal is in the context of your community, the outcome is important to other people, and you have their support.)
  • D = difficult.(And therefore challenging.)
  • O = optional. (You freely choose to do it.)
If a goal doesn't already have all these elements, consider redefining the goal to include them. For example, suppose an entrepreneur starts a company to market a game app, and she's trying to sell 100,000 licenses next year. Making those sales is not within her control—customers have a will of their own, new competitors might come out of the woodwork, and economic factors could work against the game industry as a whole.

However, the entrepreneur could set her goal this way: Do everything possible to sell 100,000 licenses next year. By defining the objective in this manner, all the responsibility for bringing the project to completion lies with the entrepreneur, and she wastes no time worrying about forces beyond her control.

Another element that frequently requires a little thought is the last one in WILL DO: The goal must be optional. Suppose you're talking with your supervisor about a project, and he tells you to complete it by next week. Your first reaction might be that you have to do as you're told, so you must accept your supervisor's goal as your own. But rather than let him impose his will on you, think about your own goals:

  • Are you trying to get a promotion? You might accept the project as a way to help build your case to be moved up in rank.
  • Are you trying to outshine your supervisor? You might view the project as a way of catching the attention of your supervisor's boss.
  • Are you trying to make your supervisor look bad? Instead of accepting the project, you might seek out a manager one level above your supervisor, to expose his poor choice of goals and projects.
Never confuse somebody else's objectives for yours. You alone must choose your pursuits, because you alone are responsible for reaching the goals you set.


[1] Brian R. Little, "Personal Projects Analysis: Trivial Pursuits, Magnificent Obsessions, and the Search for Coherence," in David M. Buss and Nancy Cantor's (Eds.) Personality Psychology: Recent Trends and Emerging Directions. Springer-Verlag, 1989, pp. 15–31.

[2] Brian R. Little, "Personal Project and Social Ecology: Themes and Variations Across the Life-Span," in Jochen Brandstadter and Richard M. Lerner's Action & Self-Development: Theory and Research Through the Life-Span. SAGE Publications, 1999.

[3] Joseph R. Ferrari, Ph.D., Still Procrastinating? The No-Regrets Guide to Getting It Done. Wiley, 2010.

[4] Elaine S. Elliot and Carol S. Dweck, "Goals: An Approach to Motivation and Achievement." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1988), Vol. 54, pp. 5–12.

[5] Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books, 2007.

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