Goal setting. How to set Goals that actually work

I am sure that you will have been told that visualising your goals will help you attain them.  Well it turns out that this does work… some of the time, and in some circumstances. Hm. I’m sure you’ve also heard that goals absolutely must be SMART. Unfortunately that’s even less likely to produce results. But hang on; nobody says these things might work. They go around guaranteeing results if you follow the rules properly. If it doesn’t work, then we’re rather made to feel that we haven’t done it properly and we must be inferior in some way. Imposters in a business world of superior beings.

So rather than taking what works for one role model and assuming it will work for everyone, let’s look at what the research tells us.

Professor Shelley Taylor of the University of California conducted research comparing the performance of students who spend a few minutes every day visualising their exam success with those who did not.  The group who spent just a few minutes visualising their goal performed significantly worse than the control group.  Professor Taylor also captured the number of hours which each student invested in revising for their exams and found that the visualisers put in considerably less hours than their counterparts.

Whether this was due to a false sense of confidence or lack of realism, the result was clear that in this scenario positive visualisation actually had a negative impact on an individual’s chances of achieving a goal.
Professor Gabrielle Autinger of the University of Pennsylvania took this further and concluded that Positive Visualisation of the future produced enhanced results only when accompanied by realism of the barriers faced en route.  A technique coined as Double Think by Professor Richard Wiseman (borrowed of course, from the Orwell book, 1984.)  This conclusion has since been confirmed by numerous other studies.  Simultaneously visualising the positive benefits of success whilst also holding a realistic, almost pessimistic view of how difficult the journey will be, and repeating this every day, appears to give you the best chance of achieving a goal.

Further, “Positive Visualisation” as Autinger calls it, is actually a bit of a misnomer. It is not enough to “see a goal”, we need to pre-experience what it will feel like. The sun on our back; the zest of the salt air, the smell of the sun cream. Or the adoration of the crowd; the applause, the spontaneous standing ovation (too much? May be that’s just me!) The more vivid this pre-experience is, the more likely the goal is to succeed.

So there you have it. I can guarantee this will work. If it fails then there must be something wrong with you. Now where’s that snake oil…?!

Step-by-step guide to setting Goals that work

  1. Once you have a goal in mind, the first step is to re-examine it.

What do you really want? For example if your goal is to increase profits by 20% on last year, then this is a good start, but it doesn’t mean anything in its own right. What do you actually want? Is it about Cash? Not having to go in to battle just to renew the overdraft with your Bank Manager, or having enough cash to consider acquisitions? Or is it about having the freedom to pick and choose the kind of business you really want to focus on etc.

  1. Once you have found the goal that you really matters to you, then drill down to the moment you really care about.

Is it sitting opposite the Bank Manager and asking him why you should stay with his bank? Is it waking up in the morning and thinking, “I don’t need to go in today”? (And then going in anyway.) Is it not having to deal with that big client who takes up half your time but hardly makes any money? Thinking of the moment and how it feels. Close your eyes and really feel it!

The brain uses the same circuitry for imagined emotions (visualisation and empathy) as it does for real emotions, so In a very real sense you can pre-live this feeling in advance. Use as many senses as you can for this. Feel the warmth of the duvet. The flood of relaxation as you realise that you are the Master of your own destiny, the excitement of thinking about the things you could choose to do today. The pleasant realization that you are absolutely wide awake and ready for the day…

  1. Work backwards from this moment, to actions which are needed today.

You’ll probably find that you work backwards from your real goal, through your original goal, through several stepping-stone objectives right back to things which need doing today.

  1. Write this down.

If you naturally work electronically, then that’s fine, but do print it out. You need a version which you can’t easily change and that you can keep on hand to refer to regularly. Research shows that writing a goal down increases your chances of achieving that goal. Better still is “going public” and sharing your goal with others, but this should only be done once you have mapped out the whole process (see Step 10)

Note, that this really needs to be a working document rather than something you file away. Think carefully about how you do this, you might want a separate sheet for the real goal, for stepping stone objectives and to day-to-day actions.

  1. Use SMART thinking.

 It is important to note that SMART (See SMART Explained and When to Use it.) should only be used for immediate and stepping stone objectives. You should not try to make your real goal SMART. It is a feeling, a moment in time. It does not need to be measurable and any attempt to force the feeling in to a model will dilute the moment itself.

Stepping stone objectives and day-to-day actions should be SMART though. There are libraries of research that show that the more specific you are about what you will do the more likely you are to do it.

SMART applies to actions not to goals. I’d go further and say that “SMART Goals” is an Oxymoron.

  1. Refer to your real goal every day

Remember the feeling of the real goal, and take a moment to bask in the joy of it. Then consider the barriers you face today and ask yourself whether you are prepared to work hard today to hurdle those barriers to achieve your goal. If your real goal requires a stepping-stone Objective of growing the business, then think about the calls that you need to make or the events you need to attend. Write down what you are going to do and the time during the day that you intend to do it. (Research shows this works)

If it’s possible, do the toughest thing first. There’s a Mark Twain quote “Eat a live frog every morning and nothing worse will happen to you for the rest of the day.” You’ll be amazed at how virtuous you feel when you’ve already taken that first hard step and it’s still only 9.30am.

  1. Praise yourself for your progress.

We tend to be very focused on out To Do list. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does mean that we are constantly being reminded of what hasn’t been done and we instantly dismiss what we have achieved.

A fantastic (and simple) method is to write down three reasons to be grateful at the end of every day. The positive impact of this has physically be measured in brain scans. At the cost of one minute a day, it very literally alters your mindset for the better.

Incidentally, It is important to be realistic about the actions and the stepping stone objectives you have set yourself. If you aimed to increase Sales by 10% in six months and only achieved 9.7%, then think about what this means. How arbitrary was the 10& in the first place (beware the law of round numbers!) Is this actually a great result and moves you towards your real goal just as much as 10% would have done? Or has the 9.7% all come from one client, who knocked on your door, demands fine margins and is unlikely to have on-going needs? This isn’t being about being soft on yourself. It’s about putting the original objective and your achievement in to the right context.

  1. Enjoy the journey

Even when your real goal(s) are thought through and carefully set, there is always a danger than you’ll achieve your goal and it simply won’t feel as great as you’d thought. Striving, although generally a good thing can become a driver in its own right and as soon as we reach one goal we can create further mountains to climb to ensure we have to keep striving.

Where this is the case, then it might be helpful to explore your real goal(s) in some detail with a someone else (ideally a qualified coach!) But the more important point here is to make sure we enjoy the journey and that we don’t postpone happiness until some (mythical, never-to-be-reached) point in the future. I’m a firm believer that happiness breeds success rather than success makes you happy.

It may be worth examining what makes you happy or gives you a sense of well being (Psychologists tend to prefer to talk about the easier to define Well Being rather than the more illusive concept of happiness) See Introduction to PERMA for what I would say is the best model yet devised to explore Well being.

  1. Share it!

Finally, and only once you are happy that you have found the right goal, share it with others. You’ll probably be nervous about doing this incase people scoff. In my experience, on or two people will, but the vast majority will be extremely supportive and will remind you of your goal when you need it most.


Executive Coaching will help you to set and achieve meaningful goals. These days, most top performers in business work with a coach.

If you would like to invest in yourself and the value of your business then call me on 07730 700258 to arrange a free introductory Coaching session.