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We all want to improve our standing in life, no matter what our vantage point happens to be.

If we don’t feel like we’re making meaningful progress in that regard, we can feel unfulfilled.

Dan Gilbert is an  smart Harvard professor who’s analyzed the process of goal-setting.

The problem, as Gilbert discovered, is a simple one:

Human beings are terrible at predicting what will make them happy and how long that happiness will last.

As he shared in this interview:

Gilbert quote

So, here’s the takeaway: Attempting to engineer happiness — or any other outcome — via a traditional goal-setting process is likely a waste of time, energy, and money.

That said, if we don’t have any kind of plan, we risk an even more undesirable outcome: indifference. If we don’t get specific about what want to achieve, the only way we get to a great outcome is by luck.

I prefer to control my destiny. I suspect you do, too.

Here’s a five-step system that overcomes the inherent flaws of traditional goal-setting and ensures you get what we’re all after: lives in which we wake up every day energized and excited about the way we’re living.

1. Identify What You Really Want

Goals like getting a new job, making more money, losing 20 pounds, or starting a company aren’t goals, but strategies. The true goal — what you really want — is the feeling you associate with having that new job or losing the weight.

Good feelings

If you want to create goals that matter, start with the feelings you want to experience more in your life. Some of the most common include security, love, significance, growth, meaning and freedom.

Action: Identify 10 specific feelings you would like to feel more often. Now, refine that list to a top three.

2. Learn from the Past

So, now that you know what you’re after, look back and identify when, where, and how you achieved your top three outcomes in the past.

For example, if your goal is security, ask yourself:

  • When in my life did I feel most secure?
  • What was I doing?
  • Who was I with?
  • What was going on?

Use your history to better understand the unique set of circumstances and conditions that make you feel the way you want to feel.

good memories

For example, you may discover you felt a great deal of security while working at a job you enjoyed, while in a strong romantic relationship, or when your personal finances were more stable.

There’s no right or wrong answer, but this step is essential. You must learn from your past in order to more effectively create the outcomes you want in the future.

Action: For each of your top three, make a list of the various ways in which you’ve created those feelings before in your life.

3. Generate Strategies for Getting What You Want

By looking back, you’ve already started the process of identifying strategies to make you feel how you want to feel. Now, create an exhaustive list of the various ways you can achieve that outcome.

For example, if what you really want is to be healthy, your list might include:

And then stick with it.

If what you really want is to be more confident, your list might include:

  • Finding a mentor,
  • Taking a course,
  • Exercising, and
  • Creating a development plan.

Regardless of the outcome you want, there are various ways you might create more zip in your life. You just have to discover them.

Action: For each of your top three, create an exhaustive list of the ways you can create these feelings in your life. If you need help, ask trusted friends or colleagues: “What do you do to feel [insert feeling]? When have you felt most [insert feeling]?”

4. Prioritize by Ease of Implementation: Get SMART

Now that you have a long list of strategies, identify the low-hanging fruit — ie- the strategies that will be easy to implement and of high value — and get started.

In this case, easy would include items that

  • Don’t cost any money,
  • Require a minimal investment of time, and
  • Have been proven effective in either your life or others.

Action: Identify one strategy for each of your top three and create a SMART plan:

  • Specific,
  • Measurable,
  • Actionable,
  • Relevant,
  • Time-Bound

do it

For example, if your goal is to be healthy, and getting more sleep is a strategy that appeals to you, identify a specific best practice to implement in a short period of time. This could be turning off the phone and computer two hours before bed, reading a fiction book, or no alcohol less than an hour before bed).

Short, achievable deadlines are important for two reasons:

  1. They help us to build momentum, and
  2. We learn quickly what works and we can course correct.

If we do something for one week successfully, it’s far more likely we’ll be able to do it for two weeks.

5. Review and Course Correct

The review process is where it all comes together.

At the end of each week, make a list of the outcomes you want to create, such as more confidence and/or better health. Then, go back through the week to identify what worked and what didn’t.

The key is to invest in the activities that yield the greatest benefit and stop doing what doesn’t work.

Based upon these lessons learned, set a new, specific SMART objective for the next week. Over time, this iterative approach will help you to refine and deepen highly effective habits — success strategies — based purely on your own personal preferences.

ActionPut a recurring planner on your calendar for this review session. Thirty minutes every Friday afternoon, or Monday morning, should suffice. Just make sure it happens consistently.


Using this five-step approach to setting goals, you can make it happen.

Set meaningful targets — feelings, not things — and apply simple, iterative approaches to discover strategies that will help you to achieve them.

At the end of the day, goals matter. You define them, and then, they have the power to define you. Master this goal-setting technique and create a life you love.

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