Goal setting complete guide

The Complete Guide to Goal Setting

With so many articles and tips online on how to set a goal and make sure that goal comes to fruition, you may at times feel like you need more information, more research, and more trustworthy methods that will guarantee that your goals are met.

In order to help you get all the possible information on this complex topic, we have decided to put together a longer article focused on goal setting, the different theories, and strategies behind it, and real-life testimonies.

What is a Goal?

First off, before we discuss the specificities of goal-setting, we must first take the time to define the word “goal”. According to Merriam-Webster, a goal can be defined as “the end toward which effort is directed”. Already from this definition, you can notice how interconnected effort and goal-achieving are, that is, without effort, a goal can never be achieved. On the other hand, and once again taking into account the definition, in order to achieve a goal, you must also know what your “end” is.

In other words, goal achieving presupposes a strong sense of what you want to achieve. You can also notice the third and perhaps less noticeable aspect of this definition: non-specificity. That is, a goal can be set for pretty much any aspect and situation in life: career, personal life, education, business, finances.
Just from this initial part, you already know two very important things that must be kept in mind throughout this article:

  • No effort = no goal achieving;
  • It’s imperative to have a clear notion of what your goal is;
  • A goal can be set for any situation.

Now that we have a clear understanding of what the word “goal” entails, we can start to discuss the importance of goal setting.

Why Is It Important To Set Goals?

During this chapter, we will give you some real-life examples which you may find familiar.


As previously mentioned, goal achieving presupposes that you have a clear notion of what you would like to achieve. While some of us take this desire as a mere dream, others choose to pursue it. All theories behind goal setting and achieving are based on one very intuitive notion: a goal can only be achieved by knowing what you want and how to reach it.

You may be still wondering about the importance of goals, so let’s take an example taking into account all the knowledge shared in this article so far. Imagine two businessmen, both after the same promotion.

Businessman A puts in the effort, delineates a plan on how to achieve that promotion, and improves his qualifications and skills specific to the new position. Businessman B, although really keen on receiving the promotion, does not make any effort towards showing his superiors he has all the right skills for the new position. Who would you hire? Although there would be numerous other factors involved in this decision, it’s fair to say most of us would pick Businessman A. By making an effort, having a clear idea of what he wants, and by improving himself, Businessman A seems like the right pick for the job. On the other hand, Businessman B, although having a clear idea of what his goal is, lacked the effort and drive to ensure his goal became a reality.

But how can you apply this example to every aspect of life? Although it seems clear by this example how it can work out in a professional setting, it may still be confusing how this can be applied to, for example, your personal life. We have the right solution for this! Let us break down the facts that led to Businessman A’s promotion:

  • Making an effort;
  • A clear notion of what the goal is;
  • Willingness to improve himself.

Now, let’s apply this formula to, for example, losing weight:

  • Making an effort = diet, and lifestyle changes;
  • A clear notion of what the goal is = lose 10 kg;
  • Willingness to improve himself = drive to change what can be changed and enforce these changes in order to meet the goal.

What about applying this formula to personal savings and finances?

  • Making an effort = ability to save up some money every month/week/day;
  • A clear notion of what the goal is = save $100,000 to buy your own house;
  • Willingness to improve himself = desire to find smart ways to reduce spendings.

Just from this very simple formula derived from the definition of the word “goal”, you can clearly already see the importance of goal setting. If we would want to summarize this chapter, we could do so by simply saying “Goal setting leads to results”. And that truly is the value of goals! By setting goals, personal or professional, you are setting yourself up for success!

Although the above formula can be quite helpful, we must still discuss specific theories and techniques involved in goal setting, that is, how to make sure you are setting reachable goals.

“Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.” – Tony Robbins

Different Techniques For Setting Goals

During this chapter, we will discuss the science and strategies used when it comes to goal setting. Instead of focusing on generalized and often unfounded and unproven techniques, we chose to focus on sharing with our readers first the scientifical background behind goal achieving, and then focus on one of the few prominent studies conducted on this topic.

It’s also quite imperative to mention a short yet uncanny anecdote. For years, business professionals and self-help gurus have mentioned the Harvard and Yale Goal studies to back up their own theories. It turns out, these studies never even happened in the first place!

The science behind it: Physiology, Anatomy, Chemistry

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. Meaning, by setting something as a goal, a part of our brain believes that the desired outcome is an essential part of who we are, thus setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals in order to fulfill this newly formed belief.

Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment when our goal is achieved, our brain perceives this as the missing of something fundamental to us, thus setting up a constant “puzzle-solving motion”.

In the big majority of cases, the brain simply responds to the loss, leading to feelings of fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the unattained goal.


The brain’s functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life.

Another neurotransmitter that plays a key role in goal achieving is called dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated. Dopamine also plays a key role in keeping us alert and focused.

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to reach them by rewarding us by elevating our mood.

The Neurology of Ownership

As it has been researched by Cornell University, when we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it, that is, it becomes an extension of ourselves.

Cornell University conducted a study where researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate.

The surprising side of the study was seen when they reversed the experiment: handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy. The researchers found out that few students were willing to trade the chocolate for the mug!

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object. By becoming “ours”, it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it.

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us, which of course comes into play when we discuss goal achievement.

Taking into account the previously discussed topics: dopamine and neurology, we can now devise two conclusions:

The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal entails, the higher the levels of anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around the possible failure to achieve said goal.

Limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more dopamine releasing periods you will experience.

Due to dopamine’s effect on attention and reward, we may also notice that paying attention to our goals will, in turn, make us feel good, thus encouraging us to spend more time doing it.

Strategy for Goal Achievement: The Dominican University of California Study

A study from this University concentrated on both goal setting and on the actual strategies regarding goal achieving and goal setting, even providing measurable results.
According to this study, those who stuck to the following tips were the ones who managed to achieve their goals:

Commit to Action

Instead of simply writing down a goal, the subjects were asked to commit to an action, such as filling out a survey. This small task led the individuals to truly have to think out their own goal, to process what it takes to achieve the set goal and to even set a fixed commitment regarding what had to be done in order for the goal to be met. In other words, the group was asked to create a written commitment to achieve their goal.

Accountability to Peers

During the second phase of the study, this group of successful subjects was asked to follow up their set goal planning and action commitment by enlisting another person. That is, they had to share their previously written commitment to someone else, thus further emphasizing their accountability regarding meeting the goal.

Regular Updates

The third and final step this group had to take further deepened their accountability: the group had to update their friend or accountability person on a weekly basis, thus keeping them focused on their progress.

In summary, as Dr. Gail Matthews, who ran the Dominican University of California study, stated:
“My study provides empirical evidence for the effectiveness of three coaching tools: accountability, commitment, and writing down one’s goals.”

Tips To Set and Achieve Your Goals

Now that you have a fuller understanding of the science behind goal setting, we can discuss one specific proven strategy: the SMART goal setting method.

The goal presupposes that in order to succeed, one must set goals, guaranteeing you will not have any lack of focus or direction.

Goal setting not only allows you to take control of your life’s direction, it also allows you set your own “mark” for determining whether you are actually succeeding.

Goal setting is a process that starts with a thorough consideration of what you want to achieve. Afterward, there are some very well defined steps that are specific to each goal thus, by knowing these steps will allow you to formulate goals that you can accomplish.

#1. Set Goals That Motivate You

When you set goals for yourself, it is important that they motivate you: this means making sure that they are important to you, and that there is some sort of personal gain in achieving them. If you have little interest in the outcome, then the chances of you putting applying yourself and putting in the work to make them happen are quite scarce. Thus, you can see that motivation is key to achieving goals.

The big tip given by this method is simple: set goals that relate to the high priorities in your life. Without this type of focus, you can end up with far too many goals, leaving you not enough time to devote to each one. Goal achievement requires commitment, so to maximize the likelihood of success, you need to feel a sense of urgency regarding meeting your goals.

Ask yourself, “If I were to share my goal with others, what would I tell them to convince them it was a worthwhile goal?” You can use this motivating value statement to help you if you start to doubt yourself or lose confidence in your ability to actually make the goal happen.

#2. Set SMART Goals

The SMART method follows the so-called “Five Golden Rules”

According to the SMART method, in order for a goal to be meaningful, it must be SMART:

Time Bound.

  • Set Specific Goals

Your set goal must be clear and well-defined. Vague or generalized goals are not helpful because they don’t provide sufficient direction or focus to your quest. Make it as easy as you can to get where you want to go by defining precisely where you want to end up.

  • Set Measurable Goals

Include precise amounts, dates (and any other relevant variants) in your goals so you can measure your degree of success. If your goal is simply defined as “To reduce expenses” there is no way how you can measure your progress. Without a way to measure your success you miss out on the celebration that comes with knowing you have actually achieved something.

  • Set Attainable Goals

Make sure that it’s possible to achieve the goals you set. If you set a goal that you have no hope or possibility to achieve, you will only demoralize yourself.
However, you should resist the urge to set goals that are too easy. Accomplishing a goal that you didn’t have to work hard for usually mean you won’t have a big personal gain either. By setting realistic yet challenging goals, you hit the balance you need. These are the types of goals that require you to “raise the bar” and constantly help you grow.

  • Set Relevant Goals

Goals should be relevant to the direction you want your life. By keeping goals aligned with this, you’ll develop the focus you need to get ahead in the fields you are most interested in.

  • Set Time-Bound Goals

Your goals must have a deadline. Again, this means that you know when you can celebrate success. When you are working on a deadline, your sense of urgency increases and achievement will come that much quicker.

Bottom line: Goal setting is much more than simply saying you want something to happen. Unless you clearly define exactly what you want and understand why you want it the first place, your probability of reaching success are considerably reduced. By following the Five Golden Rules of Goal Setting you can set goals with confidence and enjoy the satisfaction that comes along with knowing you achieved what you set out to do.

#3. Set Goals by Writing Them Down

The physical act of writing down a goal makes it real and tangible. You have no excuse for forgetting about it. As you write, use the word “will” instead of “would like to” or “might.” For example, “I will reduce my grocery expenses by 10 percent this year,” rather than “I would like to reduce my operating expenses by 10 percent this year.” The first goal statement has power and you can “see” yourself reducing expenses, the second lacks passion and gives you an excuse if you get sidetracked.

#4. Create a Plan of Action

This step is often missed in the process of goal setting. You get so focused on the outcome that you forget to plan all of the small steps required for you to reach the final goal. By writing out the individual steps, and then crossing each one off as you complete it, you’ll realize that you are making progress towards your ultimate goal. This is especially important if your goal is highly demanding or requires a big time investment.

Taking action is a crutial step to achieve success. In one of Tony Robbins’ Unleash The Power Within seminar, he said “The path to success is to take massive, determined action.” If you fail, try again and again until you succeed.

#5. Stick with Your Goal

Remember, goal-setting is an ongoing activity, not just a means to an end. Build in reminders to keep yourself on track, and make sure you have enough time on your hands to review your goals. Your end destination may remain quite similar over a long period of time, but the action plan you set for yourself along the way can change significantly. Make sure the relevance, value, and necessity remain high.


As we approach the end of this article, we would like to leave a summary of some of the tips given throughout it, as well as some new tips which can be quite helpful when you try to set and achieve your goals:

#1. Set Goals That Are Important To You

#2. Set Goals That Motivate You

#3. Set Goals That Are Achievable

#4. Align Your Values with Your Goals

#5. Surround yourself with people that support you and your goal

#6. Become more accountable

#7. Measure Your Progress

Statistics on Goal Setting

As a way to finish up this article with one last piece of evidence regarding the importance of goal setting, we would like to highlight some statistics regarding this topic.

According to a study conducted by the University of Scranton, research suggests that just 8 percent of people achieve their New Year’s goals. This means that although one can easily set a goal, few are willing and determined to achieve it. This study thus highlights that goal setting does not mean goal achievement.

In 2010, Morisano, Hirsh, Peterson, Pihl, and Shore (2010) investigated whether an intensive, online, written, goal­ setting program for struggling students would have positive effects on students’ academic achievement. They led college students through a series of setting specific goals and defining detailed strategies for achieving those goals. After a 4­month period, students who successfully completed the goal­ setting intervention displayed significant improvements in academic performance (30% increase in average) compared to the control group.

Another study in 1980 concluded that: “Results from a review of laboratory and field studies on the effects of goal setting on the performance show that in 90% of the studies, specific and challenging goals led to higher performance than easy goals.”

In 1989 an In-Home energy use study conducted an experiment where 300 households were assigned to one of six groups, with 4 of those groups being given a goal to reduce household energy consumption by 10% during the following year. Of those four groups, one received daily feedback, another monthly feedback, another was instructed to monitor their energy consumption by themselves, and the last group received only information about how to conserve energy, receiving no feedback. Over the following year, the groups reduced their energy consumption in proportion to how frequently they received feedback, with the daily feedback group reaching above and beyond the 10% goal and reducing consumption by 12% for some time. That is, by tracking your progress daily, you are more likely to reach your goals.

As you may see from the above-presented studies, goal setting and achievement are both scientifically proven ways to achieve success. Although just a couple cases were presented, the data and research available online are enough to convince even the most skeptical reader.

We hope you found this article enjoyable, informative, and helpful and are now ready a have enough knowledge to apply these methods into your life and start achieving your goals.


Scroll to Top