How to set goals effectively

Discover the importance of setting goals for both personal and professional development, and explore the tools and tips needed for successful goal alignment in teams.

Why is goal setting important?

Setting goals isn’t something that you should reserve for the start of a new year; personal goal setting can be a really effective tool for encouraging better performance and productivity, no matter how major or minor that goal may be.

Goal setting is like the cartography of success.

Goal setting helps to legitimize your tasks and responsibilities, ensuring you always know specifically what objective you’re working towards and why. In simpler terms, a goal is a destination, but it’s how you get there that matters. Goal setting is like the cartography of success.

In this guide, we’ll outline an effective goal-setting process for making the most of your aspirations—for you personally, and for your team.

Setting goals is hugely important because it helps you recognize, organize, and realize your personal vision. Most people have some idea of how they’d like their life and career to progress, and even if you think you don’t, setting goals can help you identify the future you really want.

You can use goal setting as a way to break down your broader vision and categorize the various things you need to achieve to get where you want to be. Whether they’re personal or professional, setting goals will help you to make sense of the challenges you face on your way to success.

There have been plenty of studies that show that successful goal setting is a hugely effective activity for individuals. Goal setting can also increase the motivation and productivity of a team which, in turn, can benefit an entire organization.

For example, a 1979 study from Harvard Business School observed MBA graduates and found that, within ten years of graduating, the 13% of the class who set goals were earning twice as much, on average, as the 84% who did not have any goals.

Outside of professional development, goal setting has also been shown to improve personal well-being.

What specific goals should I set?

You can set goals based around all areas of your life, whether it’s your career, social life, fitness goals, overall well-being, creativity—or what you care most about. Whatever your ambitions, turning them into tangible, manageable goals will bring you one step closer to making them a reality.

You may have some big goals, like buying a house within the next five years, and you may have some smaller goals, like running five miles before 8am. How you approach different types of goals such as these may differ. And while you may have some huge dreams, it’s important to avoid setting unrealistic goals; from a psychological standpoint, not achieving them could hurt your self-confidence and prevent you from forging ahead.

What is the SMART goal setting theory?

You might’ve heard of SMART goals before, a term first coined in 1981. SMART refers to a system or criteria used to effectively set and accomplish objectives, specifically within a work environment, though you can still use the system effectively with personal goals. SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable/Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. There are a lot of different ways to approach goal setting, but the most prevalent and trusted is SMART goals.

Tips for setting personal goals for work:

SMART goals help to define the criteria you should set your goals against, but once you know your goals, what do you actually do with them?

Write them down!

Goals only become true goals once they migrate from mind to paper—or screen, perhaps. As a matter of fact, the aforementioned Harvard Business Study found that the 3% of graduates who had handwritten their goals went on to earn ten times as much as the remaining 97% put together, ten years after graduation.

Writing down your goals will help make them a little more tangible, and psychologically it will help instill the importance of those goals if you continually write them down. Setting your goals in writing helps you visualize them. And it’s much easier to keep them top of mind when they’re written down right in front of you.

You should adjust the language you use when you write down your goals, so rather than thinking “I might try to finish that proposal next week,” writing down “I will finish the proposal by Thursday EOD” helps with motivation. Avoid words and phrases like “I would like to,” “I might” or “I’ll try to,” and instead use positive, assertive language like “I will” or “I’m going to,” and you’ll find it’s much easier to stay on top of your goals with confidence.

Share your goals

Writing your goals down helps make them tangible. And when you share your goals with others, it can further encourage you to achieve them. It doesn’t matter who it is: whether you share your goals with a manager, supervisor, teammate, friend or family member, it can help you be more accountable—while helping them help you be realistic.

Sharing professional goals with fellow team members helps to facilitate a stronger and more collaborative work environment. When you all understand each other’s vision and objectives, you can work together to achieve more unified goals that will help your team grow.

Using a smart workspace like Dropbox Business, your team can centralize its goals and create collaborative, customizable systems to organize and manage them.

Create an action plan

Achieving goals is also made easier by forming an action plan. If you have a clear idea of the steps you need to take before you start, you’ll find it much easier to focus on them. Make a note of the process so that you can cross off your achievements as you go. This will help you gauge your progress and keep you motivated.

For example, setting a goal to learn the piano by the end of the year is a clear goal. But if you haven’t also set a plan of how to do it you may find it difficult to make progress. Set a date for when you’ll start lessons, find the course you’ll use, and plan how much time you dedicate each week to it. When you set goals, you’re deciding on the destination, but a specific and solid action plan is what forms the route. Trying to reach your goals without one is like trying to find hidden treasure without a map.

Assess your goals consistently, and readjust your action plan if and when you need to.

Sort your goals

Proper prioritization is hugely important towards effective goal setting. It’s also important to remember that while you could have goals relating to every aspect of your life, you don’t want to overload yourself with them. Always make sure the goals you set are manageable and focused. Break down the big goals, and work out how the smaller goals may help towards achieving the larger ones. Use each goal as a building block or tool, and devise a framework for how best to fit them together.

Make time for your goals

As mentioned, goal setting is not something you should just do once in a while and you certainly shouldn’t save it for New Year’s Resolutions. In fact, goal setting is something you can do regularly, even every morning. Dedicate scheduled time for reviewing your goals, and make sure to always keep track of your progress. The satisfaction from ticking off smaller goals will give you extra motivation to tackle the bigger performance goals.

Goals don’t have to focus on major life accomplishments: you can and should set short-term goals for a year, a month, a week, a day, or even for the next hour. Simply put, setting goals is a way to encourage the organization and realization of your objectives, no matter how big or small they may be. Setting goals will help you understand and rationalize your responsibilities, which in turn will make you more productive, motivated, organized and efficient.