Notes to Self

Thoughts on psychology, spirituality and soft skill development for personal improvement


Setting Goals

A goal properly set is halfway reached. - Abraham Lincoln

We've all experienced it - some days life just seems boring or mechanical. Sometimes the feeling lasts for a few weeks or months. Sometimes even years. Suddenly, one day, something happens that makes life seem more exciting.

Maybe you meet that smart someone who excites you enough and you think, "Hey, he / she's cute (or funny or nice or sexy etc.) and I'd like to get to know him / her better". Or maybe you pick up a magazine out of boredom and read a fascinating article and tell yourself, "Wow, I want to know more" or "I feel so strongly about this that I should do something". Most tend to attribute this [sudden] new found happiness and zest for life to some event / person / fate or "moods". Some just enjoy the moment and remain ignorant about the cause.

But the more observant among us know that the real 'something' that always made life interesting was the conscious or unconscious decision to do something - the moment a goal was defined, big or small.

Why Do We Need Goals?


It should be obvious - if you know what you want, it is far easier to attain it than if you are vague or ambiguous. Here's how goals help us:

  • Goals give us a sense of purpose; something to look forward to.
  • They motivate us.
  • They keep us busy.
  • Goals increase our power of concentration.
  • They help us prioritize our desires, simplifying decision making.
  • Goals help us to feel more in control of our life.
  • Achieving them gives us a satisfaction, and the experience contributes to our personal growth.

Conscious goal setting increases our chance of achieving our goals.

Why does Goal Setting Work?

Goal setting works because the whole process is inclined towards making us think. Thinking is the world's most difficult thing to do. Careful preparation and thinking before acting doesn't necessarily guarantee success. But it makes us more aware of our thought process. Hence when we fail, we are at a better position to realize where our thought process was flawed and learn quickly from it.

How to Set Goals

Not all goals need an elaborate plan of action as described below. Small goals, like (for e.g.) going to the opera, don't need much thought. However, to achieve ambitious goals that are long term, a plan of action definitely helps. Here are a few things to keep in mind -

  1. Write it down

    This cannot be emphasized enough. Write your goals down. Trying to organize thoughts in our mind is very difficult. Important points tend to get lost as we start another thought process. Our goals also need to be constantly on our mind so that we don't get distracted and remain committed to it. Thus, writing down the goals is very important to organize our thoughts and commit the plan of action to our memory. It also helps when we need to review our goals later.

    There is a huge resistance in us to not write down our goals. Deep down, a fear of failure is the most common reason. After all, writing it down is like a commitment to yourself. If we write our goals and not work on it for a long time, most of us accept it as a sign of failure. Probably because we tell ourselves, "I desired this so much, so why didn't I work on my goals? Maybe it's because <add a blame yourself or blame something else reason here>". To prevent this personalization / blame paralysing trap from setting in, we need to ask ourselves, "What do I do next?" rather than "Why did I fail?".

  2. Break it down:

    Most long term, ambitious goals can appear to be unachievable and overwhelming unless we break it down. Breaking down a goal to smaller and more specific objectives makes it easier to achieve it and gives us more clarity on how to do it. Achieving these smaller objectives excites and motivates us further. Start the process by answering the question, "What do I want?" - eg. "I want to be a millionaire", "I want to improve my social skills", "I want to get passing grades". Then start breaking them down into actionable objectives that'll help you achieve them.

    Eg. "I want to improve my social skills" could be broken down into the following objective goals:

    • Objective: Learn to start and end a conversation.
      I will read and practice one chapter of the book '[Some Book on small talk]' every week till I complete it. (Start Date: 2006/12/20.)
    • Objective: Improve my small talk skills.
      I will pick a topic and have a conversation about it with different people every other day for 6 months. (Start Date: 2006/11/20.)
    • Objective: To curb my anxiety when I am with a girl.
      I will ask out 2 girls I am not attracted to, for coffee, every month for a year. (Start date: 2007/01/01.)
    • ... and so on ...

    This whole process gives you more insights into the obstacles you might face, your own limitations, other goals you might have to achieve first and so on.

    Always start your objective goals with 'I will', avoiding the word 'try'. 'Try' implies avoidance. If you feel like using the word 'try', perhaps the objective goal might be a bit too ambitious. For example, if your goal is to improve social skills and the action goal of asking out girls for coffee makes you really uncomfortable, aim a little lower, like - 'I will approach and have a conversation with 1 girl every week, for a year'. Objective goals should be action-oriented, specific, realistic, positive and a commitment. (For more on breaking down goals into objectives, read 'Reaching your goals').

  3. Be specific

    "So you want to 'make more money'? Here's a dollar. You must be in seventh heaven now - you have more money now than you did before!"

    I am sure you get the message - we need to be clear and specific about our goals. 'Walk for an hour every morning at 6.30 AM till my body mass index is 20' is better than 'Do walking exercises' because it helps us track our progress and use the feedback to better our approach. Provide enough detail so that there is no indecision as to what exactly you should be doing when the time comes to do it. Being specific helps us to focus our efforts and clearly define our approach.

  4. Be Realistic:

    Sure being positive is motivating, but if it doesn't have a dose of reality we usually end up going in circles without realizing it. Deciding to become a millionaire when you are 40, might be achievable (others have done it), but choosing to become a millionaire by first becoming a classical singer (without any training) might not be a very realistic approach. While framing your goals, be realistic about your ambitions, the time you can commit and your physical abilities.

    If you aren't sure, ask the opinion of others and request them to be brutally honest. Seek out these opinions from those who are themselves successful.

  5. Don't Over-plan:

    Planning for a goal is hard work and an important step to achieve it. Over planning, or spending all your time on just planning the goals, is a sign of hidden anxiety about a goal. By spending time only on planning, you fool yourself into believing that you are working on your goal, but the actual fact is that you are avoiding executing the plan. If you keep postponing to act on the goal, perhaps the goal might be too ambitious for you and you need to make it smaller (see tip 2). Or you may need to use a little cognitive therapy to confront your fears.

(This article is a work in progress.)