How Can I Set Goals Systematically?

Every person’s life depends on the process of choosing goals to pursue; if you remain passive you are not going to thrive as a human being.” Psychology professor Edwin Locke best summarised why we need to set goals for ourselves.

I believe we all tried setting goals for ourselves. But how do you set goals? Is your goal-setting process guided purely by instinct or instantaneous personal need?

Or, you may have come across a lot of other goal-setting materials online teaching you how to set goals with SMART goal-setting framework (Don’t worry if you don’t know what it is. We will guide you in detail on how to use it effectively).

We think SMART goal-setting framework is to date still the foundation of setting goals.

But SMART goal-setting framework alone is not enough to effectively set your goals.

We need to have the right system in first sourcing our goals – think from long term to short term before applying SMART goal-setting framework.

Remember, being systematic is always the key to living a better self.

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Step 1: Envision what you want to achieve in 5 years

The first issue of goal setting is: What goal should I set?

Answer: Ask yourself – What do you want to achieve in 5 years?

We suggest using 5 years as the longest reference point because it would be unrealistic to have some very long-term goals in this fast-changing world, where no one even knows what will happen tomorrow.

This is not to say you cannot have life wishes. Goals must be differentiated from wishes.

Wishes are more like vague slogans. Examples of wishes can be “I want to do my job well”, “I want to be a leader”, “I want to be a good partner”, “I want to be successful”, “I want to be happy”, etc. And there is nothing wrong with all these, except they are not goals.

Goals should be set within the SMART goal-setting framework (we will talk about it soon), and be used to realize your wishes bit by bit.

To help further in the thought process of goal setting, you can imagine what your life will be like in 5 years in the following aspects:

  • Career
  • Intellectual or Educational
  • Personal development
  • Social
  • Relationship
  • Finance
  • Spiritual
  • Physical or health

These aspects help you brainstorm. You may pick any of them or come up with other aspects.

5 steps to set goals systematically

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Step 2: Setting goals with SMART goal-setting framework

Then, SMART goal-setting framework kicks in.

SMART is an acronym referring to specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. It is a framework to help you think systematically and achieve goals effectively.

This system is first advocated by the famous business consultant Peter Drucker in his book The Practice of Management in 1954. It is originally used to boost effective management in an organization as he is introducing the idea of “management by objectives”. He advocated that to achieve efficiency, we should arrange our tasks only after goals are set.

Later, it has been used in aspects of personal growth and bears a generic application to almost all goal-setting scenarios.

Despite there have been different other goal-setting frameworks available in the market, we believe the SMART goal-setting framework remains the most reliable goal-setting foundation.

SMART goal setting

1. Specific

Your goal has to be defined clearly and come with details. It should not be vague.

For example, “I want to be rich.” There is nothing wrong with this. But it can at most be a wish because it is just not specific. It is not clear enough as to what you should do. One suggestion is that you may replace this with, “I want to be a millionaire”.

Here are some questions to help your thought process:

  • What accomplishment are you looking for?
  • Why do need the accomplishment?
  • Who will you need to achieve the accomplishment?

2. Measurable

By setting measurable goals, it allows you to break your goal down into several smaller action steps. You can keep track of and evaluate the progress you have made and motivate yourself with rewards.

More importantly, you can measure whether you succeed or fail in achieving the goal so that you can adjust the goals as necessary.

Here are some questions to help your thought process:

  • How can you measure your progress?
  • How can you make the goal quantifiable?
  • How can you set the smaller action steps along the way to achieving the goal?
  • What tools can help you keep track of the progress?

3. Attainable

While setting some challenging goals is necessary to achieve better growth, your goal must be reasonably attainable. The goal must not be entirely out of reach. Try to envision whether you can possibly attain it first. If the goal is entirely unattainable, it will just give you frustration and can be very discouraging when you evaluate yourself.

For instance, let’s say you want to learn Spanish. You know nothing about it now. And you set the goal to master Spanish like a native Spanish within a year. However, we all know it is impossible for a fresh starter to master a language like a native within a year. Therefore, you may wish to adjust and give a reasonable time frame.

Here are some questions to help your thought process:

  • How can you possibly achieve the goal? What are the steps?
  • What is the cost of achieving it?
  • Do you have the necessary resources or skill set to achieve it?

4. Relevant

Your goal must align with your long-term wishes and values. For you to work towards your goal, the perceived outcome must be beneficial to you so that you have the motivation to pursue it.

Traditionally, people tend to denote “R” as “realistic”. However, as you may see, other elements of the SMART framework has in fact embedded the “realistic” bit. In other words, if your goal falls squarely into SMAT, it likely means it is realistic.

Here are some questions to help your thought process:

  • Why is the goal important to your growth?
  • How can it help your growth?
  • How can it add to your long-term objectives and values?
  • How would you prioritize it against other goals?

5. Time-bound

To make your goal challenging and motivating, it must be bound by time with some urgency, whether it’s tomorrow, next week or 5 years later. In other words, it cannot be an indefinite goal. Otherwise, it becomes a wish or simply a slogan.

You may adjust the time as you evaluate yourself on each smaller action step (as mentioned in SPECIFIC above).  That said, adjustments must be made after careful consideration. This is because you do not want to give yourself an unnecessary excuse to delay achieving your goal.

Questions to help your thought process:

  • When will you start working towards the goal?
  • When should you achieve the goal?

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Step 3: Break down your 5-year goal into smaller goals

Once you have set your 5-year goal(s), it’s time to break them down into smaller action steps. You should see your 5-year goal(s) comprises many smaller action steps.

You may break them up by way of:

  • Time
  • Categorization

Time – you may break your goals down into daily goals, weekly goals, monthly goals, etc. You may wish to use growth planners to assist you in an organized manner.

Categorization – If your goal is to marry, you may want to divide it by categories, e.g. think about when to propose, how to propose, where to live, and financial targets, etc. Within each category, you may want to further break it down into even smaller action steps.

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Step 4: Make actionable plans with Personal PDCA

When goals are all set, you will need to make actionable plans to achieve them.

Personal PDCA is a systematic way to help you set structured plans. It includes four key steps: Plan, Do, Check and Adjust. These four steps are closely connected and each step is an important cornerstone for attaining your goals.

To learn more about how to effectively use Personal PDCA, check out our article on Personal PDCA.

Personal PDCA includes four key steps: Plan, Do, Check and Adjust.

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Step 5: Keep track of everything

Put your goal(s) and plan(s) on paper. You need a record of your thoughts so that you can revisit them.

It also helps you keep track of the progress and see how well (or bad) you are doing.

If you notice you are on track, it can give you motivation and a sense of satisfaction.

If you are falling behind, you need to take some time and see why. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is your plan too aggressive?
  • Is there anything that is distracting you from accomplishing your goal? What are they?

If needed, make the necessary adjustments to your goal(s) and plan(s).

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