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How to Set Goals

How do you make sure you achieve your goals? Here’s what the science says about goal setting.

Goal setting is the process of thinking about and deciding on specific aims or objectives that one would like to achieve. Many years of research have shown that setting goals can help us improve our performance (Latham, & Locke, 2007). Although there are many types of goals—life goals, work goals, financial goals, relationship goals, etc...—all of these goals can be benefited by going through a goal-setting process that helps us identify, clarify, and execute the goals that are likely to actually make us happy.

​Goal setting theories offer us some useful insights on what to do. To start, goals establish an endpoint so that we know which direction to go in. This goal-directed action includes four parts (Latham & Locke, 1991).

  1. We must understand what is beneficial to us

  2. We must set goals to achieve this

  3. We must decide on how we will attain these goals

  4. We must choose to act on these insights

SMART goal setting is one strategy used to help us set goals that we are more likely to reach. It involves thinking about different aspects of our goal and ensuring that it has some specific characteristics. A SMART goal is:

  • S - Specific

  • M - Meaningful

  • A - Achievable

  • R - Realistic

  • T - Trackable

So when setting goals, make sure your goals are SMART. The questions and guidelines below can help you.

Is your goal specific?

Ask yourself, does your goal include clear boundaries? James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, says we should set upper and lower limits for our goals. For example, we might set a goal to go to the gym at least twice per week but no more than 4 times per week. By setting these boundary conditions, we get clearer on exactly what our goal is and help prevent ourselves from burning out.

Is your goal meaningful?

Ask yourself, why does this goal matter to you? Dig deep to make sure your goal is consistent with your values and is in alignment with your desired lifestyle. If your goal goes against your values or lifestyle, it’ll be hard to stick to and hard to build a habit.

Is your goal achievable?

Ask yourself, is this goal possible? There are a lot of folks out there telling you that you can easily wish your way to getting anything you want. Although having positive expectations can indeed help you reach those expectations (Rasmussen, Scheier, & Greenhouse, 2009) and setting challenging goals helps us perform better than we might have expected, the science does not support the practice of setting impractical goals. For example, if your goal is to make a million dollars, think carefully about the amount of effort you can exert and the likely results of that effort. Otherwise, you could be setting yourself up for disappointment.

Is your goal realistic?

A realistic goal might include time parameters. Ask yourself, is the timeline you’ve set for the goal realistic? Given the number of hours you have in a day, can you reach the goal in the time you expect to?

Is your goal trackable?

Lastly, ask yourself, is the goal trackable? We are more likely to achieve goals when we track them. Seeing our progress can help motivate us and enable us to see if we’ve gone off track. So, make sure your goal is trackable. For example, if your goal is to make the world a better place, how would you track this? Would you count the number of kind things you say to strangers, the number of times you volunteer, or something else? Whatever your goal is, break it down into trackable, measurable chunks.


  • Latham, G. P., & Locke, E. A. (1991). Self-regulation through goal setting. Organizational behavior and human decision processes. 50(2), 212-247.

  • Latham, G. P., & Locke, E. A. (2007). New developments in and directions for goal-setting research. European Psychologist, 12(4), 290-300.

  • ​Rasmussen, H. N., Scheier, M. F., & Greenhouse, J. B. (2009). Optimism and physical health: A meta-analytic review. Annals of behavioral medicine, 37(3), 239-256.

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