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Tips for Goal Setting

Learn more about how to set goals related to all aspects of your life.

Goals are defined as the desired states that people seek to obtain, maintain, or avoid (Nair, 2003). Research has shown that the simple act of setting a goal improves our performance related to that goal (Latham, & Locke, 2007). In addition, there are some strategies that can be used to set better personal goals that are easier to accomplish. The acronym SMART can help guide you when setting personal goals (Lawlor, 2012).

SMART goals are:

S - Specific

M - Meaningful

A - Achievable

R - Realistic

T - Trackable

Here are some more tips on how to make sure the personal goals you prioritize are easier to achieve.

  • Set challenging goals. Set personal goals that are a little bit challenging, but not out of reach. This gets us to push ourselves a little harder.

  • Set goals that matter to you. When thinking about which goals to set, be sure to focus on goals that are meaningful to you. Try to mute the voices of your friends, family, and culture for a moment to figure out what matters most to you. If you set goals that are not truly your own, they'll likely be harder to stick to.

  • Commit to your goal. When we commit to a goal—in writing or by telling others—we're more likely to stick to it. We don't really want to disappoint ourselves or others.

Now that you have a sense of how to set goals, let's develop some of your own goals. Two important things to keep in mind when setting personal goals are your needs and your values.

Some have hypothesized that meeting our needs is exactly what drives us, motivates us, and leads us to set goals in the first place (Greene, & Burke, 2007). This suggests that if the personal goals we set are related to an unsatisfied need, we may be more likely to stick to them.

Although there are numerous theories related to human needs, we're going to focus here on Ryff's theory because it incorporates and synthesizes several other older theories (Ryff, 1989). The resulting six experiences are experiences we all strive for. They can therefore be useful in helping guide us in setting meaningful, high-impact goals.

Six experiences we strive for:

  • Positive relationships with others. We have a need to have warm, trusting, loving relationships with others.

  • Self-acceptance. We have a need to have positive feelings towards ourselves.

  • Autonomy. We have a need to be able to direct our own behavior, make our own decisions, and have freedom.

  • Environmental mastery. We have a need to be able to change our circumstances and advance in the world.

  • Personal growth. We have a need to learn and grow as a person.

  • Life purpose. We have a need to devote ourselves to something important or have a sense of meaningfulness or direction.

Anytime you set a goal, ask yourself if it helps satisfy one of these needs.

How personal values affect goals:

It's also helpful when setting personal goals to keep in mind your values. If we are pursuing goals that are inconsistent with our values, we are likely to struggle and experience internal conflict. First, make a note of which values below are most important to you.

Personal values list:

Authenticity Adventure Balance

Bravery Compassion Challenge

Citizenship Community Creativity

Curiosity Determination Fairness

Freedom Friendships Fun

Generosity Growth Honesty

Influence Justice Kindness

Knowledge Leadership Learning

Love Loyalty Openness

Optimism Recognition Respect

Responsibility Security Self-Respect

Social Connection Spirituality Stability

Status Wealth Wisdom

Anytime you set a goal, ask yourself if it goes against any of your key values.

How to Stick to Your Goals

Once you know your goals, it can be helpful to implement some strategies to stay on track. Try these out if you need help sticking to your goals:

  • Track progress towards personal goals. Find a way to record progress towards your goal so that you can see how far you've come.

  • Modify your long-term goals. Often, goals will shift some as we move forward. So take the time to modify your goals and make sure you're still heading where you want to go. ​

  • Create your 10 year plan. Creating a 10 year plan can help you see how today's goals can set you up for tomorrow's goals. This can also help you avoid short-termism—it helps you make sure you're setting the right goals for the long term.

  • Break each goal into small pieces. When your goals are broken down into smaller pieces, it's easier to see how each can be accomplished. This can give you more confidence that you can indeed reach your goals.

  • Create a timeline for your goals. Try to estimate how long it will take to do each small piece of your goal. Then, map these pieces out on your calendar to estimate how long it will take you to self-actualize your bigger goal. Use this timeline to help you progress toward your goal.

Setting personal goals can be super helpful for getting to where we want to go in life. Hopefully, this guide helped you on that journey.


  • ​Greene, L., & Burke, G. (2007). Beyond self-actualization. Journal of Health and Human Services Administration, 116-128.

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

  • Lawlor, K. B. (2012). Smart goals: How the application of smart goals can contribute to achievement of student learning outcomes. In Developments in business simulation and experiential learning: Proceedings of the annual ABSEL conference (Vol. 39).

  • Nair, K. S. (2003). Life goals: the concept and its relevance to rehabilitation. Clinical Rehabilitation, 17(2), 192-202.​

  • Ryff, C. D. (1989). Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being. Journal of personality and social psychology, 57(6), 1069.

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