Ready, Set, Goal!

By Molly Rose Teuke

We set goals every day. Most of them are immediate and easily achieved: fix a great dinner, be on time for the quarterly sales meeting, call mom. Some are near-term: finish the annual report on time, plan a friend’s birthday party—also pretty easy to achieve. For the most part, we know what to do and how to do it, and we have an external motivation for getting it done.

Then there are the long-term goals: save enough to buy a house, learn a new language, create a stronger business or social network, or maybe that old standby, get fit. Some of these goals we achieve with ease, while others become perpetual dreams that we eventually give up on.

How can we get better at getting what we want in life? Setting and achieving goals is an artful blend of common sense and science. Here are five best practices.


It starts with defining precisely what you want. Sounds simple, yet it’s where many of us go wrong. How much is “enough to buy a house?” Does “learn a language” mean learn basic travel phrases, or do I need to be fluent? What, exactly, do I mean by “fit?” The likelihood of success diminishes if we can’t adequately define what success means.

Quantitative goals are easy: “Save $40,000 over the next 7 years.” “Run a marathon (26 miles).” Qualitative goals are trickier, because you need a reference point. You might say, “I want to converse with ease when traveling in a foreign land.” Sometimes, a simple one to 10 scale can help. “I’m at a two on the fitness scale today and I’d like to be at a nine.” Our brains are like search engines. Once we input a specific phrase (the goal), our brain will begin searching for ways to make it happen.

It’s also helpful to be clear on the time frame, because it lends urgency. Most of us are pretty good at cutting ourselves slack, and that’s not helpful in goal pursuit. A timeline keeps us on track.


Goals are easier to achieve when they mean something to us—when they have emotional clout. If you’re pursuing a goal because someone else wants you to do it, it’s important that you find a way to make it meaningful to you. If your doctor told you to improve your fitness— well, we know where that’s likely to go. But if you get that message and decide you want to be around to play with your grandchildren, it becomes more meaningful.

When you set a goal, ask yourself “Why?” Repeat the question, peeling off the layers until you find a reason that sparks something in your heart. Making the goal into something you choose to pursue, with an outcome that energizes you, increases your likelihood of success.


We increase our chances for success when we break goals into smaller chunks. Saving a down-payment size sum can feel impossible, but putting $100 into savings every week or trimming your dining-out budget by 20 percent this month might seem more doable. Chunking allows you to see how you’ll achieve the goal, step by step, day by day, which helps you stay motivated.

Chunking also lets you focus on the behaviors within your control. Perhaps you can’t give yourself a promotion, but you can undertake the professional development that will make it easier for someone else to promote you. If your goal remains out of reach, consider what new behaviors might get you closer. Confucius wisely suggested that when a goal seems unachievable, you’re better off adjusting the action steps than changing the goal.


Believing you can achieve your goal is essential to your success—but it’s not enough—not by a long shot. When you focus on the power of your optimism and confidence and ignore the potential distractions and upsets you’re likely to encounter, you sabotage your success.

Heidi Grant, author of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals, says studies suggest that when we believe that achieving a goal will be a piece of cake, it increases the odds of failure. “Not only is visualizing ‘effortless success’ not helpful, it’s disastrous,” she says. “It is a recipe for failure.” We need to be realistic so we won’t give up at the first setback.

Grant recommends thinking through all the things that could derail you and writing them down. Then think through (and write down) how you will overcome those challenges. If you’re trimming your dining-out budget to save for a down payment and your friends invite you to an expensive restaurant, how will you respond? Imagining how this scenario might play out increases the odds it will end in your favor. You might picture yourself suggesting an alternative restaurant that’s more in your budget. Or if your intention is to get more fit and a friend suggests going to a movie at the same time you’d planned to be at the gym, how will you respond? Picture yourself countering that you’d prefer to take a walk together. If you haven’t worked out an if-then scenario, you’re more likely to simply give in to the temptation or distraction in the moment.

When you do go off the rails—as we all do sometimes—don’t beat yourself up over it. Give yourself permission to let it go and refocus. A formidable body of research suggests that guilt is a poor motivator. Guilt leaves you more likely to continue goal-sabotaging behavior instead of getting back on track.


When you commit to everyday actions and behaviors that lead to incremental progress, you gain traction. When you set a large goal—say you’ve set your sights on running a 10K—the pace of progress can feel frustrating. When you focus on the fact that you’re running every day and increasing your stamina by 1K every third week, you’re more likely to remain motivated and keep up the momentum.

There’s another side to that, though. When you look back at how far you’ve come, it’s easy to give yourself permission to slack off. Celebrate the ongoing wins, and at the same time, acknowledge how far you have to go. Be honest with yourself as you monitor your progress; it will help you stay motivated to choose behaviors that will get you to your goal. As Grant notes in her books, when you are able to see the discrepancy between where you are and where you want to be, your brain will work hard to close the gap.


Most of our goals are more achievable than we know. With a few tweaks to how you approach your goals, you might be much closer than you realize. As Thomas Edison famously said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”


Check out these key reads to get primed for goal-setting success:

Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals by Heidi Grant Halvorson

Nine Things Successful People Do Differently by Heidi Grant Halvorson

Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business  by Charles Duhigg

Molly Rose Teuke teaches the Get Your Brain On Your Side course at Nicolet College and delivers brainbased leadership training for the NeuroLeadership Institute, a global leader in the performance arena. She also hosts a weekly classical music program and a monthly audioblog called BrainWaves on WXPR-FM.