How to Set Goals and Achieve Them
Have you ever really thought about how you formulate your goals? Do you draw up clear, written goals that are expressed in such a way that you also set unambiguous deadlines for whether and when you want them to be achieved? Or are your goals vague, such as “I want to be happy”? Sure, that’s a nice wish, the kind of thing everyone wants, but it’s not a clearly defined goal. Do you know what you really, specifically want?
Numerous scientists and researchers have investigated the correlation between clear goals and success. One of the most important theories is the Goal-Setting Theory developed by Edwin Locke (University of Maryland) and Gary P. Latham (University of Toronto). In 90% of goal-setting studies, the two researchers found that specific, more difficult goals led to better outcomes than vague or abstract goals. Their research considered both the difficulty and the specificity of the goals people set and their findings confirm that people who set themselves no goals, unambitious goals or vaguely formulated goals will achieve less in life than people who set themselves specific, challenging goals.
Locke and Latham’s Goal-Setting Theory is based on studies involving 40,000 participants in eight countries, in both field studies and experiments. Ambitious and specific goals are important, Locke and Latham said, primarily because they focus a person’s attention on activities that move them closer to their goals and because they increase the intensity of effort and time spent working toward an objective. People who had difficult and specific goals, the researchers found, were more determined and worked longer to achieve them than people without such goals.
I have long suggested that people should write down their desires and goals. It’s an approach I use myself and its benefits have been proven by a study involving graduates from Harvard’s MBA program. The students were asked if they had set clear, written goals for their future. In response, 84% said they had no specific goals at all, while 13% had formulated goals but they were “not committed to paper.” Only 3% had clear, written goals and plans to accomplish them. Ten years later, the researchers interviewed the same graduates of that class. The 13% who had set goals (in their heads) earned twice as much as the 84% who had no goals at all. But the 3% who had clear, written goals were earning ten times as much as the other 97% put together.
You could, for example, get yourself a notebook where you can formulate your goals and desires at the beginning of each year. Although it’s extremely important to write down your goals, that’s by no means enough, of course. The more often you focus on your goals, the more they become imprinted in your subconscious. For example, you can do a daily relaxation exercise and, at the end of the exercise, imagine your wishes as already fulfilled as you recite your goals to yourself with your inner voice. This will allow your desires and goals to imprint themselves on your subconscious, take root there, and you will quickly notice how things begin to change in the external reality of your life.
The important thing is to set really ambitious goals. “The lesson I have learned throughout all this is that no goal is beyond our reach and even the impossible can become possible for those with vision and belief in themselves,” said the British billionaire Richard Branson.
How many times have you put aside an idea because you told yourself – or because others convinced you – it was “unrealistic”? Why don’t you dare to dream of bigger things that are seemingly beyond your reach? People like Richard Branson are practical dreamers. What makes them different from other people? Branson says that you must have a vision and believe in yourself. Listen to yourself: Is there something you have perhaps been secretly dreaming about for years?
The second prerequisite – again according to Branson – is believing in yourself. Many people lack self-confidence. But self-confidence is like a flower that grows if you nurture and tend it. Be self-critical, yes, but don’t put yourself down. Visualise the things you’ve already accomplished and are proud of, such as major challenges you’ve already overcome in life. Refuse to listen to the advice of “well-meaning” friends and acquaintances who have long since buried their own dreams. This sort of advice will only fertilise your doubts. By aiming higher and systematically strengthening your self-confidence, you will enable yourself to achieve things you would once have considered impossible.
“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”
Your success in life depends on whether you set goals and how ambitious your goals are. “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark,” said Michelangelo, the Italian painter, sculptor and architect.
Imagine how painful it must be to have to ask yourself as you get older whether you couldn’t have achieved far more in your life, if only you had dared to aim higher? Most people never achieve any great successes because they never aim high for great goals. Imagine aiming for an ambitious goal and achieving it. That’s a good feeling. You know your plans have worked out. But now ask yourself whether you might not have been able to achieve an even more ambitious goal. What are the chances that your plans still would have worked out? When in doubt, it’s always better to set your goals higher than seems achievable to you, rather than contenting yourself with what is easily and safely within reach.
So make sure you bear Michelangelo’s advice in mind – it might change your life. Why don’t you aim higher? Are you scared that you might not achieve everything you aim for? Then you have already failed because you are unlikely to achieve more than you believe yourself capable of. “Nobody knows how far his strength will take him until he has tested it,” observed Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Rainer Zitelmann is author of the book “Dare to be different and grow rich”.