How to Use Goals

Every year in January a horde of people line up at the gym for that magical workout that will change their lives forever. They make grandiose promises of losing 50 pounds, giving up sugar, or quitting smoking. Of course by the 2nd week of January the gym is a ghost town, candy bar sales are through the roof and that pack of cigarettes became two. Why is it so hard to do what we know needs to be done? It’s not like it’s someone else’s problem that we are being asked to care about. In fact, typically people are much better at doing the work that is important to someone else, such as their boss.

The problem is a lack of planning. If you don’t plan your life, someone will plan it for you, more than likely your boss. Without a plan, all you can do is fumble around in the dark dealing with issues as they occur. It is virtually impossible to accomplish anything substantial without a certain amount of organization. But to keep track of what you need to do, you must know what you need to do. You must have a goal.


A goal is a desired result. It’s a mission. It is a dream. When you look to the future and imagine how things could be, that is a goal. It doesn’t matter if that is for tomorrow, later this year or sometime before you die. Goals are how we plan for the future. To me, it makes sense to list goals into three different groups: Long Term, Yearly and Quarterly.

Long Term Goals are used for direction. They serve as a compass for everything we plan to do. These are the list of outcomes that we hope to achieve someday. They don’t have to be specific but they should be measurable.

There needs to be some solid definition, so that you know when you are done. For example, if the goal is to be healthy, how will you know when you are successful? Your definition for healthy will change over time. Mine changes every morning right before it is time to head to the gym. That is when I feel so healthy that the gym seems unnecessary. Don’t set “healthy” as your goal. It is better to set a certain weight, or some other attribute like six pack abs. Then, there will be no question as to whether you met the goal.

A long term goal should be hard but achievable. It should act as a guide for all of your yearly and quarterly goals. It should not be a stepping stone to something bigger. The bigger goal itself is your long term goal. I break mine up into five different categories: Health, Family, Professional, Personal and Financial.

Yearly Goals are the major achievements that you want to accomplish this year. Each of them should bring you closer to fulfilling a long term goal. Bonus points for the yearly goal that counts towards multiple long term goals. If you find yourself planning something that is unrelated to a long term goal, you know there is a problem. Where is the disconnect? Did you not fully identify your long term goals? Does it make sense to do this work?

Be careful not to bite off more than you can chew. It is better to keep your load manageable, especially at first. It is much easier to give up, if you fall hopelessly behind. That is less likely to happen if you start off small. In another post, I will describe the mechanism I use for changing goals.

On the other hand, don’t be so easy on yourself that there is no challenge. Achieving all of your goals in the first months of the year defeats the purpose. There will always be pressing things to do. If you don’t have any goals you will have no viable way of prioritizing what you do. You will essentially be back to dealing with issues as they occur.

Quarterly Goals are the ones that are in the crosshairs. These are goals in which we can identify specifics. If a long term goal is a dream and a yearly goal is a mission then a quarterly goal is a project. You should have a pretty clear idea of how you will accomplish a quarterly goal. It is no longer a dream. It is now simply work that needs to be done.

For example, if your long term goal is to major in a specific study in college, you may decide to take certain classes your first year. But each semester you actually enroll in those classes. You then know exactly when to attend class and which books are required. This isn’t some pie in the sky fantasy. You have committed to taking these classes and there are consequences if you do not. To a freshman attending the first class of the semester, the idea of a degree may seem unreal or even impossible. But of course it isn’t, graduation will come one semester at a time.

In conclusion

There is no shortage of techniques for keeping track of what you need to do. I use a process that is based off the book Getting Things Done by David Allen. All of the planning in the world is a waste of time if you don’t have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish. It is easy to let your agenda be set by the people around you. It is easy to spend all of your time putting out fires. It might be better to let some things burn. Who knows, maybe a new hero is just waiting for the chance to champion that cause.

The most insidious villain in my life is me. I constantly have new ideas that I let derail what I am currently working on. Writing down long term, yearly and quarterly goals reminds me of why I am doing what I am doing. I feel like I am fulfilling a purpose when I force myself to keep my projects based on my current goals.

Setting goals is not a one and done ordeal. Life is not static and neither are your goals. However, there is a balance. You shouldn’t change goals on a whim but they also shouldn’t be so set in stone that they no longer align with who you are. This is where a planning system comes in play. My next post will be the nuts and bolts of how to plan projects and manage goals.