It’s impossible to overstate the importance of goals: learning how to set and pursue effective ones can leader to greater motivation, satisfaction, and achievement. In fact, it’s been said that the difference between the best and the rest comes down to this: those who are preeminent in their fields have a clear sense of direction, the perseverance required to overcome unexpected challenges, and a strong sense of how their present actions will get them where they want to be in the future. In other words, they have clear goals.

Fortunately, the creation of effective goals is a skill that anybody can learn. In this article, we’ll cover why goals are important, what makes for an effective goal, and how can you use goals to drive positive change across multiple areas of your life.

Four reasons to set goals

1. Goals give you a strong sense of motivation

By setting goals, you will tap into a strong sense of purpose that allows you to achieve far more than might be possible if you simply meandered into the future. This is no speculation⁠—people who write down their goals are 33 percent more likely to achieve them than people who simply work goals out in their heads. This is likely because goals are positively correlated with motivation and autonomy.

2. Goals help you to break huge projects into achievable tasks

If you focus solely on the end result you’d like to achieve⁠—whether that’s a new job, a holiday, or a fitness target⁠—you might quickly find yourself overwhelmed. After all, a goal like ‘get a job’ doesn’t direct you towards an action you can take today. By contrast, ‘update your resume’ is a task you can complete today and a necessary step towards securing a satisfying job.

3. Goals encourage you to explore your full potential

When you set sensible goals, you position yourself to explore your full potential. By encouraging you to focus your energy, goals prepare you to seize the day now instead of waiting until the day is almost over. They turn you into the director of your own life⁠—a proactive individual who takes charge of what happens next instead of simply waiting to see what happens to you.

4. Achieving goals will boost your self-confidence

Confidence is built out of little victories and, with the right goals, you boost your self-esteem by using consecutive accomplishments to create a sense of momentum. When you have the right goals, even failure becomes more bearable because you know it’s teaching you something that will help you achieve an outcome that you genuinely care about. Nothing cultivates confidence like the sense that you’re in control and moving towards meaningful goals.

Deciding what your goals should be

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of creating sensible goals, it’s helpful to consider what sort of goals it could be helpful to develop. Your goals might be financial, professional, academic, creative, or related to things like your relationships, your fitness, your family, or your future travels. You can make a start by asking yourself questions like:

  • What knowledge do you wish to gain? Or, which skills would like to develop?
  • Where would you like your career to take you? What would you most like to be doing in five years?
  • How could you improve your financial circumstances? Would you like to earn more, pay off debts, build your investment portfolio, or hit a savings goal?
  • What projects might help you progress artistically or creatively? Have you always wanted to write a book, host an exhibition, submit poetry to a competition, or learn how to play the guitar?
  • Do you have any health-related goals? Do you want to learn a new sport, go to the gym more often, lose weight, or swim every day?

Once you’ve settled on your big goals⁠—that is, on the outcome⁠—you can work backwards, step by step, to identify a practical starting point. For example, if your goal is to make a movie in five years, you might aim to research film-making courses within the next two weeks, then develop a film outline within the next two years, complete a course within three years, develop a script within four years, and then spend the fifth year turning your dream into a reality.

Turning your dreams in SMART goals

Whatever your goals are, there’s a simple way to increase the chances that you’ll succeed at accomplishing them: you have to make sure that your goals are SMART. That is, specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-sensitive. Let’s go into more detail. You should aim to develop goals that are:

  • Specific: Take the time to clarify what your goals and subgoals are, going into as much detail as possible. Avoid goals that are vague, like ‘get fit’, and instead focus on actionable statements like “I want to get a gym membership and work out at least five days a week”. A specific goal tells you exactly who is involved, what they wish to accomplish, where they will accomplish the goal, when they intend to accomplish the goal, and why accomplishing the goal is important.
  • Measurable: Simply put, your goal must have clear criteria for success (or failure). You should be able to evaluate whether or not you’re progressing towards your goal. For example, if your goal is to work out at least five days a week, you might measure the results by aiming to lose a certain amount of weight (or put it on as muscle).
  • Achievable: Ask yourself: do you have the resources, skills, and time to achieve the goal in question? Yes, you should dream large, but start with goals that, even if they’re challenging, you’re still in a position to accomplish.
  • Relevant: Is this specific goal relevant to your overall life goals? If not, you might find yourself struggling to find your motivation.

Time-sensitive: Realistic deadlines will help you get moving force you to prioritise your activities so that you’re investing more time in the things that are important to you and less time in the things that aren’t.