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Setting good goals

Summary: Two methods for setting goals you're likely to achieve, and will like once you attain them.

Imagine you were shopping for a house, and told the realtor only this: "I do not want my house to have six rooms. It should not have a spiral staircase. And I hate stucco, so it shouldn't have that." What are the chances you'd get shown houses you wanted?

Sound silly? Lots of people set goals that way. "I want my wife to stop telling me what to do." When she stops nagging and starts talking about divorce, he keeps complaining. He achieved his goal, but it isn't what he wanted.

With goals that are vague or poorly thought out, it's easy to work hard to achieve an outcome that you dislike once you get it. Or you might succeed, but not notice that you did. Plenty of workaholics have that problem.

Societies make these mistakes too. Traffic jams make cars slower than the trolleys they replaced. Citizens overthrow oppressive governments, only to install worse ones. Automation reduces toil but throws millions out of work.

On the other hand, some people and groups do a great job of wanting things worth having, and getting what they want in ways that really work. This isn't magic. These people are doing something different that helps them succeed. You too can learn to set goals in ways that work.

What are goals?

A goal is simply an end result you want or choose to work toward. Some people distinguish between primary goals (what you want) and secondary goals (things you must do to create what you want).

Goals are most powerful when you love them passionately and they align with your values. Aligning your life, goals, actions, and values is one of the most powerful things you can do to achieve what you want.

Goal-setting is often a process of discovery. You may not know what you want. You may need to discover or create it, and you might change your mind along the way. Many people discover their deepest values late in life.

Effective goal-setting

Two methods of goal-setting work exceptionally well to help people get what they want and avoid problems. Holistic Management is a way of making better decisions that helps people achieve what they want more effectively. Neuro-Linguistic Programming is a way for people to become highly effective in any context. From their separate roots in land management and personal growth, both discovered some of the same key aspects of effectiveness:

  • Work toward goals, not away from problems.
  • Monitor and correct course. Look for early-warning signs that you're off-course, and correct immediately. If what you do doesn't work, do something else.
  • Think holistically. How does each action or change work in context and over time?

Particularly in the area of goal-setting, the NLP and HM approaches complement each other. They are fairly different in how they work and what they're intended to achieve. While NLP assumes multiple goals or objectives, HM sets one holistic goal or vision. HM also separates what you want from how you achieve it. NLP has them dance, each influencing the other until both the goal and the process of achieving it work as a whole.

NLP goal-setting

This process was developed by studying people who were good at setting and achieving goals, and who were happy with the outcomes they got. It works for outcomes of any size.

You may find it helpful to have another person walk you through the process. Explaining the details of your goal to them will uncover any parts that are vague, undefined, or problematic.

What do you want?

  • State what you do want, not what you don't. If you don't want X, what do you want instead?
  • Be specific. The better you understand how your goal will look, sound, and feel, the more likely you will make it exactly what you want, and the more resources your unconscious mind can muster to help you achieve it.
  • Where, when, and with whom do you want your goal? It may be appropriate for some contexts, but not others. Mentally rehearse it to find out.
  • What larger outcome is this part of? How does it fit into who you are and your major beliefs and values?
  • What time-frames are involved?
  • If you achieve your goal, what will that do for you? And what will having that do for you? Ask these questions several times to uncover what you really value. You might find there are better ways to get what you want than the one you had in mind.

How will you know when you achieve your goal?

  • Be specific -- what will you see, hear, and feel? What will you be doing, and what will others notice about you?
  • How will you know you're moving toward your goal? What is a small but significant sign you're making progress? Sometimes people achieve a lot without noticing.
  • How often will you check your progress?
  • Is there more than one way to get what you want?

Is your goal achievable?

  • If someone else has done it, then in theory you can do it too. If you are the first, find out if it is possible. This may require doing it! Many important advances were considered "impossible" until someone achieved them, so other people's limits may not fit what you want to do. If your goal is impossible, you may be able to achieve the value of it in another way.
  • If the goal seems overwhelming, break it into smaller steps that seem doable.

Is achieving your goal within your control?

  • Make sure your goal reflects things you can directly affect.
  • If your goal involves other people, make sure it's about what you can do. You might want your bosses to act friendlier, but you don't control their behavior, feelings, or attitudes -- they do. Since you do control yourself, you might (a) change your behavior in ways likely to encourage the bosses to behave the way you want, (b) change your attitude so their behavior bothers you less, (c) find a different job, or even (d) find a way to restructure the company so nobody is boss.
  • What stops you from having what you want now?

Are the costs and consequences of achieving your goal acceptable?

  • How will achieving your goal affect other areas of your life? Other people? Society and the environment?
  • Will the results be worth the time, resources, and effort involved?
  • What might be the benefits of not achieving your goal?
  • How can you incorporate the good things about the present into your goal?
  • Watch a mental movie of yourself achieving your goal. What do you notice from this outside perspective? Step into the experience as if it was happening right now -- how is this different? Notice who will be affected when you achieve your goal, then experience your success from their point of view. What new information does that give you? Gandhi used this technique to prepare for negotiations -- it helped him consider everyone's concerns and welfare.
  • If you could achieve your goal now, would you take it? If not, revise it until it's what you want.

Do you have all the resources you need to achieve your goal?

  • What resources do you already have to help you reach your goal? Resources include skills and training, information, attitude, internal emotional state, money, help or support from others, etc.
  • What resources do you need, and how can you acquire them?
  • What would have to be different for you to have your goal? Be specific.
  • Do you want your goal enough to achieve it? If not, what would need to change for you to have that level of motivation?
  • Is the first step to achieving your goal specific and achievable?
  • What are you already doing to begin or achieve your goal?
  • Imagine stepping into the future and having your goal fully. Look back and determine what steps were required to achieve the outcome now that you have it.

By checking your goal carefully, by experiencing it from multiple points of view and from several points in time, you get extra information to help you plan and proceed. You can catch and solve potential problems in your imagination, where it's fast and free. And by rehearsing the future so vividly, you help yourself create the results you want.

Holistic Management goal-setting

HM is a way of making decisions that are sound financially, socially, and environmentally. Goal-setting is just one step of a larger process that helps people think through what they do, keep on course, and achieve the results they want.

While NLP goal-setting works on goals of every size, in Holistic Management, you set one goal for each whole. A whole might be a company, company division, ranch, family, or individual. Or it might be a community, watershed, region, nation, or even international. It includes the key stakeholders and decision-makers, plus the resources they have available. Wholes can contain other wholes that have their own separate goals -- an individual in a company or a farm in a region, for instance.

A holistic goal is a long-term, overall blueprint for what you want to create. It has three parts:

  • Quality of life. State what is important to you. What do you value? Do you want security? Adventure? Good relationships with your family and community?
  • Production. What do you need to produce to create and maintain the quality of life you want? Building good relationships with your family and community might require effective communication. Security might require a reliable income.
  • Resource base. What will sustain production and your quality of life far into the future, and for future generations? Include your community, landscape, and resources (education, money, good reputation). Keeping your neighbors around might require economic viability and a healthy landscape that will help your community endure.

A holistic goal includes only what people want, not how to get it.

  • The best way to get what you want may change with time.
  • You may have to experiment before you find a way that works.
  • People argue far more over how to achieve goals than what those goals should be.

People in conflict almost always want similar things. Ranchers and environmentalists both want healthy, beautiful landscapes and sound economies that let them make good livings for their families. Palestinians and Jews both want peaceful communities to raise their children.

By leaving how out of the goal, people can concentrate on what they all want. Very often that's the key to resolving long-standing conflicts and finding a way forward that satisfies everybody.

The goal will work to the extent that the participants buy into it. This means that

  • All the decision-makers need to participate in setting the goal. If the janitors make decisions that affect your company, they need to be part of the planning process.
  • Keep adjusting the goal until it matches what everyone wants, and people buy into it and consider it theirs. This typically takes several years. As trust grows, people discover more about what they truly want and value.
  • Readjust the goal as people's needs, enthusiasms, and priorities change.

Getting people to work together and set a goal is sometimes a long, arduous process, especially if they begin as enemies. It's tempting to shortchange this step, or try to impose a goal from the top. Don't do it! The people work that gets done at the beginning builds the foundation of understanding and trust needed for success. Use these resources for dealing with conflict.

If you absolutely can't get agreement about a goal, you or a group within the whole can set a temporary goal to work toward. Make sure you include as much as you can of the values and goals of the people who aren't participating yet. Then get those folks on board as soon as possible. Tony Tipton says, "I like having my 'enemies' in the planning group, because I learn the most from them and their concerns."

Once you form the goal, use it to test whether a particular action will take you toward or away from the results you want. For instance, a new job might pay better, but decrease your family's quality of life.

Sometimes I find it helpful to ignore my good intentions, and simply compare my behaviors and outcomes with my goals and values. Focusing on tangible outcomes helps me bypass any internal propaganda and make an accurate reality check. If I find incongruence, I adjust my behavior, values, or goal.

When people align their goals, values, and actions, amazing synergies often occur. Alignment often takes two or three years. At that point, people gain incredible energy and effectiveness, and move toward or achieve their goals very rapidly.

Setting goals holistically ensures that they are socially, financially, and ecologically sound, and that today's decision won't cause future harm.

Combining HM and NLP goal-setting

Holistic Management's strengths are its inclusiveness and a planning horizon broad enough to include people, money, land, and future generations. You use your holistic goal to test plans and evaluate results. "Will this proposed action take us toward our long-term vision, or away from it? Did the actions we already took work, or not?"

NLP's strengths are the extra information you get from checking and experiencing your goal from many different perspectives, and the process for test-driving your goal and the path that takes you there. You can fine-tune what you want and how to get it before you begin.

By using the NLP process to test-drive and improve your holistic goal, you can get the best of both worlds. You'll get to your goal more easily, you'll like it once you get it, and you'll have the satisfaction of knowing that your goal is good for you, your community, the landscape you depend on, and future generations.

— Joy Livingwell
© 2002, some rights reserved
Creative Commons License

Joy Livingwell took her first Holistic Management training in 1991. An NLP Master Practitioner and Health Practitioner, she does psychological research in the San Francisco Bay Area

Holistic Management

Neuro-Linguistic Programming

More resources for achieving goals effectively