Setting Goals

What’s Actionable in this chapter:

  • Provides an explanation as to why setting goals is so important
  • Provides a structure you can use to help you set goals


Alice came to a fork in the road. “Which way I ought to go from here?” she asked the Cheshire cat.
“Where do you want to get to?” responded the cat.
“I don’t care,” Alice answered.
“Then,” said the cat, “it doesn’t matter.”     ~Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

  • I don’t care how much power, brilliance or energy you have, if you don’t harness it and focus it on a specific target, and hold it there you’re never going to accomplish as much as your ability warrants.  ~Zig Ziglar

  • Part of the issue of achievement is to be able to set realistic goals, but that’s one of the hardest things to do because you don’t always know exactly where you’re going, and you shouldn’t.  ~George Lucas

  • Map out your future, but do it in pencil.  ~Jon Bon Jovi, quoted in Reader’s Digest, “Quotable Quotes,” September 2002

  • You must have long-range goals to keep you from being frustrated by short-range failures.  ~Charles C. Noble

  • 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 – Michelangelo


Setting good goals is the first step in making good decisions

My goal in writing this book is to help you improve your life by helping you learn how to make better decisions.  My goal in writing this particular Chapter is to convince you that setting good goals is an important first step in making better decisions.  And my goal in this Chapter is to provide you with some structure you can use to help set better goals.

Notice what I did here.  I told you what my goals are in writing this.  The first thing I do with any activity is set the goal.  Before I write anything, before I do anything, I ask myself, “What am I trying to accomplish?”  I ask myself, “What are my goals in doing this?”

Goals are important because they provide a filter and a focus to help pick the best choices and make the best decisions.


I always have choices.  I often have a lot of choices.  The specific time I chose to get up in the morning is a great example.  I have lots of choices as to when I get up – almost minute by minute choices.  Having a clear goal helps me sort out the different choices so it’s easier to make the right choice.  Knowing what my goal is helps me decide when I get up in the morning.

Undoubtedly some people might have more choices than others.  But everyone has choices.  Even the homeless have choices.  In fact, I could make a good argument that the homeless have more choices than many because they have no one making demands on them.

So we’re now at the key point of the chapter; in order to make the best choices, the first step is setting good goals.  It’s not the only step, as you will see when I talk about the entire decision process.  But it’s an important step, warranting its own discussion.

There are two reasons setting good goals is so important; 1) Goals provide the reasons for action, and 2) Goals act as a filter and focus on your choices.

To the first point, without a goal there is no need to act.  A goal is the reason why you do something.  Having a goal gets me out of bed in the morning.  Having a goal helps me pick what foods I want to eat.  And having a clear goal helps me go to work every day.

Often times while writing this book I would pause and consider what to write next.  The way I get motivated is to think about my goal, which in this case is to help you make better choices.  Every word I type, I ask myself if that word helps achieve that goal.

The second point is that goals provide a way to filter and focus the different choices available to you.  As I said, life is like a salad bar.  There are a lot of choices.[1]  From the moment you get up in the morning[2] to the time you go to bed at night you make choices about hundreds of things.  Some choices are fundamental and everyone makes them; like deciding when to get up, when to go bed, what to wear, and what to eat.  Then there are some choices that only you might make, like deciding on the pink dress or the blue pants.  But no matter the choice, if you know the goal you are trying to achieve, you can make better choices.

If you know that your goal is to be at work on time, then the actions you take in the morning should help you achieve that goal.  If your goal is to eat less fat than the choices you make should achieve that goal.

There are lots of people willing to help you make choices.  Advertisers and politicians are always telling you what to do.  Friends and family are there with their loving, but sometimes unwanted suggestions.  Ultimately, however, making the actual choice is up to you.   You have to decide to act.  You have the supreme power over your actions.[3]

Your challenge is making the best choice as often as you can.  Yet, making the best choice is not always easy.  In fact, as you know, it’s downright hard.  We may not have all the information.  Or the right choice is not within our reach.  Or the right choice could be obscured.  Or the right choice is not available at all


An Important Key to Success is Managing Expectations

Having said all that, here’s the first thing I want you to do to start on your journey to learn how to make better decisions.  I want you to accept the fact that it’s impossible for you to reach all your goals all the time.  However, I do want you to believe that you can learn to get better at reaching some of your goals some of the time.

 Your goal should be to get more of what you want each and every time you make a decision then you get now. 

I think the quote by Admiral Stockdale, a Vietnam POW and Ross Perot’s VP choice, would apply here.

He said:

“Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.  And at the same time, confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”[4]

Below are a few video clips that help explain this “Stockdale Paradox.”  The Paradox formed by being Optimistic and Realistic at the same time.





The goal you should set, the goal I’ve set for myself, is simply to get a little better at reaching my goals with each decision I make. The goal that I would suggest you adopt is that you should just try to improve day by day, decision by decision.  Don’t worry if you have failures or setbacks.  Just keep trying.  After all you won’t get worse.  You can only get better.[5]

Admiral Stockdale noted that the POW’s that didn’t make it out were ones that didn’t manage their optimistic expectations.  They’d say, “I’ll be home by Christmas,” or “I’ll be home by Easter.”  But Christmas and Easter would come and go and they would still be there.  Eventually “they died of a broken heart.”[6]

Let me put it another way.  There’s no question that it’s critically important to have faith and optimism that things will get better.  That’s relatively easy.  But don’t let your optimism blind you to the reality of your situation.  Don’t let your belief that things will get better, prevent you from finding solutions.  Don’t take the ostrich approach, sticking your head in the sand and hope things will get better on their own.  While, clearly this might be comforting in the short-term, it won’t help you in the long-term.

Let me talk about this in the first person and see if it helps get my point across.  I never doubt that I can achieve my goals, no matter how grandiose or lofty they may be and no matter how many people tell me I won’t succeed.  However, whenever someone says I will not succeed I ask them why.  And I try my best to hear what they have to say, because they might be right.  Or if I fail at what I tried to do, I look at my efforts honestly; to see if there was something I could have done better.  I don’t lie to myself, because I want to know what I did wrong so I can correct it next time.

Clearly being optimistic is pretty easy.  After all, optimism is not that hard.  But optimism by itself can lead you down the wrong path:

There’s no difference between a pessimist who says, “Oh, it’s hopeless, so don’t bother doing anything,” and an optimist who says, “Don’t bother doing anything, it’s going to turn out fine anyway.” Either way, nothing happens. – Yvon Chouinard

The key is to balance your optimism with brutal honesty and a willingness to take action.  I understand no one likes admitting they chose the wrong job, they’re not good with money, they could lose more weight, or their relationships are a mess.  But, seeing yourself for who you truly are, warts and all, is a necessary step to knowing which problems need fixing and how to fix them.

Now that I’ve been writing this book for awhile, I see that the notion of balance is a recurring theme.  Sue Johnson, one of our neighbors, read just a small portion of the book and said it sounded very “ZEN.”  And I guess she’s right.  A recurring theme is very Zen in the sense that I believe your life will be enhanced when you find your balance point.  But, as I’ve said before in different ways, everyone’s balance point is different.  Everyone has a unique combination of genetics, upbringing, and environment.  You know your siblings have different balance points even though they were raised in the same family.  Parents know their kids have different balance points, even though their early experiences are pretty similar.  And please understand that even your balance point is going to change over time.

Here is one more important point about managing your expectations.  Remember the anecdote I told in the preface about the campers and bear.  Remember the moral was that it’s only necessary to overcome your obstacles better than your competitors.  If you are looking for a new job, you just have to be better than the other applicants.  You don’t have to be the greatest applicant they’ve ever seen; you just need to be better than those that are applying at the same time you are.  So when thinking about managing your expectations, you don’t have to be the best, you just have to be better.

Having said all I’ve said up until now, I think you’re ready to start.

So let’s get to it.


The First Step in Making Good Decisions – Setting Good Goals

The first step in making good decisions is setting good goals.  In fact, now that I think about it, setting good goals is the first and most critical step in any activity.  This shouldn’t surprise you that I believe this.  Notice that the first step in the learning process I presented in Chapter 1 was setting a learning goal.  Notice that in the Preface of the book I tried to present some goals for you to shoot for.  Notice in the Introduction I tried to tell you what my goals are in writing this book.  In the next Chapters I talk about getting good information and improving communication and you’ll see that the first I do is set the goals[7].  In Chapter 4, I present the TIDAL approach to decision making where, you guessed it, the first step is setting goals.  As I write this chapter I’m thinking about what my goals are in writing it.  As you read this you should be thinking about what your goals are in reading this.


You need to focus on Setting Best Goal you can

For me, everything begins with setting the best goals I can.  I try not to take any action without a clear idea as to why I’m taking that action and what I want to accomplish.  This morning I was driving into work and I saw a school bus in one lane, so I chose the other lane.  My goal was to not get stuck behind the school bus.  It was a split second thing.  But it clearly demonstrates how in every activity having a goal helps determine actions.

Even your body does this, without you having to think about it.  The goal of the body is to keep itself alive.  As a result it has all sorts of autonomic processes to preserve itself.  When you get really cold, hypothermia, the body will start shivering and will reduce blood flow to the extremities so it can focus its energy on keeping the important parts of your body warm.  And that is just the first example that comes to mind.  Your body has all sorts of ways it tries to achieve its goal of keeping itself alive.

In thinking about the best way to talk about setting goals, I spent a lot of time thinking about two things; first whether to add the adjective “good” when talking about setting goals, and second, is it a plural “Goals” or singular “Goal?”  When I first wrote it, I wrote, “Setting a goal is the first step in making decisions.”  After thinking about it I changed it and inserted the word “good” and I made it plural.  It became “Setting good goals is the first step to making good decisions.”

I know this might seem a bit nuanced but I think it’s important.  The reason you have to insert the word “good” and make it plural is that the better the goal the better the decision, and there are always multiple goals to be considered.  By understanding that in any activity there are always multiple goals and that some goals are better than others will help improve your goal setting.

My message to you is that you shouldn’t think about just setting any goal, but you should try to set the best goal you can.

I’ve come to realize that for me the problem has never been actually setting a goal, but rather setting the right goal.  Let me give you an example.  As a parent my goal is to raise healthy, happy, and productive kids.  My goal is not for the kids to like me?  My goal is to be their parent, not their friend.

As a boss it’s a similar question about goals.  As a boss, is the goal to have your staff like you?  Or is your goal to maximize their performance?  In war is the goal to completely eradicate your enemy, or is the goal to win their “hearts and minds?”

Let me try some examples to see if I can help make this clear.  The first decision I have each day is to get out of bed.  Taking that action depends on my goals for the day.  If my goal is to get to work by 8, and it takes me an hour to get ready and get to work, then I have to get up at 7:00.  If however, it’s the weekend and I have no goal for the day, then I get out of bed whenever I want.

Another example might be the decision on what to wear?  If my goal is to look attractive at work, I pick attractive business clothes.  If my goal is to exercise I pick exercise clothes.  If my goal is to work in the yard, I pick work clothes.

It seems obvious, doesn’t it?  Yet my experience is that some people act without having a clearly defined and appropriate goal.  This is where honesty comes in.  You have to ask yourself could you do a better job picking your goals.  I’m not going to get into why it’s difficult.  It’s difficult for everyone.  Some people are better at it than others.[8]

The point is before you take any action, you should have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish by taking that action.


Goals are Measurable and Actionable

I did a search on “setting goals” and an interesting article came up.

A useful way of making goals more powerful is to use the SMART mnemonic. While there are plenty of variants (some of which we’ve included in parenthesis), SMART usually stands for:[9]

  • S – Specific (or Significant).
  • M – Measurable (or Meaningful).
  • A – Attainable (or Action-Oriented).
  • R – Relevant (or Rewarding).
  • T – Time-bound (or Trackable).

I’m not going to follow this mnemonic completely but it does effectively get to an important point; goals need to be measurable and actionable to be useful.

Looking at it from a negative point of view, I see one of the reasons for failure is that often the goals we use are either vague or conflicting.  An example of a vague goal might be instead of being at work at 8 AM, it’s I want to be happy.  Does happiness mean sleeping longer or keeping your job?  An example of conflicting goals might be instead of being at work at 8 AM, it’s I need to be at work at 8 AM and I need to get my kid to school at 8 AM.

One method I use to help setting goals is to look at goals in the form of a pyramid.  I guess I took this from Maslow[10].  Maslow created a “hierarchy of needs.”  The idea being that certain needs are more important and need to be satisfied first.  When you establish goals, you need to establish a similar hierarchy of goals.


The way I approach setting goals is similar to the way Maslow constructed his hierarchy of needs.  A goal is similar to a need.  I need food, so I have a goal to get food.  I need shelter, so I have a goal to get shelter.  I need money so I have a goal to get money.  But then there are other goals we layer on top of those goals.  I need food so I get food.  I need healthy food so I get good healthy food.  I need food with less fat, so I get food with less fat.  I need to lose weight, so I get food that helps me lose weight.


Let’s use an example with cars.  I need transportation, so I get a car.  I need a car that won’t break down, so I get a good car.  I need a car that does not use a lot of gas, so I get a car with high mileage.


As we move up the goal pyramid, you go from absolute essential “needs” to nice to have but not essential “wants.”  The function then of setting goals is to help you determine which goals are must have essential needs and which goals are nice to have but not critical wants.  How you do that might vary.  You might put a number on the goal; 1 for essential, 10 for nice to have.  Or you might only set essential goals.  Whatever method works for you is fine.  You just need to do it.  You need to have a clear idea of what is absolutely essential and what is only nice to have.


Let’s take an example of getting a job.  Here are two different goals; getting any job, or getting a good job.  They look very similar but they are different in that the goal of one is to get “ANY” job and the goal of the other is to get a “GOOD” job.


In both cases the goal is measurable, but they are measured differently.  If the goal is getting any job, then you would have achieved your goal when you get any job.  However, if the goal is to get a job that pays $50,000 a year, then only when you get a job that pays $50K a year will you have achieved your goal.[11]

Or, I need gas in the car, but I also need to save money, and I need to find something to eat on my way to work.  For me, needing gas is at the most important goal; in Maslow’s terms it is the lowest level of the hierarchy.  But, that may not be the case you.  You may need to save money and if you can’t get gas for under $2 a gallon you cannot get gas.  Or you may be really hungry and need something to eat.

To make setting goals easier I use two tests to see how good my goals are; 1) How measurable is it?  2) How actionable is it?  The more precisely I can measure a goal the better that goal is.  And the more actionable that goal is the better the goal.


Goals must be Measurable

Goals set the end point you want to get to.

Let’s use the example of you want to get to work by 8 AM.  That is a measureable goal.  If you make it by 8 you’ve achieved the goal.

The reason goals need to be measureable are because rarely does a goal only require one action.  Yes you want to be at work at 8 AM, but you have to get out of bed, get dressed, have breakfast, drive, park, and get into the office.  If you know what the goal is you can constantly evaluate your progress toward that goal and make adjustments as appropriate.  For example let’s say you get up in time, but you find the dress you were going to wear needs ironing.  So that throws you off schedule.

Let’s use the example of deciding to stop for a traffic light.  The goal is stoping at the traffic light.  As you press on the brakes you evaluate how well you are achieving the goal, and you either maintain the same pressure, put on more pressure, or let off pressure on the brakes as you evaluate how you are stopping.

While it’s ok to set a goal such as,” I’m going to lose weight.”  But that is not a very good goal.  It’s better to say, “I’m going to lose 10 lbs in 10 weeks.”  And it’s even better to say, “I’m going to lose 10 lbs in 10 weeks without starving myself.”  While it’s ok to set a goal such as, “I’m going to learn to cook.”  It’s better to say, “I’m going to try cooking a cake next week.”  And it’s even better to say, “I’m going to learn to cook so that I can invent my own recipes that my wife likes.”

Let’s try a more difficult example.  Many of us have either already had to deal with an aging parent or will someday have to deal with it.  So what is the Goal?  Is the goal to keep them around for as long as possible?  Is the goal to save as much of their money as possible?  Is the goal to make them as comfortable as possible?  Is the goal to make you as comfortable as possible?

Goals must be Actionable

I was in a sales meeting and the goal of the meeting was to set our sales targets for the year.  The question was should the target be $30 Million or $50 Million.  I asked the question, “What different actions would I take if the target were $50 Million instead of $30 Million.”  If the answer is I wouldn’t do anything different, then the specific number does not make any difference.

This may seem like a non important nuance.  But, to me, this is very important.  When setting goals I look at what’s actionable about the goal.  I only set goals that are actionable.


Difference between the target and the goal

One of the things that has stayed with me over the years was the story at the beginning of John Michener’s Hawaii. In the book he describes in great detail (as Michener is prone to do) the way the Polynesians got to Hawaii by following the North Star.  As a result of reading that story I came up with what I call my North Star approach to goals.

I find it helpful to have a target to aim for that is not really a goal, like the North Star.  No one that uses the North Star to navigate expects to actually reach the North Star.  It’s there as a guide or target to aim on.

I always have a target that I’ll never reach that I use it to guide my actions.  Like the Polynesians using the North Star, I create great goals and then keep my eye on them to make sure I’m always headed in the right direction.


Adjusting Goals

Look at the three pictures below.  As you can see they show the projected path of Hurricane Ike over a 7 day period.  Notice that as time goes on the projected path changes.  This is the way it should be with all goals.

This happens in life too.  We set a goal and then we monitor our progress toward that goal.  As things change we change our projections.  We set a goal and then we continually evaluate the likelihood we will achieve the goal.  If conditions change, we can adjust the goal.

When I run a race I usually have a goal in mind.  As I get near the end of the race I see if I’m on track or not.  Depending on the situation, I can choose to keep the goal, or change it.

At first I was thinking that the better the goal the better the outcome.  But is that really true?  Look at Christopher Columbus.  His goal was to reach India.  He never got there.  But yet he still made some great discoveries.

My point here is that having “A” goal is what’s important.  The goal of getting to India cheaply and quickly is what drove Columbus.  But, finding the America’s was pretty cool.  So, the ability to keep an eye out for positive things as you work toward your goal, and then adjust as you move forward, could be useful.



Habit and Rituals as part of the Goal Setting Process

As I said earlier, the reason we set goals is to help us make choices.  And we have to make so many choices every day.  To have to consider each choice is impossible.  So one way we reduce our need to make so many choices is to rely on habit and ritual.

When I get up in the morning I have a ritual I go through.  I floss, brush my teeth, take a vitamin, use mouthwash, shave, shower, and finally dress.  I do those things in that specific order.  I don’t think about it.  It’s a ritual I go through.  When I drive to work I have a specific route I take.  I don’t think about it.  When I get home from work I take work badge and phone and my keys and wallet and my watch and put them in the same place so when I get up in the morning I will not forget any of them.

Some religions describe in great detail what choices you are to make in terms of food, clothes, and actions.  They reduce the choices you have to make by developing rituals.

The problem with habit and ritual is that what works at one time for one situation may not work for another time or situation.  If your decisions are not working out that well, then you might need to change your behavior.  But if you are basing your actions on habit or ritual it’s a lot harder to change.

So going back to my ritual in the morning.  Notice that I brush my teeth first thing.  What if the dentist says that I have cavities because I brush my teeth before I eat breakfast.  He said I need to brush my teeth after breakfast.  Well, that means I have to change my ritual.  And it causes a huge problem for me.  My bathroom, with my tooth brush, floss, toothpaste, and mouthwash is upstairs.  But I eat breakfast downstairs.  So if I brush my teeth after breakfast I would either have to go back upstairs to brush my teeth, or put my brushing stuff downstairs.  Our downstairs bathroom does not have a place to keep my bushing stuff.  So this is a real problem.  My ritual exists to make my life easier.  A change in ritual can mean a huge disruption in our life.

But, if my goal is to reduce cavities, then I have to be willing to change my ritual.


[1] Think again about life being like a salad bar.

[2] I recognize that some people work nights and get up in the afternoon.

[3] Even if someone holds a gun to your head you have the power to do what they say or not.

[4] Good to Great, by Jim Collins has a great description of the Stockdale Paradox, pages 83-87

[5] Abraham Lincoln: “I’m a slow walker, but I never walk backwards.”

[6] Good to Great, page 85

[7] I call it “intent” when talking about Communication.

[8] Here is a question, are people born with the ability to set appropriate goals similar to genetic traits like size, intelligence, eye hand coordination, Musical talents, etc.


[10] A. Maslow 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation

[11] So here is the problem.  Let’s say you are offered a job that pays $49K.  Would you take it?  We can move that discussion to the Chapter on Decision Making.