Date posted: 18/03/2024 5 min read

How to set goals that stick

Goal setting isn’t always as straightforward as it sounds. These insights could help you succeed.

Quick take

  • Goals need to be genuinely important to you, not something you feel you should aim for.
  • Writing down your goals and reviewing them regularly strengthens the process.
  • It’s important to address any limiting beliefs or fears that could be holding you back.

We know that goal setting is good for us. After all, as author and advertiser Paul Arden pointed out, without having a goal, it's difficult to score. Liz Wotherspoon is more specific about the benefits. As chief executive of Auckland-based The Icehouse, she provides courses, customised programs and business coaching to small and medium-size Kiwi businesses. She believes that the process of setting goals, writing them down and reviewing them on a regular basis can actually train the brain to focus on what we want and how we can achieve it.

“Goal setting also introduces a degree of discipline into our lives,” she says. “I don’t think that’s ever been more important than it is now, when we’re all having to deal with a level of uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity. Setting and working towards goals can help us to feel less overwhelmed and more in control of our lives.”

Research, including a 2015 study by psychologist Dr Gail Matthews, suggests that committing goals to paper can strengthen the process.

“Matthews found that people who wrote down their goals were 33% more likely to achieve them than those who carried their goals in their heads,” says Wotherspoon, who also recommends regular reviews. “There will inevitably be times where, perhaps through no fault of your own, you’re veering off track. Reviewing your progress will help you to learn from the experience by thinking about what you could have done differently, even if there were elements outside your control.”

Getting down to the ‘why’

SMART is one of the most enduring frameworks associated with goal setting. An acronym for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-related (although some words within the acronym vary, depending on the source), it was developed by George Doran, Arthur Miller and James Cunningham. More than 40 years later, it is still being taught in many schools, universities and organisations.

“SMART and other, similar frameworks can all be helpful although for me, goal achieving is all about the ‘why?’,” says Suzanne Glendenning, CEO and founder of Melbourne-based Quantum Results Coaching International. “I encourage my clients to think about what’s most important to them in both their personal and business lives, what they’d like to change and how that change would make them feel. Once they’re clear about why a particular goal really matters to them, they’re much more likely to succeed.”

James Clear, author of the bestselling Atomic Habits, has a very different approach. He believes that goal setting should start with the question ‘What kind of pain do I want?’. He writes that the real challenge is not determining if you want the result, but if you are willing to accept the sacrifices required to achieve your goal.

Glendenning is concerned by the focus on negativity.

“I equate this with ‘towards’ and ‘away from’ thinking,” she says. “If your only motivation is to move away from something unpleasant, that’s what will stay on your mind rather than thoughts of a positive outcome. In the same way, I don’t think it would be helpful to have your goal linked to pain and sacrifice.”

Why do we fall short?

Numbers vary according to the source, but the reported failure rate for goal setters is often about 80%.

“Some people go crazy and set the bar much too high,” says Wotherspoon. “It’s important to stretch yourself, but you need to strike a balance between being ambitious and being realistic.”

The reason can also be more complicated.

“An entrenched, limiting belief can lead to self-sabotage and justifying failure,” says Glendenning. “Sometimes, there’s a real fear factor involved – fear of failure or, if you subconsciously believe you don’t deserve it, fear of success. In these cases, we need to get to what's behind that thinking and look at how we can shift the blockage. I’m a qualified hypnotherapist as well as an accredited coach, so I sometimes use hypnosis to support the change.”

Real value

Every morning when she’s cleaning her teeth, Wotherspoon asks herself the same question: how will she feel when she’s brushing them again that night?

“If I can honestly look back and say it’s been a great day, what will I have achieved?” she says. “I’m a great fan of intentionality, and this ritual helps me to think about the choices I can make that will take me closer to my goals.”

If you're not setting goals, she suggests you give the process a try, just to see whether it makes any difference.

“I’d be very surprised if you didn't see some benefit from being a little bit more intentional and disciplined around how you’d like your life to unfold,” she says.