My 4 Keys to Goal-Setting Success

Hint: It's Not as Hard as You Think

Studies show that if you regularly set goals, especially if you write them down, then you’re easily in the minority.

Many of those same studies show that those of us who do track goals are far more likely to experience a more satisfying and meaningful life. So, it begs the obvious question: Why don’t more people practice goal setting?

pencil and paper

I think one of the main reasons is most of us have been brainwashed to believe – often inadvertently – that life is something that happens to us, as opposed to something we have the ability to shape and impact.

Another reason goal setting isn’t practiced more widely is because of a common, goal setting misconception: It’s just plain hard.

This was my excuse for the better part of the first 33 years of my life. What I would learn during the years that followed however – most of it from reading books – was that goal setting actually wasn’t hard at all. In fact, starting was as simple as grabbing the nearest pen and pad of paper.

Key #1 – Write Them Down

As a young professional, I had a number of admirable goals I hoped to one day accomplish. The problem though was none of them were actually written down anywhere.

This meant I would eventually gravitate to the next “shiny” object, formulate new goals in my head along the way, and forget or tire of the old ones.

Without written goals, there is nothing to track. Without anything to track, there is no progress to measure. Without progress to measure, there is no motivation to do the things necessary to make your goals a reality. And without motivation, goals die.

In his book Find Your Balance Point, Brian Tracy says to write out your goals as if you were placing an order for your goal to be manufactured in a factory far away. In other words, your goals must be clear, specific, detailed and measurable.

In short, if you’re not willing to put your goals in writing, you’re not serious about your goals. (Tweet This)

Key #2 – Eliminate the Non-Essentials

In his fabulous book Good to Great, Jim Collins identifies what he calls your Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals, or B-HAGs. In our context, these are essentially goals that, if accomplished, would have the biggest, dramatic impact on your life.

As you glance at your newly created list of goals, you’ll no doubt recognize a few B-HAGs among them. For now, your task is to put all your efforts only into these big goals. Eliminate everything else from your list.  

You may have only one big goal. That’s okay. This will make the next step even easier. Two or three big goals is not uncommon. Four, less so. More than four? You still have some editing to do.

Key #3 – Create Your To-Do List

Now that you have a list containing at least one to four big, life-altering goals, you are now ready to go to work.

Starting with your first goal, begin creating a list of all the tasks you’ll need to complete to accomplish that goal. You can do this in any number of ways, however, one of my favorite ways is to use a mindmap.

You could consider using a freely available online mindmapping tool like MindMeister. You could simply pull out a sheet of paper and draw a mindmap, beginning with writing your goal in the center of the paper and connecting your to-dos to it. Or, you could use Post-It Notes (my favorite).

With this form of mind mapping, I choose one color Post-It and write my goal on it, setting it aside. Then, I choose another shade of Post-Its and begin writing down tasks as quickly as I can think of them, being sure to put each task on its own, separate Post-It Note.

Think of it almost as a game, with the idea being to write your to-dos as fast as you can. Some call this a “brain dump.”

Afterward, I transfer my goal and all of the associated tasks to Workflowy, a simple-to-use web and mobile app great for creating outlines and tracking projects and to-dos.

At first, don’t worry about the order. Just add each task to Workflowy. Once you have them all listed, place them in the order in which they’ll need to be completed (simply click and drag).

You might be thinking, “Why not just record them straight into Workflowy from the beginning?” For me, I find the exercise of writing them out before typing them in to their ultimate destination helps me to remember and internalize them. In other words, by doing this, I’m much better prepared to more fully embrace them.

Key #4 – Do One Thing

Finally, begin your day with committing to completing at least the first, next item on the list no matter how big or small.

Again, writing things down is key. Schedule time for completing this task and make it among your day’s top priorities.

No matter how small it may be, the act of being able to cross that first task off your list will serve to highly motivate you to tackle the next one (endorphins anyone?).


So if you struggle with creating and following through on your goals, do what I do.

  • Write them down
  • Eliminate the fluff
  • List all associated tasks
  • Do the first, next thing on your task list

How about you? What methods do you use to accomplish your goals? Does my method resemble yours? Is your method vastly different than mine? Let me know in the comments.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Justin Dernison

    Good stuff Jeff. I was on WorkFlowy last night and love it.