Do you have an unused gym pass taking up space in your wallet? Do you spend most conversations complaining to anyone that will listen about the job you hate and want to leave?

We all want to make changes to the way we live, and setting goals, whether career or personal, is an integral part of that change. Goals are how we paint the picture of a future we’re motivated to work towards.

Unfortunately, most of the time we’re pretty damn bad at sticking with our goals. Life gets in the way and those one-time excuses (“I’ll go to the gym tomorrow instead”) quickly turn into all-out failures. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

In this guide, we’ll cover the essential elements of effective goal setting, from planning and committing to the right goals, to the exact process you’re going to use to reach them.

The main thing you get wrong when you set goals

If your goal setting process is to simply write them down and try to hit them, you’re most likely going to fail.

Maybe you’re a bit more advanced and you write down an action plan for how you’ll hit your goals as well. That’s a good start, but it still won’t get you over the finish line.

Instead, effective goal setting relies on combining three factors:

  1. What you want to achieve: These are your goals. They’re the result you want to see, like losing 20 pounds or writing a novel.
  2. How you’re going to get there: This is your process. Or, the daily actions you’re going to take to get the results you want. Like running 10 miles a week or writing every day.
  3. Why you want it: These are your habits. They’re the unconscious routines that drive your daily actions.

That last part—the why—is the crux of the entire goal setting process. To stay committed, you need more than just a goal and a plan. You need better habits.

Most studies agree that anywhere from 40-50% of our day is dictated by habits. Here’s an example: One study gave groups of movie-watchers a bag of popcorn—either stale or fresh. While the group with stale popcorn said there’s didn’t taste good, they still ate the same amount as the group with freshly popped kernels!

The human brain is wired to favor routine over novelty. Even if your routines are unhealthy, it’s pretty hard to stop yourself from doing them. However, this is also a powerful opportunity.

When it comes to setting goals we’ll actually achieve, habits are our most powerful tool.

Start with the habit and the goal will follow

Building the right habits helps us maintain our daily processes which gets us closer to our goals.

Simple right?

Rather than starting at the goal and working downwards, the best way to create positive change is to start from the bottom up. Change your habits and it will become easier to do the daily actions you want that will get you closer to your goals. This level of consistency is a powerful tool.

Let’s look at our novel-writing example again. If you set a daily process of writing 500 words every day and build the right habits that support this (schedule dedicated writing blocks, close everything except your word processor the night before, turn off your phone and social media until you hit your daily goal, etc…) at the end of a year you will have written over 180,000 words.

That’s almost four, 200-page novels or two, 400-page literary beasts.

This process can work for any goal you want to achieve. Let’s say you want to learn Spanish. If your process becomes studying Spanish for half an hour every night, you’ll have spent 182.5 hours learning the language at the end of a year—halfway to being fully fluent according to the US Foreign Service Institute.

As author Octavia Butler wrote:

Octavia Butler habit quote

The 5 steps to effective goal setting

Your habits are what will keep you motivated and consistent when working towards your goals. But what about setting the right goals in the first place?

To know which habits to work on, you still need to start by thinking about the goal you want to hit, and then work backwards. But that doesn’t just mean setting any old goal.

For the best chance of success, here’s a 5-step process you can use to set effective, realistic, and actionable goals:

Step 1: Write down your core values and set goals that align with them

Write down your goals

Before you think about goals, you need to understand why you want to reach it. In other words: What do you care about?

This can be a big question. And so a great place to start is to pick 3–5 core values that resonate with you from a list like this one. Your core values are the underlying structure that your habits, processes, and goals are built off.

Here’s a few examples:

  • Achievement
  • Boldness
  • Compassion
  • Creativity
  • Knowledge
  • Learning
  • Leadership
  • Recognition
  • Stability

Your values will help inform the kinds of goals you’re willing to actually work towards.

So, if one of your core values is “knowledge,” it will be easier to reach your goal of becoming fluent in Spanish and build the process and habits you need to get there.

To start, write down each of your goals and see which value it relates to. Or, another way to look at it is to go through your list of core values and write a goal for each.

Step 2: Eliminate the ‘good enough’ goals that are getting in your way

With your list of goals you want to achieve, it’s time to prioritize which ones you want to work on.

This is a difficult exercise as it’s hard to give up on goals. Especially when they connect to your core values. Pushing certain ones aside can feel like cheating yourself.

To get past this, you need to do a round of forced prioritization.

Look at your full list of goals—maybe it’s 15-20 right now. Circle the top five you want to achieve. You should now have 2 lists—one with five and the rest. Your five-goal list becomes your “must do” list, while the other is your “avoid at all costs” list.

Step 3: Create an action plan for working towards your goals

Action plan goal setting

Now we’re getting somewhere!

With your “must do” goal list, it’s time to create a plan—or process— for how you’ll reach them. While this comes down to your own schedule and preferences, there are a number of strategies you can try. Such as:

  • Breaking your bigger goals down into smaller pieces: Take your goal and write down every step you need to take to reach it. Then, take each of those steps and break them down further. Now you have a clear plan filled with small goals you can hit daily.
  • Use the SMART system: SMART stands for goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. Think about each factor and write down how it connects to your goal: What’s your timeframe for reaching it? How will you measure your progress? Is it the right time for you to be doing this? Is it realistic? How specific can you get with what you need to hit your goal?
  • Picture yourself 6+ months from now: Working backwards is a great way to define all the steps we need to get to hit our goals. Picture yourself 6 months from now. How are you spending your days? What do you wish you’d been working on for the past 6 months? Picture your perfect day and how it gets you closer to your goals.

Whichever path you choose, the purpose is to create a clear, actionable plan of what you need to do every day to hit your goals. Research has shown that you’re two to three times more likely to stick with your goals if you make a specific plan for when, where, and how you’ll work on them.

Step 4: Update your calendar and schedule to reflect your goals

With your goal and process worked out, it’s time to optimize as much as you can to build and support the habits that will keep you going.

One way is simply to schedule your habits:

  • Dedicate time every morning to work on your goals. For example, set a reminder or alarm at 7:30am to spend an hour writing.
  • Schedule working towards your goal for when your energy is highest. Our energy levels rise and dip throughout the day. To give yourself the best chance, schedule your habit for when you know you’ll have energy.
  • Use your calendar as an accountability partner. Look back on the past month and see when you worked towards your goals and how much. When were you most successful?
  • Set RescueTime Alerts for when you’ve hit your daily quota for working towards your goals. RescueTime can give you an honest look at the time you’re spending on your digital devices and alert you when you need to take a break.

Step 5: Optimize your work environment to make working on your goals easier

Workspace goal setting

Where you work has a major impact on the quality and quantity of work you do. And working in a place with too many distractions—people, unwanted noises, reminders of other responsibilities—can make it impossible to build the good habits we need to hit our goals.

Make sure that your environment is geared towards the work you want to do. This could mean keeping positive reminders around you, limiting distractions, or always having the right tools at your disposal.

If you want to know more, we put together this full guide on how to optimize your work environment for productivity.

Why “1% better, everyday” is your best goal setting strategy

Your goals aren’t just results you want to hit. They’re metaphors for the kind of life you want to live and the type of person you’re striving to be. With this much pressure, they can feel overwhelming to take on. While failing to hit them can feel like the ultimate failure.

That’s why it’s important to shift away from focusing solely on results and remember all the other moving parts that get you there.

Living in a systematic way like this, with the right habits and processes, is certainly less sexy than just focusing on big goals. But you’d be surprised how quickly getting 1% better every single day will get you closer to your biggest goals.

What to do next

Setting and achieving your goals is a life-long process. Keep building your goal-setting toolbox by downloading our free Guide to Setting and Achieving Goals and then sign up for RescueTime for free to start tracking and measuring how you’re spending your time every day.