5 Principles for Setting Good Goals

It's not enough to set any old goal. You need to set one that fulfills the right conditions.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #481

a napkin with someone setting goals on it

Goals! I just love goals! One of the most famous lines in theater history was written by Shakespeare and, if I recall correctly, is about goals: “The goal’s the thing, with which to accomplish the agenda of the Queen.” Remember? Macbeth was trying to develop a new laundry detergent to remove spots from fine clothing. It was one of the great moments in the performing arts, apparent even to someone like me, who has no training in the history of theater. Whatsoever. (I just know genius when I see it).

In prior episodes, we’ve discussed the difference between outcome goals and process goal and when you should use each. We’ve explored how to set goals to give you the life you want. We’ve explored goals from many angles. But we’ve never reviewed the very basics of how to set goals. So just like we recently reviewed the very basics of how to use a to-do list, today it’s back to basics with goal setting! 

Make Goals Specific

Bernice decided that her plant store Green Growing Things needed an updated look. So she called her team together and said, “Our new goal is to revamp the store! Bring me your proposals!” The staff jumped to work and came back with several proposals.

Europa suggested we install barbed wire around the outside, to protect against political dissidents trying to steal plants. Melvin was in favor of installing a server farm, so in the event civilization collapsed, the IT systems would still work. While these ideas have merit (in some alternate universe), they don’t move the team any closer to anything useful. That’s because Bernice’s goal is too vague. “Revamp the store” could mean anything. 

Having listened my episode on IS/IS-NOT lists, she quickly realizes her error and makes the goal more specific. It also helps to specify a timeframe. “We’re going to update the store to have a modern look and feel by December 31 of next year.” 

Make Your Goals Measurable and Achievable

It’s also important to make goals measurable. Otherwise, you won’t know if you reach them. “Revamp the store” is not measurable. “Have a modern look and feel” is more measurable. “Modern look and feel” isn't perfect because it's subjective, but it could be measured with an informal survey of customers as they walk into the store. Without a way to know the goal has been reached, you run the risk of working forever, even after you’ve reached the goal. 

Lots of people make this mistake with life goals, by the way. They set goals like “I want to be rich,” or “I want to succeed,” or “I want to be happy,” but never get specific or measurable, so they don’t know when they’re there.

Also make sure that your goals are under your control, or if you’re a manager, are under your organization’s control. A goal of building a model of Kim Kardashian out of toothpicks is under your control. A goal of getting Kim Kardashian to build a model of you out of toothpicks is not under your control. 

Break Your Goal into Subgoals

Now that the team’s goal is to update the store to a modern look and feel, they need to break it into smaller, more achievable subgoals. Subgoals are the smaller goals that are steps along the way to achieving the big goal. A goal that can’t be decomposed into steps is far less likely to be achieved. 

You can recognize a subgoal because it generally has a shorter time horizon than the goal it’s part of. In business environments, the organization itself reflects the goals and subgoals. Higher positions have larger, longer-time-frame goals. A Vice President might have a goal of “Improve sales by 20%.” One subgoal might be “Double our telephone sales capacity,” which would be given to a Regional Operations Director as their primary goal.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.