Goal-setting theory draws on the concept that our conscious ideas guide our actions.
So, can we take this premise and apply it to the biggest, most meaningful objectives we could possibly set for ourselves—our life goals?
And what would that really mean, in terms of planning and getting on with it?
The research has given us a good deal to go on when it comes to effective goal-setting. But understanding goal-setting theory is only one step toward crafting personal life goals.
In this article, we’ll take a closer peek at some ideas and resources that will help you set out on the right path, and stick at it for success. Whether you’ve got no clue what you want, or you have a mile-long bucket list, hopefully, there will be something in here to get you motivated.
These detailed exercises will help you or your clients create actionable goals and master techniques to create lasting behavior change.
This Article Contains:
What are Life Goals?
Life goals are what we want to achieve, and they’re much more meaningful than just ‘what we need to accomplish to survive’. Unlike daily routines or short-term objectives, they drive our behaviors over the long run. There’s no single psychological definition for them, and they aren’t strictly a clinical construct, but they help us determine what we want to experience in terms of our values.
And because they are personal ambitions, they can take many different forms. But they give us a sense of direction and make us accountable as we strive for happiness and well-being—for our best possible lives.
Why Should We Set Goals in Life?
Lots of us have dreams. We know what makes us happy, what we’d love to try out, and we may have a vague idea of how we’d go about it. But setting clear goals can be beneficial in several ways, above and beyond wishful thinking: here are a few.
1. Setting Goals Can Clarify Our Behaviors
The act of setting goals and the thought we put into crafting them directs our attention to the why, how, and what of our aspirations. As such, they give us something to focus on and impact positively on our motivation.
Of course, there are limitations to the generalizability of this finding—simply setting goals won’t drive the actions that lead us to success.
We’ll look at this shortly, but for now, suffice to say that they give us something to commit to. It may not be easy to switch careers, but acknowledge that it’s your goal and you’ll at least be able to choose some appropriate actions.
2. Goals Allow for Feedback
If and when we know where we want to be, we can assess where we are now, and essentially, we can chart our progress. This feedback helps us adjust our behavior accordingly. By allowing for feedback, goals let us align or re-align our behaviors, keeping us on track with our eyes on the prize.
3. Goal-setting Can Promote Happiness
When our goals are based on our values, they are meaningful. Meaning, purpose, and striving for something ‘bigger’ is a key element of happiness theory in positive psychology.
Along with positive emotion, relationships, engagement, and accomplishment (which goals allow for), it makes up what we’ve come to known as ‘The Good Life’.
In other words, life goals represent something besides the daily grind. They allow us to pursue authentic aims of our own choosing and enjoy a feeling of achievement when we get there. That said, even striving to be the very best we can sometimes lead to happiness in itself.
4. They Encourage Us to Use Our Strengths
When we consider what matters the most to us, we can get more attuned with our inner strengths as well as our passions. Charting a course for ourselves is one thing, but using our strengths to get there comes with a whole set of other benefits.
Studies show that knowing and leveraging our strengths can increase our confidence, boost our engagement, and even promote feelings of good health and life satisfaction.
Using them in pursuit of our goals, therefore—even discovering what they are—can be a good thing for our well-being.
How to Find and Determine Personal Goals in Life
You will definitely be able to find inspiration all over the place for different possible goals, but because meaning is intrinsic, your answers will be unique. With the aim of discovering your own values and inspiration, have a look at these self-reflection exercises and see what the right questions might be for you personally.
Healthy Goal Setting Objectives and Guidelines
No matter what you’ve set as your life goals, adopt some best practice guidelines to make the whole journey a positive experience. Based on what we have looked at so far, we can draw a few objectives to keep in mind.
- Be realistic. Try to keep things in perspective both when designing your goals and as you work toward them. Research indicates that the best goals are challenging, yet achievable.
- A healthy goal is a positive ‘approach’ goal. Rather than setting negative, avoidance goals that have us working away from certain harmful, averse, or unpleasant outcomes, set yourself positive targets. Depending on whether they are intrinsic or extrinsic, therefore, they might be desirable, enjoyable, or ‘good’ in a deeper sense.
- Be ready to fail along the way…but don’t let it stop you. Resilience is the capacity to persevere in spite of setbacks, and obstacles are inevitable in some form or another. So as well as accepting this inevitability first up, resilience is a useful skill to develop throughout your journey. How do you plan to overcome obstacles? Can you brainstorm some alternative pathways?
- Involve others. As we’ve discussed earlier, family and friends can be invaluable. Not only do they help us generate ideas, but they are social resources that we can reach out to for support along the way.
- Break them down where possible. Celebrating our wins along the way is the same as celebrating our progress towards a larger life goal. Whether that celebration takes place on a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis will depend on your unique aims and the pathway you choose to follow. Nonetheless, research shows that they are critical for momentum and motivation.
Tracking Your Life Goals
First, as discussed, we can identify our goals and create clarity around them. Prioritizing them allows us to channel our focus on the top important goals, and one or more of the planners above will hopefully be useful for this.
We can then break down our larger, key goals into smaller sub-goals or objectives. These might be step-wise milestones, or we might have several alternative pathways running concurrently, but breaking down these goals allows us to plan better.
If you want to set deadlines or time frames for accomplishing each small sub-goal, feel free—this adds another layer of personal accountability and is commonly used in project management contexts.
Set realistic, sufficiently challenging time frames, and you’ll also benefit from a healthy amount of pressure—eustress, in other words.
When you have time-bound goals, therefore, you can better evaluate your progress. And from here, we can adapt or adjust our generated pathways accordingly to maximize our chances at success.
Based on what we know, the following techniques help us craft well-designed goals.
- Set intrinsic life goals as well as extrinsic ones. This requires self-reflection on your personal values, as well as your psychological and self-fulfillment needs as a human being. Aligning your goals with what you really consider important will make them more meaningful, and meaning is considered a key part of happiness in positive psychology.
- Set approach, rather than avoidance goals. Aim for positive outcomes rather than focusing your psychological, emotional, and physical energy on avoiding negative ones.
- Make them clear and actionable. Ideally, you should be easily able to break these down into sub-goals after some thought on potential pathways. If you can create concrete steps that lead toward a positive vision of the future, it will be easier to start thinking about resources you might need.
- Make them challenging, but keep them realistic. When it comes to outcomes, excessively easy goals won’t motivate you enough and could be boring. Overly challenging aspirations, on the other hand, can lead to stress and overwhelm you. Similarly, don’t rush yourself in terms of getting started if it’s not necessary, but don’t wait until the time is perfect, either.
A Take-Home Message
We all have dreams, but some merit more of our energy than others. When we reflect on the second type of aspiration along with our personal values, we’re already on the way to setting life goals. In this article, we have considered goal-setting theory and some actionable strategies that use positive psychology concepts to frame the whole concept. We’ve also looked at how human nature leads to intrinsic goals, and how the whole idea fits into well-being.
Have you discovered any ideas that you find useful? Or how do you motivate yourself to keep on track?
More importantly, why not share some of your life goals with us in the comments? Let’s get those ideas flowing!