Goals appear in nearly every self and professional improvement listicle. Everyone is always talking about how setting goals is so important. I am no different! Clever Cactus is, in large part, centered on goal setting and achievement. But what are goals, really? And why are they important? I’m going to do my best to answer that today.
An idea for the future
“The path from dreams to success does exist. May you have the vision to find it, the courage to get on it, and the perseverance to follow it.”Kalpana Chawla
Miriam Webster defines goals as “the end toward which effort is directed”. They suggest AIM as the alternative word. This is a very succinct definition that strikes right to the core of a goal-driven lifestyle. A goal is an aim. It can be a tangible single end result – win a game, own that car, take that vacation.
A goal is also a more persistent state of being. Wikipedia defines it as “an idea of the future or desired result that a person or a group of people envision, plan and commit to achieve. People endeavour to reach goals within a finite time by setting deadlines.” Live a healthier lifestyle, be more sociable, have better financial management, these are long lasting states and equally as goal-like as the single end point aims.
Here’s the thing though. Goals don’t have to be big and life changing. No matter the size – little, big, small, important – all goals add to our lives. “Setting a goal does not necessarily mean striving for something colossus, simple goals are no less important than big ones,” writes Remez Sasson in his article “The Importance of Setting Goals on Success Consciousness. “Only a certain percentage of the population is really interested in major goals and is willing to do everything to achieve them.”
Goals help you succeed
First and foremost, creating goals helps you succeed. It’s as simple as that. I recently read “The importance, Benefits, and Value of Goal Setting” by Leslie Riopel, MSc on Positive Psychology. It’s a really thorough look at, well, the importance, benefits and value of goal setting as seen through the lens of several different academic studies.
One such study she references was by Dr. Gail Matthews, a clinical psychologist from Dominican University of California. “Matthew’s research shows that those who write down their goals and share their goals with a friend, as well as send weekly updates, were on average 33% more successful when it comes to accomplishing their stated goals compared to those who merely formulate goals,” writes Riopel. Simply writing down a goal increases the likelihood that you’ll succeed.
That kind of blows my mind. But it also makes me nod vigorously because it confirms my personal experience when it comes to goal setting. When you plan all the steps for a goal, share your goals with your friends and make the effort to check in on your goal every few weeks, you’re more likely to succeed than if you just think once: “self, let’s do this thing.”
This is actually why I designed my Clever Cactus goal-setting system the way I did. Once you’ve set your goals on the goals pages (8-11), you then check in on them once a month to update your monthly spreads.
They give you purpose
“The trouble with not having a goal is that you can spend your life running up and down the field and never score.”Bill Copeland author, writer & historian
It’s really easy to get stuck in a rut. You go to work, come home, eat dinner, watch TV, go to bed. Rinse and repeat. If you have this nagging feeling in the back of your mind that something is missing, it might just be a goal.
Goals give us purpose; they’re a challenge we set for ourselves to motivate us throughout our daily lives. Think about the last time you went on vacation. Sure, you were excited about the vacation itself, but how did you feel while you were planning it? Excited? Perhaps a little stressed as the day crept closer and you had to run all those last minute errands. Definitely busy! Going on vacation motivated you to actively make it happen. It gave your days purpose.
Setting goals is an active process. It forces you to turn off auto-pilot and make conscious decisions about your days, weeks, months and years.
They hold you accountable
Accountability isn’t just about owning up to your mistakes. It’s also about owning up to your choices and following through on your commitments. Cambridge Dictionary explains “Someone who is accountable is completely responsible for what they do and must be able to give a satisfactory reason for it.” At the end of the year, during your Annual Review, you’ll look at everything you’ve done in that year. Can you explain to your future self why you made the decisions you did? When you have goals, it’ll be easy to remember why you decided to do X instead of Y. Or why you invested your time and money into a specific product or project.
That’s the broad, large picture goal accountability. On a more micro-level, goals keep you accountable daily. They give you something tangible to track. You can see your progress in real time every time you check in on your progress. When you’ve written your goals out and mapped out how to achieve them, you’ll also be able to make changes as you go to ensure you’re always moving forward. You can pivot the moment you need to, rather than a year later when it’s probably too late.
They keep you focussed
“Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.”Henry Ford
It is so very easy to get distracted nowadays. From social media browsing, to always having access to our emails everywhere we are, it seems there is always something we should do RIGHT NOW that takes us away from the things that really matter. Before I started actively setting goals for myself, I used to start new projects all the time and just… never finish them. This split my focus. I would think about those unfinished projects, probably stress out a little, then sit on the couch and watch TV instead.
With a goal, I know exactly what I want to accomplish in any given year. When new projects pop up, I can assess whether or not they’re worth doing right now or if they should go on my “think about next year” list. Every choice I make takes me towards my goals. “Setting goals helps you to step around the other shiny objects because you’ve taken the time to make some mental notes that remind you what it is that you want from your life,” writes Mark Lynch in his LifeHack article “8 Reasons Why Goal Setting Is Important to a Fulfilling Life”. “Your goals act as subconscious deterrents to anything less than your main priorities. This is what helps you to reach your personal definition of success.”
They prompt personal growth
Speaking of changes, goals highlight the gap between who we are and who we want to be. It’s probably easiest to see this in action with exercise-based goals. If you’ve never been into running, but got inspired by the marathon-running trend, that goal will change your life. It will inspire personal growth. Working towards that will change your daily routine, your diet, your exercise regime. These in turn will change your emotional and mental health.
While it’s not as obvious with other goals, personal growth still happens. When you’re actively working towards a goal, your behaviours will slowly adapt to ensure your success. The choices you make give you insight into who you are as a person. “The actions you take — or avoid — offer clues about your values, beliefs, challenges, strengths and weaknesses,” writes Jeff Boss in his article “5 Reasons Why Goal Setting Will Improve Your Focus” on Forbes. “While the process of goal setting is important because it helps unearth and identify what’s truly important to you, pursuing your goals is the real money-maker (literally and figuratively) because it builds self-efficacy; it develops yourself as the type of person who can achieve goals.”
Every time you set and achieve a goal – yes, even the small ones! – you gain confidence and learn just a little bit more about yourself.
“What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.”Zig Ziglar, author, salesman & motivational speaker
Most importantly, goals create happiness
When we accomplish our goals, a whole range of positive emotions might hit you: pride, happiness, joy, relief. All of this is bolstered by that lovely dopamine. That’s just the end reward though.
Goals also make you happier even while you’re working towards them. Every time you check in on your progress and see that you are, in fact, making progress – little bit of joy. “Seeing progress is addicting,” explains Boss. “No seriously, it’s literally addicting because of the dopamine released in your brain after attaining a reward.” Having that direction in your life and the motivation to “build” something inspires pride and boosts confidence. Your approach and attitude towards life shifts, all because of one little goal!
In fact, Riopel references research supporting the theory that goal-setting plays a role in mental health. “In one study, that looked at goal setting and well-being, people participated in three short one-hour sessions where they set goals,” writes Riopel. “The researchers compared those who set goals to a control group that didn’t complete the goal-setting exercise. The results showed a causal relationship between goal setting and subjective well-being.”
So go out there and set some goals
I love setting goals. I admit, I don’t always achieve my goals… that’s probably because I set too many for myself. In 2019, I had nine goals. In 2020, I had six goals…. This year, I have three goals, because that’s how many I completed in 2019 and 2020. My point is, I find that goals add to my life, even when I don’t complete them. They give my life purpose, motivate me, help me focus and keep me on track. I finish each year having improved in some way; having grown as a person. I created Clever Cactus so that I could help others do the same!