How to Master Goal-setting to Accomplish Your Goals

Goals OKRs

Have you ever wondered why new year goals and resolutions almost always fail despite your best intentions? You start with enthusiasm but the pattern is dismally familiar. A few days, at most a couple of weeks, and you are back to old habits.

Thanks to exciting advances in brain science and groundbreaking behavioral research on motivation, procrastination and habits, we understand the sources of our actions and behaviors better than ever before. As a result, you can be smarter about how to modify your habits, build more willpower and develop effective strategies to help you achieve your goals over the longer term. Good goal-setting is one area where research is already helping more and more people focus, stay on track and get things done. Even in business settings, more and more teams and companies are adopting the OKR (objectives and key results) approach, a goal-based methodology that help teams stay focused and achieve operational excellence.

So what does science tell us about good goal-setting and how you can increase your chances of success?  Being most passionate about goals and productivity at work, most examples in this post are work-oriented, but the principles discussed apply equally to your personal goals. 

#1. Make your goals challenging but achievable

If a goal is too easy you will not accomplish much. If a goal is too hard, you will give up before you start. The best goals should “stretch” you but must be do-able. (This is the very basis of goal-setting in OKRs which Google, LinkedIn and Twitter have adopted).

#2. Connect your goals to something personally meaningful to you

How am I personally benefiting by pursuing this goal? By focusing on this question, you will be much more likely to stick with it. You are more likely to stay on track with goals when they’re important, interesting or enjoyable for you. This happens most often if you are able to connect goals to your deepest values and aspirations.

In his influential work on goal-setting, Piers Steel, professor at the University of Calgary, gives some good examples of personal and emotional benefits that help us get things done efficiently at work.

“I want respect and admiration of my peers at work”
“Allows me to take downtime guilt free”
“It gives me a feeling of mastery and competence”
“Advances my career so I can get more autonomy”
“Helps others who depend upon my work”

#3. Break your goals into smaller milestones or actionable tasks

Monthly, quarterly or longer-term goals are almost never achieved in one go. It is important to break larger goals into manageable smaller tasks or milestones. Setting and accomplishing these tasks will give you a tangible sense of progress and keep you motivated. Keep the task list simple and flexible to help you get things done regularly. Goals and tasks should be written in a way that make it extremely clear when they are completed.

Medium-term goal example: “Generate 20% more new leads”

Tasks or milestone examples: “Set up a webinar for sales professionals”; “Run an email campaign targeting sales managers”; “Publish a blog post this week”

#4. Your tasks or milestones should be immediate and specific

To accomplish things you need near-term milestones. Remember the motivation you have just before a deadline and you have that feeling that you really need to get going? The framing of tasks or milestones should aim to create a similar sense of urgency in you by making them as immediate and specific as possible. “Set up a webinar” is okay but “Schedule the webinar and send invites by Friday” is better.

Daily or weekly task or milestone deadlines work for most people. If you tend to procrastinate or the task is difficult, even a 30 minute task deadline may be what you need to get started. There are no hard and fast rules for how many tasks or milestones you should have for each goal. Have as many or as few as you need. Experiment with framing immediate and specific tasks and see what works well. Like most good things, once you start to write goals and tasks with specificity it will soon become natural.

#5. Make your goals visible to others

Making goals that your are working on visible to others make it more likely that you will succeed. This works well only when goals are verifiable. “Write more” is vague but “Publish 500 word blog post every Thursday” is independently verifiable. If you have framed your goals as suggested in earlier steps then your goals will be verifiable. 

#6. Use triggers and cues to help you build good habits

We are conditioned to respond to triggers, cues and rewards. Social media companies and game developers understand this well and use external cues like sounds, notifications, points and badges to trigger actions. You can use similar techniques to trigger behavior that helps you in your goal pursuit.

One advantage of using apps or tools to keep track of your goals, tasks and progress is that you can set notifications and other cues to nudge you toward making progress. Record your progress and accomplishments regularly. Few habits are as motivating as seeing progress.

Look for “Fresh Starts”

These strategies, derived from behavioral and motivation research, will help you master effective goal-setting and assist in getting things done. But there will still be times, despite your best intentions, that you will struggle with self-control, fail to stick to your plans and achieve your goals. These are the times to look for a “Fresh Start”.

Wharton professor, Katherine Milkman and her co-authors, Hengchen Dai and Jason Riis have done fascinating work on the role timing of resolutions plays in building up motivation and overcoming inertia. They have labeled it the “fresh start effect”.

In her interview with strategy + business, Milkman says:

“For example, at the beginning of a new week, the start of a new month, following a birthday, or after a holiday from work, people redouble their efforts to achieve their goals.

Why? Because in these fresh-start moments, people feel more distant from their past failures. Those failures are the old you, and this is the new you. The fresh-start effect hinges on the idea that we don’t feel as perfect about our past as we’d like. We’re always striving to be better. And when we can wipe out all those failures and look at a clean slate, it makes us feel more capable and drives us forward.

So new year resolutions are not a bad idea. Its another opportunity for a “fresh start” when our motivation levels are high. But what matters is to get better, approach success as a process and stick to your goals. Make allowances in your mind that setbacks and failures will occur but you can start again.

In conclusion, learn and practice how to set and frame goals effectively to help you achieve them. Write them down and break them into smaller tasks to reach near term finish lines. Record your progress and celebrate it. But if you slip up don’t despair. There is always the opportunity for a fresh start right around the corner.

Further Reading: There are several excellent books written in recent years on the intersection of neuroscience, motivation, happiness, habits, willpower and strategies to counter our systematic negative behaviors. Here are some of my favorites for those interested in further exploration.

1. Thinking Fast & Slow – Daniel Kahneman (The bible of behavioral psychology by its Nobel prize -winning founding prophet)
2. The Procrastination Equation – Piers Steel
3. Drive – Daniel Pink
4. Predictably Irrational – Dan Ariely
5. The Power of Habit – Charles Duhigg
6. Willpower – Roy Baumeister / John Tierney
7. Nudge – Cass Sunstein
8. Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think – Paul Dolan

Are there other books, tips or tricks that have helped you modify your behaviors, conquer inertia, stay on goal and unlock your potential?

You can try Cove, our goal-setting app for individuals and teams on the iTunes store and at

- Fawad Zakariya, Co-Founder & CEO