How to set effective goals

Posted on November 20th, by Dr Rob Yeung .

What are your goals at the moment? Perhaps you want to achieve something in your career. Maybe you want to change something in your personal life – to do with your fitness, health, or relationships, for example.

I’ve written before on how to set motivating goals. But in doing one-on-one coaching with a couple of clients recently, I was reminded of the need to set really specific goals.

For example, one recent client is studying for some professional exams. The exams have a reputation for being very tough. More than two-thirds of people who take the first exam fail them on the first attempt. She had set herself a goal of studying every evening. But the research suggests that it’s more productive to set a specific goal. That could be based on time, e.g., “I will study for an hour and a quarter”. So, that’s a target of studying for 75 minutes. Or a specific goal might be to do with the number of pages in a textbook (e.g., “I will read 2 chapters”) or the number of sample questions she completes every evening (e.g., “I will complete 60 multiple choice questions and one essay question”).

Another client is trying to manage his psychological wellbeing. We had previously talked about the benefits of mindfulness, but in recent months he had been busy and hadn’t made the time to practise it. So, I encouraged him to set himself very specific targets. He decided that that on Sundays at 11.00am (when his children are at football and ballet practice), he would spend five minutes planning exactly when in his coming week he would engage in mindfulness and for how long. For instance, last week, he emailed me to say that he had decided that he would do five sessions of mindfulness as follows:

  • Taking time during his lunch break on Monday to follow a guided mindfulness session from a video (lasting 7 minutes and 33 seconds) on mindfulness.
  • A 10-minute session of walking mindfulness (i.e., actually going for a walk in the streets near his office) at some point during his lunch break on Tuesday.
  • A 5-minute session of seated mindfulness on Thursday at 11.15am when he was working from home. He chose 11.15am as that was during a break between two online meetings.
  • And so on.

As you can see, he did not just have a broad intention to practise mindfulness. He decided exactly which type of mindfulness practice he would do – and when he would do it.

Studies by psychologists confirm that people who set specific goals – describing what they will do and when – tend to get much better results than people who set looser goals. So, over to you. Are your goals really, really specific? In the coming week, what will you be doing – and when will you do it?

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