How to Set and Achieve Goals: 12 Steps to Success

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Goals!" by Brian Tracy. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How do you set goals to work towards? What are some things you should consider when embarking on a goal?

We all have things we are striving for, but not everybody has goals. Most people have dreams—abstract desires that aren’t specific or actionable enough to be goals. A goal is a target that you’re working towards with intention. In his book Goals!, Brian Tracy explains how to set and achieve goals in 12 steps.

Keep reading to learn each step in detail and to discover some practical ways to apply his tips to different areas of your life.

Step 1: Figure Out What You Really Want 

In his book Goals!, motivational speaker Brian Tracy explains how to set and achieve goals in the shortest amount of time. According to Tracy, the first step to setting goals is to determine what you actually want. This is important because knowing what you want keeps you from wandering aimlessly—when you know where you’re going, you can move forward purposefully and decisively.

Use this step to figure out what you want and set the direction for every area of your life: finances, career, relationships, and health. To avoid coming up with vague wishes, make sure that your goals are:

1) Clear and Quantifiable. Tracy argues that having clear and quantifiable goals allows you to measure your progress.

2) Challenging. Your goals should push you out of your comfort zone, Tracy notes. If they’re too easy, then you won’t experience much growth.

3) Time Constrained. Deadlines give you a sense of urgency and prompt you to act. Tracy says it’s okay if you don’t meet them—they aren’t set in stone, and you can just keep setting new deadlines until you reach your goals. What matters is that you have a target to aim for.

4) Aligned With Your Values and With Each Other. Tracy recommends clarifying your values so that you’ll have goals that are true to who you are. If your goals aren’t aligned with your values, you’ll end up feeling unfulfilled. Furthermore, if they aren’t aligned with each other, you’ll end up sabotaging yourself. For example, one of your goals might be to build a successful business, while another goal might be to have plenty of free time to pursue your hobbies. Since these two are at odds with each other—building a business requires your time—you’ll find it impossible to accomplish both.

Step 2: Believe You Can Achieve It 

If you were honest about what you want in Step 1, you might now have a list of goals that seem unattainable, from the amount of money you want to earn to the kind of relationship you want to have. Instead of doubting your ability to achieve your goals or being intimidated by the time and effort required, have a strong conviction that you can do, have, or be anything that you want. 

To foster this sense of confidence, Tracy recommends avoiding goals that are outrageously ambitious, because you’ll only feel discouraged or defeated if you don’t hit these goals right away. Instead, set one small goal after another. This strengthens your goal-setting muscle, giving you the confidence to set bigger goals.

For example, if you want to increase your income, first think of a figure that is attainable within a realistic time period given your situation, resources, and skills. Instead of aiming to increase your income by 100% right away, aim for a 30% increase within a year.

Step 3: Write It Down

Once you have a strong conviction that you can achieve whatever you set out to do, it’s time to commit your goals to paper. Tracy says that the simple act of writing down your goals is transformative, and he cites a Harvard study to back up his claim: In the study, Harvard MBA graduates who had written down their goals after graduation were later found to be earning 10 times more than those who hadn’t written down their goals.

Tracy recommends that you spend five minutes a day listing 10 to 15 goals. Refine the list as the days go by until your goals become clearer and eventually become second nature to you. This daily act of writing not only helps you keep track of your progress but also forges a stronger connection between your conscious and subconscious mind, orienting you toward goal-attaining actions. Tracy says it’s okay to be skeptical about this connection, but you should have the discipline to keep doing the exercise anyway.

Step 4: Assess Your Starting Point 

Once you’re clear about your destination, the next step is to determine your starting point. Tracy says that you should be brutally honest about your current circumstances and how you got there. Reflect on the people or behaviors that have led to your current situation and that may continue to hinder your progress and prevent you from reaching your goals. Not having to deal with these barriers will save you plenty of time and effort in the long run, so think about how you can be free of them.

For example, if your goal is to make a million dollars, your starting point is how much money you currently have. List all your assets and subtract your liabilities from them to determine your net worth. Then, reflect on the behaviors that led to your situation and that may keep you from reaching your goal—for example, not tracking your expenses, using retail therapy to cope with stress, and paying for a gym membership you don’t use.

Step 5: Find Your “Why” 

Once you’ve figured out what goals to pursue and where to start on them, turn your attention to why you want to achieve them. The road to your goals can be long and arduous, so reminding yourself of the reasons you want to achieve them can keep you going despite the obstacles. To this end, Tracy says to list all the reasons you have to pursue each of the goals on your list. Write as many reasons as you can think of—having more reasons increases your motivation, persistence, and determination. 

For example, if your goal is to lose 30 pounds, one of your reasons might be “to feel comfortable in a swimsuit next summer.” However, you might delay taking action if the summer is still months away. Having other reasons such as “to have more energy,” “to stop taking medication,” and “to improve my sex life” can increase your motivation and get you moving. 

Step 6: Determine the “When” 

After writing down your reasons for wanting to achieve the goals you’ve chosen, turn your attention to setting deadlines for each of them. It’s okay if your progress isn’t perfectly aligned with your predicted timeline—Tracy says you might achieve some goals earlier and others later than planned. What matters is that you have a target timeline to aim for. 

Tracy notes that some deadlines might be five or 10 years into the future, so you might get overwhelmed by the long road ahead. He recommends that to better approach intimidating long-term goals, you break down your deadlines into more manageable sub-deadlines or short-term goals, such as tasks you can accomplish each week or month. For example, if your goal is to make a million dollars in 10 years, your short-term goal might be to invest a specific amount each month. Meeting your short-term goals not only keeps you moving but also makes you feel accomplished, which in turn boosts your confidence and motivation. 

Step 7: Identify Challenges

Now that you have a comprehensive view of your goals and when you want to achieve them, the next step is to identify potential challenges. According to Tracy, challenges are inevitable and failure is part of the process of pursuing your goals. He writes that successful people understand that the only real failure is giving up. (Shortform note: Remove the stigma of failure by learning to see it as something positive: When you fail, remind yourself that it’s only a temporary setback and that the experience holds a valuable lesson. Then, reflect on how you can use the lesson to move forward.) 

When you know the challenges and potential problems ahead of you, you can be better prepared to face them. Tracy offers these two tips for preparing for the challenges ahead:

1) Find the root cause. Write down every possible roadblock and look at each problem from every angle, digging deeper until you find its root cause. Tracy says it’s important to identify the root cause of your problems so that you can determine the right course of action.

2) Find solutions, not excuses. Instead of dwelling on your problems and how they make you feel, Tracy says to stay solution-oriented.

Step 8: Keep Learning 

Once you identify your challenges, you’ll have a clearer idea of the skills required for you to overcome them and reach your goals. Tracy argues that if you don’t have the necessary skills or if you’re weak in some areas, commit to learning and strengthening those skills. Learning new things will not only help you reach your goals but will also increase your self-esteem and give you more courage and confidence to pursue what you want.

Progress Comes From Learning

Tracy says that learning new skills is especially important for your career goals because your skills are directly related to your earning ability—he writes that the more skilled you are, the higher your potential income.

Tracy gives four tips to help you determine the skills you need:

1) Identify the Key Result Areas for Your Specific Field. Tracy explains that key result areas (KRAs) are the skills you need to do your job. In management, for example, the KRAs are planning, organizing, staffing, delegating, supervising, measuring, and reporting. Once you’ve identified your specific KRAs, rate yourself in each area on a scale of one to 10.

2) Ask Others to Rate You. Next, Tracy recommends asking your boss, customers, and co-workers to rate you from one to 10 on your KRAs, or have them fill out an anonymous survey to comment on your performance. The results will give you a more objective view of your performance.

3) Identify Your Weakest Area. To identify your weaknesses, review your self-assessment and others’ assessment of your skills. Tracy says it’s important to identify your weakest area because you can only go as high up the career ladder as your weakest skill will allow you. Resolve to improve until you score no lower than a seven on any of your key skills.

4) Leverage What You’re Good At. Finally, Tracy advises that you use your strengths—the skills that feel natural to you, that you perform well, and that make you feel like you’re in the zone—to your advantage. If you discover that your particular talents are more suited to another field, don’t be afraid to start fresh. Working in a field that taps into your natural abilities can more quickly increase your earning ability than sticking it out in a field that doesn’t play to your strengths.

Step 9: Build Connections With the Right People 

After identifying the skills you’ll need to achieve your goals, assess what kind of help you need from other people to improve your skills and move closer to your goals. Tracy believes that other people are necessary to your success, whether their role is to open doors to opportunities or to provide emotional or moral support. The right kind of help can save you years of hard work and fast-track your achievements. 

It’s therefore important to build and nurture your relationships in three areas:

1) At work: Whatever field or business you’re in, Tracy says that you’re essentially in customer service. Your job is to meet the needs of those who play a role in your advancement and those who rely on you: your boss, co-workers, staff, customers, and suppliers. Be a team player by doing what’s expected of you, knowing your priorities, and genuinely offering to help others.

2) In your industry: Tracy notes that some of the best people you can associate with may not be within your organization, so venture out of your workplace and get involved in industry associations and business organizations. Volunteer for committees then do your work well. Those you impress today might be able to open doors for you tomorrow.

3) At home: Tracy stresses not to take your loved ones for granted. Be sure to explain why you have to put in long hours at work and make it up to them in the future. Having a happy, supportive home life can motivate you to do better in the outside world. On the other hand, having problems at home can negatively affect you, distracting you from work and draining your energy.

Step 10: Plan and Execute 

Now that you’ve clarified what you want, identified the challenges, and determined the skills and people you need, Tracy says you’re ready to turn your goals into multi-step projects with deadlines. Even though circumstances are bound to change and not everything will go according to plan, the act of planning itself can better prepare you for the challenges that come your way.

Tracy writes that you shouldn’t aim to come up with a perfect plan from the beginning. Instead, just aim to get started on working toward your goals—you can make adjustments to your plan along the way. Even if you don’t consider yourself a planner, he says it’s a skill you can learn, so practice the following basic steps:

1) Create a Project-Planning Sheet. Tracy recommends that you put your plans down on paper with tasks arranged by priority then sub-tasks arranged in the order you need to do them and when. Note that you may be able to do some tasks at the same time.

2) Consult Other People. Once you have your project-planning sheet, Tracy says to identify which tasks require other people’s action. Then, ask those people to give you a realistic projection of the time and resources they need for them to do their part—it’s possible that they’ll need more or less time and resources than you anticipated. Make adjustments to your plan based on their input.

3) Decide Whether to Move Forward. After breaking your goals down into mini-projects and consulting other people who are essential to your plan, you now have a better understanding of exactly what’s involved in achieving your goals. If, after careful planning and discussions with the people involved, you find that your initial goals aren’t feasible, Tracy says it’s best to put them aside rather than waste your time, money, and energy pursuing a lost cause.

Step 11: Stay on Track

Once you start executing your plan, the next step is to monitor your progress. Tracy says you can do this by setting daily, weekly, and monthly benchmarks and metrics for each of your goals. Numbers make it plain to see whether you’re moving closer to your goal, allow you to make corrections as soon as you see that something is off, and help you stay on schedule. For example, your daily metric for your weight-loss goal can be the number of calories you consume. Your weekly metric can be how many minutes you spend exercising. Your monthly metrics can be how many pounds you lose.

Step 12: Keep Going

With a clear picture of your future and a solid plan in the execution phase, all that’s left to do is to keep moving forward, no matter what challenges come your way. Tracy says that there are two qualities that you need to develop so that you can face the challenges you encounter: courage and persistence.

Courage

Tracy writes that you need courage to face what is likely your biggest challenge: fear. Being afraid of failure and rejection can make you indecisive and paralyze you. He suggests four methods to overcome the fears that are holding you back:

Persistence

While courage can help you start reaching for your goals, persistence will keep you going despite the obstacles. Tracy repeatedly says that challenges are inevitable, and even the most successful people have had their fair share of setbacks. The reason they’re successful isn’t their luck or exceptional talent but their ability to endure despite difficulties and to learn and grow from adversity.

Exercise: Become Better at Setting and Achieving Goals

Tracy says that you can achieve anything that you set your mind to, but that it’s best to start with smaller goals so you can gain more confidence and increase your belief in yourself.

List three of your goals. These can be personal or professional—just remember to keep them relatively small and manageable. 

Which of these goals can you achieve in the shortest amount of time? By when do you aim to achieve it?

What are the potential obstacles to achieving this goal within your given time frame?  

What’s one thing you can do today to start moving toward this goal?

How to Set and Achieve Goals: 12 Steps to Success

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  • Brian Tracy's steps to setting and reaching your goals
  • How to approach your goals with the right mentality
  • Why persistence is more important than courage

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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