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 for yourself? Where do you even start? How do you align your goals with your final destination?

If you are lucky, you know what you want from life and you have no doubt that this path is the right one. But if you aren’t sure, it’s never too early to think about what direction you want to pursue in life. You can’t set goals for yourself if you aren’t clear about where you want to go.

Here’s how to set goals for yourself and make sure you achieve them.

Assess Your Starting Point 

In his book Goals!, motivational speaker Brian Tracy explains how to set goals for yourself and make sure you achieve them. To this end, you must assess 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.

(Shortform note: You might avoid assessing your starting point because confronting your bad habits and relationships can be painful. Plus, even if you are willing to put yourself through the pain of self-assessment, you may lack the self-awareness to determine all the factors that can hinder you from progress. To increase your self-awareness, ask people close to you to point out patterns in your behavior. The opinions of objective outsiders can help you see your blind spots.)

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. (Shortform note: The Harvard study that Tracy mentions here is widely cited in books and articles. However, there is no record that this study ever took place. Still, other studies have shown that writing down goals increases your chances of success.)

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.

Why You Should Strengthen Your Conscious-Subconscious Connection

Tracy says that regularly writing down your goals reinforces the connection between your conscious and subconscious, but he doesn’t go into detail about how this connection can help you.

Author Maxwell Maltz explains that strengthening this connection is important to prevent yourself from sabotaging your efforts. In Psycho-Cybernetics, he writes that consciously deciding to achieve goals isn’t enough to actually help you achieve them—these conscious goals should also be aligned with your subconscious goals, otherwise you’ll engage in self-sabotaging behaviors. For example, your conscious goal might be to have an intimate relationship, but your subconscious goals might lead you to push people away. 

To address this incongruence, Maltz says that you should work on your self-image, which is the “operator” of your subconscious. Having a positive self-image ensures that your subconscious leads you toward productive, rather than destructive, behaviors.

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.

(Shortform note: Tracy advises starting with small goals with the objective of working your way up to big ones as a confidence-boosting exercise. But studies show that having big, long-term goals at all may actually lead to disappointment and unhappiness because they take so long to achieve. To have a healthier approach to your major life goals, view them with some detachment: Your goals aren’t prerequisites to happiness, but they give you direction as you navigate your way through life. If your circumstances change, allow yourself to let go of big goals that no longer align with the direction you’re going. This will help you to retain the confidence that Tracy states you need to move forward.)

How to Set Goals for Yourself: Start Here & Now

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  • Brian Tracy's steps to setting and reaching your goals
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  • 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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