Setting Life Goals: Chart Out Your Journey

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Magic of Thinking Big" by David J. Schwartz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you have a goal in your life? Why is it important to have specific goals for your life?

Setting life goals is like charting a destination for your journey. Without goals, we stumble around, surviving day to day but never truly knowing where we are going. Goals set a specific target for you to aim toward. You know where to direct your effort, and you aim for concrete results.

Keep reading to learn how successful people treat goals.

The Power of Goals

If you walked up to an airline ticket counter and said, “Give me a ticket,” the agent wouldn’t know how to help you. You can’t buy the ticket until you know your destination. It’s the same with setting life goals. You can’t get started until you know where you want to go.

Think of yourself like a business. Businesses plan ahead, researching and developing new products and services, keeping an eye on changing trends. They have a plan for how to respond to new conditions, and they set goals to target. 

Successful people are like businesses, with talents and skills as the products. Success depends on developing yourself, producing product, and marketing yourself. Like a business, you need a long-term plan to do this effectively.

When you set goals, don’t be afraid to be ambitious. Don’t be intimidated by your past or where you are today. Don’t think small thoughts like, “look at where I am now – there’s no way I can reach my goal.” Your current situation don’t matter when you set a goal. What’s important is where you want to go.

Here’s how successful people treat goals:

  • Understand the power of goals:
    • Goals both big and small give purpose.
    • When setting career goals, surrender to your true passions.
    • Goals give you automatic guidance to stay on course.
    • Progress toward goals is made one step at a time.
  • Set goals throughout your life:
    • Write out a 10-year plan for life in the areas of work, home and social.
    • Have a 30-day improvement plan for small goals. 

Goals Big and Small Give Purpose

No matter how big or small, goals have incredible power. Focusing on a goal immediately boosts energy, cures boredom, and unleashes physical power. Think of a weekend morning when you wake up with nothing to do. Sounds nice, but on days like this we accomplish little. When we wake up with a plan, we get things done.

Small goals on a daily and weekly basis keep us going and accomplishing. Salespeople have quotas that define what they need to sell, keeping them motivated and on task. Teachers set deadlines to motivate students to work efficiently. We accomplish what we plan to accomplish.

On a larger level, goals can help keep us alive, literally and figuratively. Think of the retiree who views retirement as the end of purposeful living. Having nothing to strive for is a recipe for depression. But the retiree who jumps in to new projects and interests and continues with her passions will thrive.

For Your Career, Follow Your Desire

The work, home and social aspects of your life are all important, but your career has the strongest influence on the other areas. Career success funds the standard of living that supports our home and social lives, so it’s important to set the right career goals. 

So how do you pick the right career?

There is one factor that determines career success: desire. If you follow a path toward a career you’re not passionate about, you set yourself up for mediocrity. 

But if can harness a true, burning desire, you unleash power and energy. Success requires an all-consuming, heart-and-soul effort, and you can’t put that kind of effort toward something you don’t care about.

  • The author knew a promising young writer with a passion and knack for journalism. But he didn’t think journalism would be a lucrative career, so he opted for a secure job in management. In a few years he was bored, disinterested and cynical. Had he opted for a career in his true area of passion, he would’ve been more motivated and happier — possibly even more successful.

When you’ve got it right, you’ll feel your goal become all-consuming. Surrender to your goal. Let it obsess you.

At some point, we all have a dream job in mind, but few of us follow that desire. Instead, we use five excuses to murder our dreams:

  • Self-deprecation. “I’d love to be a ______, but I’m not smart enough.”
  • Desire for security: We stick with a safe and secure job choice instead of pursuing a risky dream.
  • Competition: “Everyone else is too good; I wouldn’t make a mark.”
  • Parents setting your life: Your parents expect you to pursue a certain career, and you feel pressured to follow along.
  • Family: “I would do this, but I’ve got a family to think about.”

If you want success in the area of your passion, you need to destroy these excuses. Most often, there are creative ways around your problems.

  • If parents are overbearing, have a healthy conversation about what you prefer and why. If the parent will listen, you may not actually have a major disagreement.
  • Find a path to balancing security and family responsibility while pursuing your passion.

Goals Automatically Keep You on Course

When you set a goal, it becomes like a GPS navigation guide. It guides you on how to act in new situations, what to say, how to respond to new information. It keeps you on course to reach your target.

  • Tom and Jack work at the same company. They’re a lot alike, except for one thing. Tom has a deeply held goal and Jack does not. 
  • Tom wants to be a VP and has completely surrendered himself to this goal. The goal constantly speaks to him, prompting him to make the choices that keep him on target: what suit to buy, what to say in the meeting, what projects to take. His goal has made him sensitive to all the forces at work that will affect his goal’s attainment. 
  • Jack doesn’t have a goal and lacks the internal compass to guide decision-making. His decisions don’t reflect any agenda. He flounders into mediocrity because he lacks purpose. 

Progress Toward Goals Is Made One Step at a Time

Successful people learn that progress toward their goal is made one step at a time. Every big accomplishment is the result of a series of little accomplishments. Marathons are won one step at a time. Cathedrals are built one brick at a time. 

Goals need the structure of a step-by-step method. Think of a writer tasked with a book project of 250,000 words. It would feel overwhelming, but if she concentrated on writing one paragraph at a time, the book would “write itself” in a matter of months. 

When it comes to your personal goal, remember to take things one day at a time. Little victories will fuel you toward your big goal. Each accomplishment will give you a sense of pride and propel you forward.

Set Goals Throughout Your Life

How do you set goals for yourself? Let’s start from the high level, and zoom down into little goals.

Visualize Your Future 10 years from Now

Envision the most successful version of yourself 10 years from now. What do you want to have achieved? Try these questions:

  • Work: What kind of work am I doing? How much money do I want to make? How much responsibility do I want? How much public recognition do I want? 
  • Home: How comfortably do I want my family to live? What do we want from our free time? What kind of relationship do I have with my partner or spouse? What do I hope for my children?
  • Social: What are my closest friends like? How connected do I feel to my community? With what types of people do I spend my time?

(Shortform note: Try to take this in two steps. At first, try not to first think about specific details, like what exact job you want, which specific friends you want. Instead, start with general principles – what kind of job do you want? What kinds of friends do you want?

Then think about specific details to make it real. Imagine the ideal job, )

Don’t be afraid to dream big. You won’t achieve big things if you don’t first set big goals.

Create a 30-Day Improvement Plan

You can improve yourself a little at a time, as well. Successful people often set a series of small goals for their own self-improvement. Working on the little things gets you in shape for the big things. 

Set a 30 day plan focused on small changes.

  • List negative habits you want to break.
    • Examples: Watching TV; procrastinating.
  • List positive habits you want to acquire.
    • Examples: Smiling more; being more decisive.
  • List ways to increase your value to your employer.
    • Examples: Speak up in meetings; volunteer for tasks.
  • List ways to improve your home.
    • Examples: Set aside specific times for your family; compliment your spouse.
  • List ways to grow personally and think more sharply.
    • Examples: Read one book a week; have coffee with a successful friend.

Write down your self-improvement goals and give yourself 30 days to work on these improvements. Commit to doing all these things by this time next month.

Then take a look at your progress. You’ll see that building positive new habits and breaking old, negative habits is a day-to-day process that yields incredible rewards, little by little.

Setting Life Goals: Chart Out Your Journey

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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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