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September 12, 2022 Liadan Gunter

The Key Elements of Goal Setting at Work

Have you ever wondered what makes a goal a good one? We look over our shoulder, and there’s someone striving to run a marathon or bench press 250 pounds. Over the other, someone is working to open their own business while attempting to become a worldwide speaker. Goals are everywhere: on our way to work, on our way home, on our way to the gym, in the grocery store, down at the park. Everyone seems to have them, and everyone seems to want them. People certainly spend a lot of time talking about goals, the elements of goal setting, and how we must work towards them.

There’s a lot of pressure to have goals if you think about it. But, what’s the use of them? Why do we spend so much time talking, fantasizing, and working toward goals? What is a goal anyway?

A goal is an objective or target that someone is trying to reach or achieve.

Goal setting is important for:

  • Providing direction and focus so you can create the life you want
  • Giving you a sense of personal satisfaction and purpose
  • Identifying what’s important to you
  • Maintaining motivation and keeping you accountable
  • Prioritizing change and triggering new behaviors
  • Helping you organize your time and resources
  • Proving understanding of expectations
  • Measuring progress towards success
  • Preventing overwhelm
  • Provides clarity on decision making

The Key Elements of Goal Setting

You may be wondering: so how do you set a goal? Well, there is a six-step strategy that I have found to be useful. Let’s break it down. The key elements of goal setting are:

  1. Identify
  2. Make a List
  3. Prioritize and Narrow the Focus
  4. Plan and Build a Routine Around Your Goal List
  5. Put it on Your Calendar
  6. Execute the Plan

1. Identify

To start, identify the problem or area you would like to improve or something you’d like to accomplish

In general, if you don’t know where to start when it comes to setting goals at work or at home, I advise looking at your complaints in life. Analyze what areas are going well and what areas could be improved. Additionally, assess how you want your life to look like and compare that to where your life currently is. It’s in these gaps that we can find the answers.

Let’s take an example. Let’s say you’re working long hours, it’s not really required, but you feel good about putting in overtime. It makes you feel more secure at work. However, when you get home from work, you’re tired, you throw a microwaveable meal in the microwave and sit down to watch Netflix. Most of us have days like this, but let’s say this is your everyday routine. When you think about your complaints, they’re that you’re feeling lonely, isolated, overworked and that you don’t have time to do things that you love. Additionally, as you show up to work, you’re starting to get agitated with those around you, you’re slow to complete tasks, and just overall feeling a bit miserable.

So, now, when looking at your complaints, you can begin to craft a goal. Here are a few examples of how to go from your complaints and turn them into a goal:

Complaint #1: You’re overworked (you spend too much time at work). -> Goal #1: Reduce work hours by ___ to free up time.

When setting a goal, it’s important to get specific as possible. That will enable you to meet it versus it just being an abstract thought.

I started with this complaint and goal because it appeared to be the issue that was causing some of the other complaints. Of course, you could start with the other complaints too, but if you’re overworked and come home exhausted, you’re less likely to try to engage socially because the root of the problem is likely that you just simply don’t have enough time and energy.

One important caveat is to look and see where the root of the issues could be occurring. That’s a big indicator of where to direct your initial efforts.

Complaint #2: You feel lonely. -> Goal #2: Engage more socially.

Complaint #3: You don’t have time to do things you love. -> Goal #3: Do _____ x times/week.

In this case, I suggest you pick a couple of activities that you love and get specific about how often and when you will add them to your schedule. Perhaps you love to cook, so you may create a goal around cooking your meals every night or a few times a week.

This is how you begin to create goals from your complaints. Now, you can also create goals based on things you’d like to do. Let’s say you’ve always dreamed about writing a book. Then one of your goals is to write a book. You get the picture. This brings us to step number two.

2. Make a list

In this step, write down an all-encompassing list of your ideas for goals, anything that comes to mind. So, what you do here is just make a big list of all your ideas—all the things you’d like to change or add to your life.

I find that having a big list of all the things you’re wanting to do and change makes everything seem a lot more manageable. Before writing things down, it seems like we have a million ideas without an idea of where to start, but once we get it all down on paper, or in your note section on phone, for example, it makes everything seem a lot less big and scary.

But what do you do if you have a bunch of goals? Most of us have a lot of goals. Some of us want to structure a completely new life for ourselves where we create a list of goals around some super-human version of ourselves. We may imagine that we’ll work out two times a day, be social, sleep the perfect amount, engage in meditation and yoga, practice gratitude, make a meal from scratch for every meal, be leading the way at work, all the while writing a book, preparing for a Ted Talk, training for a triathlon, raising children, and learning a new language and joining a band. This is a lot, right? And of course, it’s important that we shoot for the stars, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t. It’s good to believe in the impossible and be unreasonable in the sense that I believe anyone can accomplish anything that they set their mind to.

However, we only have so much time in a day and so much energy we can expend. We have to rest in the end to support our ability to be productive.

That’s why the next step is extremely important.

3. Prioritize and Narrow the Focus

In this step, I want you to decide on one or two (max!) big goals that you want to work towards, and then three to five smaller goals. For the two big goals, it can be helpful to have a personal goal and a professional goal. Sometimes it’s helpful to have that separation versus just having one goal.

For the smaller goals, I would say they can fall into both categories. Alternatively, you could separate them entirely and have one big goal for work and three small goals for work. Then, you could have one big personal goal and then three small personal goals.

Choose the ones from the main list you created that are the most important right now and in the upcoming period. You could choose to set goals for a whole year (which I think is a good strategy), monthly goals, or quarterly goals. I tend to focus on yearly goals and monthly goals. If you’re starting now and there are only a few months left of the year, you can pick the goal post of “by the end of the year.”

Choose the things you’d like to focus on for that particular period. Anything that’s left (because you will have things left) put that on another list for the future. Next time you create your goals list, you can draw from that list.

4. Plan and build a routine around your goal listThe Key Elements of Goal Setting at Work - two employees collaborating on whiteboard in office

The next portion is to build a routine from those goals. Let’s say you want to write a book in the next six months. Great! You have your deadline already. So now you need to figure out a plan to make that happen.

Get specific as possible. Maybe first you start with an outline of how long the book is going to be and what the book is going to cover. Then you break down each chapter or section. You then make smaller goals.

Let’s say the book will be twelve chapters long. That means you could write one chapter every week or two chapters every month.

Then, you figure out how often or how many days a week and how much time you would need to make that happen. Let’s say you decide to write one hour a day. To you, that seems reasonable. What you do then is decide what time of day makes the most sense for you to set aside this one hour of writing time.

Routine is important for accomplishing goals, so I suggest trying to have a specific time, and possibly a place, where you do this activity. It’ll help you stay on track versus if you do it at a different time every day or if you make a loose plan such as “write this week.” It’s important to be as specific as possible.

5. Schedule it in your calendar

Once you’ve gotten specific, add and schedule your plans into your calendar. Putting it on your calendar keeps you more accountable, especially because you have smaller deadlines already planned in your calendar and a specific roadmap to meet the deadline.

6. Execute the Plan

The final step is to just execute the plan. Follow your steps and try to stick to them as best as you can. If you’re failing to stay on top of it, try pushing back the deadline or reducing the number of days or hours you work towards the goal. Being realistic with ourselves is a very important part when it comes to our goals.

How to set work goals for yourself at work

If you’re trying to set goals at work, I suggest you follow the advice above but think about setting goals in four domains:

Main goal:

1. Set a goal related to your most pressing project and how you can best accomplish it

Smaller goals:

2. A goal for developing the skills that support your current role

3. A goal that supports your work relationships and reputation

4. A goal that supports you in the long-term at work

How to create goals to improve your health

When trying to set goals and build habits that improve your health, first take stock of where your health is currently and where you’d like to be. Let’s say you’re a smoker, and you tend to eat a lot of meat. You’ve just had a heart attack, or perhaps heart disease runs in your family. You want to do something about your health, but you don’t know where to start.

In this case, I would suggest getting the help of a nutritionist, consulting with your doctor, and building goals off on their guidelines. Perhaps a good one could be quitting smoking and replacing meat with a vegetarian option three times each week.

Effective goal setting for managers

As a manager, it’s a bit tricky because you not only are setting goals for yourself, but you’re also helping your employees set goals, managing budgets, and managing both people below you and above you.

When it comes to setting goals, you can think of yourself as the middleman, bridging the gap between the higher-ups and your direct reports.

When it comes to setting goals, I would suggest starting with the main objectives that your boss gives you. They will have created this based on company-wide objectives but specific to your department or area. Break down these overarching objectives into smaller, tangible objectives. Don’t overthink it!

For example, maybe there’s an overall objective of making over a million dollars in sales company-wide. You can then look at your department, what area you’re responsible for and how much of your department contributes to those sales. Both what they are expected to and what they have done historically. You can then set a goal based on what your department has done previously and where you’d like to push it in the future.

Essentially, it can come down to taking a bigger, more abstract goal and breaking it down into tangible steps for you and your staff. This will enable you to better support your team. A clear vision leads to less stress, better communication, and easier prioritization.

Goal setting in HR

As an HR leader, you juggle all sorts of goals and expectations from leaders and employees. It can be chaotic.

That’s why I recommend that HR professionals simplify.

It can be tempting to set too many goals for yourself. Challenge yourself to choose just a handful. Hyper-focusing will help you do your best work and get more done.

Also, please make sure to make at least one personal goal to prioritize your own wellbeing. This will help you have the energy to reach your professional goals.


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Liadan Gunter

Liadan Maire Gunter is a Coach, Behavioral Scientist, and Founder of The Rewiring Lens.

She is trained in neuroscience, psychology, and anthropology, before creating her own path in the field of self-development.

At Nivati, she works as a life coach and content writer where she bridges the gap between science and self-development.

She also runs a company, The Rewiring Lens, aimed at bringing science-backed tools designed to rewire people’s brains so that they can create their best selves. There she co-hosts a podcast on the same subject.

Liadan speaks three languages (English, Spanish, Italian), and has lived in 5 countries, and worked in 5 others. She holds a Bachelor’s in Neuroscience from Boston University, and a Master's in Behavior and Cognition with a specialization in Neuroscience and Primatology from Universitat de Barcelona.