Should we have goals?  And if so, what sorts?  These are questions that come up repeatedly in my counseling of students and mentees, in discussions with colleagues and friends, and in my own moments of reflection.  The answers are clear and unambiguous.  Everyone who wants to achieve should have goals.  There are rules for creating goals, and those rules matter.  If you follow those rules, you will achieve more.

We want many things out of life.  We want love.  We want friendships and relationships.  We want spiritual growth.  We want financial security.  We want fun and adventure.  We want a career that both challenges us and rewards us.  We want personal growth.  We want to exercise creativity.

There are also things we don’t want.  We don’t want boredom.  We don’t want fear.  We don’t want frustration or anxiety.  We don’t want embarrassment.  We don’t want humiliation.  We don’t want despair.

We can list our desires and our distastes.  But as long as those wants and don’t wants to remain broad and ambiguous, it is difficult to make progress toward or away from any of them.  How do you know whether you’ve achieved friendships, spiritual growth, personal growth, or creativity?  What is the measure of your frustration, anxiety, boredom, or fear?

This post begins to address those questions.  My thesis is that by specifying what we want and what we do not want, we lay the groundwork for achievement.  By writing down our goals, by being specific, and by holding ourselves to those goals through review and reflection, we provide targets, benchmarks, measuring sticks.

This is not surprising news.  At some level, we all know that we are supposed to set goals.  We hear about goals in school, at work, even in sports and leisure activities.  Yet very few people take the time to learn what experts say about the process of making goals.

Experts?  Goal experts?  Really?  Most people probably don’t even know that there are experts in making goals.  There are.  Researchers and industrial psychologists have been working for decades to determine whether goals do in fact enhance achievement, and if so, what goals work best.  The generally acknowledged leaders of this effort are two psychologists, Edwin Locke and Gary Latham.  Locke and Latham have been studying goals for about four decades.  They’ve published countless articles describing the research, as well as two seminal books.  Their analysis is not a product of quiet contemplation in a library, but instead based upon thousands of research subjects in scores of rigorous studies.  I will draw upon their findings as I describe what goals are, why goals are important, why some people fail to set goals, what kinds of goals work, and what risks are posed by goals.  I will also draw upon a host of other sources, because I want you to understand that this is not mere rumination or guesswork, but instead a rigorous evaluation of a process that works.