In my last post, I provided the basics of setting goals – they should be written, concrete, and difficult.  Here, we explore the goal-writing process in greater depth.

Periodic, Working Backward.  Goals can and should be formulated for different points in the future.  If you are five years old and wish to be a fighter pilot, you may need to plan ahead in several steps.  Mastering reading, writing, and arithmetic would be set a solid beginning.  In addition, you may need to supplement your academics, especially in the sciences.  You might also need to maintain and enhance your physical fitness over time, engage in activities that prove your potential for leadership, and so forth.

As noted above, part of making goals specific may involve breaking more audacious, long-term goals into subgoals that must be accomplished first.  Again an example helps. To gain admittance to an elite law school, you must identify those target schools, find out the criteria by which they measure admission, and map out a strategy to develop those criteria in your resume.  That may mean achieving a certain grade point average, taking a prep course before taking the Law School Admission Test, participating in extracurricular activities and taking leadership roles in those groups, and developing mentorship relationships with one or more professors who would later be in a position to provide in-depth letters of recommendation. These broad areas, in turn, would need to be broken down into what undergraduate subject areas are likely to prepare you for law school success (and would meet your interests and skills sufficiently that you would perform well in that major), identifying extracurricular activities that would highlight skills that set you apart from the pack, and finding professors with whom you share interests and get along well enough to build a relationship.

Thus, I always advise achievers to develop ultimate life goals first, if possible (more on this below), then work backward.  This might mean that a student would first think about those big goals like achieving a Nobel Prize in Literature, or becoming a Senator or President, becoming a tenured professor of anthropology, or becoming a singer in a rock band that tours the world three times.  These ultimate life goals might be twenty or thirty years out, but each such goal might lead to goals (milestones, call them what you will) that must be accomplished within ten years, within five years, within three years, within the next year, or within the next six months.

Some people get stumped when I describe this process, because they don’t know what their ultimate life goals are.  I’ll be exploring these questions in greater depth elsewhere on this blog, but for now simply understand that this should not be used as an excuse for having no goals.  If someone cannot decide what she wants written on her tombstone, she may still be able to list four or five things she’d like to look back five years from now and say she accomplished.  If that is as far into the future as she can currently see, then start there, and work backwards in time to the present.

I’ve faced this myself.  I soon learned that he was seeing things in his surroundings that I was no longer noticing.  I was taking for granted things that fascinated him.  I decided that I needed to learn to see better – not in the sense of having better eyes, but rather using those eyes to see what I was taking for granted.  I did some research and learned that those who draw and paint must learn how to overcome stereotypical assumptions of what they “expect” to see in order to depict what they are really seeing.  So I decided that I would learn to paint.

But what did this ultimate goal of “learning to paint” mean, and how could I put it in terms that would be measurable?  I decided that, knowing myself, I would want to paint well enough that I could feel proud of my works, and one measure of my pride would be willingness to sell the paintings or give them as gifts.  Thus, I provisionally decided on an “ultimate” goal of having sold or given as gifts at least 100 of my paintings.  Why 100?  Because it sounds challenging to me right now.  Why either sell or give them away?  I may decide that I don’t want to engage in commerce with my art, but I know myself well enough to know that I would not give something as a gift if I thought it did not have value.

This ultimate goal led me to a cascade of intermediate goals.  Different people, of course, would have different ways of creating meaningful milestones, but I decided that it would be a measurable sign of achievement if within 15 years some writer had referred to me as an “artist” or “painter” in a published news story.  I decided that I would be well on my way toward achieving my ultimate goal if within 10 years I will have held a successful showing of my art, at which I sell at least $5,000 worth of my works.  To be in position to do that, I figured that within five years, I would want to have sold at least one work of art.  Also, to learn more about what other artists accomplished and how they worked, I determined that within five years I would want to have read biographies of ten of the artists whose works I most treasure.  Within three years, I decided that I would be on my way if I had completed at least 20 paintings of which I’m proud.  I also decided that I would learn to draw, since drawing is fundamental to painting.  And by the end of 2010, to demonstrate to myself (and others) that I am serious about my desires, I decided that I would have painted at least 50 finished paintings, and have shown in public at least five paintings.

Review, Revise, and Prioritize.  Goals must be living things to be effective.  Even if an achiever writes them down, they will do little good if she puts them away in the bottom drawer and forgets about them.  Instead, she should review them—monthly if possible, but certainly no less than annually.  I advise those I counsel to pick a time of the year (most pick the beginning) to review and assess progress.  During this annual review, the achiever should look at what she has accomplished, and what she has failed to do.  She should celebrate those goals she has accomplished, because celebration creates incentives to replicate that success.  The achiever should examine the goals that have not been accomplished, diagnosing why and evaluating what steps can and should be taken to close the gap.  Perhaps reflection will lead the achiever to recognize that the goal is not important, or that priorities have changed.  Or maybe reflection will lead to greater determination to meet the mark.

During this annual review, and throughout the year, the achiever will likely be adding goals and subgoals.  This is both appropriate and useful.  During the annual review, however, it is useful to force-rank the top ten goals for the coming year.  If among all goals listed, you could achieve only one, which one would be most important?  And which after that?  Again, this process of force-ranking may lead to insight.  Perhaps you will realize that you must accomplish one goal before another, or maybe you will learn something about your beliefs and values.

Also, if you don’t do it at other times, and you have saved your goals on a computer, you should print out and save your list of goals at least once a year in hard copy, to provide a reference point for later review.  Some of my most important personal insights come from comparing lists of goals that I created ten years ago to my accomplishments since then, or to the goals I currently have.