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shutterstock_153279218Envisioning what you want out of life can be easy–maybe you see some future version of you that’s written the next Great American Novel, going back to school for your Master’s, or accomplishing some other lifelong ambition. Getting there, however, takes a little bit of doing, whether you are planning for the near or distant future. How will you get from point A to point B–from where you are now to where you eventually want to be?

You can think of goal setting as a kind of roadmap for success, showing you the path you need to travel to accomplish what you have set out to do. Think of yourself as a cartographer–some essential goal setting strategies, paired with the creative goal setting activities outlined below will give you the tools to draw your own road map to success! All you have to do after that is follow it.

What Makes A Good Goal?

You could argue that there really isn’t such a thing as a “bad goal” and you aren’t wrong! Anything that helps you foster personal progression isn’t really bad, right? However, it’s worth noting that  there is a difference between a goal and a dream.

A dream is more abstract, and can be as lofty or as abstract as you want it to be. It represents an ideal situation or achievement. Putting your dream into words might sound something like:

“One day, I’d like to be recognized for my academic work.”


“It’s always been a dream of mine to travel!”

All goals can be formed from dreams, but not all dreams can become a goal. The main reason for this is that where dreams are abstract, goals are concrete. Additionally, you might have a goal of accomplishing something that’s a little less idealistic, for instance:

“My goal for the weekend is to clean the rain gutters out.”

See the difference? Of course, that’s not to say that all goals are mundane drudgework tasks that you must dutifully cross off of a checklist. Instead, it’s helpful to think of goals as a means to an end. You dream is the destination, and the goals that you set along the way are your stepping stones. For instance, look at the dream statements above. To achieve them, can use goal setting statements like these:

“My goal is to have an academic paper published in a peer-reviewed journal within 3 years”


“I’m going to make a budget that will help me save money for a plane ticket to Brussels”

Ultimately, “good” goals are goals that fulfill the SMART criteria. SMART is a mnemonic that’s often used in goal setting activities to help you remember that a goal needs to be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely.

Using SMART to Inventory Your Goals:

Let’s look at the SMART mnemonic a little more in depth. See if your own goals meet the following criteria:

  • Specific-Specificity is key to achieving a goal. You want to be as concrete as possible when analyzing your goal. Really break it down.
    • Instead of: “I want to get in shape”
    • Try: “I will lose 10 pounds”
  • Measurable-A goal is measurable when you are able to document a clear progression from beginning to end, preferably with milestones in between.
    • Instead of: “I wish I could be a good cook”
    • Try: “I’m going to learn 3 gourmet chicken recipes”
  • Action-Oriented: Action oriented goals are able to be broken down into smaller pieces, little micro-goals that you can get started on right away.
    • Instead of: “If only I could have a beautiful garden.”
    • Try: “Today I will plot out a garden, tomorrow I will turn the soil. Next weekend, I’ll start seedlings.”
  • Realistic-Realism means asking yourself what you can achieve with the resources at your disposal, and being honest about it’s attainability. This doesn’t mean that you have to squash any goals, it might just mean you have to adjust them.
    • Instead of: “I’ll complete my PhD in two years, just wait!”
    • Try: “I’m striving to finish my PhD a year early by taking extra classes.”
  • Timely-Open-endedness is a goal’s nemesis. Being timely doesn’t mean that you have to race to the finish line, it just means that you need to give yourself a finish line to run towards.
    • Instead of: “One day, I’ll be financially comfortable.”
    • Try: “I’m going to make a debt plan that will allow me to be debt-free in 5 years.”

Hopefully this has shed some light on what differentiates and attainable goal from a vague ambition. I’m sure you can already think of some of your own goals that meet the SMART criteria. But what now? There are some goal setting activities and exercises that you can get started on as soon as you’re ready to go from dreaming to doing!

Visualization Board

Visualization is a wonderful place to start if you aren’t completely sure where to begin, or even if you aren’t entirely sure what your goals even are. It can help in these situations to make a visualization or goal board to get your creative juices flowing.

There’s a saying: “We can’t be what we can’t see” and that is entirely true. That’s why advertising is so effective–the visualization of someone else using a product or service that we ourselves might like to try is usually enough to make that product appealing to us. You can apply this same concept to developing a visualization board for goal-setting. By compiling a collection of images that appeal to your sense of ambition, you begin to feel motivated to act upon those same ambitions.

You can make a visualization board using a social networking site or app like Pinterest, or you can do it the old fashioned way!



Visualization is usually used as a supplement to other goal setting activities, and is successful because it plays to the adage of “seeing is believing”. An excellent motivational tool to use alongside your board is visual replacement. Document yourself achieving your goals with a camera, and replace your original images with the images of yourself once you’ve accomplished those particular goals.

The Action Plan

An action plan is a goal-setter’s best friend, because it gives you a very clear outline of the what, where, and how of accomplishing your goal. Writing an action plan down in the form of a list, timeline, or categorized benchmarks also plays to your sense of sight, and has the added benefit of giving you that satisfaction of checking something off or marking it “complete”.

To begin, start with asking yourself a few questions and recording the answers:

 An outline is a very effective way to create and keep track of your action plan, so its helpful to make one on the computer and print it out.

This is what a section of a sample action plan might look like:

Goal: Create A Family Budget

Time Frame: 3 Months

Obviously, this is only an example, and your own action plan will differ depending on your goals and resources. When developing an action plan, remember that the more you can break it down, the more successful you will be!

Five Little Cards

Embarking on a goal-setting journey can be overwhelming, which is why it is helpful to approach it in increments. This goal setting activity is designed to allow you to make the most of your most valuable resource: time.



This method not only allows you to inject a little tangibility into your goal setting activities, it gives you flexibility, which is so important to the process of goal setting. It also keeps you from becoming overwhelmed, since you only have five tasks to accomplish on any given week!

These are just three goal setting activities that you can use to work toward your personal ambitions–there are lots of ways to visualize and document the goal setting process and you should use what works best for you. Nothing is set in stone, and you can alter any of the activities to suit your needs. From here on out, you have the tools to reach any of your long term goals; finally developing that art portfolio to land your dream job, for instance, or creating an aesthetically pleasing and streamlined website for your business. Whatever your goals are, one thing is certain: they are within your grasp!

Page Last Updated: February 2020

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