How to Set Goals for Life

Three Parts:Developing Life GoalsMaking a Plan for AchievementWorking Toward Your Goals

Most people have a dream in life, a vision of who or what they'd like to be in the future. At a minimum, everyone has interests and values that determine what they want out of their lives. Even so, trying to set to achievable goals that you'll work for over the course of many years can be daunting. It can be hard to know where to even begin, and the things you hope to achieve may seem impossible. But, If you're well-prepared you may be able to set goals for your life that are just as fulfilling to work toward as to achieve.

Part 1
Developing Life Goals

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    Think about what you want. Many people have only a vague sense of what they want from life. In this first step, your task is to starting converting ideas like "happiness" or "security" into things you would like to do.
    • Get a pen and some paper and start writing down things that are important to you in life. It's okay to be general at this stage, but try not to be vague.
    • For example, if the first thing that pops into your head is "happiness," that's fine. But try to define that term. What does "happiness" mean to you? What would you consider a happy life?[1]
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    Write about yourself. One good way to start moving from general to specific is to do some free-writing about yourself. Think about your personality and your interests. This can help you define what is most important to you.[2]
    • Try writing abut how you enjoy spending your time. Begin your brainstorm by writing down what you enjoy doing and what excites you.[3]
    • Don't limit yourself to activities or experiences that you think are productive or "worth doing." The point of a brainstorm is to get down as many ideas as possible, and this list will be useful later on in the process.
    • Write about things you are interested in and/or would like to learn more about. Are you interested in science? In literature? In music? Any of these could become lifelong pursuits.
    • Write about things about yourself you'd like to improve. Are you hoping to develop your skills as a public speaker? As a writer? As a photographer? Again, these can all become life-long pursuits.
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    Imagine your future. Think about your ideal future. What does it look like? Ask yourself questions that will help you get to a detailed picture.[4] For example, imagine you are trying to decide on a long-term career. Here are some questions you might ask:
    • What time do you want to wake up every morning?
    • Where do you want to live? The city? A rural area? A foreign country?
    • Who will be there when you wake up? If it's important to you have to have a family? If so, a job that requires a lot of long trips out of town might not be the best choice.
    • How much money do you want to make?
    • The answers to these questions may not be enough to point you toward a single dream job, by they can certainly help you rule some out.
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    Make your goals specific. After all this brainstorming, you should have some ideas about what you'd like to do with your life. In fact, you probably have several! Now is the time to make them as specific as possible.[5]
    • For example, you may at this point have the idea that you might want to become a scientist. That's a good start. But now, think about what type of scientist you'd like to be. Do you want to be a chemist? A physicist? An astronomer?
    • Be as specific as you can. Imagine you've decided becoming a chemist might be the right path for you. Now, ask yourself what type of work you'd like to do within that field. Do you want to work for a private company, developing new products? Do you want to teach chemistry at a university?
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    Think about why. By now, you probably have a few strong contenders for life goals. Examine each one and ask yourself: "why do I want that?" Your answers may lead you to revise your goals.[6]
    • For example, let's say you've decided to put "become a surgeon" on the list. You ask yourself why, and determine that it's because surgeons make a lot of money and are well respected. Those are valid reasons. But, if you discover that those are the only reasons, you might want to consider other careers that could provide the same benefits. Becoming a surgeon requires a lot of education. It can require keeping very unusual hours. If these things are less appealing, consider other goals that might achieve the same benefits of wealth and respect.

Part 2
Making a Plan for Achievement

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    Rank your goals. At the point that you have a few (or many) possible life goals, it's time to get serious about making a plan for achievement. A first step in this is prioritizing your goals.
    • Deciding which goal or goals are most important can help you decide which ones to start working on first.
    • You also may need to start cutting goals from the list at this point. Some goals may not be achievable together. For example, you probably can't become a doctor who is also an astronaut and a famous rap music artist. Any one of these goals can take a lifetime to achieve. All of them together may be impossible.
    • Other goals might work well in tandem. For example, if you want to be a beer brewer and open a restaurant, you might combine these to create a new goal: open a brew pub.
    • Part of this ranking process will be a matter of assessing your personal commitment to each goal. You are not likely to achieve long-term goals that you are only moderately committed to, especially if there are other goals on your list that are much more important.[7]
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    Do some research. Once you've narrowed the field to a single goal or a few that work well together, take some time to find out how to achieve these goals.[8] You'll want to ask questions like:
    • What skills will you need to learn?
    • What educational qualifications are necessary?
    • What types of resources will you need to acquire?
    • How long should you expect the process to take?
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    Create subgoals. Achieving life goals is almost always a long and complicated process. Based on your knowledge of what it will take to achieve your goal, the next step is to break it down into smaller components.
    • Creating subgoals will make the process manageable and will help you create a step-by-step plan for reaching your ultimate goal.[9]
    • Make these subgoals as measurable and tangible as possible. In other words, there should be a clear definition of each subgoal that makes it easy to tell when you have achieved it.[10]
    • For example, if your goal is to open a restaurant, your subgoals might include saving up a certain amount of money, finding a location, designing the interior, getting it furnished, obtaining insurance, getting various permits and licenses, hiring employees, and finally, having a grand opening.
    • When working on long term goals, it's easy to feel like you aren't getting anywhere. With list of manageable and clear subgoals, however, it is much easier for you to see your own progress. This reduce the temptation to give up.
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    Create a timeline. Once you've got the steps to achieving your goal mapped out, set some deadlines. Think about how long each sub goal should reasonably take, and make a timeline for achieving them.
    • Having deadlines will keep you motivated by adding a sense of urgency. It will also make you accountable for meeting goals at certain times, rather than letting them slip down your priority list.[11]
    • Using the restaurant example, if you want to have $100,000 saved within three year years, you can break that down to about $278 a month.This will help you remember to actually set aside the money each month, rather than spending it on other things.
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    Plan for obstacles. Finally, try to imagine things that could interfere with your plan. Thinking in advance about obstacles you might encounter will help you develop ideas for how to deal with them, if they come up.[12]
    • For example, imagine you have decided to become a research chemist. You decide to apply for a graduate program in the top school for chemistry. What happens if you aren't accepted? Will you apply elsewhere? If so, you'll probably need to do so before you even find out if your first-choice school accepted you. Or maybe you think it's a better idea to wait until the following year and apply again. If so, what will you do during that year to make your application more appealing?

Part 3
Working Toward Your Goals

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    Create the right environment. Whatever your goal, there are probably some environments that are better for achieving it than others. Do whatever you can to make sure that the people and physical spaces you spend time with don't create obstacles.[13]
    • For example, if you are entering a medical program, you're going to need to study long hours and concentrate on your work. If you live with friends who party all the time and will encourage you to do the same, you might want to consider moving.
    • Surrounding yourself with other goal-oriented people can also help keep you accountable and motivated.
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    Get to work. Pick a date to begin work on the first subgoal on your list. Then, dive in!
    • If you aren't sure how to accomplish your first subgoal, it is too complicated to be your first subgoal. If you can't identify the first step toward that goal, you may need to to more research and/or break it down into smaller subgoals.
    • Set a start date at least a few days in the future. If it's a goal you're excited about, the anticipation will help get you motivated and enthusiastic for the first step.[14]
    • You can also use the downtime before the start date to adjust your plan, get advice, or acquire any tools you need to achieve your goal.
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    Work on your goals consistently. Once you get started, the key to achieving life goals is work on them steadily and consistently. This is a step-by-step process that is going to take a long time. It is crucial, therefore, to keep making progress.
    • Many people set goals and then jump in with great enthusiasm, devoting a lot of time and energy to the goal in the early stages. Enthusiasm is great, but try not to burn yourself out in the first few weeks or months. You also don't want to set standards that you won't be able to live up to in the long run. Remember that you are in this for the long haul. This isn't a race, it's a journey.[15]
    • A good way to ensure consistent progress is to build time into your daily routine for working on your goals.[16] For example, if you are studying to become a chemist, set aside a specific portion of each day for homework from your classes, for example, 3pm to 7pm. Set aside a specific part of the day for developing your own research, say 7:30pm to 9pm. Try to always use these hours for these purposes, unless you absolutely must deviate from that schedule. But at 9pm, call it quits for the night and do something to relax.
    • Keep in mind that to achieve any goal, there is no away around investing a lot of time and effort. Putting in the hours and the sweat is how you will achieve your goal.[17]
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    Stay motivated. Because consistency is so important, it is crucial that you stay motivated.
    • Having achievable subgoals is crucial to your motivation. It will be much easier to stay enthusiastic and committed if you feel that you are making progress.[18]
    • Use reinforcement to create incentives. Positive reinforcement is adding something good to your life. Negative reinforcement is taking away something unwanted. Both can help you stay motivated. If you are trying to keep yourself focused on filling out a permit application for your restaurant, and notice you are getting distracted, offer yourself a reward. Maybe after you've finished the application, you can treat yourself to a professional massage. Or, maybe you'll be more motivated by allowing yourself to skip out on a weekly chore for once. Either way, reinforcement can keep you on task.[19]
    • Punishing yourself for failing to achieve subgoals is not as effective as reinforcement good behavior. If you opt to create unpleasant consequences for yourself, make sure to use rewards, too.[20]
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    Track your progress. One of the best ways to stay motivated is keep track of your progress and check it regularly. Depending on your goal and personal preferences, you can use an app, a journal, or a calendar.
    • Any of these will help remind you of subgoals you've already achieved. They can also keep you accountable to yourself for staying on schedule.[21]
    • Writing in a journal regularly can also help ease stress and anxiety that might come with the process of striving for a long term goal.[22]


  • Goals often change along with life experiences. Make a conscious effort to think about your goals regularly, instead of blindly following a path you decided on years before. It's ok to make revisions.


  • Avoid creating "negative" goals, which focus on what you dislike instead of what excites you.[23] For example, "stop getting into bad relationships" is less effective than "find a fulfilling relationship."

Sources and Citations

  1. Morisano, D., Hirsh, J. B., Peterson, J. B., Pihl, R. O., & Shore, B. M. (2010). Setting, elaborating, and reflecting on personal goals improves academic performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(2), 255.)
  2. Morisano, D., Hirsh, J. B., Peterson, J. B., Pihl, R. O., & Shore, B. M. (2010). Setting, elaborating, and reflecting on personal goals improves academic performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(2), 255.)

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