The Best And Worst Ways To Set Your Goals

Having goals is important, that much we know. But knowing how to set those goals in the first place is even more important. Let’s look at the way people usually create their goals.

How People Make Goals

Usually, people set goals in three ways:

Method #1. I want to grow up to be like my hero!

  • This is probably our first exposure to goal setting. We want to become like our parents, or our role models such as famous athletes, celebrities or even superheroes.

Method #2. I want to be a pro!

  • As we grow older, our goals change. We might observe that success means meeting a certain fixed standard like getting a degree, or achieving a certain income level.

Method #3. I want to become better!

  • Eventually, we realize that what matters most is doing your best. You start comparing your current performance versus your past achievements and strive to do better next time.

Of these three goal-setting methods, which do you think is the best one?

The Worst Way To Set Your Goals: Social Comparison

If your answer was Method #3, then you’re absolutely right! The big question is: why does everyone use Method #1 instead?

Probably because for many people, that’s the easiest way. You compare yourself versus a real life person versus some abstract number somewhere. Another reason is that people might just not know that there is actually a right way (and wrong ways) to set goals.

Why It’s Bad To Be Like Your Hero

When you judge your performance against someone else, this comparison will most often fall on the subjective side. You probably don’t truly know the other person’s inner thoughts, feelings and motivations. This leads you compare yourself to what you see, hear and learn about the person. You will want to look like them, act like them and do everything they do.

This makes you focus on outcomes. Your goal is to be seen like this person you idolize, so you avoid situations where you might fail or be shown in a bad light, even when those situations will help you grow and improve. This conservative outlook, coupled with the lack of control you have over your goals, will dampen your motivation, at best. At worst, it can lead you to the wrong path in life.

The Best Way To Set Your Goals: Self-Comparison

If you’re using Method #3 right now, it’s high time you change the way you set your goals. While setting your goal against a standard through Method #2 is an improvement, it’s best to set your goals against your past performance instead. Why?

  1. It’s a goal that’s under your control. You can push yourself as much or as little as you can, adjusting your goal along the way. This gives you a sense of autonomy, which in turn is the fuel that will motivate you to work harder on your goals.
  2. It’s easier to beat a fixed goal. Your own past performance won’t change, unlike when comparing yourself against external standards. There’s no need to second guess the numbers you have to beat.
  3. You’re challenged every step of the way. Trying to beat your own performance means constantly striving to improve. In comparison, beating an external benchmark will make you think “Is this it?” once you achieve it.
  4. You feel a stronger connection to your goal. It’s more satisfying to work on something that matches your personal values, instead of trying to beat a goal someone else placed on you.
  5. You get immediate feedback. This is probably the most important reason to use self-comparison. You instantly know when you’re doing worse, so you can adjust your performance instantly. You’ll also get that instant ping of satisfaction when you find that you’re meeting your goals.

While self-comparison really is the gold standard in goal setting, it does take some work. You will need to start becoming obsessed with tracking and logging yourself. It will involve number crunching, note-taking, and a lot of planning in general, so prepare to do some extra work.

Look at your goals as a way to improve yourself, not to meet some arbitrary metric. As long as your goals push you to be better, you don’t have to worry about anything else, even failure.

Here are a few other best practices to follow when setting goals.