Goal setting is arguably the most important part of success. When we set goals, however, we often leave out the most crucial part—the process. Most of us don’t achieve most of our goals because we’re good at setting them and horrendous at executing them. As coaches, we view the world through a lens where we help people become better at whatever they do. In thinking about how you set goals, I want to start in an unlikely place. 

What are we willing to forgo? 

Our goal isn’t about what we want, it’s about what we’re willing to give up, to achieve our goal. 

Start small and let our goal stretch us.

Whatever our goal, we need to start small. If we travel too far outside our comfort zone, we fail. We must be realistic. Goals should be attainable. There is, however, one caveat: goals should not be too easily achievable. 

If we believe we have a 100% chance of achieving our goal, it’s not significant enough. If we think we have zero chance of reaching it, our goal is too ambitious. We should believe we have a 40-60 percent chance of achieving our goal. If we start small, our goal will stretch us. It’s in the stretch that we find performance.   

Design your environment for success. 

Many of us think motivated people achieve their goals. That’s likely true, but motivation fades. When you hold something heavy in your hand you put it down after a while because your hand gets tired. Motivation is no different. When you set your goal, design your environment to help you achieve it. If your goal is to run three times a week, don’t rely on willpower. Instead, design your environment so you run three times a week. Put it in your calendar. Make plans to meet up with a friend or group, so you’re less likely to choose other things.

Use commitment devices. 

The notion of the commitment effect comes from the world of behavioral psychology. If your goal is to get to the gym more, planning to meet a friend at a predetermined date and time is a commitment device. When you think about designing your environment, also think about integrating commitment devices into your life. 

Move your timelines to close in. 

Human beings have what is often referred to as present bias. This describes our pull toward short-term rewards over long-term ones. Things that are personal, immediate and certain motivate us more than things that are organizational, deferred or a gamble. We can short circuit this by moving our rewards and timelines closer in. 

If your goal is to run 20 km by the end of the year, break that goal down into quarterly or monthly goals. If you start by running 2 km in January and increase that by 2 km each month, you’ll find yourself running 20 km by October. Notice how this approach means starting small. The more strategies you combine, the more likely you are to achieve your goals.

Plan for your obstacles. 

Obstacles block our way all the time. Some are foreseeable, others are unexpected. Gabriele Oettingen, a world leading expert on motivation, has done groundbreaking research on achieving your goals that tells us we dramatically increase our chances of success if we plan for obstacles before they arise. The key is to think today about what might get in our way and then develop an if-then plan for overcoming those obstacles.