The Complete Guide to Goal Setting (Backed by Science)

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Back in 2010, I set a bold goal for myself. I took one of my websites and decided that I wanted to publish over 100 articles on it that year. I decided that by doing this, my goal was to accumulate more than a million readers by the end of the year.

To do this, I decided to take what, at the time, had been a modestly successful blog, and turn it into a kind of men’s magazine for millennials. I found half a dozen people to write articles for me. I redesigned the site. I created a pipeline of content that would feed directly through me and be posted every other day. In my mind, I was building the foundations of my empire, a new brand to appeal to the sensibilities of the young, internet-savvy male.

It didn’t even take three months for me to shut the whole project down. I deleted half of the new content written by others. I reverted the website back to the old blog. And I continued publishing at a meager pace.

Most would look at my abandonment of my goals that year as an unmitigated failure. But I look back and see that as one of the most valuable goals I ever set for myself. I will explain why later in this piece.

There are a million articles on the internet about how to set goals and how to achieve them. And sure, I will cover some of that here.

But I want to propose something far more subtle yet far more important: Often the strategic failure of our goals can be far more valuable than their achievement.

Most people see goals as golf balls that you tee up and whack the shit out of, hoping to hit your mark. But goals are far more complicated than that. Sometimes it can be advantageous to set goals you know you are unlikely to achieve. Sometimes it is better to give up or change goals midstream. Sometimes it’s actually better to have no goals at all.

This article will break down the complexities of goal setting—when to set them, how to set them, and how to know when to give them up.

How Goal Setting Can Help You

Unless you’ve been living under a rock your whole life, you know that goals can be a great source of satisfaction and purpose in our lives.1,2 Goals give us something to look forward to, they give us direction. Goals help us track and measure our progress and understand our shortcomings. Goals are popular for a reason: they work.

But it’s important to understand exactly how goals benefit you first.

Specific Goals Are Best for External Pursuits

Probably the most popular way to use goals—and the way you’ve used them in your own life—is to pursue a specific result.

I want to be an author, so I set a goal to write a book by the end of the year. I want to have financial freedom, so I set a goal to be debt-free by 2022. I want to look good naked, so I set a goal of losing 20 lbs before beach season.

Setting specific, measurable goals works extremely well in helping us achieve tangible, external achievements. This is actually one of the more robust findings in the research on goals and it applies to individuals, groups, and organizations across many different cultural backgrounds, in many different settings, and across all time horizons studied to date.3,4

Specific goals act as a sort of GPS for your life. And just like the GPS on your phone needs a specific destination to be useful, external goals really only work when you have a specific outcome in mind.

For example, “save more money” is the goal equivalent of telling your GPS you want to go to California. Where exactly in California do you want to go? San Diego? San Francisco? Yosemite National Park?

No, no, no. You want fried shrimp tacos from Mariscos Jalisco taco truck on Olympic Boulevard in LA (trust me, you do). Now your GPS can tell you exactly how to get there, turn by turn, down to the number of feet until you sidle up to the window and order your three tacos and maybe some ceviche with hot salsa (not too much though—I’ve warned you).

When you set specific goals, they become measurable and actionable, which then allows you to track your progress. These are sometimes referred to as “SMART Goals.”5 SMART stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-Bound

So, instead of “save more money,” you could say, “save $5,000 by December 12th.” Now you know exactly what you need to do. If you start saving on January 1, you have 345 days to save, so that’s:

  • $14.50 per day
  • $101.45 per week
  • $416.67 per month

This allows you to know exactly where you’re at with your goal throughout the year too. By day 57, you should have $826.50 saved up. By week 18, you should have $1,826.10 in the bank. And by July, you should have $2,916.69 holed away. Any deviation from these benchmarks is an indicator that you should change your approach (or perhaps change your goal—more on that later).

Another benefit of setting specific goals is that they help you focus on the outcomes you want while ignoring all the extraneous distractions you’re bound to encounter.6,7 It’s easy to know what to cut out of your spending when you know exactly how much to save. It’s easier to know what foods to cut when you know exactly how much weight you want to lose, and so on. Specific goals, when worked towards, can be a source of energy,8 motivation, and persistence.9

General Goals Are Best for Internal Pursuits

Alright, so throw a fucking parade for specific goals. They got us to the moon, built the pyramids, invented Disneyland. What’s not to love about specific goals?

Well, specific goals are great. The problem is that sometimes what we want is not specific.

For example, if I want to be a better writer, how do I actually measure that? Website traffic? Book sales? Glowing emails in my inbox telling me what a Grade A badass I am?

This is where we get into trouble with goals. Because if I decide that “website traffic = being a good writer,” well, there are a lot of shady ways to build website traffic that don’t involve good writing.

You often see a similar phenomenon with people who set weight loss goals. They lose weight… by doing terribly unhealthy things like starving themselves or living off nothing but pretzels and carrot juice for a year. Sure, the weight comes off. But they’re arguably in much worse shape than they began—i.e., their specific goal hurt them rather than helped them.

This is where general goals come into play. It’s not enough to simply want to lose 15 pounds, you also want to be a healthy human being. It’s not enough to want to sell a bunch of books, you want to sell books because you’re a better writer. It’s not enough to make a million bucks, you want to make that money in a way that is ethical and sustainable.

General goals like this—be healthier, have more financial freedom, improve at a skill—are in many ways more useful than specific goals because they are endless and internal. You can never finish “being healthy.” You can never fully achieve “being a better writer.” There’s always something you could be doing better.

And it’s this endless nature to general goals that keeps us honest and satisfied with specific goals. As we’ll see, over-reliance on specific goals can actually harm our mental health. Mixing in general goals can counteract that. Not to mention, they can actually produce even better results.10

This shows us that the best goals are the ones that help us enjoy the process instead of focusing too much on the outcome. You need both general and specific goals to do that. You need the specific outcome to get you excited (“I’m going to earn a million dollars!”). But you also need the general goal (“I’m going to become better at my work”) to stabilize that specific outcome and keep your self-esteem intact.

Because, if you don’t. Well… things can get ugly. And fast.

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    How Goal Setting Can Harm You

    There’s a dark side to goal-setting that is rarely discussed. And if you’re not careful, you may succumb to it.

    dark side of goal setting

    The reason goal setting works so well is that by focusing on one particular pursuit or measurement, you become better at shutting out the things that don’t matter or don’t help you.11

    But, like anything in life, you can take this to an extreme.12 Think of the hotshot lawyer who doesn’t recognize her own kids because she’s too busy working 90-hour weeks. Or the college student who has no friends because he’s obsessively studying all day, every day. Or the guy who tries to climb Mt. Everest on stilts because… well, because it’s his goal to climb Mt. Everest on stilts.

    When we obsess over our goals, we can easily sacrifice what makes those goals meaningful in the first place. 

    Not to mention, obsessively pursuing specific goals can encourage people to rely on unethical behaviors. Studies have found that people who focus their energy on specific goals are more likely to lie or cheat to attain them.13

    There are two pitfalls to watch out for when goal-setting. The first is setting goals that don’t align with your values. The second is choosing ineffective goals in the first place. Let’s break them down.

    Setting Goals That Aren’t Aligned With Your Values

    One of the biggest traps people fall into is holding onto and pursuing goals that don’t serve their core values.

    Some people value achievement and self-improvement. Others value their intimate relationships. Others value having an impact on the world or creating communities. It’s important to figure out your values before you start setting your goals so you don’t screw yourself up.

    That might sound obvious, but I’ve seen people who value their intimate relationships spend most of their time trying to make more money because they somehow think that will lead them to the intimate relationships.

    I’ve seen people who want to make an impact on the world get obsessed with self-improvement and fitness and optimizing everything in their personal lives to the point where they almost forget anything exists outside of themselves.

    I’ve seen people who value independence and autonomy get bogged down in high-paying jobs they hate because they believe the high status they get from their jobs will give them more power to control their time.

    And then all of these people wonder how on Earth could they be so miserable? They’re doing this goal thing. They’re fucking crushing it, accomplishing goals left, right, and center. Yet, somehow everything feels off.

    The problem is that the goals they’re chasing aren’t in line with their values. And this is a recipe for misery.14,15

    The most common reason that we fall for this trap is because we let others dictate our goals to us. We look around and we see people making lots of money or vacationing in Bora Bora or working out three times a day and looking like they auditioned for Baywatch. And we think, “Well, they seem happy, so we should do what they’re doing.”

    baywatch goals

    It’s in this subtle way that we let others choose our goals for us. We try to make more money or we try to go on cool vacations or we try to do a million burpees a week and eat kale-wrapped sea bass dipped in onion water or whatever without thinking about, you know, if we really want any of these things.

    Fuck other people’s goals. Live out your values.

    You need to make sure your goals are for yourself, not for others. Many people confuse what they value for what others around them value. They are not the same thing. And if you confuse them, you very well may spend many years of your life pursuing something that makes you feel worse.16,17

    Setting Goals That Create Worse Outcomes

    Another mistake a lot of people make is setting goals that actually make their problems worse, not better.

    One amusing example I sometimes come across is when people say something like, “I want to start my own business so I can work at my own hours and not be stressed by a boss.”

    These people don’t stop to consider that it’s three times more stressful being the boss. You are responsible for every decision, every failure, every oversight, every error of judgment.

    And yes, you get to set your own hours… but when you’re working 12 hours a day, there’s not a whole lot of options on how you can set them!

    Many goals are self-defeating. Like people who buy an expensive car on credit because they want to feel rich. Or someone who dates people they don’t like because they want to have a relationship. Or someone who loses weight by starving themselves because they want to be healthier.

    The means with which you pursue your goals are often just as important, if not more important, than the goal itself.

    If you pursue a goal and accomplish it by torching your entire social life, alienating your family, and destroying your reputation, did you really accomplish anything? I would argue no.

    How to Pursue Goals Intelligently

    Balancing Specific and General Goals

    The kinds of goals we set can have a big impact on how satisfied we are if and when we achieve them.18

    Focusing exclusively on external, specific goals can make you feel like shit because they are value-neutral. The goal to make lots of money is fine, but that goal doesn’t explain why you’re trying to make money. Therefore, any happiness you gain from it will be short-lived.19

    That’s why we need to balance out external, specific goals with internal, general goals. Your external goal could be, “I want to have a six-figure income.” The internal goal could be, “Because I want to have financial freedom and not feel stressed about money.”

    Now your external goal is oriented in a value (freedom) and you’ve set up guard rails for yourself in pursuing it—i.e., you won’t pursue a six-figure income in a way that creates less freedom for yourself.

    I think one reason we focus so much on external goals is because they are easy to measure. A supposedly golden rule of goal setting is being able to measure progress towards your goal as precisely as possible. But it turns out the goals that are easiest to measure—external goals—are often the ones that bring us the least satisfaction.

    It’s easy to see whether or not you hit your financial goals. Just look at your bank account. It’s easy to see whether or not you hit your fitness goals. Just look at the scale and your workout history.

    But it’s a lot harder to track your progress towards autonomy, non-judgement, and finding a sense of community. And yet, these are the types of goals that we’re more likely to stick to and the ones that bring us a lot more satisfaction.

    Balancing Difficult Goals With Easy Goals

    Similar to the way that our external goals need to be balanced by internal goals, our incredibly difficult and ambitious goals need to be balanced with simpler, smaller goals.

    There’s a bit of a Goldilocks phenomenon with goal setting in that if we choose a goal that’s way too difficult or improbable (“I want to visit the moons of Jupiter”) we will quickly lose motivation because it will feel impossible to make any progress.

    On the other hand, if our goals are too small and easy (“do three push ups”) our satisfaction will be short-lived and the goal will soon feel meaningless after we’ve accomplished it.

    This is why it’s best to take an ambitious goal and then break it down into easier, more attainable chunks.

    Years ago, I had an ambitious goal to be a New York Times bestselling author. That was a huge goal that took many years to accomplish. To help me do that, I created a number of smaller, easier “sub-goals” to go along with it:

    • Build a popular blog based on my writing.
    • Get a book deal with a publisher.
    • Write over 100,000 words to be used for a draft.

    These goals were also difficult. But each could be accomplished within a year or two. Even with these, I would often break them down into smaller, simpler goals, such as, “Write 1,000 words every day for a month” or “Submit book proposals to ten agents.”

    Putting It All Together

    So we’ve learned that we should ground our external, specific goals with internal goals that reflect our values. We’ve learned that we should break down difficult, long-term goals into more attainable micro-goals. And we’ve learned that our goals should be ambitious but not so ambitious that they seem unattainable.

    Putting it all together it would look something like this:

    Specific and general goals diagram

    Think of your specific goals as a pyramid with your big, ambitious goal on top, and then all of the sub-goals underneath. In this case, the big ambitious goal is to lose 40 pounds in a year. In order to do that, you will have to work out three times per week and cut out 1,500 calories (these are made up, by the way—I’m not a health professional).

    Underneath those goals are even smaller, more easily attainable goals—learn ten healthy recipes, buy a food scale, hire a trainer, etc.

    But notice, the pyramid of specific goals is enveloped in a circle of more general, internal goals: “I want to have a healthy lifestyle,” “I want to have a positive body self-image,” and “I want more energy and stamina.”

    This way, your goals are oriented by your values (general goals) and are broken down into smaller steps that can keep you motivated over a long period of time.

    So, how would you create these goals from scratch? Easy. The process would look like this.

    • What are things you value that you wish you had more of in your life?

      Confidence, loving relationships, financial freedom, etc. These are the values you wish to pursue.
    • What general goals will help you maximize those values?

      Examples: “I want to live a healthy lifestyle,” or “I want to attain financial freedom,” or “I want to be a good mother.”
    • What is an ambitious, external, specific goal that will help you achieve that general goal?

      Examples: “Lose 40 pounds,” or “Save up half a million dollars by the time I’m 50,” or “Spend at least 10 hours a week doing something enriching with my kids.”
    • What are smaller, easier goals that will make the ambitious goal more attainable?

      Examples: “Work out three times a week,” or “Save 25% of my paycheck for the next five years,” or “Schedule two hours each evening to be with the kids.”

    Write that shit down. Pin it up somewhere that you can see it regularly. And get to work.

    The Secret Weapon: When Failing Is More Valuable Than Succeeding

    Let’s be honest for a second. We are bad at knowing what will make us happy. We are also bad at knowing what is doable and what is not. We’re bad at predicting what sacrifices we’re willing to make. And we’re bad at accurately determining our own abilities.

    Therefore, it’s safe to say that we’re going to be bad at choosing goals that actually serve us.

    Sometimes our goals end up being way more effort than they’re worth. Sometimes goals we thought would be doable turn out to be impossible. Sometimes we get close to achieving our goals only to discover that we don’t enjoy our goals at all.

    This is why it’s sometimes more valuable to fail at a goal than to succeed—the failure teaches us what we should be pursuing instead.

    To go back to my website back in 2010. I failed miserably at growing a men’s online website. I essentially transformed my job into that of a magazine editor without realizing that I would hate it. I alienated thousands of readers who only visited the site to read my writing, not others’. I completely altered the business model without realizing it and found that I’d soon have to depend on advertising revenue if I was going to make money (gag me with a fucking soup ladle).

    So, I quit.

    All my big, ambitious goals for that year, I just pulled the plug. I let all the writers go. I reverted the website back to its blog form. And I started over a few months later as if the whole thing had never happened.

    By all accounts, I quit and/or failed every single goal I set for myself at the beginning of that year.

    And I was so much better off because of it.

    The value of our goals is not in what we accomplish, but in the direction they give us. Goals orient us towards what we’d like in life and give us a little kick in the ass to start moving towards it. But if we discover on the way that actually, we don’t want that goal in our life, then we should drop it!

    A lot of people get upset about this. They feel like a failure. So what? Failure is normal. Failure is how you learn. Better to fail sooner and pick a better goal now than to spend the next year of your life pursuing something that sucks.

    Each year, I set 4-5 goals for myself that year. I then break those large yearly goals into quarterly and then monthly goals.

    Generally, by the time I get to June, half of my yearly goals have changed in some way. By the end of the year, I’ve typically abandoned at least one of the goals because I learned along the way that it wasn’t what I wanted. Hell, sometimes I get to August and I come up with new goals entirely.

    People who show flexibility in their goals turn out waaaaaay better than people who rigidly pursue their goals, especially when those goals aren’t working out.20,21

    Abandoning goals that are either unattainable or just not serving you well has all sorts of benefits, like less stress in your life,22 feeling more competent,23 fewer health problems and better sleep,24 and fewer depressive symptoms and more positive feelings.25

    Remember, goals are just made up markers in your head. No one is grading you. No one is punishing you if you don’t hit them. They’re only as valuable as the benefits they bring to your life. So if they’re not benefiting you, then drop them!

    The truth is, we won’t know if they’re right for us until we try them on. We often don’t know what we want until we get it, or try to get it. We often don’t know what we value until we try to live out those values.

    Goals are just the experiments that help us test these things out. If we realize along the way that a goal isn’t serving what we want and what we value, there’s no shame in letting go of your goals and finding new ones.


    1. Klug, H. J. P., & Maier, G. W. (2015). Linking Goal Progress and Subjective Well-Being: A Meta-analysis. Journal of Happiness Studies, 16(1), 37–65.
    2. Sheldon, K. M., & Kasser, T. (1998). Pursuing Personal Goals: Skills Enable Progress, but Not all Progress is Beneficial. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24(12), 1319–1331.
    3. Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2006). New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(5), 265–268.
    4. Just to give you a quick sampling, there are studies on how setting goals helps with business growth, cost cutting, student performance in business/engineering/science, managerial training, driving, dieting, learning, chess, weight-lifting, reading, brainstorming, mathematical tasks, and even a color discrimination task done by children.
    5. Doran, G. T. (1981). There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives. Management Review. 70 (11): 35–36.
    6. Rothkopf, E. Z., & Billington, M. J. (1979). Goal-Guided Learning from Text: Inferring a Descriptive Processing Model from Inspection Times and Eye Movements. Journal of Educational Psychology, 71(3), 310–327.
    7. Locke, E. A., & Bryan, J. F. (1969). The directing function of goals in task performance. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 4(1), 35–42.
    8. Sales, S. M. (1970). Some effects of role overload and role underload. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 5(6), 592–608.
    9. LaPorte, R. E., & Nath, R. (1976). Role of performance goals in prose learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 68(3), 260–264.
    10. Seijts, G. H., & Latham, G. P. (2001). The effect of distal learning, outcome, and proximal goals on a moderately complex task. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 22(3), 291–307.
    11. Latham, G. P., & Locke, E. A. (2006). Enhancing the Benefits and Overcoming the Pitfalls of Goal Setting. Organizational Dynamics, 35(4), 332–340.
    12.  Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2006). New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(5), 265–268.
    13. Schweitzer, M. E., Ordóñez, L., & Douma, B. (2004). Goal Setting as a Motivator of Unethical Behavior. Academy of Management Journal, 47(3), 422–432.
    14. Brunstein, J. C., Schultheiss, O. C., & Grässmann, R. (1998). Personal goals and emotional well-being: The moderating role of motive dispositions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(2), 494–508.
    15. Baumann, N., Kaschel, R., & Kuhl, J. (2005). Striving for Unwanted Goals: Stress-Dependent Discrepancies Between Explicit and Implicit Achievement Motives Reduce Subjective Well-Being and Increase Psychosomatic Symptoms. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(5), 781–799.
    16. Latham, G. P., Mitchell, T. R., & Dossett, D. L. (1978). Importance of participative goal setting and anticipated rewards on goal difficulty and job performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 63(2), 163–171.
    17. Sheldon, K. M., & Kasser, T. (1998). Pursuing Personal Goals: Skills Enable Progress, but Not all Progress is Beneficial. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24(12), 1319–1331.
    18. Locke, E. A., Shaw, K. N., Saari, L. M., & Latham, G. P. (1981). Goal setting and task performance: 1969–1980. Psychological Bulletin, 90(1), 125–152.
    19. Kasser, T., & Ryan, R. M. (2001). Be careful what you wish for: Optimal functioning and the relative attainment of intrinsic and extrinsic goals. In P. Schmuck & K. M. Sheldon (Eds.), Life goals and well-being: Towards a positive psychology of human striving (p. 116–131). Hogrefe & Huber Publishers.
    20. Brandtstädter, J., & Renner, G. (1990). Tenacious goal pursuit and flexible goal adjustment: Explication and age-related analysis of assimilative and accommodative strategies of coping. Psychology and Aging, 5(1), 58–67.
    21. Brandtstädter, J. (2009). Goal pursuit and goal adjustment: Self-regulation and intentional self-development in changing developmental contexts. Advances in Life Course Research, 14(1), 52–62. 
    22. Bauer, I., & Wrosch, C. (2004, July). Unattainable goals and subjective well-being across adulthood. Presentation at the 18th International Society of Behavioural Development, Ghent, Belgium.
    23. Wrosch, C., Scheier, M. F., Miller, G. E., Schulz, R., & Carver, C. S. (2003). Adaptive Self-Regulation of Unattainable Goals: Goal Disengagement, Goal Reengagement, and Subjective Well-Being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(12), 1494–1508.
    24. Wrosch, C., Miller, G. E., Scheier, M. F., & de Pontet, S. B. (2007). Giving Up on Unattainable Goals: Benefits for Health? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33(2), 251–265.
    25. Wrosch, C., Scheier, M. F., Miller, G. E., Schulz, R., & Carver, C. S. (2003). Adaptive Self-Regulation of Unattainable Goals: Goal Disengagement, Goal Reengagement, and Subjective Well-Being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(12), 1494–1508.