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Great Steps in the Goal-Setting Process

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Do you ever wish your life was different? Of course you do! Eveyone does. But the only way to get a “different” life is to make intentional changes. And the best way to make intentional changes is to follow simple steps in the goal-setting process.

Simple steps – as in easy to understand. But simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy to do! Still, the more you know about the steps in the goal-setting process, the easier it will be to both set and achieve your goals. The end result: that “different” life you’re dreaming about!

The Goal Setting Process

Where Do You Start?

As obvious as this might sound, before you set any goals, you need to do some prep work. Perhaps you think that jsut dreaming about how you want your life to change is enough. And it is a good start. But it is just a start. To prepare well for following all the key steps in the goal-setting process, you need to do 4 things:

  • Pray
  • Reflect
  • Evaluate
  • Dream

These 4 steps are covered in detail here. You may be tempted, but don’t skip this part!

The end result of following those 4 steps is that you should have a long list of all your dreams. This list – from the small and simple to the audaciously big – was probably kind of fun to write. You just let your imagination run wild and dream up all the possibilities! How exciting.

Let’s assume you have a list of 50 items. Obviously, that’s way too many things to use for setting goals for one year. Maybe you could put them all on a 10-year list! But first, you have to decide what really matter now, at this stage in your life.

Before you can actually make your goals for the next year, you’ll need to whittle that list down quite a bit! Going through this process will require some hard choices. But making hard choices is part of building an amazing life. Because no one can do everything!

Next Steps in the Goal-Setting Process: Review and Rank

yellow cup with words on napkin Am I pursuing the right goal?

Before you start reviewing your long list of dreams – some of which may seem impossible – try to put your “be realistic” self aside at least for a little while. Sometimes “being realistic” is just an excuse! Instead of throwing buckets of cold water on your list as you review, try thinking in different ways such as:

  • This goal can be postponed for now but maybe next year I can do it. For example, “I can postpone training for a marathon this year. Instead, I’ll train for and run at least 2 half-marathons and maybe next year I’ll be ready to tackle a marathon.”
  • It’s the wrong season for “X” because of “Y” – but I’m keeping it on my future list. For example, “It’s the wrong season for taking a cross-country road trip because our children are too young. But I’m keeping that on my list for when they’re all over the age of 5 (or 8 or whatever you choose).”
  • I like the idea of doing this, but I don’t have the time right now, so I’ll put it on the back burner. Example: I like the idea of learning to paint with watercolors, but until we finish remodeling the master bedroom and bathroom, I don’t have time for that. Maybe after that project is done I can take a class.”
  • I’d love to “X” but it’s just too “Y.” For example, I’d love to take a 2-week vacation to Germany, but it’s going to be so expensive. So this year, I’ll just research approximate costs and begin an intentional savings plan to make that trip happen.”

By reframing “impossible” to “not now,” you accomplish four things:

  • You are “realistic” with what you can do now, in this season of life, but recognize that life is always changing.
  • You decide that what’s important to you – even if it’s not possible right now – still matters
  • You can begin to think of those “impossible” dreams in terms of smaller steps toward those dreams. In other words, you ask yourself, “What can I do? How can I move a little closer to seeing this dream become a reality?”
  • By thinking in possibilities instead of impossibilities, you keep an open mind and a “welcome mat” for unexpected blessings from the Lord.

Review Your List of Dreams

Now you’re ready to review and begin making hard choices. Set aside at least 30 minutes and get to work!

Office table with blank notepad and colorful pencils

Step 1: Read and Remove

Read your entire list before you begin changing anything. You’ll probably be tempted to cross some things off your list immediately. Resist that temptation! The point here is to remind yourself about what you wrote. Because if you wrote it, it mattered at least a little bit to you.

Once you’ve read through your entire list, you can start crossing things off. By resisting the temptation to cross things off before reading the whole list, you’ve given yourself the gift of a bird’s eye view of your priorities.

As you read your list, if you saw you listed certain activities with family 8 times on a list of 20 items, you quickly realize that special family times are a high priority to you. Does that mean you’ll be able to do all 8 of those this year? Not necessarily. But knowing this will probably help you to choose at least one of those to make happen this year. Because family is a priority for you.

Now, on to the “remove.”

Once you’ve read your list, start crossing items off. I suggest using two different colors of pens or markers.

  • First, use red for things that sound great but really don’t “light a fire” inside of you.
    • For example, maybe in college, you dreamed of spending a month every summer working at an orphanage in Kenya. But now, as a married mom of three children, that holds absolutely no interest for you. It’s OK to simply cross it off and move on with your life. You’ve changed. Your life has changed. And your dreams changed.
  • Next, use purple or green to cross off (or circle) all the things you’d love to do but know are simply not feasible in this season. Keep of list of “later season dreams” that you can turn back to frequently.
    • You may also realize that something is on your list because it was important to someone else. But it isn’t really important to you. Maybe your parents always wanted you to be a lawyer, so “law school” is still hanging out on your list 10 years after you graduated from college? But it doesn’t light a fire inside of you? Let it go (red marker!).

Of course, considering the opinions of people you love and who love you can be helpful. And yes, your husband’s dreams should match yours in some areas. But he may have no desire to become a freelance photographer, while it’s all you can think about. Balance and perspective matter.

As you move through this “review and remove” process, focus primarily on your dreams and your desires. If you put anything on your list because you felt you should – for any reason or anyone – then strongly consider removing it (unless, of course, it’s a Biblical command or something like that!).

writing in a journal

Step 2: Separate and Sort What’s Left

Now that you’ve removed some items from your list – and hopefully several! – it’s time to separate and sort.

  • Separate means you place the remaining items from your list into various categories (see below).
  • Sort means you put them in priority order.

A word about categories: don’t get hung up on this!

Some people have 10 categories (like Hal Elrod in his book The Miracle Morning). Some people have three or four. There is no magic number. Just make the number of categories (1) manageable but not overwhelming and (2) reflective of your life (if you don’t have children, then “children” wouldn’t be a category for you!).

The entire purpose of having categories is to make this process of setting and achieving goals easier, not harder! So make sure it’s easy enough for you.

With that said, below are some categories that are fairly common (the ones with * are the ones I use). They are listed alphabetically.

  • Business* or Career – Education might be part of this (or a separate category)
  • Children and/or Grandchildren – or include them as part of “Relationships” or “Family & Friends”
  • Education
  • Faith & Ministry*
  • Family & Friends* – this is extended family, not marriage partner; it may or may not include children or grandchildren.
  • Finances & Giving* – some people like to have “Giving” as a separate category so they can plan to give time as well as money
  • Giving
  • Health
  • Home Environment and/or Home Projects*
  • Marriage*
  • Recreation & Fun* – you could include Travel here as well
  • Personal Growth* – Health could be a part of this category instead of separate
  • Self-Improvement – some people like this name better than “Personal Growth” but it’s the same thing
  • Travel

For a bare-bones approach to categories, you should have at least 3:

  • Personal – including career, faith, education, health, finances, and giving
  • Relationships – including all relationships
  • Projects & Plans – including activities, travel, home improvement, and holidays

I find 3 categories to be too few and have settled on the 8 with [*] above. I’ve used these 8 categories for several years.

As you separate your dreams into categories, you may find that some things fit in more than one place. That’s not unusual. I find that using index cards helps with determining the best fit for categories as well as with sorting the dreams in a priority order (as described below).

If you’d like to try this, follow these steps:

  • Create a “HEADER” card for each category
  • Write 1 item from your list on 1 index card.
  • Place each dream card under one HEADER card.
  • Rearrange the cards until they seem right.
  • If you prefer digital planning, Trello works like index cards.

Sorting cards/dreams this way can help you see if you’re unbalanced by having, for example, 10 big dreams in one category and none in three categories! If this ever happens to you, try starting over with brainstorming, and make sure you’re brainstorming within your categories! Check out this article for tips.

Once you’ve categorized everything, it’s time to sort everything in rank order.

chalkboard with words "if not now...when?"

Sort Your Big Dreams into Rank Order

So, you have your index cards all over your table in their proper categories. Don’t clean up! Continue by moving them around with the most important (to you) item in each category at the top and the least important at the bottom. The top items should be the ones you are most fired up about.

Place every card in its proper category and rank order, then step away. Do the dishes, eat on tray tables that night, go for a run. Anything to give you space and time. When you come back to your card-covered table, it will be with fresh eyes.

When looking over your cards a second time, be prepared to see things you didn’t see before. You may change the order of cards. You may decide to add a card or remove a card. You may decide to combine cards.

While you’re doing all this shuffling and reshuffling, take time to write notes on your cards. For example, maybe “Take a Mediterranean cruise” is one of your Recreation cards. You could add notes like “start saving; goal = $3,000 before researching” or “research cruises” or “plan for 25th anniversary.” Notes such as these help you to envision actually achieving some big dreams and give you a framework for planning.

Once you are finished and happy with the sorting and ranking, take a picture!! You may want to refer back to it later.

Turning Your Dreams into Goals

Now that you have your big dreams, all neatly categorized and ranked, it’s time to turn those dreams into goals. As with the “pre-goal setting” stage and the “goal setting process” stage, turning dreams into goals has a few steps.

pile of sand dreaming of becoming a sand castle

Note, Notes, Notes

If you have not already done so, write a few quick notes on every card. These notes could include proposed deadlines, required prerequisites, other people to consult, or why this is important to you. The more you record about your dreams, the more help those cards will give you in turning your dreams into goals.

Every time you work on one card, try to add a few more details. It is especially important to focus on WHY each dream is important to you and your proposed deadlines. For example, if one of your big dreams is to open your own daycare center, your why could be based on your experiences with daycare for your own children, your friends’ experiences, your love for children, and your desire to have your own business. Maybe this is a 3-year or 5-year goal, but you need to start working on that 3-year deadline this year. Details can guide your goal-setting process.

Narrowing Your Focus

Now comes the really, really hard part. What dreams will become your big goals for the upcoming year? Experts suggest having three goals, with five as a maximum for over-achievers. Depressing, isn’t it? You got all excited about working towards your big dreams and now you’re told you can only pick three!

But…it isn’t as bad as you think for two reasons.

First, working on “Goal A” this year may actually help you reach “Goals B, C, and D” sooner. For example, one of my big dreams is to visit Italy. But I can’t afford it right now. So, one of my goals for this coming year is to focus on increasing my income from blogging and writing. If I succeed in my income goal, I’ll be closer to reaching the Italy goal.

Second, working on “Goal A” might also mean you’ll need to focus on “Goals E, F, or G” in order to reach “Goal A.” Drawing on my example from above, to increase my income I need to finish a few online courses I’m taking and become better at time management so I spend more time on the most important aspects of blogging and writing. Although the courses and time management aren’t big dreams, they are important goals to me. And focusing on my “Big Dream Goal A” will help me reach those smaller goals.

As you can see, narrowing your focus can be very helpful in achieving both your big dream goals and your “nagging-in-the-back-of-your-mind” goals.

So, now that I’ve convinced you that narrowing your focus isn’t terrible, how do you do it? Most importantly, you must ask yourself questions and answer them honestly and thoroughly. That means paragraph answers, not sentence answers!

  • If I could only focus on one big dream goal this coming year, which one would have the biggest impact on my life? Why do I think that one goal would have the biggest impact?
  • Which goal would move me closer to achieving my other big dream goals? How would achieving that goal make it more likely or easier for me to achieve my other big dream goals?
  • What are the ways my life will change for the better when I reach that goal?
  • Do I believe, after praying, that God would be pleased with my focus on that goal? If yes, what are some Biblical principles or verses that can encourage me in focusing on that goal? If no, you may need to revise it or remove it from your list.

This is how I work through this step:

  1. First, I pray at the start and throughout this part (and all other parts) of the goal-setting process.
  2. Next, I ask myself questions about the top big dream in each category (if one category has a lot of cards, I might do the top two).
  3. Once I have my answers – written out – I weed out the obvious “losers.” These are the cards that will have the least impact on my life. Frequently, these are big dreams that are narrowly focused (and maybe not big enough?). Hopefully, this gets me down to five or six – remember I only have eight categories to start with. An example would be traveling to Italy.
  4. I take the remaining five or six cards and put everything else away.
  5. Then, I take a break. Read, do some yard work, fix dinner – whatever. After an hour or two, I come back and read through each card’s notes, along with the questions I asked myself and my answers. Hopefully, this process will reveal to me that working on “Goal A” will make achieving “Goal X” more likely – so I leave “Goal X” for another time.
  6. If I still have more than three cards, at this point, I ask myself one last question: Which one or two of these goals am I most excited about working towards? This question taps into my excitement and willingness to commit. Without a strong commitment and motivation to succeed, the goal-setting process is just a mental exercise that leads nowhere.
  7. Finally, I have my cards which become my goals. I may have one goal, two goals, or three goals. Three is my maximum for my own sanity and ability to follow through.

Write Your Goals in Simple, Direct Sentences

If you’ve faithfully followed this goal-setting process, you now have just a few goals to focus on. The next step is to write your goal in an easy-to-remember sentence. For example, my goal of increasing my income would be written like this: “By December, I will be earning an average of $2,000 per month from blogging, writing, and related activities.”

That’s the goal I’m committing to working towards. It’s short, simple, and direct. It’s easy to write on note cards to place around the house. It’s easy to memorize and recite to myself when I get discouraged. It has a definite deadline and a defined amount I want to earn. This simple sentence can keep me going when I want to give up. And it’s easy to evaluate when the year draws to a close – did I reach this goal or not?

magnifying glass on calendar with word plan

From Dreams to Plans

The steps outlined above are quite a bit to work through. But they are critical to setting goals that you are truly committed to achieving. Once you’ve completed them all, give yourself a high-five and a pat on the back. You’ve done a lot of work.

However, the work is not done. After you’ve written your 3 big goals out in clear, concise statements, you’ll need to take each goal and break it down into smaller, actionable steps. That process is explained in detail here.

What are you waiting for? Grab your dreams – even if they’re only in your mind right now – and get started on making them a reality!

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