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You are ambitious and motivated. You aim high and dream big. You know all about the importance of working hard to meet targets. Do you still consistently fall short of achieving your goals?

Don’t blame yourself.

Focus instead on the process of setting goals. As the late American motivational speaker, Zig Ziglar, said: “A goal properly set is halfway reached."

Be it starting a new business, working towards that promotion or eating healthy, a well-set goal, like a well-oiled plan, can help you realize your dreams faster.

Just remember to avoid these mistakes when setting your goals:

Error 1: Setting vague goals

In a 1981 study, titled Goal Setting And Task Performance: 1969 To 1980, published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, the pioneer in goal-setting theory, Edwin A. Locke, said, “A review of both laboratory and field studies on the effects of setting goals when performing a task found that in 90% of the studies, specific and challenging goals lead to higher performance than easy goals, ‘do your best’ goals, or no goals."

Goals need to be defined clearly. Visualize the end result as if it had already happened.

For instance…

Vague goal: I want to earn more money.

Specific goal: I want to increase my salary by 50% within one year.

“My favorite word in goal setting, and in success in general, is the word ‘Clarity.’ There is a direct relationship between the level of clarity you have about … what you want, and virtually everything you accomplish in life," writes Brian Tracy, chief executive officer of training and development company Brian Tracy International in the book, Goals!: How To Get Everything You Want—Faster Than You Ever Thought Possible.

In order to be specific, write down your goals in detail.

Research shows that writing down your goals helps in reaching them faster. A 2007 study (unpublished but widely quoted) by Gail Matthews, a psychology professor at the Dominican University of California, US, revealed that participants who wrote their goals accomplished significantly more than those who did not.

Writing brings clarity to the mind and states your intention, and that gives direction to thoughts and actions. The more specific the goal, the more inclined you will be to create an execution plan.

Error 2: Setting goals without an execution plan

After the successful invasion of Normandy in World War II, when US general Dwight D. Eisenhower was asked about the detailed planning process that went into the invasion, he said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable."

Even if you create specific goals, lack of clear deadlines, schedules, and the actionable steps needed to reach them will see you abandoning them midway. Plan for the mini-goals and daily action needed to get closer to your target.

“The purpose of planning is to enable you to turn your major definite purpose into a planned, multi-task project with specific steps—a beginning, middle and end—with clear deadlines and sub-deadlines," writes Tracy in Goals!.

“A great method that I’ve seen numerous times, most recently by the author of Simpleology: The Simple Science Of Getting What You Want, Mark Joyner, is called backward planning, a method used by the military," says Leo Babauta, creator of Zen Habits—a blog on finding simplicity in the daily chaos of our lives.

Here’s how it works: Once you have clearly defined the goal and its outcome, think about the last thing you’ll need to do to achieve that outcome. Then figure out what you’ll need to do just before that step, and the step before that, and so on, until you get to the first step. This is the step you need to focus on.

Error 3: Setting too many goals

“You can do anything but not everything," says productivity consultant David Allen in the book Making It All Work: Winning At The Game Of Work And Business Of Life.

If you tend to make long lists addressing every area of personal life and work where change is desirable, you are setting yourself up for failure.

In a 2012 study titled Too Much Of A Good Thing: The Benefits Of Implementation Intentions Depend On The Number Of Goals published in the Journal Of Consumer Research, Amy Dalton and Stephen Spiller found that “when people juggle multiple goals, completing one task means neglecting or postponing others, which reduces the expected likelihood of ever achieving all goals".

Fewer well-defined goals have the benefit of allowing you to focus your energies on a small number of actionable steps, making you far more effective. The same goes for the sub-goals you have under each objective. If you have three major goals but each has 10 mini-ones, it will not be feasible to keep track and consistently work on all of them.

The key here is to have a handful of goals that you can remember. According to James Clear, author of Transform Your Habits, you should choose a goal that is important to you and then set a schedule to work towards it consistently.

Successful goals are SMART goals (specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and time bound). Be smart when setting them, flexible about the process of achieving them and consistent in your approach.

It will need a little work, but...

As Lord Havershot from P.G. Wodehouse’s novel Laughing Gas says: “And little by little and bit by bit, before you know where you are—why, there you are, don’t you know."

Joy Ghose is the co-founder of FreeMind PitStop, a New Delhi-based productivity coaching firm.

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