Try these goal setting exercises if you’ve been setting goals and coming up short.

We’ve all been there; setting goals, making progress, achieving some but not others.  No matter how you slice it, goal setting is easier said than done.

Go ahead and roll your eyes.  But you and I both know how most goal setting exercises go; it’s a “wax-on, wax off”  set of skills that you have to practice daily.  And, the more you practice the more it becomes a natural part of your daily routine and structure.

There’s no shortage of goal setting systems or processes for how to set goals and when you look at them, they all share the same basic outline:

  1. Be clear about what you want.
  2. Brainstorm a list of tasks that you need to accomplish to achieve your goal.
  3. Make a list of resources that you’ll need to help you complete your tasks.
  4. Create a plan with specific deadlines to complete the tasks.
  5. Identify a list of obstacles that can get in the way and plan around those.
  6. Create a structure to support your completing the tasks.
  7. Measure your progress.

When you take a look at all of these elements, there is one element in this list that determines whether you’ll achieve your goal or not — knowing what you want (or not).


Think about it this way.  When you want to host a party you don’t send people an invitation with the alphabet.  You send an invitation with a date, time, place, what to bring, what to wear, etc.. I have a friend who specializes in helping people get clear on their goals and her favorite saying is “

“Most people know more about what they want on their sandwich than what they want out of life.” 

Too often, we take what we want for granted or we spend more time and energy thinking about what we don’t want than what we want and what that looks like.

If you don’t know what you want — you don’t know what you’ll get

Goal setting expert and host of #GoalChat, Debra Eckerling has a goal setting exercise for this critical step:


4 Goal Setting Exercises That Will Help You Get Crystal Clear on What You Want

Rather than feed you more of what you’ve seen about setting goals, here are four goal setting exersises that you can play with to get really clear on what you want and what goals to set.

1. Mind the Gap Between Where You Are and Where You Want to Be

When was the last time you took an inventory of your life?  This is a great exercise that will help you take a look at where you are and where you want to be.  The biggest challenge with this goal setting exercise is making sure you don’t judge or criticize yourself into a state of depression.

The first step is to frame this as an exploratory goal setting exercise.  And whatever you do, please do NOT assign any judgments or meanings to it.  The way I avoid comparing and judging myself is by pretending that I am my own client.

  1. Describe your day and life in the future.  Pick a date in the future (one, three, five or 10 years into the future) and write about your average day.  Describe everything about your life as vividly as you possibly can; when do you wake up, what do you see when you wake up, what will you do that day, what kind of car do you drive, where do you live, where do you go on vacation, how does that make you feel, what talents are you using,  etc.  One helpful trick is to create life categories such as health, relationship, finance, career, friendships, spiritual and education.
  2. Compare your future life to your present. This is where it can get sticky.  The key is to focus in on specific elements of your life such as the skills and talents that you are using, how much time you spend working, and the general nature of your work. Don’t let your brain get into the default conversation of “You’ll never have that much money or who do you think you are” if those pop up (and they will), simply thank your inner critic for sharing and tell it to shut up.
  3. Pick an area you are drawn to. Now that you have your future and your present laid out, you’ll find yourself desiring or being drawn to a specific area that you want to move toward.  Choose that and start flushing out the details.

One book that I’ve found extremely helpful for this process has been Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans.  The authors were actually software engineers who used the problem-solving principles of great software development in crafting and creating a life you love and can get excited about.  While it’s mostly a career book, I think that the principles they discuss on how to discover what you really want are widely applicable.

2. Play With “Be-Do-Have”

Have you ever worked toward a goal, achieved it and then felt sort of let down? That’s because you’ve gotten the process a bit reversed.  You’ve been taught to DO things, so that you can HAVE things so that you can BE happy.  That doesn’t work.  A better exercise is to sit down and think about who you want to BE.  Then DO the things that will have you BE that and finally, you will HAVE the things that people who are that have.

Let me give you a concrete explanation.  Say you want to make a certain amount of money (That’s the HAVE part), so you might look at occupations that can deliver on that amount of money and so you go off and DO the things it takes to become skilled in that occupation.  After years of BEING this occupation and DOING the things it takes to succeed, you end up HAVING “stuff” but often this stuff leaves you unfulfilled.

Take a page out of Debra Eckerling’s process and start journaling.


Simply choosing a way of being will inspire the DOING component of this formula.  If you have chosen to be physically fit, then what do physically fit people DO? They eat a certain way and they exercise.  These tasks actually drive the outcome and the HAVING of physical fitness.

3. Write Your Manifesto

A few years ago, manifestos were all the rage.  Manifestos are fun to read and can be fun to write since there is no hard and fast rule on what it looks like.  Writing a manifesto isn’t just a creative exercise, it will focus your thoughts on what values drive you, it will inspire you and those around you and it will make it crystal clear who you are and what matters to you.

Of course, if you’re a small business owner, this will be a super-twofer goal setting exercise as you’ll find that a manifesto can be a powerful marketing tool that will attract your ideal customers.

Here are a few roundups of some of the best manifestos:

10 Insanely Awesome Inspirational Manifestos

8 Inspiring Manifestos for Change

1000 Manifesto List


4. Reframe Your Tasks into Systems

We all know that you have to set goals and objectives and make them SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and have a Time attached to them).  Again, easier said than done.  But what if you thought about your goal as a product and your tasks as a “system” — or a machine that manufactures an outcome?  Now that’s a different way to think about things for sure.

In an article titled “Forget About Setting Goals, Focus on This Instead”  James Clear (love the name and how appropriate it is) has some specific examples of how to reframe your thinking regarding goals and systems:

  • If you’re a coach, your goal is to win a championship. Your system is what your team does at practice each day.

  • If you’re a writer, your goal is to write a book. Your system is the writing schedule that you follow each week

  • If you’re a runner, your goal is to run a marathon. Your system is your training schedule for the month

  • If you’re an entrepreneur, your goal is to build a million dollar business. Your system is your sales and marketing process.

This is an important goal setting exercise if you’ve spent hours or even days creating plans that never seem to get any traction.  In essence, you’re taking your attention of of the specific goal and putting it into specific success behaviors that will result in the achievemnt of the goal.

As Debra Eckerling said in the video, create a schedule and stick to it.

Goal Setting is Useless if You Don’t Know What You Want

It’s easy to start feeling like some kind of a loser when you set goals and don’t achieve them.  Not only that, but too many people focus on the process of goal setting and not on the process of knowing what you actually want.

Hopefully, these goal setting exercises will give you the opportunity to take some time to focus on what matters most to you and what goals you actually want to set for yourself.