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You've heard it many times before: The greatest career success begins with a goal. Goals give you direction; goals help you focus; and goals help you stretch yourself.

Said another way: If you don't know where you are going, how are you going to get there?

The problem we all have is setting goals and taking action to achieve them. In this article, I will give you practical steps to develop goals you can put into action.

Four Exercises in Goal Setting

Here are four exercises that will help you set your goals:

  1. Future projection
  2. Front-page news
  3. Collage
  4. The Mother of All Goals Exercises

Future Projection

Some people, and we all know people like this, have always known their one major goal. At four years old they knew they wanted to grow up and be a plastic surgeon or a fireman, and that's what they steadfastly pursued. Madonna is one of those people. She said from a very early age, "I'm going to be either a famous singer and dancer or a nun." Obviously, she grew up to be the former.

Most of us, however, really have to think about the possibilities and try on different scenarios. This first exercise, future projection, is all about visualizing the future.

Picture a day in your fabulous life 10 years from now, and ask yourself questions like these: Where do I live? How do I get to work? What do I do at work? With whom do I work?

Be careful to look at the imagery that's around you as you go about a day in your life 10 years hence. What are the colors that you see? What does it sound like? What does it feel like? Taste like? Get as many of the senses as you can working for you.

Once you have a crystal clear image in your mind, document what you saw and then turn that into a goal statement.

Front-Page News

Come up with the headline that describes your success in 10 years and identify the newspaper or magazine that features this headline.

Let me give you an example. One of my clients is passionate about travel and about luxury. His goal for his business is to travel the world staying in luxury hotels, assessing and evaluating them. He'll then consolidate this valuable information for executive business travelers to buy.

His headline: Local Entrepreneur Gets Paid to Travel the Globe in Style.

Think about the headline that describes what you will have achieved in 10 years, and then think about where we will read about your accomplishments: The Wall Street Journal? Advertising Age? Business Week? CMO? Vanity Fair?

Collage

For those of you who are kinesthetic and visual learners, here's an exercise that will help you set your goals.

Get a poster board or very large sheet of paper or cardboard. Then get all kinds of materials together, newspapers, magazines, scissors, glue, magic markers, pens, crayons—anything you can think of that might be useful—and spread them out in front of you.

Start to identify the items among those in front of you that will describe how you see your life 10 to 15 years in the future. Just tear or cut out images, draw, paint, glue, assemble until you have created the landscape of your future.

Then take a look at it, and discern from your creation what it means. Write a goal statement that takes into account what you have illustrated in your collage.

The Mother of All Goals Exercises

To complete this exercise, open up either a Microsoft Word or Excel document and just go crazy typing in every goal you have for your career or business (one goal per line). You might type in items like "I will to be the VP of Marketing at a new media company" or "I only travel business class" or "I will have a long list of famous clients."

Type every single goal that you can think of into your document. And when you think you've got them all out of your head, go back and add some more, because I guarantee you there are some more in there. When you are done, you will have a long list of everything you want to accomplish.

Now, go back to your list and put a 1, 2 or 3 to the left of every goal. Mark an item with a 1 if it is a goal you would like to accomplish in the next year, a 2 for those you would like to accomplish in two to five years, and a 3 next to every long-term goal (greater than five years).

Then sort the list (this why you do this exercise in Word or Excel). You'll end up with all the 1s together, all the 2s together and all the 3s together. Then within each of the three subgroups, ask yourself, Is this one more important than this one? And so on. Then put them in priority order with the most important goals first. What you will end up with is a complete list in chronological and prioritized order.

There are two things that you do with this. First, look at the links among various goals—milestones that together lead to achievement of a major goal. Second, you will find that by prioritizing them you will see what is really important and will be able to focus your energies instead of fracturing your efforts on too many, disparate goals.

Now that you know why goals are important and you have a few strategies for setting them, let's talk about achieving them.

Eight Goal-Achieving Strategies

There are many strategies for achieving your goals. Here are eight of the ones I consider most effective:

  1. Prepare mentally
  2. Use your strengths
  3. Get what you need
  4. Take small steps
  5. Keep them top of mind
  6. Eliminate roadblocks
  7. Use your EQ
  8. Get a goalfriend

Prepare mentally

The number-one thing that can get in the way of your goals is you. We sabotage our own goals all the time. If you hear any of your negative voices saying things like "I can't do it," or "others don't want me to achieve it," or "getting there is going to be really ugly," find a way to drown out the voice with positive messages about what it feels like to have achieved the goal.

Imagine yourself as having already achieved this goal. Speak of the goal in the present tense. I told you that you need to stretch when setting goals, but don't make them so big in your mind that they sound impossible. Set them big, but think of them as completely achievable. And reward all the progress that you're making as you're stepping toward your goals.

Use your strengths

This is something that I think we're all programmed not to do. Most of us have been in a work environment where we are forced to focus on our weaknesses. Our managers identify our weaknesses and then we pursue professional development activities to "fix" them.

To achieve your goals, take an inventory of your strengths. You have these incredible innate strengths that you can use to more rapidly reach your goals. Maximize them!

I had a client named Kristen, and her number-one strength is connection. She is hugely connected and knows how to connect people for mutual success. Yet she was trying to get a book published and she didn't use any of her connections or even think to do so. When she realized that she could use this strength to achieve her goal, she found an agent and a publisher and is moving her book forward.

So, use your strengths, they're the greatest goal-realization tools you have.

Get what you need to get there

Although you need to maximize your strengths to ensure success, you also have to identify any critical element that you don't have and then obtain it. Maybe it's education or credentials or social capital. When you've identified the goal, ask yourself what you need to have to reach that goal.

And, at the same time, get comfortable with the fact that you often have to give things up to achieve your goals. There are sacrifices that come with attaining goals. So think of sacrifice as a major step forward.

When you know what you need and what you have to give up, you can make a plan and move forward.

Take small steps

There's a Japanese business philosophy called Kaizen. "Kai" means "continuous" and "Zen" means "improvement." This is the philosophy behind Japanese businesses; it's how they have turned out such incredible cars—by making tiny but regular improvements.

Making small but steady gestures toward your goal will ensure that you get there. So you need to think about that small step that you can take today.

Let's say you have a fitness goal—you want to increase your strength and endurance. You can start with one pushup today and add one each day. At the end of the year, you'll be doing a lot of pushups, and you will be a lot closer to your goal.

If your goal is to increase the size of your professional network with 50 new members by the end of the year, making an effort to meet and stay in contact with one new marketing executive each week will more than get you to your goal in a year's time.

Keep them top of mind

We usually set our goals in January; it's a time of renewal and resolution. Then it happens: Life gets in the way. We go to work and there are 8,000 unread emails and there's voicemail to check and the second we get into the office something unexpected happens. You know what it's like.

The next thing you know, you have forgotten your goals because other things start to take their place in your hectic schedule. You need a tool that will help you keep your goals top of mind. And the cool thing is that you already have this tool: It's called RAS, or Reticular Activating System. This is a part of the brain that helps decide what gets to your conscious mind.

Do you remember the day you decided you were going to buy that red BMW? All of a sudden, once you had made that decision, every car on the road seemed to be a red BMW. The number of red BMWs didn't change, but your RAS alerted your conscious brain to be on the lookout for red BMWs. Do you see how powerful your RAS is? All you need to do is tell your RAS about your goals, and it will make sure that they're top of mind, literally. So how do you do that?

Don't forget to write them down. When you write down your goals, you're telling your RAS that this is important to you, and asking it to be on the lookout for things that are going to help you achieve those goals.

But just writing them down is not enough. You want to keep your RAS focused on your goals. So post them somewhere you will see them every day. It could be the bathroom mirror, your office wall, the rearview mirror of your car—whatever works for you. Then review them every day.

You can be really creative in keeping your goals visible. A colleague of mine developed a screensaver that displays her goals streaming across her computer screen. A client of mine sends herself a postcard from every city she visits (and she travels a lot) with her goals on it. Every time she arrives home from a trip, she has her goals on a postcard. Even if she doesn't read the goals, just seeing the postcard is a reminder.

Eliminate roadblocks

When you can control them, don't let external things get in the way of your goals. One of the biggest roadblocks is negative people. People who are telling you, "Why do you want to do that?" Or worse: "You could never do that."

Some people in the world are just glass-half-empty. Don't let them bring you down.

You need to find a way to push through or go around these roadblocks. The first step is recognizing what they are. You will also want to eliminate "tolerations"—those items that you just put up with that are taking away your energy reserves. You need that energy. It is the fuel that will propel you toward your goal.

Use your EQ

There are five emotional intelligence (EQ) competencies; among them, two are critical to goal achievement: resilience and intentionality.

Resilience is all about being about being able to bounce back from challenges. It means staying the course even when setbacks occur. You need to keep your focus on the big picture and remain impervious to impediments—remind yourself of how unimportant they are in the larger scheme.

Intentionality is critical as well. It is all about doing what you say you are going to do. Since major goals are often composed of numerous milestones and tasks, doing what you say you are going to do at each step of the way is essential to attaining your objective. When you commit to an activity related to a goal, you must complete it.

The cool thing about EQ is that, unlike IQ, you can improve it. So if you need greater intentionality or resilience to be able to reach your goals, build it.

Get a goalfriend

One technique that's extremely helpful in goals attainment is to get a goalfriend, someone with whom you share your goals. Then support each other in achieving them.

I have a goalfriend in San Francisco. Her name is Susan, and we have been friends for over 20 years. Every January, we send each other our goals for the year in five categories: health, finance, career, relationships and fun.

Then, every time we send each other an email or we talk on the phone, we question each other as to where we are with our goals. This helps keep our goals top of mind (remember your RAS), and it also makes you accountable to someone other than yourself.

In addition to your goalfriend, you need to share your goal with EVERYONE! This helps to make it a reality. Just go around taking to everyone you meet about your goals. Saying them over and over will make them real.

* * *

Your goals give your personal brand direction, and they stretch you. They are the first step to success. So set your goals and then put everything you need in place to ensure that you are marching steadfastly toward achieving them. Just one small step starting today will lead to a truly impressive headline in the coming years.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

image of William Arruda

William Arruda is a personal branding pioneer, the founder and CEO of Reach Personal Branding, and the author of Ditch. Dare. Do! 3D Personal Branding for Executives.

Twitter: @williamarruda

LinkedIn: William Arruda