How to set and achieve your goals

I set my alarm for 2.55am, found the 400m Olympic final and watched a World Record get smashed. South Africa’s Wayde Van Niekerk started in the worst lane, he couldn’t see any of his opponents for the entire race.  That disadvantage meant that he had no way of knowing how he was positioned, he essentially had to run his own race without any information.  He wanted gold, developed a race plan and then executed all by himself out in Lane 8 (click here to watch the race).

This weekend, besides watching the Olympics, I hosted a workshop on setting and achieving goals.  I promised that I would write a blog about what I said and you are now reading it.

1.  Work ON your life, not just IN your life.  We are all busy.  How often do we stop however and invest time in assessing our lives?  Time is the most precious possession we all have to invest.  We could instantly win $1m on a reality show but we can never win more time.  We invest 168 hours a week and we will never get that time back.  The process of setting and achieving goals starts with this desire to break out of the busyness cycle and try and achieve some perspective.

2.  Start with the end in mind.  At that start of the year I spent a day away from all distractions writing a Life Plan.  The start required writing my ideal eulogy (what I hoped people would say one day at my funeral).  What would my wife say?  My friends?  You get the idea.  This was an exercise encouraged in the excellent book, Living Forward.  Writing your eulogy encourages you to begin with the end in mind – what would you want to be said at your funeral?  David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, has written brilliantly about the difference between CV values and eulogy values:

“It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.”

If you want to conduct a similar exercise here is a Life Plan template from the book.

3.  Get a specific vision for major areas of your life.  Having soberly begun with the end in mind, what would the key areas of your life ideally look in the next year?  Describe where you want to go to?  Friendships, Work, Family, Spirituality, Physical Health, Finance, Marriage, Studies – pick the areas that are priorities in your life.

4.  Describe the “here” of where you currently find yourself.  You have described where you want to be (“there”) and now is the time to dial in the reality of where you currently find yourself (“here”).  No one else will see this document, unless you want to share it, so don’t sugarcoat things.  Self-deception is a powerful blinding agent – now is the time to reflect on recent criticism received and search for the nuggets of truth that they contain.

5.  Formulate SMART goals that will move you from “here” to “there”.  There should now be a few yawning gaps between where you are and where you would like to be.  What change would make the biggest difference in your life over the next year?  Where is your need for change the greatest?  Prioritise the areas of your life accordingly.  The temptation now, especially for Type A personalities like us, is to attempt to do 100 different things.  This step requires you to rather focus on 5-7 SMART goals that will have a disproportionate impact.  Let’s use my goal for Physical Health as an example, “Run the 5km park run in under 20 minutes by June 2017”

  • Specific – this goal is not a vague one like “Get healthy” or “Run more”
  • Measurable – 20 mins for 5km is a lot better than “Run faster” because now you have a feedback mechanism
  • Achievable – I initally set a goal of 25 mins and then 24 mins but now I have gone with 20 mins – which is a stretch goal.  What it means is that I now need to consider my diet, train more effectively and keep myself away from the sick bed.  There is a lot of debate around stretch goals (this guy is not a fan) but I enjoy the challenge.
  • Relevant – this needs to be important to you, there needs to be a good answer to the “why?” question that will crop up when you are tempted to quit in your pursuit of the goal
  • Timeline – set a time frame or else you will be tempted to defer taking steps – June 2017 sets the clock ticking

6.  After setting 5-7 SMART goals, identify keystone habits.  Steven Pressfield, in his excellent book Turning Pro says:

“The difference between an amateur and a professional is in their habits. An amateur has amateur habits. A professional has professional habits. We can never free ourselves from habits. The human being is a creature of habit. But we can replace bad habits with good ones.”

In order to achieve your goals, what new habits are required?  I mentioned earlier my need now to examine diet, training for a run and other habits.  What is a keystone habit?  These are habits that have a positive ripple effect in all of your life.  If you get into the habit of 8 hours sleep a night – a lot of other areas in your life improve.  You are less prone to illness, more patient with people, demonstrate more creativity at work – the positive ripple effect of one keystone habit can be enormous.  For more on this really helpful concept, listen to this podcast and read my post on “The Power of Habit”.

7.  Move away from a “To do” list and towards Schedule The Action Required Today (START).  How do you now fit all these new actions into your life?  Add them to an enormous To Do list that you will never complete every day?  Not a great idea.  Rather schedule the action required today.  This tip, from the excellent Shane Parrish, has helped me enormously:

“When you schedule things, you are forced to deal with the fact that there are only so many hours in a week. You’re forced to make choices rather than add something to a never ending to-do list that only becomes a source of anxiety. And you can’t just schedule important work and creative stuff. You need to schedule time for rest and recovery and mundane things like email.”  Read the full article here.

8.  Complete a weekly review.  This last step is a vital habit to develop.  It ensures that you consistently review your Life Plan, goals and assess your week.  You need to find 1 hour every week for a review.  Friday afternoon works well in Cape Town; very few interruptions!  What does my weekly review look like?  (It is based on Matt Perman, who wrote the fantastic What’s Best Next?, and who has this great post on his weekly review.)

  1. Prayer. I remind myself of who God is and who I am in light of that.
  2. Read my Life Plan.  Begin with the end in mind, so as to give perspective to my subsequent nitty gritty planning.
  3. Review the past week.  What worked well?  Are there any commitments I have forgotten about?  I also review my journal – which is where I try to answer 7 questions daily.  These 7 questions were obtained from this blog post from Michael Hyatt.  Generally, when I am regularly asking myself these questions, I am living with margin in my life.
  4. Look ahead to next week.  What is happening?  What actions do I need to take?
  5. Empty all my lists, desks and notes.  Collect everything that I have that is a reminder to take an action.  List all the next actions.
  6. Review my project list.  This is a list of projects that I want to take responsibility for but which can slip my mind on a weekly basis (e.g. cleaning the pool, upcoming birthdays, books I want to read).  This comes from the excellent GTD system from David Allen and he writes about project lists here.
  7. Review my action list and schedule actions.  What will I do next week?  What will be my priorities?  What steps can I take towards achieving my 5-7 goals?
  8. Rest.  I then take 24 hours off – I will try my best to not work from 6pm Friday until 6pm Saturday.  This time is set aside to enjoy God, creation, park run, my family and friends.  For more of this idea of deep rest – click here.

That is what I shared at the workshop – it was an intense 40 minutes!  I try my best to follow my own advice but am not perfect.  There is often the need to reboot and start again.  The time invested working ON my life, and not just IN my life. is worth it though!

What am I missing?  Please comment with your perspectives on how to set and achieve goals!


Paul Maughan


  1. Hey Paul

    Great article! I call it an article because if feels like so much more than a post.

    Just been talking about achieving goals with my colleagues. Found some other thoughts around the habits thing which I read previously as well, which is so helpful! Love how you have fleshed things out with great detail and defined by great research and practice rather than a superficial blog post of a single experience or article you read.

    I have become a subscriber so looking forward to what else I can read from you.



  2. Excellent , concise to the point and also up to date with the latest success of SA in the olympics
    Thanks for sharing of charge

  3. Really enjoyed reading that Paul, thank you. So many great tips and pointers in one piece, very useful!

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