When you set lofty goals, even failure produces little "victories". If you read certain self-help literature, you may get the impression that some people don’t have any goals in life. Even worse -- you may be one of those people.
In actuality, it’s impossible for living organisms to not have goals.
The Buddhist monk who takes his Zen Master’s advice to “do nothing” has a goal of doing nothing. A “mindless” single-celled organism has the instinctual goal of surviving, as does the couch potato, who spends his time commuting between the refrigerator and the TV.
Everybody has goals. What many people don’t have are big “breakthrough” goals -- goals for a new reality in which they and their material circumstances are dramatically better.
I believe in dreaming huge, with the understanding that even if I fall short of a specific outcome, I’ll achieve smaller goals along the way that, collectively, create improvement. It’s better to aim high and fall short than to set a “more realistic” goal and later wish you’d dreamed bigger.
As a young boy, I was fortunate to have a role model (my father) who both inspired my dreams and helped me develop a process for achieving them.
Dad was a varsity basketball coach, so by age six, I dreamed of being an NBA player. He taught me that if you’re not practicing and working hard, somebody else is, and that “somebody” will beat you. So I followed daily workout plans that he prepared, which bred into me the importance of establishing daily goals -- small milestones that I needed to accomplish to move forward.
Did I achieve my ultimate goal of making it to the NBA? No. But I achieved a great deal along the way, including breaking various records at my high school & college. And all that practice and hard work fostered a level of commitment, discipline and mental toughness that later helped me bootstrap a small start-up company into an award-winning company.
I’ve continued refining my father’s goal-setting regimen, which I now apply to every area of my life. Here are the four basic components:
1. Set daily goals.
Once you develop a big goal, create one or more missions for yourself every day. These daily tasks must be accomplished by the end of the day, and achieving them allows you to chalk up small victories. These tiny “wins” will motivate you to progress to the next day’s missions, and the next day’s, until the sum of all those “bite-sized” pieces of the larger goal add up to the big goal!
2. Write down your goals.
At the very least, write them down so you can check back consistently to measure your progress and make modifications. Because writing down goals requires a commitment, it increases the odds that you’ll stick with the plan. After all, it’s easy and painless to abandon a plan to which you’ve committed no time or resources, but less tempting once you’ve invested lots of effort.
3. Make course corrections as needed.
Keep correcting your course along the way. For example, if my goal is to finish a triathlon, but I get sick or my business demands my full attention for a while, I might have to cancel participation in one race and sign up for another. If your plan is inflexible, you’re more likely to quit the whole process the moment you fail to achieve a couple of daily goals. Allowing yourself to make course corrections returns your focus to that big, long-term goal, reminding you that there are many ways to reach the mountaintop. You just have to keep piling up tiny victories and keep momentum going.
4. Work toward specific outcomes, but don’t be married to them.
The process of establishing and working toward big goals comes with a big paradox. Without committing to the process of accomplishing lofty goals, you have no chance of achieving them. But once you start down the path, you need to accept that small victories are ultimately more important. You might never accomplish the original big goal but you will have made massive progress. If you can live with this paradox, and still remain motivated, you’re guaranteed to achieve something of lasting value in the long run.
Originally published in Entrepreneur