Why do we set goals? For any number of reasons. From life goals to goals for our career, we set goals so we can hold ourselves accountable for accomplishing them. Setting a goal gives us an expectation of success. They help us find strength when times are tough. And they help us identify what we truly want … and propel us forward.

There are as many—if not more—types of goals as there are reasons for having them. Life goals. Career goals. Goals for our finances. Goals for personal development. Goals for professional development. Goals to chart progress on weight loss … build a nest egg … start a family … quit bad habits … climb mountains and more. Bottom line, having goals in life are fundamental to experiencing success in the future and, often, happiness. 

The key is learning how to set goals and follow through with them effectively. Fortunately, there is a way to do it—a four-step process for setting goals. What are the four steps involved in goal-setting planning? Let’s consider them one by one: 

1. Set goals in terms that can be measured

“Do your best.” “Make an effort.” These are mostly generalizations that we all try to accomplish on a daily basis, but they won’t necessarily get you very far. Specific goal setting is more effective in improving performance. You want to be able to measure performance that relates to a specific goal. For example, an athlete will want to know how much he/she has improved in a specific skill set (e.g., increasing the percentage of successfully completed free throws). 

What does that look like for you? If you’re a runner, it could mean going the literal extra mile next week. For a student, it could be as simple as doing better on the next quiz than the last. 

2. Set difficult but realistic goals

Whatever goal you choose to set—for your life or for next week—make sure it’s something you feel you can achieve, that it is realistic. Why is it important to set realistic goals? 

It is important to challenge yourself. Difficult goals often produce better performance than moderate or easy goals, and the higher the goal, the higher the performance. However, it is important to exercise caution and understand that your goal should not be so difficult that you will likely never reach it. This leads to feeling frustrated and experiencing failure that can sidetrack you from your goals. Save yourself the aggravation and learn how to set realistic goals.

3. Set short-term and long-term goals

So, how can you be sure you’re setting realistic goals? Is climbing a mountain realistic? It can be if you set achievable short-term goals—exercising, altitude training, hikes, mountain climbing classes—that help you progress toward your ultimate goal. 

Start by breaking down your long-term goals into smaller, more attainable goals that will help you along the way. Accomplishing these short-term goals provides momentum; you feel a sense of achievement and success that keeps you motivated and focused. Short-term and long-term goals work in tandem; without these short-term goals, you may lose sight of what you are pushing for in the long run.

4. Set goals, but be flexible

Finally, it is important to remember that all of the goals you’ve set out to accomplish should never be set in stone. Be adaptable. Be willing to grow. Understand that exchanging your past goal for something that may be more fulfilling for you is just a part of life. It’s okay.

Situations and circumstances are constantly changing; sometimes your goals must be reshaped and restructured. That’s a part of how we evolve, and there is always the opportunity to set new goals for yourself.