by Thomas O'Connor, M.A.

People with goals tend to out-perform those without goals. The goals we set, and our beliefs about those goals, guide our behavior and make it purposeful. Goals should be difficult enough to be challenging but not so difficult that they are beyond reach. Difficult goals spur us to our best efforts and give us the most satisfaction. Better that a goal is too difficult than too easy.

Make your goals specific and concrete, rather than vague and general. State them in observable terms, so you can measure your progress. Top athletes constantly rate their own performance and compete as much against themselves as against other athletes. Every training session, every round sparred, should be geared toward some specific objective or fine tuning of performance.

Goals that you set for yourself motivate you more than goals that are set for you. The value that you place on a goal and your belief that you can reach that goal will affect your commitment. Goals are highly inspirational but need to be tested against reality. Be sure that you know what you're getting yourself into and have the necessary resources. Goals must be within an individual's abilities and aspirations. A coach or boss who demands more than an individual can give will wind up with a beaten, depressed victim.

Short term goals are better than long term goals, particularly if deadlines are set. Goals are less attractive the longer it takes us to reach them. Break long-term goals down in to smaller, more manageable segments, so you can track your progress along the way. This is how combat aviators are trained at Miramar, the U.S. Navy's famous "Top Gun" school. It's also like the Twelve Step approach to taking life "one day at a time." This allows you to rate your efforts, take encouragement from your progress and make any necessary corrections. In fact, it may often be wiser to focus on the process rather than the outcome. Pay attention to the means, and the ends will likely follow.

However, just setting goals is not enough. Your performance won't improve unless you are told how you are doing. Goals without specific, concrete feedback are like a road trip without signs and landmarks along the way. You won't be committed to a goal unless you see it leading to what you want. Feedback shows you the way to your goal. Tracking and evaluating your progress toward a goal gives you much needed feedback. The more difficult the goal, the more you need helpful feedback. Keep a journal to track your progress daily, if possible, and don't be afraid to revise your game plan. (That's what a game plan is for.)

If you're giving someone else feedback, always do it with the desire to help that person. Be as behaviorally descriptive as possible and stress positive aspects of performance. Discuss negative aspects in tactful, "on the bright side" terms. Don't just say, "You can do better next time." State specifically what that person did wrong and how he or she can do better next time.

Believe in yourself and your ability to succeed. Successful people take credit for their successes and failures, while unsuccessful people tend to blame fate or circumstances. "The test was unfair." "Life is a rigged game." "I'll fail no matter what I do." For such people, life is something that happens to them, and it's a sad, bumpy ride.

Our beliefs about ourselves influence the tasks we undertake, the efforts we make, and the results we achieve. Sometimes, these beliefs are so quick and reflexive that they're automatic, but they still shape our behavior. When you expect to fail, you will not do your best and may even cause your own defeat. You may even stop competing in order to avoid the shame of failure. Individuals who think this way are beaten before they begin.

This is where positive self talk comes in handy. When you think negative thoughts, tell yourself, "STOP," and use affirmative, action thoughts. Tell yourself "Yes, I can," instead of "No, I can't." Use visual imagery to picture yourself succeeding, rather than failing, in as vivid, positive and behaviorally specific detail as you can. You'll be surprised: If you think and act as if you are confident, you'll feel better and do better. Success, like failure, can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, the result of how you act based on what you expect to happen.

As much as you can, try to have fun with it. Goals should improve your life and empower you to control your destiny, not test your worth as a human being. Remember: Successful people make mistakes, too, but they learn from them. In the final analysis, it's all a process, and goal setting can make your dreams come true.



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Thomas O'Connor, M.A., is an industrial/organizational psychologist based in New York City.