How to Set Goldilocks Goals to Ensure Success

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How to set Goldilocks goals that are challenging but achievable

The importance of goal setting, for better productivity and psychology, is well-known and documented. What is less well-known is the concept of Goldilocks goals. These are goals that are not too hard and not too easy. They are just right.

The Benefits of Setting Goals and Achieving Them

Goals (when chosen correctly) are beneficial as they give us a target with direction and focus. Goals are a tool we use to bring about change in ourselves and the world around us. They are a tangible measure of action, improvement, and achievement.

And goals can be more than just a good productivity hack. Setting and achieving goals supports good mental health by giving us a sense of purpose and then triggering the release of positive neurotransmitters such as dopamine when we succeed. What’s more, goal setting is related to having a growth mindset. We need to set and fulfil targets to remain in learning mode and continue our personal improvement.

How to Set the Right Type of Goal

So, setting and achieving goals can be highly beneficial, but we do have to set the right type of goals. We need to set ourselves targets that stretch us (forcing us to grow) but they do need to be achievable. Goals can be bold, such as the Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAG) advocated by Jim Collins (author of Good to Great), but however big the idea is, it still needs to be broken down into actionable steps.

Therefore, if we want to benefit from all the benefits of goals — the productivity gains of setting them as well as the positive effects of achieving them — then we need to set what I call Goldilocks goals. These are goals that are not too easy but are also not completely unrealistic.

These Goldilocks goals can be ambitious, right on the edge of what we might believe is even possible, but then we must employ the important next step, that of chunking the goal down to make it manageable. For example, we might set ourselves the goal of climbing Mount Everest but there are hundreds, if not thousands, of intermediate tasks we need to complete in order to succeed.

Making Big Goals Achievable

When I coach people and they set stretch goals I help them to break down the overall mission and identify what is the most important next step they need to take. Ideally, this is a simple task, one that might only take a few minutes, such as making a phone call or drafting a message. By effectively breaking down the goal, and then achieving one small element of that overall vision, you gain momentum and a sense of achievement. In fact (as you have probably guessed) you already start to get the positive productivity and psychological benefits of goal setting but achieving these subordinate actions.

The other important advantage of this process is overcoming the mental barrier of what the Scandinavians call the ‘doorstep mile’. Psychologically, the hardest part of a journey (or achieving a goal) is making the first move; it is stepping out the door and taking the first steps (just ask Bilbo Baggins!) If a task seems too daunting, we might never make the first move. So, ensure the first step is the easiest one, then build from there.

If You Are Struggling, Break the Goal Down Even Further

This concept also helps us when we are losing heart on the way to achieving a goal. When we are trying to accomplish something really challenging, we can sometimes lose heart or momentum as time drags on, particularly if we don’t feel we are making the progress we want or when we hit unforeseen obstacles. This is another time when breaking down the goals into ever smaller (achievable) elements is vital.

One example I can draw is my experience of running ultra-marathons. When you are running in excess of 100 kilometres, often over difficult terrain, there are times when you feel pretty low. Exhaustion, negative thoughts, and injuries build up. At times like these, I have dismissed the overall idea of finishing (let alone winning) the race and changed my goals to something as small as “I am going to run the next 100 metres.” I might even then reward myself by walking for 100 metres before setting the next goal. There have been many times when this approach has helped me ride through the physical and psychological low points and — in most cases — go on to succeed in my overall desire. In the case of ultra-races, it has helped me complete courses in excess of 320 km in length.

The Need to Set Both Internal and External Goals

But there are times — even when we pick a good Goldilocks goal and effectively break it down into steps — when we may not succeed. That is because we cannot control every factor in our lives, let alone the world. And this is where internal goals come into play.

Internal goals are goals that we set in parallel to the overall (external) goal. Internal goals are ones that are not dictated by external circumstances, they are things more under our control. For example, we might have a tough meeting coming up such as a negotiation for a job role. Our overall goal might be the agreement of a new work contract that includes all the benefits we aspire to but, as there are other people involved, we cannot guarantee that result. Therefore, we keep the overall goal but also set an internal goal. In this case, we might set an internal goal of improving our communication skills. This is something that is under our control and the experience — however well it goes — can be a source of learning.

Subsequently, when setting goals, we can set a main goal (something to be achieved in the external world) and then a complementary internal goal (something we control in our mind). This helps us avoid amygdala hijack where we become overloaded by noradrenaline.

By setting an internal goal, one that we can achieve no matter what happens, we guarantee that we can still benefit from the positive aspects of goal achievement — such as getting the neurological dopamine hit and another deposit into the psychological bank of success — even if events conspire against us.

What is Your Goal? What is Your Goldilocks Goal?

So remember, when you are setting your next goal remember to do these things:

  1. Pick a Goldilocks goal; not too easy but not too hard. It should stretch you but not be completely unachievable.
  2. Break that Goldilocks goal down into smaller, more manageable actions.
  3. Make sure you make the first activity an easy one so you can take the first step and start making progress towards your overall goal.
  4. If you are struggling at any point, break down the action into even smaller elements.
  5. Set yourself internal goals; psychological goals that you have complete control over, as well as the external overall goal or action.

In this way, you are not only more likely to succeed, but you will also benefit from the process no matter what happens. You will be both more productive and in better shape mentally.

Now, what about today? Think of a challenging task you want to achieve in the next 24 hours. What internal goal could you set alongside this activity? Take a few seconds and set that goal now. Well done! Your mind will thank you for it later!


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