The Art of Setting Goals

By Alice Waagen, PhD

Over the years, my goals have provided focus and direction to my management training business.

For instance, last July, I wrote in my newsletter about attending Penland School of Crafts for a two-week drawing course. Entitled, The Benefits of Taking a Break, it struck a chord with many of my colleagues, who called after reading it.

They were eager to learn how on earth I stumbled onto that experience—and how I was able to make the big decision to check out and go into the woods to draw for two weeks.

I told them that this trip was actually one of my goals—30 years ago when I was in graduate school and learned about these wonderful summer art schools.

Yes, I made a goal, more of a commitment to myself than a fixed goal, that someday I would attend one of these schools.

But amidst the years of working, raising a family, and starting my own company, it lay long dormant, until I attended a program at the Smithsonian American Art Museum last January that focused on Craft in America and featured a panel of experts talking about these schools.

What’s more, I was at the Smithsonian that day because of another life goal—becoming more active in arts education. Click here to read more about that experience.

Obviously, goals provide me with decision-support tools.

When I am faced with a decision about choosing a new direction or action, I match each option against my goals and life commitments.

The decision then becomes very obvious and easy to make. I spend little time arguing which way is the best way. For me, the best way is the direction that gets me closer to goal achievement.

So what makes a good, or SMART, goal?

For a basic primer, click here to learn more about SMART goal-setting. In a nutshell, this is a mnemonic used to set objectives, for project management, employee performance management, and personal development using Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Result-Driven, and Time-Specific criteria.

The first known uses of the term occur in the November 1981 issue of Management Review, by George T. Doran.

But since we are decades past the birth of the SMART tool, let me propose that rather than just making our goals “smart,” we make them brilliant. Here’s how.

2012 Goal-Setting Resolution:

1. Make your goals inspirational.

A good goal sticks in your mind, wanders around its corners, and pops out occasionally to bug you. You should get excited every time you achieve even small progress toward its completion. You should be happy to talk about it and share it with friends and colleagues. Goal achievement requires focus and motivation. If the goal does not inspire you, it will drift off the list. So pay attention to what sticks, and what evaporates.

2. Link them to long-term aspirations.

Annual goals should be part of a bigger life or career picture. Think of them like bricks. Nobody wants to collect a pile of them, but if you want to build a walkway or house, gathering bricks and putting them in sequential order makes sense. So create a walkable path to make your goals become your reality.

3. Make sure your goals are adjustable, and/or scalable.

Life throws us surprises that can make a rigidly drafted goal crumble. Scalable goals reflect your ability to shrink or expand the goal, as needed. Adjustable goals suggest that you can change their direction or focus. Following our brick analogy, make sure yours are made of soft plastic that can be molded, and re-molded, as you see fit.

4. Put a timeline around your goals.

Real-time commitments are helpful when it comes to setting goals. Although some goals won’t be achieved for decades, be clear with yourself on which ones you are comfortable with putting off until you raise a family or have some money saved in the bank, and which ones need to be accomplished next week.

5. Make sure your goals are chunked out in bite-size pieces.

Nothing kills motivation quicker than goals that are beyond our reach. Chunk them out into manageable victories to keep your drive going. Then pat yourself on the back when you accomplish each part of the goal—and get back to work.


Don’t hesitate to contact me with thoughts and ideas. I’d love to learn what your goals are for 2012, and then hear how you accomplish them. Send me an email at