The Key to Effective Goal-Setting: Ask The Right Questions

The Key to Effective Goal-Setting: Ask The Right Questions

Goal-setting has become one of the biggest buzzwords in workplaces the world over. Every management trainer will extol the virtues of goal-setting and every corporate house worth its salt will ask you to set down goals and the timeline to achieve it.

So why do some of us feel it is pointless and doesn’t work?

Because we don’t ask the right questions of ourselves while setting goals and end up failing to complete them. Effective goal-setting starts with effectively imagining and setting up a plan of action in order to achieve something within a given time. And effective imagination begins with the right questions.

Let’s start with the wrong question.

What most of us think of while setting a goal is the moment of success – what things would look like once you have already achieved the goal. We may set a timeline, but very rarely do we ask if it is worth the time.

Our imagination always paints a rosier picture of success than it is ever likely to be in reality. If you set your goal on the sole assumption of how great it will be after you succeed, you are basically setting yourself up for failure.

Thinking of success is important; it helps us keep the bigger picture in mind. But thinking of the process is also equally important, and so is the assessment of your strength and weaknesses, assets and liabilities, before you invest your time.

So, what are the right questions?

How much will you regret not completing this goal?

Regret is called a rational emotion and is part of the decision-making process. It is processed in a different part of the brain, the part where rationalizing and executive functioning behaviors are regulated. The feeling of success is a positive emotion and imagining it gives you a dopamine high. While this ‘high’ is great for motivation, it fails to alert you of the loopholes, if any, in your plan.

Regret aversion is one of the best cognitive aids to decision making, precisely because it prompts you to consider possible loopholes in your plan before you make the decision. Use this tool to evaluate your goals before you commit to them.

If the goal is something that you won’t regret failing, then maybe it should be dropped, or at least given less priority. If you realize there might be opportunities for regret even if the goal is achieved? Drop it. That most likely means this particular goal is interfering with your other goals or your living conditions in general.

How will you explain your goal to someone else?

A great way of rationalizing any idea is articulating it. Goals are often vague things and ideas that sound great in your mind often leave out important details. Explaining it to someone is a completely different thing. When we think for ourselves, we tend to think emotionally. When we try to convince others, we must take recourse of rationality.

Explaining is piecing together something in a series of cause and effect, and you must then consider what your process and actions will be in order to achieve that goal. It is an instant reality check on your imagined success.

So your next question should be, “How will I explain this goal to someone else?” Become your own impartial judge, and be ruthless in finding faults.

Can you satisfactorily explain why you choose this goal and how you will achieve it to this fault-finder self of yours? If not, then maybe reconsider the goal itself.

Does this goal interfere with your other goals?

We have a multitude of goals in our lives. Some we may not think of in the technical term of ‘goal’, but they are goals nonetheless. Before starting any new goal, it is, therefore, advisable to take stock of your existent goals and see if they interfere with each other.

For example, spending time with your daughter is a priority for you. But you also need to achieve a certain sales target at work, which will require extra working hours. The time with your daughter may eat into the time required for your work target, and vice versa. If you are not careful and don’t adjust your goal’s timeline accordingly, you may end up failing at both goals.

So before committing to any new goal, always do a check of your existing priorities and adjust your requirements and plan of action according to the findings.

How much you can sacrifice for this goal?

Any change from your current lifestyle will require sacrifices, small or great. Any new goal necessitates a change of old stabilities and old habits, and our brain doesn’t like breaking or changing habits. So any new goal will create some amount of pain. Question is, how much pain can you safely bear for this new goal to succeed?

Let’s work with the previous example. You need to sacrifice some time from your family schedule to accommodate the new sales target. If you spend all six working days at the office, your family life will inevitably suffer. If you don’t spend extra time at work, the sales target will definitely remain unachieved. You will have to find a ‘safe’ middle ground of sacrifices so that the change required for the new goal does not jeopardize your existing goals.


Goal-setting can be an extremely effective tool in building motivation and momentum in the things you want to achieve in life. But it can only be effective if the goal is a right fit for your life. Asking these questions should help you sort that part out!

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