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Goal-setting leads to success by fostering focus and discipline.

By Sushma Subramanian

Rich Williams, a former Toastmaster, has always set goals to motivate himself. A veteran bowling coach and expert on the sport, he gives many presentations on bowling-related topics. But he wasn’t always such a polished speaker.

“When I joined Toastmasters, I was surprised to learn that I had some serious refining to do to reach the professional presenter level,” says the resident of Chesterland, Ohio. “I achieved my presentation goals due to the goal-setting work I did.”

Like many people, Williams sets milestones for himself to help him achieve success, whether it’s related to his career or his exercise routine. The 57-year-old says he runs four miles four times a week and does strength training at least three times a week. “Every time I lift a weight, there’s a goal involving the number of repetitions or the amount of weight in the lift. Every time I run, I reach for an ‘equal to the last time’ or ‘better than the last time’ performance,” says Williams, who with his wife, Doris, runs Williams Sports Consulting, a company that trains bowlers of all levels.

Goal-setting has also played a key role in Jana Barnhill’s life. When the 2008-’09 president of Toastmasters International first joined the organization and was working her way through speech manuals, she gave herself deadlines along the way. For example, she gave herself one year to achieve her first Competent Communicator award – and did it in nine months. Years later, when she was running for leadership offices in Toastmasters, she used similar incentives – promising herself that she’d call a certain number of people by a certain date or that she would edit a letter for club members by a certain time.

“Goal-setting has played a major role in my advancement in Toastmasters, both as a speaker and a leader,” says the Lubbock, Texas, resident. “My personality is one that can easily be distracted. As a result, if I don't set goals for myself, I find myself very busy but not necessarily accomplishing anything.” Having a plan for how to accomplish certain tasks or objectives also gives Barnhill a sense of pride once those tasks are completed.

What the Research Shows
A pair of psychologists, Gary Latham and Edwin Locke, published the first real research on the subject in the 1960s. The results showed that productivity increases when people give themselves goals. Locke and Latham recommended following these general guidelines for setting goals:

  • They must be specific, measurable, relevant and time-bound.
  • They must be challenging enough that they can inspire.
  • They must be something people want to achieve so that they remain committed.
  • They should be flexible. People should check in every few weeks on their progress and leave room to rethink or reinterpret goals.
  • They must be attainable. If they seem impossible to reach, people tend to give up.

There is a well-known acronym that’s often used to characterize the goals people should set for themselves: It’s called SMART – Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely.

More recent researchers have also warned of potential problems that can arise with goal-setting. “The problems come when you take it too seriously,” says Lisa Ordóñez, a professor at the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona. “You put too much weight on the goal, and you become too stressed out.”

“Goals do work,” she adds. “They focus our intentions and focus our energy. But sometimes they have unintended consequences.”

Keeping Yourself Committed
A benefit of goal-setting is that it increases one’s accountability – to yourself and to others. Toastmaster Dena Harris recalls a club meeting when the president of her group had all of the members stand and announce their goals – with timelines. He then emailed to club members a “goal list” that contained everyone’s stated goals and accompanying deadlines. The purpose of this, notes Harris – a member of the Blue Moon Toastmasters in Greensboro, North Carolina – was not only to hold members publicly accountable for their objectives, but also for them to use the list to encourage and support each other in their efforts.

A great method for maintaining commitment to your goals is to split a big goal into several little ones. Barnhill sets up short-term as well as long-term goals for herself. “Short-term goals are important because they keep you on track and motivated. They are achievable, incremental goals that bring you closer to your long-term goal, because you can't accomplish something all at once.”

 Sushma Subramanian is a freelance journalist in New York. She can be reached at