Goal setting: How direction can assist in finding your purpose.

Use goals to find your purpose

92% of new years resolutions fail. (1, 2)

A startlingly low number considering that those who set goals report (on average) an increase in life satisfaction. (3, 4, 5)

If research suggests goal setting to be beneficial, why then do so many of us choose to avoid it?

Two stumbling blocks get in the way of successful goal setting:

  1. Inspiration
  • More specifically, a lack of inspiration.
  1. Direction
  • An excess or a deficiency of direction are problematic.

If a goal is not inspiring, it will not hold your attention for any length of time. In order for a goal to be worthwhile and inspiring, it needs to be something worth working towards over a long period of time. Something that gets you out of bed each morning.

A goal also needs direction. It needs to move you towards an improved state. Away from where you currently are. Shooting for a goal without direction is like hiking without a map — you’re likely to get lost.

In order to achieve the highest rates of success in your goal setting endeavors, I recommend your goal(s) consist of three elements:

  1. Hierarchy
  • A unique way to organize all your life’s goals.
  1. SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timeframe)
  • SMART goals keep you focused. They force you to distil vague goals into specific outcomes.
  1. BHAG — big, hairy, audacious goal. (credit to Jim Collins for this)
  • Also, known as a stretch goal.
  • This goal will push your comfort zone, challenging you to work towards something that currently seems out of reach.

Goal Hierarchy


A goal hierarchy is used to organize the multitude of goals in your head. Think of it as a goal filing system.

The image to your right illustrates a basic example of what I mean when referencing a goal hierarchy. Credit to Dr. Angela Duckworth for providing this example. You can learn more about her (and her brilliant work) here.

In the picture, there are three levels of goals illustrated. Often, this is an oversimplification. Between your low level and top level goals there may be several layers of mid-level goals.

The bottom of this goal hierarchy is your to-do list. Think of these more as tasks and less as goals. In order to achieve the mid and top level goals, these tasks need to be completed — with regularity. They’re imperative to success. Though often overlooked as they can be seen as unimportant.

Mid-level goals are what most of us default to when goal setting. Think, setting a goal to run a marathon by the end of the year. This is a great mid-level goal. For us to grow and develop as individuals, goals need to push us outside our comfort zone. If you’ve never run a marathon, this goal will push you outside your comfort zone.

Why do you want to run a marathon?

 The deeper meaning behind a mid-level goal is the top-level goal. When referencing a top-level goal, the term goal is a misnomer for the top level. Purpose, philosophy, or passion is more accurate.

Top level goals are the driving force behind all the decisions made. Top level goals drive the “why” behind all other goals.

Why do I want to pursue this goal?

In her book, Grit, Angela Duckworth recommends asking “why” questions for each of your goals. This can help you uncover your top-level goal.

  • Why do you care about that?
  • Why is that important?

When your answer to the above questions becomes “just because” you know you’ve gotten to the top of your goal hierarchy.

Organizing your goals in a hierarchy will quickly bring to light if your pursuits are in alignment. Often, we’ll have conflicting goals. In this case, run both of your goals through your top-level goal (purpose/passion/philosophy).

Are your mid-level goals aligned with your top level goal?
 If one isn’t, it needs to go.

Every decision you make — from the mundane (groceries) to the grandiose (career) — should be analyzed to ensure it is in alignment with your top-level goal. This is how to create meaning and purpose in your life.

SMART goals

Edwin Locke and Gary Latham developed the formula for SMART goals in the 1970’s. By 2006, they had nearly forty year’s worth of data on goal setting. They were experts on the subject. Their research concluded that SMART goals were a concrete method to enable individuals to translate ideas or aspirations into concrete plans. (6, 7, 8, 9)

SMART goals are incredibly helpful as they provide direction. Setting a goal of “to do my best” is vague. This ambiguity leads to an inability to achieve the goal. This is where SMART goals excel — they force people to translate a vague goal like “to do my best” into a tangible plan.

In order to create a SMART goal of your own, follow the below rubric. Your goal should have all five of the below characteristics.

  • Specific
     Can you distil your goal down? Make your goal as clear and precise as possible. Leave no ambiguity. The goal should be so specific that end point is easily determined by an outsider.
  • Measurable
     A SMART goal needs a metric. Something to track progress. Data is essential. If your goal is too ethereal to be measured, you need to shift your goal to include some form of a quantifiable figure.
  • Achievable
     Is it possible to achieve this goal? If not, re-work the goal to ensure that you have the resources needed to achieve the goal.
  • Realistic
     Similar to achievable. Given where you are right now, is it realistic to achieve your goal in the time you’ve set to do it?
  • Timeframe
     There needs to be an expiry to the goal. Goals without firm timelines are often left to collect dust.

SMART goals outline a means to an end. The SMART criteria should be utilized for both mid and lower level goals. The SMART criteria does not work for top level goals. Top level goals do not end. Instead, they are our life’s work.

The trouble with SMART goals is that we can get stuck achieving goals simply for the sake of crossing it off our to-do list. Locke and Latham wrote that people can become obsessed with completion — always reaching for the easiest tasks. The goals then become trivial. They no longer push us towards a better version of our self.

Completing the right goals is more important than the number of goals you complete.

Focusing on whether a goal is worth pursuing is imperative to success. For this reason, implementing a BHAG or stretch goal can be a profoundly useful practice.


BHAGs (pronounced: bee-hag) or stretch goals are inspiring mid-level goals. The thought of achievement brings with it feelings of excitement and fear. BHAGs should seem out of reach — a stretch. These types of goals tend to disrupt complacency.

Implementing a BHAG is important because it balances the task-like nature of SMART goals with the freedom to think about big and personally meaningful things.

There are two important parts to a BHAG (10):

  1. Extreme Difficulty
  • A BHAG needs to go well beyond your current ability.
  • For example, if you can comfortably run 5km, a goal of 10km is not a BHAG. Instead, a stretch goal might be to complete a marathon (42.195km) within the next year.
  1. Extreme Novelty
  • In order to achieve a BHAG, you need to radically alter your approach. You cannot just “work harder”.
  • You’ll likely have to radically overhaul your habits or behaviors.

The challenge with BHAGs is creating a balance. Designing a goal that challenges at the same time that it inspires is a difficult endeavor. Often, audacious goals can have a moral-crushing effect. When this happens, the thought of achieving the goal seems so impossible that one gives up before trying.

Knowing where to start when approaching an audacious goal can be the most challenging part. This is why it should always be paired with the SMART system and the goal hierarchy. Utilizing both systems allows you to break the audacious goal down into digestible pieces.

Tying the goal setting systems together

Let’s use the example of overcoming adrenal fatigue as a means to illustrate how to tie these three goal setting practices together. For those unfamiliar with adrenal fatigue: know that the effort required to overcome it is enormous. This goal is a BHAG.

Step 1: Apply the SMART criteria to this goal

As it stands, overcoming adrenal fatigue is a vague goal. There needs to be more specificity applied. Therefore, we apply the SMART criteria in order to make this an actionable BHAG.

  • Specific
  • Instead of overcoming adrenal fatigue, we rework the goal to be: to complete a half marathon. Being conditioned to complete a half marathon will ensure that adrenal fatigue has been overcome.
  • Measurable
  • A half marathon is 21.098 km. This is measurable.
  • Adrenal fatigue can be diagnosed based on low levels of cortisol circulating in the body. A lab test can confirm that cortisol levels have risen. This is another way to measure that adrenal fatigue has been overcome.
  • Achievable
  • Achieving this goal is going to require a lot of work. Under the correct guidance, it is certainly achievable.
  • Realistic
  • Taking over a year to overcome adrenal fatigue and another half year to train for the half marathon is a realistic way to break this goal down.
  • Timeframe
  • The recovery and training schedule is set to take 1.5 years. This is a very achievable timeframe.

Step 2: Determine the goal hierarchy

Why do I want to run a marathon?
 — To be healthy and not have to think about being tired/exhausted at every moment of every day.

Why is being healthy important to me?
 — So that I can be a more engaged parent.

Why do I want to be more engaged in my parenting?
 — To offer my kids the best life I can.

Why is it important for me to offer my kids the best life possible?
 — So they can carry on with conscious initiatives that continue to improve life for others.

Why do I want to improve life for all?
 — Just because.

The top level goal in this example is:
 To improve life for others.

All other goals/tasks should align with practices that improve life for others. Therefore, our goal hierarchy looks like:

To improve life for others
 (purpose/passion/mission/high level goal)


Run a marathon — a specific goal for overcoming adrenal fatigue
 (mid-level goal or BHAG)


All of the many sub-goals the follow the SMART criteria to lead us towards overcoming adrenal fatigue and completing a half marathon.

Step 3: Apply the SMART criteria to the subgoals

  • Subgoal 1: Adopt a whole-food diet for the next 90 days. This will ensure inflammatory foods are no longer contributing to my adrenal fatigue
  • Specific
  • A whole food diet for a 90 day period. This is very specific.
  • Measurable
  • Whole foods come from a tree, the dirt, or an animal. Refined foods come in a bag or a box. It is easy to discern whole foods from refined foods.
  • 90 days
  • Achievable
  • If I meal plan each week I can ensure I’m eating whole foods at every meal.
  • I’ll only shop on the outside perimeter of the grocery store to avoid temptation from sweets.
  • Realistic
  • It’s going to be challenging, but I’m so motivated to beat this!
  • 90 days is the longest I can go and not cheat!
  • Timeline
  • 90 days
  • Subgoal 2: Have enough energy to run 5km without stopping.
  • Specific
  • Run 5km without stopping to catch my breath. This is specific.
  • Measurable
  • Success is measured by running a 5km loop without stopping.
  • I’ll track the time it takes to run 5km.
  • Achievable
  • It is achievable if I run 4 times each week.
  • Realistic
  • It is realistic if I give up Netflix and go to bed an hour earlier. Then, I can wake up earlier and complete my run on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays.
  • Timeline
  • I will be able to run 5km without stopping in 2 weeks. From there, I will add 1km to my runs each week.

In addition to the above subgoal, you may also choose to set other subgoals that are indirectly related to running a marathon. This may include such things as:

  • Getting eight hours of sleep each night
  • Getting a massage every month
  • Dedicating 30 minutes, three times a week to a meditation or mindfulness practice

For all the subgoals, run them through the high-level goal. Ensure each goal helps “improve life for others”. If it doesn’t, that goal should be re-worked until it aligns with the high-level goal.

Ok, now you have the blueprint for setting and achieving goals.

It’s time to hear from you.
 What is your 2017 BHAG?

Originally published at Flourish Clinic.