The North Star Approach to Goal Setting

This approach radically improves your chances of success.

Remember that famous Yale study about goals? The one where they tracked two groups of graduates: Those who had goals and those who didn’t?

Well, I’ve got bad news for you: The study was fake. There are no records of it at Yale, Harvard, MIT, or any of the other campuses it was rumored to take place.

Here’s the good news: That doesn’t mean goals are pointless. Although that particular study never happened, Harvard has studied goals in the past, and their research has shown a 30% increase in academic improvement from goal-setters.

Goals are important and they do work. Most people just take the wrong approach; their ambitions are either too grounded or too lofty.

Goals are important and they do work. Most people just take the wrong approach; their ambitions are either too grounded or too lofty.

The truth is, it takes a little of both. You need the long-term aspirational objectives. But you also need the tactical day-to-day goals.

I know I’m not the first person to write about this. You’ve probably read an excess of 10–15 articles, yourself. So why am I adding one more to the pile?

For the same reason you’re reading one more: Because every other article out there is missing something; they leave you wanting something more.

And that’s what we’re going to talk about today: The missing pieces to goal-setting mastery.

Laying the Foundation: Defining Success

Before you can begin a journey, you have to know where you’re going.

Every goal, long-term or short, needs to be rooted in a vision of success. The question is, what does success look like? More importantly, what does success look like for you?

Every goal, long-term or short, needs to be rooted in a vision of success.

Until you have a vision of success that truly connects with and inspires you, you can’t create meaningful or motivating goals.

When it comes to defining success, there’s no “right” way to do it. Some people measure success by their bank account, others by their family. Some people won’t feel successful until they’re a CEO, others until they’ve lost 30 pounds. Success can take a number of forms, including:

  • Professional: Reaching a career milestone or status. For example: I will feel successful once I’m a sought-after venture capitalist.
  • Monetary: Making a certain amount of money. For example: I will feel successful once I have a net worth of $3M.
  • Network: Curating a high-quality professional network. For example: I will feel successful once my network produces three referrals each week.
  • Health: Reaching a certain level of physical fitness. For example: I will be the fastest cyclist in my Strava network.
  • Hobbies: Becoming the best at your personal interests. For example: I will feel successful once my average golf score is under 90.
  • Family: Becoming a better father, mother, husband, wife, sibling, etc. For example: I will feel successful once I can spend every weekend with my wife and kids.
  • Charity: Donating a certain amount of time, money, or resources to a cause. For example: I will feel successful once I’ve donated $1M to charity.

None of those are inherently right or wrong; it’s all about what resonates with you. So before you read any further, imagine your ideal life in 5–10 years; one where you feel accomplished and successful.

Then ask yourself, “What had to happen in my life in order for me to experience that level of success?”

Quick review: Defining Success

You can’t set effective goals without a compelling vision of success.

Create yours by imagining your ideal life ten years from now. Then backtrack: What had to happen over that decade to create that level of success? What did you have to accomplish? Who did you have to become?

Setting the Destination: North Star Objectives

Now that you’ve defined success, you need a way to measure it. That’s where North Star Objectives come in. North Star Objectives are long-term, high-level, aspirational goals that motivate, inspire, and uplift the goal-setter.

Think of them the way sailors view the North Star: A way to stay on course, no matter where you are. And if you don’t know where to go or what to do, all it takes is a quick glance to get back on track.

Let’s take a look at a few examples:

  • Professional: I will become one of the top-ten venture capitalists in my industry in the next five years.
  • Monetary: I will have a net worth of $3M in the next five years.
  • Network: I will triple the amount of referrals generated by my network within the next three years.
  • Health: I will increase my energy and fitness by becoming the fastest cyclist in my Strava network within the next two years.
  • Hobbies: I will master my golf game and score an average of 90 points or below in the next two years.
  • Family: I will dedicate every Saturday and Sunday entirely to my family within the next two years.
  • Charity: I will donate a total of $1M to a cause of my choosing over the next five years.

Notice that the examples above don’t say exactly how those results will be realized; they just give a general direction and a deadline. That’s all that’s required.

Unlike goals outlined in other approaches, North Star Objectives aren’t necessarily pragmatic or utilitarian, and that’s okay; their strategic value isn’t in dictating exactly what needs to be done, it’s in their ability to empower their owner.

Your North Star Objective must resonate uniquely with you. Like true motivation, it shouldn’t be influenced by outside expectations or limitations.

You’ll know you’ve created an effective North Star Objective when the mere thought of it leaves you feeling excited, energized, and motivated; even if you don’t know how you’re going to make it a reality.

Quick review: North Star Objectives

North Star Objectives are the coordinates for where you want to go in life; the driving force behind your thoughts, behaviors, and interactions.

These aspirational goals have two defining characteristics: A personally-motivating vision and a clear deadline. Create yours by combining your definition of success with a due date.

Like the real North Star, your objective is only as useful as it is visible. Keep it top-of-mind by integrating it into Asana (or whatever system you use for task management).

Like the real North Star, your objective is only as useful as it is visible.

Plotting the Course: Goal tests

North Star Objectives give you a clear picture of your destination but don’t tell you how to get there. For that, you need goal tests.

Goal tests are the tactical foundation for North Star Objectives. They’re specific, easy-to-understand and, most importantly, easy-to-measure.

Goal tests look similar to the objectives you’d create with other goal-setting approaches, with one major difference: Goal test are always written in a clear “yes-or-no” format.

Think of goal tests as stepping stones toward your North Star Objective, or actions you must take to turn your vision into reality.

Let’s look at a few examples of goal tests for the following North Star Objective: I will become one of the top-ten venture capitalists in my industry in the next five years.

Notice that none of the goal tests above leave any room for ambiguity. At the end of the day, week, or month, you either completed them or you didn’t. There’s no “maybe” or “kind of,” and you can’t say you didn’t know what you had to do.

There’s no “maybe” or “kind of,” and you can’t say you didn’t know what you had to do.

Quick review: Goal Tests

Goal tests are tactical short-term tasks that move you closer to your North Star Objective. They have three defining characteristics: An action item, a yes-or-no format, and a completion date (even if it’s repeating).
Create at least three goal tests to move you closer to your North Star Objective. These, too, should be as visible as possible. Integrate them into your task management system and review them at least once a day.

Begin Your Success Journey Today

Few people stumble into success by accident, and those that do rarely keep it. Success is the result of planning, and there’s no better planning than goal-setting.

If there’s one thing I’d ask of you, it’s that you not close this article intending to follow through on it “later.” You and I both know life is too busy for “later” and, even with the best of intentions, “later” usually means “never.”

Life is too busy for “later” and, even with the best of intentions, “later” usually means “never.”

If you’re serious about your success, start now. Grab a piece of paper or open a blank document and complete the following tasks:

  1. Define your vision of success. What needs to happen in the coming months and years for you to feel truly successful?
  2. Create your North Star Objective. Write down as many as you can, then choose the one that makes you feel most excited, motivated, and fulfilled.
  3. Create your goal tests. Find at least three different tasks you can begin executing on this week or, even better, right now.

And with that, you’ve got what you need. Good luck out there!