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Everyone knows it’s good to have goals in life, but we’ve probably all been in a situation where we’ve no idea what we want and where to go. And that’s ok. Setting meaningful and reasonable goals was never easy, and the pandemic and now a war in Europe can make long-term goals feel pointless — but setting them now is as important as ever.

Let’s break down what good goals are like and how to set them like an entrepreneur.

What is a (good) goal?

Imagine a blank canvas. You need to have a goal to picture the final image you want to paint. This helps you decide the colors you pick and if you should start from a corner or the center. Goals enable you to choose the path and find the building blocks towards the big questions: what, why, where?

Literature and the internet are full of guides for defining and setting goals, but to make it simple, we’d like you to remember three points:

  1. A goal can be anything. It can be big or small. It can be fragmented. As long as it tickles you and urges you to do something, you’re good to go.
  2. Goals are flexible. They can change as you live your life, like your values or perception of the world changes. It’s good to stick to your goals, but not too hard.
  3. Good goals come with experience. It is perfectly fine not to know exactly what your goals are. You can start by trying things out. If you like what you’ve started, you can set ambitious goals for it. If you hate it, well, you should find goals elsewhere.

Goals enable you to choose the path and find the building blocks towards the big questions: what, why, where?

Goals and dreams

Dreams are not goals. Dreams are a product of hope, creativity, and imagination; goals are something we act on. They can be flexible, but unlike dreams, goals have outcomes.

However, dreams and goals are like two circles that slightly overlap. If you can reach the overlapping region, you will feel achievement and emotional satisfaction.

A dream can sometimes become a goal. Something that has been an impossible dream can become an achievable goal if your life situation changes drastically.

Trichotomy of control and two kinds of goals

There are things we can control in life, and there are things we just can’t.

In his book A Guide to Good Life, William B. Irvine extends this dichotomy to a brilliant trichotomy of control by pointing out a third important category: things over which we have some, but not complete, control.

This is an important distinction for goal setting, as most things in our lives fall into this category.

Setting goals for things you have no control over is like dreaming of going to Mars without a spaceship — just wild thoughts that you already know will never come true.

Set process goals for things that you have total control over and outcome goals for things that you have some, but not total, control over.

Setting goals for things you have no control over is like dreaming of going to Mars without a spaceship

Participating in a competition is an outcome goal, as is winning it. Obviously, no one can have total control over the outcomes. What we have control over is how we train — what exercises, how often, and so forth. These are process goals.

Set your goals to match what you can control: total control allows process goals, partial control allows outcome goals, and no control allows none whatsoever.

Setting goals — the Good Life Engine model

From our teaching experience at AVP, we have created The Good Life Engine model for goal setting. The model includes three parts: build, reflect, and learn, and is inspired by the Lean Startup loop.

In entrepreneurship, the successful do many small experiments: From the first idea, they build something small, measure the success (or failure), and learn from it to develop the idea further. This is the basic idea of the Lean Startup method that Eric Ries and Steve Blank developed.

The Lean Startup loop explained: Build, measure, learn

The lean startup loop from The Lean Startup approach.

In the AVP course Good Life Engine, we’ve used the same formula for setting goals.

Even if you don’t know what you’d like to achieve in the long run, you can do small experiments — just like a successful entrepreneur. Try some new experiences or make small changes to your daily routines. Then evaluate the effect of those experiments, and decide if they introduced a positive or a negative change to your life. Finally, consider what you can learn from them to start new experiments or set new goals.

The modified version of the loop, made for setting goals: build, reflect, learn

A version of the lean startup loop, modified for goal setting.

Build

Writing down your goal is almost as important as the goal itself in the build phase. If your ideas only stay in your head, connecting them to a concrete plan is more difficult. Writing the goals down also helps realize the required resources and possible limitations.

Another essential part of the building phase is planning — but remember to leave space for flexibility. There is no such thing as a perfect plan. There are always unexpected things that happen. So, don’t think it’s a disaster when a plan does not turn out exactly as you had hoped.

Reflect

In the reflection phase, you should consider whether the goal you’ve built seems like the right path after all. If you force yourself to achieve a goal that doesn’t feel like it’s for you, you will most likely lose interest. One good measure is the state of flow. If you enter flow when you work towards your goal, it’s likely that you can keep it up and that it will bring you joy.

Learn

In the final step, you should learn from your experience in the previous phase. Based on your reflection, decide whether the goal is right for you, if you should make alterations, or if you should find a better one altogether.

Good Life Engine, a unique routine building and time management course runs again in the fall.