The Importance of Setting Goals in Life

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

Such a cliche.

You have surely heard that question in a business setting or on a job interview…

… and thought it was complete bullshit.

How could I possibly know where I will be in 5 years? 

So much can happen over the course of time that a 5 year plan sounds useless, doesn’t it?

Setting goals may be the most useful thing that you ever do. It was for me at least.

Life is a multiple-choice question with no wrong answers

I was prompted to write this post based on a tweet this morning from one of my guides, Avinash Kaushik.

In the tweet we are offered two options:

  1. Create a plan for where we want to see our careers in 5 years
  2. Take advantages of the opportunities in front of us, without a plan

My interpretation of this statement is that you can either set goals or seize opportunity. You cannot do both.


The single most important thing you can do in life is to set goals

You do not get ahead in life by accident.

Sure, you may come into a fortunate situation and take advantage for years at a time. But having good luck is not a strategy.

You get ahead in life by pushing through normal, stretching to be above average, and not accepting status quo.

You will never be extraordinary without doing something extra.

For some people the “extra” is given as a birthright. This may be an advantage of intelligence, physicality or privilege acting as a head start to getting ahead.

But natural talent only goes so far.

With enough talent you can become a good professional athlete. But to be a great athlete, you need to have something more: an intense competitive need to succeed.

Champions are made, not born.

Champions are Made Not Born

via Goodreads

Successful professionals thrive in the same manner.

We all have natural talents. Every single one of us.

But few people will hold themselves accountable for maximizing their talents.

A 5 year plan is simply a framework that you can use to hold yourself accountable.

The second most important thing that you can do in life is to take advantage of your situation

Goals Actions Yin YangSetting goals, whether they are to be achieved in 5 or 50 years, is the first step to success.

The next big step is to take actions in life that increase the likelihood of your goal being achieved.

Goals and actions are like yin and yang: a perfect balance.

You will not achieve your goals if you don’t take certain actions to achieve them, and you surely will not take the right actions if they are not needed to achieve your goals.

An example of this balance in action is actually the combination of A & B in Avinash’s tweet above:

You can achieve your 5-year career plan by maximizing the moment in front of you and choosing the choices that appear.

A Case Study: The Past 10 Years of My Life

Fat JeffWhy do I feel so strongly about a single tweet that I am writing an entire blog post in response?

Because this is personal.

Had I followed the advice of choosing either goals or opportunistic actions, you would not be reading this blog today.

Let’s go back to in time. 10 years ago to be specific.

The year was 2004 and I was an unhappy 23 year old with very few prospects for bettering my situation.

It started with being fat (tipping the scales at 300 pounds), and was rounded out by over $10,000 in credit card debt with a whole lot of post-breakup depression mixed in.

Things were not looking good for me.

Somewhere near rock bottom I sent an email to myself entitled “Lifetime goals for Jeff Sauer”

Here is that email in its entirety:

Jeff Goals 2005

I do not remember what motivated me to write down these goals on that day, but I can see the situation clearly in my head. I was sitting at my desk, grinding out my dead-end job, and dreaming of doing something better with my life.

Giving life new meaning

The exercise of writing down my goals, while seemingly random at the time, gave me a greater sense of purpose than I could ever imagine.

Looking back on the situation, I can see why writing down these goals was the turning-point in my ability to achieve happiness in life.

1) It helped me understand why I was unhappy in the first place. There were 28 goals that I wanted to achieve in my life, and there were no prospects for achieving any of them.

2) It provided me with an operating framework for life. Every day I spent moving forward, every move I made, and every opportunity needed to pass through a filter:

Is this helping me achieve my goals?

I soon found that when you understand why you are not happy, you can make yourself happy by simply avoiding those activities that made you unhappy.

I also learned that it is easy to be happy when you are making progress toward your goals.

What I never expected was how quickly I would be able to start knocking down these goals and making progress toward my dreams.

In April of 2005 I started to do freelance web development and SEO as a way to get myself out of debt.

In May of 2005 (only 4 months later), I crossed Tokyo off the list when I went on a trip with my brother.

By January of 2006 I had enough income from freelancing that I was able to quit my dead-end job and become fully self employed.

Of all goals, that was the sweetest, because I shattered my expectations. Why wait until 30 to be self-employed when I could do it at 24?

Over time the weight came off, depression faded and my prospects started to turn around. I am married to a woman who is smarter than me, and things couldn’t be better.

I fully believe that it was from this simple exercise of writing down my goals.

Continuing to achieve and setting new goals

Today I have achieved exactly 50% of my goals. Several more goals will be easily achieved when the time is right.

I will likely be able to achieve 90% of these goals before I die (the rest are no longer a priority).

While some of my original goals from 10 years ago still motivate me today, I have also set new goals for myself as life has unfolded. Maybe 10 years from now I will decide to share those as well.

Maximizing the moment based on likeliness of achieving my goals

Back to the reason for this post: the symbiotic nature of goals and the actions we take to achieve them.

None of the goals on my list were a given. Every single goal took time to achieve. They all required me being opportunistic with opportunities, and choosing only to fight the battles that would lead me closer to achieving my goals.

Maybe I wouldn’t have worked so hard as a freelancer if I didn’t set a goal to become self-employed.

Maybe travel would not be important to me if I didn't put myself on the hook to travel to 6 continents.

Another case study: the birth of Jeffalytics

Jeffalytics definitely would not exist as a blog, a persona or a consultancy if not for several of these goals.

Let’s use the speaking in front of 500 or more people goal as an example.

If you want to speak in front of a group of 500 people, there is a lot of work to do. Nobody is going to trust a novice speaker/unknown quantity in front of a large audience without proven expertise.

I had been wanting to prove my digital marketing expertise to the world since 2006, but never got as far as a few sporadic blog posts and local presentations.

In 2012 I revisited this goal of speaking in front of a group of 500 or more people. To cross it off my list I needed to take a methodical approach. After studying my favorite speakers, I came up with a formula: they were almost all prolific bloggers with a large following and many connections.

To speak in front of 500 people, I had to become a prolific blogger and grow a large following. I also had to form connections with industry peers and conference organizers.

Within a few months I launched a blog with this purpose in mind and that is how Jeffalytics was born.

From there, it was all about finding situations that would help me get closer to that goal. This meant writing blog posts people wanted to read. It involved reaching out to people who were more well known than me for advice. It also involved forming connections at conferences, and working to become someone worthy of presenting to 500 people.

You may not need a 5 year plan, but you need goals and you need to maximize your situation

Goals are worthless without action, and the actions you take must be aligned with achieving your goals.

You don’t need to set a 5 year plan to be successful, but you do need to set goals for where you want to be.

And then you need to put yourself on a path to achieve them.

Once you achieve your goals, set the bar higher.

It’s the only way to get ahead in life.

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