How To Set Goals by IttyBiz

This one is REALLY long, plus there’s a part three to be added once Naomi posts it (She owns IttyBiz) but I think there’s really important messages in here. If you haven’t signed up for her newsletter yet, you should. It isn’t just for people with businesses.


Those of you who have been following IttyBiz over the years probably know how much I winced typing the words “How to Set Goals.”

Goals drive me crazy, because people tell you how they set goals and assume what worked for them will (naturally!) work for you.

Well, it might work, but it probably won’t work for you as smoothly as they promise it will.

Let’s think about any piece of advice out there on the “best” way to set goals, given by any well-meaning blogger, author or motivational speaker who’s dishing it out.

As we think about what they’re telling you to do, consider these questions:

  • Are you motivated by the same things they are?
  • Do you have the same time or flexibility resources they do?
  • Are you going to have the same emotional reaction as they are if you don’t hit your goal?
  • Do you have the same tolerance for complexity as they do?
  • Are you a match for their level of ambition?
  • Do you have the same support structure they do?
  • Are you willing to sacrifice the same kinds of things they are?

Depending on the answers to those seven questions – and those were just seven I pulled out of my hat – the advice you should get on goal-setting should be wildly different from every other person hearing that advice.

In other words, you should be pretty wary of “seven top tips guaranteed to work for you.” It’s just about as effective as “seven top tips to make every person like you.”

One-size-fits-all advice works about as well as one-size-fits-all clothing.

You’re reading this now, and I don’t know who you are. Therefore, I cannot tell you what is guaranteed to work for you.

However, I can tell you how to not screw it up.  (Because it’s incredibly easy to screw it up.)

Our brains, wonderfully evolved as they are, are actually pretty lousy at making rational and reasonable decisions. We’re terrible at predicting what will actually make us happy and how things will really play out.

(Goals that don’t give you what you thought they would and cost more than you thought they would are so common it’s cliche.)

So what we’re going to do in this series is ask a few questions that will help you separate goals that “seem like a good idea at the time” from ones that will actually give you what you want.

It won’t guarantee happiness, but it will probably save you a whole lot of unhappiness as you do whatever it is you do.

I’ve walked a lot of clients through these questions, and they’ve seemed to help a lot. So now you get them without having to pay me by the hour.

Let’s jump in with the first question.

Does this goal have a magical ending?

When you achieve a goal, what you are guaranteed to achieve is the goal, and the only the goal.

  • If you achieve your goal of getting 10,000 people on a list, you have a nice big list.
  • If you achieve your goal of losing 30 pounds, you are 30 pounds lighter.
  • If you achieve your goal of filling your store full of products, you have a lot of stuff people can theoretically buy.

Those are your only guarantees at the end of the goal.

However, it’s common to attach a magical ending to the end of the goal – a bonus, if you will – and believe that the magical ending is guaranteed, too.

  • If you’re trying to get a list of 10,000 people so you can FINALLY start making “the big money,” that’s not guaranteed. It helps. but there are other factors that have to be put into play at the same time.
  • If you’re trying to lose 30 pounds so you will FINALLY look more attractive and you can get more romantic attention, that’s not guaranteed. It helps, but you’re going to have to more than just fit into smaller clothes.
  • If you’re trying to fill your store full of products so people will FINALLY be buying from you every day, that’s not guaranteed. It helps, but you’ve got a lot of other activities you’ll have to coordinate as well.

There’s nothing wrong with any of those goals. They’re part of the equation, but they are only part of the equation.

Once the goal is achieved, it won’t make the magical ending happen “just because.”

But that’s not very sexy.

(Which is probably why people don’t tell you that.)

It’s very easy to get obsessed with a goal when you think that it’s the only thing you have to do to create a specific future where Something Is Finally All Better.  And why wouldn’t you?  A goal like that literally is the answer to your prayers.  We want things to be Finally All Better.

But thinking something will be “Finally All Better” is magical thinking.

Thinking it will be “Better” is closer to real – but still, it’s not guaranteed.

You may have your list of 10,000, but the market tanks, or a competitor comes in and takes your market share, or what your target market wants takes a big shift, you may not have the magical ending you’re hoping for.

Don’t get caught up thinking hitting a number or doing that one thing is the linchpin in your plan for success.

Does that mean you shouldn’t make goals with the end in mind?


You should always make goals with the end in mind (otherwise, there’s not much of a point).

But you should separate out any magical endings.  That’s how you figure out what it takes to get to the real end.

View the list growth as a part of a larger plan to make more money.

View the 30 pounds as a part of a larger plan for becoming more attractive.

But don’t pin any “features and benefits” on a goal that aren’t guaranteed.

If you can manage to do this, a funny thing happens:  Your goals start to change automatically.

When you take the magical ending out of a goal, it loses a lot of its sexiness.  It’s not the Holy Grail anymore, and you assign it a level of importance that’s much closer to its actual value.

So when you realize getting your list to 10,000 won’t be the only thing that gets you to making more money, you stop getting so preoccupied, obsessed and stressed about it.  You start looking at the other pieces of the puzzle, and you start assigning them the attention they deserve with a much greater sense of calm.

You might start thinking to yourself, “Wow, I was going to spend 10 hours a week list building.  I should probably spend 2 hours a week listbuilding and more time cleaning up my sales pages instead, because I’ll probably make more money faster that way.”

You might start thinking to yourself, “Wow, I was going to hit the gym 5 days a week to lose 30 pounds, but maybe I’ll just go 3 days a week and spend that other time brushing up my social skills.  I’ll probably get the attention I want faster that way.”

You might start thinking to yourself, “Wow, I was going to try and make 4 more products this year to fill up my store, but maybe I’ll just make 2 and devote that other time working on improving my upsells.  I’ll probably make more sales that way.”

Wow, indeed.

When you take the magic out of a goal, it’s not sexy anymore.

Which is good.  We think a lot more clearly when we don’t have sex on the brain.

So take a look at the goals that are most important to you, the ones that keep you up at night wishing they were FINALLY achieved.

Take the magic out of the ending and see them for what they really are, and what they’ll really give you.

Then see if your goals merit some adjustment.

Do this too: Check your biggest, broadest goals for magical endings.

A lot of goals end with “And then I’ll finally be happy.”

A lot of goals end with “And then I’ll feel successful.”

A lot of goals end with “And then [insert name] will finally love / respect / look up to me.”

I don’t care who you are or what your situation is – there’s probably not a single goal that’s going to make this happen.  

Being happy and feeling successful is your choice.  You can control that.

Winning the love, respect and admiration of others is their choice.  You can’t control that.

Your goal won’t magically make these things happen.

Yes, they can be a part of the equation.

But you need to look at what else has to happen to turn the magic into reality.

A ray of sunshine, and then we move on.

It can be depressing to realize that your goals actually won’t get you the things you originally thought they would.

But!  Awareness is curative.

When you realize why your goal won’t magically make things better all by itself, you’ll realize what else you can do to actually start making things better.

And then you’ve got a plan.

In part two, we’re going to ask a second question to see if the goals you’re already setting pass muster. As in “Would 100 impartial people say this was a workable goal in the first place?”

Let us begin.

Question #2 – Does your goal require “hope” to make it work?

Let’s start with the BHAG.

The “Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal.”

Not particularly a fan of that one.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with setting a goal that other people would call crazy. You can’t move for success stories that began “Everyone thought I was an idiot for deciding I was going to [do whatever]”, and it turns out now the person is a millionaire or cured cancer or figured out how to make clean energy out of old Pringles cans.

However, there’s a big difference between “That sounds impossible” and “I think that violates the laws of physics.”

In this case we’re not talking about the goal in question, but the ingredients that are going to go into the goal and the specific way that the goal is going to be achieved.

If I want to feed the starving masses, that’s a crazy big goal.

If I plan to do it with five loaves and two fishes, well, I’m going to need a miracle.

When you’re setting goals, you need to assess what you’re bringing to the table.

Let’s say your Big Hairy Audacious Goal wasn’t to feed the masses, but to quit your day job in a year.

Let’s also say you need $40,000 to make that happen.

And you’re starting from scratch.

No website, no list, nothing to sell yet. Never run a business before.

But, after that last cluster of a meeting, you’re mad as hell and you can’t take it anymore. So 12 months it is.

Ok, that’s a Big Goal. Your relatives, friends and friends of relatives say “You’ve been an accountant your whole life, and now you want to give nature tours for a living? You’re crazy!”

Ok, so you’re crazy. That can actually be an asset. Crazy people come up with creative strategies that the average person does not.

But you have to consider your other assets as well, and how confident you can be that those assets are going to deliver the results you expect in the time you expect.

This is where a lot of people go wrong.

They see something is possible, and they assume that they can replicate it with the resources they have, a dash of positive thinking, and a lot of hard work.

They think they can build a list of 2,000 people in six months.

They think they can create a day-job-quitting income in a year.

They think they can make Twitter make them a celebrity in 10 minutes a day.

Yes, all these things are possible.

Yes, many people have done these things in the past.

But they did them by a specific set of actions, and not through hope and elbow grease.

The difference between hope and math.

Client #1 says this:

“I want to build a list of 2,000 people in six months. I’ve identified fifty blogs I could guest post on, I have a detailed profile of my target market and a list incentive that I’ve run by people in that market and they say it’s great.

I’m going to put about 20 hours a week into list building work to make it happen. I’ve figured out who all the big influencers are in my niche, and I’m going to put another 10 hours a week into social media so I can make connections with them. Oh, why? I have a specific plan for getting on their blogs and getting them to tell their audience about me.

One last thing – I’ve hired a Facebook ad manager to get some ads going for me. The copy is really good.

I know that I’m new at all this, but I think I can hit 2,000 or at least damn close to it, because with all of that I think that an overall average target of 11 subscribers a day looks pretty reasonable given the 30 hours a week I’m putting in.”

Client #2 says this:

“I want to build a list of 2,000 people in six months because I really need to get my business in gear. I’m going to blog like crazy, get serious about social media and really make something cool for my list. I am 100% committed to my goal and I’m going to make it happen.”

And now we come to the math.

Client number one has looked at a number of strategies and tactics and basically said “Based on this plan, the math says there’s a reasonable chance this can work out, or at least come close.” So the desire gets promoted to a commitment to do a specific set of things to meet a specific deadline.

(It’s kind of like pitching an investor and showing them how you’re going to use their money for your business. They can say, “I can see how the math works out.”)

Client number two has looked at their desire and basically said “Based on how much I really want this thing, I’m going to work really hard at it.” So they promote their desire to a commitment, without doing the math that client number one did.

(It’s kind of like pitching an investor and telling them that you’ve got this really great idea. You’re going to sell software. To bloggers. Because the market’s big. And you’re going to throw your back into it. But when the investor holds you accountable for a plan, you’ve got nothing.)

The math can be brutal.

It fells most people – entrepreneurs and non-entrepreneurs alike. (Mainly because if we do the math, we’ll realize our desired timelines won’t work out.)

We like to make internal commitments because it gives a sense of relief that something is going to happen.

But for that sense of relief to be real – and for it to stick around as you work your goal – you need to have the math to back it up.

Client number one has grounds for making a time-and-number based commitment. Client number two does not.

Does that mean I have to have a grand master plan before I make a goal?


You don’t ever need a grand master plan, really.

You can get away with never having a plan for the rest of your life.

You only need a plan when you’re setting stakes – when you’re deciding on numbers and deadlines.

The plan isn’t necessary to achieve your goal. The plan is necessary so that you can know you have grounds to make a specific commitment in regards to a deadline.

You set yourself up for a lot of internal pain when you set a number or a deadline without having anything to back it up.

And that is, to a degree, the goal-setting industry’s fault.

There’s an attitude that “Well, if you’re serious, you’ll commit to what you want and make it happen. If you don’t, you must not be serious. Oh, and you’re a loser and you’re doing it wrong.”

But the goal brigade treats commitment to a deadline as equally important to commitment to the thing you’re trying to achieve.

So they tell you to say “I’m going to lose 30 pounds by Christmas” so you will take it seriously.

They ask you to write a check before figuring out if you have the funds to cash it. (And, you get to be labeled a failure if you don’t make it happen. Apparently you’re just not committed enough.)

And that’s important to notice. It’s not just you feeling that way.

Are planners better than non-planners?

Not remotely.

Client number one is not better than client number two.

In fact, client number one starts out as client number two.  Everything begins with a desire and a willingness to work. But once the deadlines come into the picture, that’s when it’s a good idea to consider a plan.

Plans serve two purposes.

The first is what we just talked about. Essentially, don’t commit to a deadline for something sexy that’s going to require working 30 hours a week before doing the math and realizing it can only happen if you put in 30 hours a week.  “Hope” won’t make it happen in 15.

Also, don’t commit to a deadline when you don’t know for sure what it takes – other than passion and work – to make the thing happen.

The second purpose of a plan is for it to be a staging ground for figuring out creative ways to do something.

If you’re starting from scratch, you could say “I want to build a list of 2,000 people in 6 months. I have no idea how to do that. How could I make that happen?”

Note the emphasis above. Notice it’s “I want” and not “I will.” Note the acknowledgement of not knowing how it’s going to be done. That’s healthy and good and great phrasing to use, because it gets you thinking.

Specifically, it gets you looking for possible ways it could happen in ways you can tolerate. Advertising? Maybe yes, maybe no based on budget. Guest articles? Maybe yes, maybe no based on your personal output. Some crazy contest? Maybe yes, maybe no … you’ll have to figure it out.

But in this case, you’re evaluating ideas that could get you your result, so you can decide if you’re going to commit to something or not.

Consider it like checking references before you hire someone.

It’s just a damned good idea.

You should also consider whether you need a plan at all.

Many great goals probably shouldn’t have a grand master plan.

If you’re going to close your shop, sell your house and buy a ticket to the West Coast so you can be a stand-up comic, and you’re willing to let it take as long as the universe decides it will take, you don’t need a plan.

If you’re going to quit your job, live on ramen noodles and just write your fingers to the bone until you become the next great author, you don’t need a plan so long as you’re open to letting it unfold as it unfolds.

Personally, I like not setting deadlines as often as I can get away with it.

When you commit to a goal without a deadline, your eyes stay open to opportunities. You’re poised to be more creative than you would be otherwise. You’re able to play more of the long game and take more risks and not be so damn locked in to meeting a number, which if you were honest with yourself, was arbitrary.

You can get so caught up trying to lose 30 pounds in the next six months, because you feel like you need it now. But would your ten-years-from-now self care if it took you twelve months? Eighteen? Twenty-four?

Probably not. And you’d likely be a lot happier in the process.

Scanners, stick around. This is the wrap-up.

You can commit to a goal, and you can commit to a deadline or number related to the goal.

Do the former as much as you want, and you’re golden.

Do the latter without doing the math, and you’re writing a check you don’t know you can cash.

(Feel free to toy around with the deadline for the purposes of doing the math – that’s how it’s done.)

You can commit to a goal you desire with nothing but hope and determination on your side.

But never commit to a deadline based on hope.

Nervously chuckling to yourself “Holy hell, can I really do this in six months?” and seeing what happens is a pretty fun experience. You’re probably going to be surprised at what you can do when you put yourself out on a limb.

But that’s very, very different from believing it will happen if you’re just “committed” enough.

If you couldn’t get someone to put money on your deadline based on your plan, then you want to think twice before committing to it.

Hope is a great thing.

Have as much hope as you want.

Just keep it in the right place.