In May 1999, my
mom came down with rheumatoid arthritis almost overnight, then
was diagnosed with chronic leukemia. By July, this
happily independent, gregarious eighty-six year-old, required
round-the-clock nursing and seldom ventured from her
The cost of full-time nursing was
devastating. Mom also longed for more activity and contact
with people, but her body would no longer cooperate.
Assisted living was the obvious answer. For
months Evie and I dragged our feet, though, certain mom wouldn’t
want to leave her beloved home of forty-four years.
By January we at least had reached one
conclusion. An assisted-living facility near our home was far
and away the best option for her. We met with a director
there. They could take mom eventually, she explained, but had
a six-month waiting list, and then no guarantee of space.
Then something snapped inside us. Six months
was too long to wait, given mom’s personal and financial
needs. We set a goal--to have her happily moved out of her
home and into a better arrangement by the end of February. I
stress happily, for we weren’t going to force her,
but would do whatever we could to encourage a welcomed
Almost immediately we recognized a solution
we had missed before. To this point we’d assumed we had no
space to host her in our home, even for a short time. Now it
occurred to us that we could convert our upstairs family room
into a temporary guest room, until her apartment was ready.
Then dawned option two. It was far more
preferable, but seemed highly improbable. What if? I
wondered. What if the door that
seemed presently closed at the assisted-living facility had a
In that nothing-ventured, nothing-gained
spirit which only a goal can inspire, I phoned the director,
and explained to her that we really needed to move mom out of
her home soon. Did they possibly have a way to accommodate her
temporarily, until her own unit was available? I was stunned
when she replied that she’d look into it.
Several days later she phoned back to say
they had a guest suite available that mom could rent for as
long as necessary. And the charge for it was less than for
Now the job of convincing mom. We were
equally stunned to find that she needed no persuading. She was
ready to move, and eager for a new adventure.
On February 25, 2000, we moved her into this
haven, where she continues to live contentedly--now in her own
apartment, which came available in September. She hasn’t had
an unhappy day there, and the improvement to her social life,
health and finances has been remarkable.
What a Difference a Goal Makes
This surely isn’t the most dramatic story
you’ve heard about goal setting. Our situation wasn’t
desperate. It wouldn’t have been a calamity if we’d had to
wait six months or longer to move mom into assisted living.
Still, we were faced with a situation that was far from
desirable, and wanted a way to improve it. Once we set a goal,
things changed quickly.
The goal substantially influenced how Evie
and I thought about our predicament. Our minds started
working. We saw possibilities we hadn’t recognized before.
It also gave me the resolve to broach an option with the
director of the home that I wouldn’t have considered raising
otherwise. After all, if they had temporary housing, she
surely would have said so during our long interview. Yet
simply asking the question made all the difference.
I’m certain, too, that the sense of
urgency I conveyed when I phoned her affected her response,
and her decision to explore an option at her mammoth facility
that she normally wouldn’t have mentioned. Our goal
influenced the outcome.
There’s no question, either, that the
excitement Evie and I felt about this sudden open door was
contagious to mom. Had we been less focused, and less
convinced, she would have been less certain about wanting to
I share this story, not because it’s my
most extraordinary experience with goals, but because it’s
recent, and the results have been deeply meaningful to my
family. It demonstrates how goal setting can help us resolve
moderately challenging problems--the type we often try to
tackle head-first, without first establishing a clear goal.
The same dynamics that worked for Evie and me in this case
will work for any of us in setting more far-reaching goals to
achieve our major life dreams.
The Power of Focused Intentions
Pick up any book on human potential,
positive thinking or the secrets of success, and you’ll
likely find the author extolling the benefits of goal setting.
You may well find him or her declaring that an effectively-set
goal guarantees your success.
I’d caution that life offers no
guarantees. Even our best-laid plans never assure any outcome
beyond question. If you set out tomorrow at 9:00 a.m. to drive
from Baltimore to Columbus, Ohio, determined to meet a friend
for dinner at 6:00 p.m., there’s no promise that you’ll
make it. Your car may break down. You may have an accident.
You may encounter weather problems or traffic delays. You may
suffer a heart attack, and make it neither to Columbus nor
Life offers no guarantees.
Still, it’s likely you will make your
goal. If your car is in good running order, you know the route
and exercise reasonable prudence, the odds are overwhelming
you’ll reach Columbus by 6:00 p.m. You can tell your friend
you will meet her, and proceed with confidence that you’ll
keep your commitment.
A properly set goal in any area assures your
success with similar probability. Probability so high that you
can go forward with conviction that, Lord willing, you’ll
accomplish your objective. Such confidence isn’t audacious
or brazen, but simply respects how God has designed human life
With a major, long-term goal, you’ll
probably make some adjustments in the deadline as you move
along, to be sure. You’ll modify some aspects of your goal
as well. Still, the likelihood that you’ll achieve your primary
objective is very high, providing you’ve carefully set your
goal to begin with, and your passion for reaching it remains
The parallel to a road trip is helpful from
another angle. If you’re like me, you enjoy driving. Sure,
it takes effort and focused attention. Yet it’s much less
arduous, say, than laying cinder block or studying for a
physics final. You may grow tired while driving, need to rest
and regain your energy. Yet most of the time it’s fun, and
seems natural and effortless.
When you’re living out a goal that is well
conceived, and truly right for you, you feel much the same
way. Far from requiring heroic self-discipline, the goal taps
your natural motivation, and moves you forward at a pace that
works for you. You may get tired or encounter obstacles, just
as you would on a road trip. Yet, overall, the process is
enjoyable--in part because you’re fueled by natural energy,
in part because you’re excited about your destination.
How Goals Help Us
Let’s look more specifically at the
benefits goals bring to our life. There are at least eight
ways in which they help us achieve our objectives and dreams.
1. Goals break the inertia.
Inertia is the single greatest barrier to our achieving a
dream. A body at rest stays at rest. Yet a body in motion
stays in motion--so anything we can do to get our life moving
toward a desired outcome is beneficial. Monumental challenges,
which seem beyond our capacity and strength, suddenly feel
surprisingly manageable once we begin to tackle them. Goals
break the inertia, by giving us the incentive to take that
2. Goals give us occasions to rise to.
Dale Carnegie observed that our most deep-seated human need is
to be important. We each long to be doing notable things with
our life, and we instinctively give the best of our time and
attention to those tasks we consider most important. A goal
lets us draw on this natural energy, by allowing us to
determine in advance that a particular objective truly is
worth our most earnest effort. Once we’ve established that
fact, the goal gives us an occasion to aspire to, providing
the most effective possible motivation to keep us in motion.
3. Goals focus our thinking and energy.
Nature abounds with energy sources of unspeakable potential
that vastly increase their benefit when harnessed and focused
in strategic ways. A gently flowing river, dammed and forced
to flow through a small channel, produces a ferocious output,
capable of turning the wheels of a power plant providing
electricity to an entire city.
Goals have a similar effect on our mental
energy, enabling us to accomplish exceedingly more than is
possible without them. Most important, goals harness our
subconscious energy. They serve our subconscious notice that
specific problems need to be solved, and enlist the most
creative partner in our mental process as an ally. Before we
know it, insightful answers begin to emerge that we’ve never
We see an enlightening example of how a goal
can ignite creativity in a familiar Gospel incident. Four men
have a goal--to bring a paralyzed friend to Jesus for healing
(Mk 2:1-12). They carry him on a pallet to a house where he’s
teaching, only to find that they cannot move him through the
huge, dense crowd overflowing the home. Rather than accept
defeat, they look for a solution, finding an unlikely one.
Instead of going through the crowd, they’ll go above it!
They climb to the roof, remove tiles over the section of the
home where Jesus is speaking, then lower the pallet carrying
their friend through that opening--compelling Jesus’
Far from being offended by their
aggressiveness, Jesus is impressed with their faith (v. 5). He
forgives the man’s sins, then heals his paralysis.
What’s fascinating about this incident is
that these men, in their mutual determination, conceived a
solution to a problem that most would have considered
unsolvable. Had they been less determined and focused, I doubt
that their minds would have worked as well. Inertia would have
prevailed. They would have settled for sitting placidly in the
back of the crowd as spectators, failing to seize the golden
opportunity before them. The fact that they had a clear agenda
sparked their creativity, and inspired an ingenious solution
to a difficult predicament.
Goals stimulate our own problem-solving
skills in a similar fashion. They also heighten our alertness
to opportunities we’d otherwise miss.
4. Goals inspire others to help us.
We each have a natural instinct to be generous and helpful to
others. A goal that we set for ourselves best allows us to
appeal to this instinct in others, for it provides evidence to
them that their effort to help us will be worthwhile. It also
signals to them what sort of assistance we may need, and helps
them recognize more readily how they can support us. Goals
enable us to appeal to another instinct in others as well--the
desire to root for someone who is making an honest effort to
improve his or her life.
Setting a goal also helps us clarify in our
own mind what sort of help we need to seek from others, and
strengthens our courage to ask for it.
5. Goals open us more fully to God’s help
and provision. Well-set goals
are an exercise in stewardship--stewardship of the life God
has called us to live. It only makes sense that God will more
likely extend his help to us when we are treating the life he
has entrusted to us responsibly. The help God provides to
those who set responsible goals seems to be part of his common
grace; human-potential writers, for instance, often speak of
"synchronicity" or "serendipities" that
occur when a goal has been set--fortuitous coincidences that
help you realize your objective.
How much more should we expect special help
from God, when, as a follower of Christ, we have set a goal
prayerfully, seeking his direction and provision. The goal
also increases our alertness to windows of opportunity God may
6. Goals increase our confidence and
motivation to do what is necessary to succeed. The
best-set goal includes a clear plan of action, describing what
work will be done when. Because we have such a blueprint in
place, we’re able to give our full attention to any of its
details, knowing that the time and space is there to
accomplish the other steps when necessary. We work more
confidently on any segment of our plan, for we’re not
worrying that we’re robbing time from more important tasks.
We’re also more likely to enjoy the less-scintillating steps
necessary to achieve a dream, for we recognize how they are
moving us toward an objective we dearly want to accomplish.
7. Goals give us a basis for measuring
results. Our plan of action also
enables us to better judge whether specific work we’re doing
is actually helping us accomplish our objective. We’re
better able to work smarter, and to take corrective action
8. Goals give us something to celebrate.
Because a goal gives us a clearly defined target, we know when
we’ve hit it. We now have something specific and meaningful
to celebrate. This jubilant occasion is not only a tonic to
our life when it occurs, but another carrot-on-a-stick aspect
of a goal, beckoning us to see it through to the finish.
Setting Goals Successfully
Appreciating the benefits goals provide
helps us greatly to find the incentive to set them. How, then,
do we do this effectively? Goal setting is more of an art than
a science, to be sure. The process that most helps you may
differ from what works for me. Each of us needs to experiment
to find what steps benefit us most personally. Still, there
are certain approaches to goal setting that universally help
people turn dreams into reality. Here are ten of the most
important principles to keep in mind.
1. Goals should be based on strong desire.
The most common reason goals fail is because we don’t desire
their results strongly enough.
Let’s say I set a goal to become an
accomplished pianist in five years. I may establish it for a
variety of reasons. At one extreme, I may be motivated by
intense desire: I passionately wish to be musical, crave the
thrill of performing, or long for certain social benefits this
skill may open.
At the other extreme, I may take on this
goal more out of obligation. Perhaps I’ve long felt I have
some potential to play piano, and that I owe it to myself to
develop it. Or I may have some legitimate desire to be a
pianist, yet underneath have a much greater yearning to become
an actor. We set many goals primarily for the momentary relief
of guilt establishing them brings, not because we earnestly
long for their results.
We need to be thoroughly honest about our
level of passion in considering a goal of this magnitude. If I
strongly desire to become a competent pianist, chances are
good I’ll succeed. If I’m setting this goal mainly out of
obligation, or as a substitute for a more burning creative
desire, it’s unlikely I’ll stick with it past the fifth
Goals should spring as fully as possible
from deep-seated natural motivation. Basing them on such
desire isn’t taking the course of least resistance, but is a
matter of stewardship, for even the most intense motivation
remains unproductive unless focused through a goal. If I need
to set a goal for an outcome I’m less than exuberant about,
I should first do what I can to boost my desire for that
result. Apart from keen motivation, I shouldn’t waste my
time pursuing a goal.
2. Goals should be achievable.
Goals should also fall clearly within our range of potential.
Again, this isn’t taking the course of least resistance, for
goals stretch us to grow in ways that would never happen
otherwise. Consider, too, that we each have vast possibilities
for accomplishment within our areas of potential that will
never be realized apart from concentrated effort. It only
makes sense to choose our goals from this huge pool of options
rather than from outside of it.
We should be confident also that we can
relate temperamentally to the process necessary for achieving
a goal. Not that we have to find all aspects of it
scintillating. But if, for instance, I know that I’d find
the regimen of practice necessary to become a competent
pianist repugnant, I shouldn’t lock into this goal. Some
enjoyment of the process in this case is important.
3. Goals should be specific.
Goals should be clearly stated, both in terms of what we
choose to accomplish, and the date when we plan to reach our
target. Staying open-ended at either of these points greatly
reduces the possibility that we’ll achieve our objective.
4. Goals should involve a clearly defined
plan of action. One of
the greatest benefits of goal setting is that it allows us to
take charge of our life. We are able to peer into the future
and lay claim to the time and process that will ensure our
success. Even goals that seem impossible for us often can be
achieved, if we allow enough time to reach them and plan our
It’s unlikely we’ll be able to predict
every step required to accomplish a major goal in advance.
Some of the details will only emerge as we move forward.
Still, we should do our best to predict the most important
steps, then determine how and when we’ll take them. The more
fully we can develop a map for the journey ahead, the more
likely we are to reach our destination.
The single most important part of this
planning is to decide specifically when we’ll invest the
time needed for taking the different steps required for
reaching our goal, so we can protect it as fully as possible.
Start by determining, as best as you can, how much total time
you’ll need. Then consider when, in light of your energy and
creative flow, are your best times for pursuing your
objective--daily, weekly, monthly, yearly. Look also at what
other commitments you’ll need to rearrange or cancel to make
way for this time. Design a schedule, even if it covers many
years, which allows sufficient quality time for accomplishing
your dream. Carving out this time, and guarding it as sacred,
will make all the difference in hitting your target.
5. Goals should be established in prayer.
While anyone can profit from goal
setting, regardless of their spiritual orientation, we have an
unparalleled advantage as Christians in planning our future.
Through prayer we are able to connect directly with the heart
of God, and enjoy the supreme benefits that result.
When setting a major goal, we do best to
give some generous time to prayer. We should ask God to direct
our thinking, to help us understand the desires and gifts he
has given us that most deserve our attention, and to make the
wisest choice of a goal among the many options before us. Just
as important, we should ask him to give us courage to move
forward with what he is prompting us to do. We should also ask
him to help us determine a clear strategy for carrying out our
Once our goal is established, we should
commit it to Christ, in the spirit of Proverbs 16:3. Prayer,
of course, should not end at this point. We should continue to
seek God’s direction and strength as we move ahead, asking
him daily to show us any changes or mid-course corrections we
need to make. It’s here that goal setting can have the
auxiliary benefit of deepening our relationship with Christ,
by allowing us to experience his companionship in the great
adventures of our life.
6. Goals should be flexible.
Once we’ve established the process and deadline for
achieving a goal, we should assume these details are realistic
and follow them earnestly and confidently. Yet we should also
recognize in humility that we don’t know the future--how
circumstances will unfold, or what doors God may open for us.
Our understanding of our own potential is always evolving as
well. There is no shame, as we move ahead, in changing the
deadline for a goal, rethinking some of its specifics, or even
dropping the goal itself if we find it no longer fits our life
as we now understand it. Such revising goes with the
territory, even in the most competent goal setting.
In 1997 the Sons of Thunder set a goal
to produce a new album--our first in twenty-five years. Our
plan was to accomplish this task with a $10,000 budget, three
days of recording and three days of mixing, and to have a
compact disc available by June 1998. The first shipment of CDs
finally arrived on Christmas Eve of that year. By then, we had
spent nearly $40,000, and made nearly twenty additional visits
to the studio beyond what we’d planned. Still, there’s not
the slightest question that the album would still be a wish
dream apart from our having had a firm goal, which galvanized
these widely dispersed folks--spread out in eight cities
around the United States--to accomplish a task we at first
The adjustments you have to make in pursuing
a major goal may not be nearly as extreme as this. Still, you’ll
probably find it necessary, even with the best-laid plan, to
make some revision in the timing and process as you move
along. Yet you will hit your primary target, if you don’t
lose heart--and that’s the important thing. And the fact
that you have a goal will make all the difference in what you’re
able to accomplish.
7. Goals should be written down.
Take time to record your goal and plan of action in writing.
Articulate the details as precisely as you can. The process of
writing helps greatly to clarify your thinking, and provides a
reliable record when your memory lags. Apart from putting the
specifics in writing, we limit the effectiveness of a
goal--far more than we usually realize.
8. Goals should be rehearsed.
We possess no ability--natural or learned--that doesn’t
atrophy when unused. Our ability to walk diminishes if we’re
bedridden only a short time. We should treat goals as we do
our most cherished skills. We should "practice"
them--that is, rehearse and reclaim them often. Most
important, we need to rekindle our motivation for them
We should do this daily with a major goal.
Take time to pray over such a goal each day. You may find it
helpful to read over your written resolution, or recite it
aloud. Visualize yourself succeeding. Imagine it’s the day
that you’ve finally achieved your goal; you’re thinking
back over all the time and effort you’ve invested to reach
this point, immensely glad you never gave up. You’re looking
forward to a big celebration. Enjoy the exhilaration of this
image for a moment. Then pray, asking God to help you make it
9. Goals should involve accountability and
enlist "cheerleaders." Most of us
take great encouragement from knowing others are rooting for
us to reach a goal. We benefit considerably from being
accountable to others as well. Enlist your cheering
squad--even if it’s just one individual. Ask this person or
persons to pray for you and encourage you as you work toward
your goal, and make a pledge to them that you’ll stay
faithful to your intentions. Draw on their support as you move
forward. And, of course, celebrate your victory with them when
your mission is accomplished!
10. Goals should be celebrated!
There’s nothing unprofound in saying that we should
celebrate a goal once we’ve reached it. In our driven
nature, we can easily bypass time devoted purely to enjoying
our achievement, out of zeal to move on to new projects. In
devising a plan of action for a goal, we ought to plan in time
for celebrating--not only our final victory, but also
intermediate triumphs along the way. Knowing these occasions
for rejoicing are in place will increase our incentive to move
toward our goal. They will also give us special opportunity to
thank God for what he has enabled us to accomplish--and, most
important, to feel thankful to him, and to grasp in our
heart as fully as possible all that he has done for us.
Goal setting should add a substantial
element of joy to our life, for we’re taking action to
improve our life, and to harness our creative potential much
more constructively. The hope for this joy is an important
incentive to move forward.
Experiencing this joy is also
critical, for it deepens our gratitude to God, enhances our
health, and boosts our productivity and the benefit of our
life to others. Planning times simply to experience such
elation isn’t frivolous, but part of the process that will
best enable our life to be a channel of God’s grace to the