I was pretty aimless growing up. I’ve heard it’s pretty common, especially for guys who grew up without a father in their life.
I remember reading a book on fatherlessness some years ago and relating to a story the author recounted about learning to play chess. The person teaching him couldn’t make heads or tails of his strategy. Exasperated, the teacher finally asked him, “So, what is your plan here?”
Plan? What plan? He was just moving pieces around and reacting to his opponent’s actions. There was no strategy. No grand plan. No real goal at all.
That’s how many of us approach life. We’re just moving the pieces around, reacting to whatever comes our way. But if our lives are a stewardship, given to us by God, then aimlessness isn’t an option.
Whether your objective is to read the Bible more, lose weight, grow in your relationships, or get to the next level in your career, you need a plan. You need a goal. But as stewards who acknowledge our lives aren’t our own (1 Cor 6:19–20), how do we set goals in a way that both honors God and is actually effective?
To set good goals, we need to begin by asking ourselves some questions.
5 questions to ask when setting God-glorifying goals
1. What is my desired outcome?
Every quarter in the Redeeming Productivity Academy, we host a goal-setting challenge. We ask members to come prepared with a goal or list of potential goals they’d like to pursue for the next three months. And every time, without fail, people come to the event with wishes instead of goals.
Someone will proudly declare, “My goal for this quarter is to lose weight.” But that’s not a goal. That’s a wish. Goals are specific. Wishes are vague. Goals you know when you accomplish. Wishes leave you wiggle room for excuses when you fail.
If you want to make good goals, you’ve got to get specific. One way to do this is by taking your goal and asking yourself, “What is my desired outcome?” This question forces you to get detailed.
A desired outcome is written in the present tense as if it has already happened.
For example, a vague wish of “I want to lose weight this year” becomes “By July 31st, I stand on the scale and weigh 140 lbs.”
Now you’re getting specific. Now you’re living in reality. Now you have a goal.
Next, we need to deal with motivation.
2. Why do I want to reach this goal?
The most significant problem people have with reaching their goals, especially long-term ones, is they lose motivation. Somewhere along the way, you either forget why you were doing it, or your original reason proves too weak to sustain you in the pursuit. This is why it is important to spend time on the front end of goal setting, getting clear on the “why” of your goal.
“Why?” is the most critical variable in the motivation equation.
When you ask “why,” you’ll be tempted to settle for the first answer. “I want to lose weight so I can be healthy.” But one of the reasons you’ve failed to stay motivated to do this goal in the past is that why didn’t go deep enough.
Six Sigma recommends a process called “5 Whys” for identifying and solving problems in an organization. It’s just a matter of digging deeper into the root cause of an issue. But this same technique is also useful when it comes to setting goals.
Why do you want to lose weight? “I want to lose weight because I want to look better.”
Okay, but why?
“Well, really, I want to lose weight because I want to be healthy.”
Why? “I want to be healthy, so I feel better.”
“I want to be healthy, so I can be around for my kids.”
“Well, I guess what it really comes down to is I want to treat my body better because it’s the temple of the Holy Spirit, and the better I care for my body, the better I’m able to serve God and others, and consequently, that also make me feel better.”
Now that’s the kind of why that can motivate even a really big goal. It just took a little digging to find it.
Now we need a plan.
3. Where and When will I work on this goal?
A goal without a plan is just a wish.
Even with a specific outcome defined and a great reason written down on paper, you still need a plan for getting there.
It’s like arranging a vacation. You can pick a great destination and dream of all the fun things you’ll do once you’re there, but until you book the hotels and flights, you don’t have a vacation yet. It’s still just a dream.
Asking this compound question of “where and when” forces you to create a plan for your goal. It drags your goal out of the dream world and down into physical space and time.
Answering this question doesn’t need to be more complicated that choosing a time and location to work on your goal. In fact, it is as simple as filling in the blanks in this sentence:
“I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].”
Now you’ve got a clear goal, a great reason, and a specific plan. But this isn’t something you want to do alone. We still need to ask the “who” question.
4. Who will keep me accountable?
The world of secular self-development heavily emphasizes the personal aspect of growth. And while it is true that a goal is something you alone can decide to pursue. It’s not a decision you should come to alone or a journey you should walk alone.
First, even when choosing a goal, it’s wise to seek advice from a spouse, close friend, or pastor. There is wisdom in a multitude of counselors (Proverbs 15:22). Choosing the right goal is a decision greatly aided by wise counsel.
Second, as you pursue your goal, it’s also advantageous to have someone to hold your feet to the fire—and even better if you are returning the favor.
People have more success working with a personal trainer or participating in group fitness programs rather than just going to the gym alone because of one thing: Accountability. When there’s someone who will know if you don’t do what you said you would do, it helps you follow through, even when your internal motivation is flagging.
You can create a mutually beneficial accountability relationship by finding at least one person who wants to pursue a goal (and it doesn’t have to be the same goal). You are both more likely to succeed when you work together.
5. How does this goal honor God?
For Christians, however, the most important thing about our goals isn’t if they are S.M.A.R.T., or if we follow this system or that system, or even if we reach the goals! The most important thing for a Christian when it comes to our goals is this question: How does my goal honor God?
The apostle Paul writes in Colossians 3:17:
“And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”Colossians 3:17
Our goals must not be all about us. Instead, goals are a vehicle through which we honor God. We honor Him by seeking to grow spiritually, physically, mentally, or otherwise. By having a goal, you take the call to steward your life for Him seriously.
Really, it’s not about the goal at all.
Think about it this way, if our ultimate goal is to bring God glory in our lives, then if we are setting purely selfish goals, even if we reach them, we still fail. The goal of goals must be the glory of God.
And one way to ensure the goals you are setting are deliberately focused on bringing God glory is to ask the question. “How EXACTLY does this goal honor God?”
Often, the answer will be buried in your five whys from earlier. But this question aims simply to get you to state the answer as clearly as possible.
The best goals are clear, and they are Christ-centered. By asking yourself these five questions, you’ll be well on your way to creating God-honoring goals that you’ll actually accomplish.