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The golden rules of goal setting

Written by: ICAEW
Published on: 20 Oct 2023

Goal setting image


At the start of a new year, our thoughts naturally turn to what we hope to achieve over the next 12 months and beyond. So how should you go about setting motivational, achievable goals that will give you the best chance of success?


“Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.” 

So said Pablo Picasso – and, while a Spanish painter may not seem like the obvious source of a motivational quote, it perfectly sums up the key elements of an effective approach to goal setting.



Let’s start with belief. The first step to setting goals is to identify ones that actually matter to you, otherwise you will never be motivated to achieve them. How serious and committed are you? Ask yourself why you want to achieve that particular goal, and how you will feel when you do – a positive emotional response is a good sign that you have settled on something that’s important to you. For instance, if you are an ACA trainee, your goal for 2024 might be, ‘To pass the case study exam,’ and the reason why because, ‘It’s always been my ambition to become a chartered accountant. I’ve worked really hard for three years and I will feel so proud and happy when I’ve achieved it.’



Rather than setting lots of goals, which can quickly become overwhelming, try to stick to the two or three that are highest on your priority list. It’s also good practice to write them (and your reasons for them) down – even the act of committing them to paper can help focus the mind and increase your motivation. When you’re writing, think about using phrases such as ‘I will’ rather than ‘I would like to’, and positive rather than negative statements: ‘I will work hard to pass the case study exam,’ as opposed to, ‘I don’t want to fall at the final hurdle.’ It can help to share your goals with other people too, giving a sense of accountability, as well as encouraging you to ask for help and support where you need it.


SMART goals

You may have come across the SMART mnemonic before – and it’s a useful check to apply when setting goals and objectives, not only at work, but in other aspects of life too:

Specific: make sure your goals are clear and well-defined.

Measurable: how will you know you’ve been successful? This is more straightforward when your goal has a clear result, such as passing an exam, but can be more difficult with something like, ‘Improve my work/life balance’. For example, if your aim is to eat more healthily, a more measurable goal might be: ‘I will eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day at least five days a week.’

Attainable: is your goal actually possible for you to achieve? Do you believe you can do it? If not, chances are you will just end up demoralised. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be challenging, though, otherwise there will be no real sense of achievement.

Relevant: are your goals aligned to the overall direction you want your career or life to take? If not, are they really the right ones?

Time-bound: adding deadlines to your goals is crucial to create a sense of purpose (and ensure measurability).



The next step to goal-setting is creating an action plan – and it is this, ‘the vehicle of a plan’, that is perhaps the most important aspect. Breaking your goal down into smaller milestones gives momentum and makes you much more likely to achieve it, especially if it’s a big or longer-term objective. What are the steps to success? Map them out and add them to your calendar or to-do list to keep them at the front of your mind. You don’t need to plan every step along the way – your action plan may change as you go along – so just concentrate on the next few.

For instance, if your goal is to pass your case study exam in July, one of your steps might be: ‘I will study for at least two hours five days a week from when the advance information is released in June.’ So much of success is about habit, too: if your aim is to study five nights a week, spend five minutes the day before putting that two-hour session in your diary and blocking the time out of your calendar. Then you have a ‘micro goal’ of daily planning – but it all goes towards the step of regular study, and the ultimate goal of passing your exam.



Last but not least, ‘vigorously act’: commit to your goals, and approach the tasks you’ve set for yourself with positivity and optimism. It’s important to review and reflect regularly to ensure you’re on target and see where things may need to change to keep you on track. And don’t forget to celebrate your successes and reward yourself for hitting those milestones along the way to help keep the motivation and momentum going.