How to Set Effective and Achievable Goals

It’s that time of year once again. For public servants in Canada, we are (or have) embarked on a journey to evaluate ourselves against performance indicators and set our learning targets for the upcoming fiscal year. The two documents encompassing this effort are the Performance Discussion Process (PDP) and the Personal Learning Plan (PLP). I’ve shared my thoughts on the PDP in the past in this post.

However, the second part of the yearly ritual is the PLP. On this document, public servants are asked to write down their learning objectives and courses that will help them reach those learning objectives. While the PLP is deeply flawed, I will not be talking in-depth about the process as I feel Nick Charney on cpsrenewal.ca has done a much better job than I ever could.

A large part of any career plan is goal setting. What’s the point of all your work, heading off to training and advancing in your career if you have no idea where you are going. Many people find it daunting to even think long term let alone organize their goals. Like a good to-do list, a goal list is refined, organized, prioritized and re-evaluated consistently to meet the new reality of life. So as you embark on your PLP this year, I ask you to consider the system of goal setting I’m describing below.


It’s easy to set goals. Ambitious and compulsive goal setting leads to many goals being set with few actually being reached mainly because you have no idea how you’re actually going to reach them. The human mind is not very good at tracking a large quantity of things at the same time.

Prioritizing your goals is going to be hard. It’s easy to say I’m going to be the Deputy Minister but it’s hard to say what specific actions I am going to take to make that happen. We end up getting disorganized and lose track of how to actually achieve our goals. Similar to the Getting Things Done (GTD) by David Allen, your goals can be prioritized, organized and evaluated to ensure organization and most importantly of all completion.

The first thing is to set-up a list of goals for all the different parts of your life. For many of you, the simple exercise of writing down goals will be a major step, one that will by itself do you wonders. There is something to be said about transitioning data from your mind and downloading it to paper. Try it sometime, it’s a great stress relief to know you don’t have to remember it. This works for goals and it can work in many other areas of your life. A simple but effective way to make life less stressful.

We’re going to categorize your goals in two different ways. The first categorization is done to separate the list of goals and give the list some organization. I typically split my list into three parts: mind, body and soul. For example, if I’m trying to advance my career by reading a business book I’ll throw it into mind. If I’m training to run a marathon I throw it into body. I find a simple organization system easier to manage but by all means you may want different labels and different ways of organizing. Choose a system that works for you as it’s more likely to stick that way.

The second categorization is going to help us prioritize the goals. As you write your goals, some of them can be done immediately while others will take years if not decades to accomplish. As a public servant you are typically asked to express your career ambitions on your PLP. I challenge you to instead try my system of tracking goals. When the PLP fails you (and it will), you need to come up with your own system.

The first category is the ultimate goals, the things that you strive for and could be considered part of your bucket list but aren’t achievable anytime soon. In here, we find goals like become Deputy Minister, travel the world when I’m retired etc. Be picky about which goals you choose to write down because you shouldn’t have too many ultimate goals. Ultimate goals are those accomplishments that should take nearly a lifetime or a career to get to. Everything you do in your life and all the moves you make in your life should help you get closer to your ultimate goal.

Now you have the long term goals. These are goals that you can achieve in the long term. Long term is usually defined in decades. Try to write long term goals that you feel will help achieve your ultimate goals. So using the example from above of becoming a Deputy Minister, you might have to become a Director General first. herefore, this long term goal is a necessary one to achieve your ultimate goal.

The next category is medium term goals. These can be accomplished anywhere from months to years in the future. These are goals you can’t do overnight and that will take time to achieve. For example, working in a central agency or getting your masters in Public Administration would be good medium term goals. When setting goals always think of the bigger longer term picture. If you want to become Deputy Minister what action can you take in the medium term to get there. Always frame your thinking around your ultimate goal and you should do fine.

Lastly, we have the goals that can be done immediately or in the very immediate future. This could be as simple as seek out extra work of increasing responsibility or ask for extra projects. How does this differ from our medium term goals? You can fit in a lot of activities here that will lead to habits that let you achieve your medium and long term goals. For example, maybe a goal in this area could be to check your Facebook page less often in order to get more work done so you can take on extra assignments.

Finally, we have an organized but scattered list of goals separated into distinct categories. The next step is to carefully evaluate each goal on your list. As humans, we have the tendency to tackle more than we can accomplish. Re-evaluate what you’ve written and be critical with yourself. Does this immediate, medium or long term goal truly contribute towards my ultimate goal? If it doesn’t, remove it from the list. Too many goals and you will never get anything done.

Your goals will have a relationship to each other. Every goal should directly or indirectly contribute to your ultimate goal. A good visual tool is to organize your related goals vertically. Draw a line from the immediate goal to the related medium term goal to the related long term goal and finally to the related ultimate goal. The best goals should have this clear relationship with each other. For example, as an immediate goal I’m seeking extra work, so in the medium term I have better experience and can apply to a central agency so in the long term I can become a DG and hit my ultimate outcome of becoming a Deputy Minister.

Any goals that don’t have direct connections up the chain, are goals you need to seriously considering dropping. Ask yourself, why do I want this? Is there a good reason to work towards this goal? If not, cut it. As you’re going through your list, there are going to goals you can give to other people. Remember, that in life you are not a one person team and take advantage of the fact that others are there to help. You don’t need to be the expert in everything to become a Deputy Minister.

So you’ve got your organized and sorted goal list. You’ve whittled your list down to a core set of goals and you’ve draw clear relationships between your goals. The hardest part of this exercise is to get started. It’s daunting to take that first step but there are plenty of project management and goal tracking tools on the Internet to help you manage your goals. One of the most popular is Remember the Milk. As any good project manager knows, the next step is to break down your goals into steps that you can take to achieve your goal. You can be as formal or casual as you need.

Unlike the PLP form, I recommend you re-visit your list often. Set aside a time on your calendar once a week to take a look at your goal list and see if you are making the progress you wanted to. Revise the list accordingly. This task shouldn’t take more than half an hour.

So as you’re filling out your PLP form this year, you might think it’s a meaningless exercise that does more harm than good but you’ve got your own system and you know exactly what you want to accomplish without a bureaucratic process to guide you.

Scott McNaughton, thenewbureaucracy.ca

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Andrew Krzmarzick

In response to Dave, I’d say it’s important not necessarily to share them with everyone…but it is key to have a couple people – a colleague, a mentor, a boss — someone who will hold you accountable. Then put a meeting on the schedule every month so that you know you’re going to be asked about your progress toward the goals. It’s not just the goals or the “social reality” of it, but the active “check-in” that does the trick. Think sports: the coach and fellow players are going to show up for practice and contribute to the team’s success – will you?

David Dejewski

Yup. I’ve seen good arguments on both sides of this question. Writing down goals as Scott suggested is usually one of the first things I do with my coaching students / mentees. It was the first thing every one of my coaches did with me.

Writing these things down does bring clarity. I find that people often have too many, too few, or goals that simply lack the clarity to be executable. Sharing with someone who will hold us accountable can also bring value Here’s where I think the departure happens:

Some people benefit. Some don’t. It’s largely an individual thing. It depends on the person and on the goal. Cookie cutter doesn’t work with people. We’re all different.

I get pretty motivated when I get locked on a target. I’ve noticed that if I share that target and everyone starts asking me (harassing me) about it, I may lose interest. This is especially true when the target is a long range or complicated thing that requires domain expertise or re-positioning to accomplish.

Simple targets – no problem. Complicated personal stuff – it becomes annoying when people are always asking about it. It is possible to end up spending a lot more time educating friends and family about all that goes into achieving a particular goal, than actually working towards it.

Maybe the answer is as you suggest: be picky about who we share our goals with. Share them strategically. Don’t share them with everyone.

Scott McNaughton

Hi David,

Goal setting is a deeply personal exercise and there is no “one size fits all” solution. We are all motivated by very different factors and figuring those factors out will help us be successful.

As Andrew mentioned, some accountability is necessary to keep you on track and personal preference will dictate what level of accountability you are comfortable with. Some people are more open, extrovert and thus find it easier to socially share their goals. Others want to keep their goals personal and thus are only comfortable with sharing to those closest to them.

There are arguments on both sides but I’d argue it’s up to you as the individual to figure out what you’re most comfortable with. Your best chance of success is to hold yourself accountable for progress towards your goals. If that involves sharing your goals socially or keeping them to yourself than so be it. As Andrew said, it’s more the action of “checking in” or “revising” that keeps you going.