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As we close the door on some of the most challenging years in recent history, finding motivation for personal growth and development can be tough. As folks reflect on things and begin planning how exactly the new year will bring about that “new year, new me,” goal setting may be the answer. 

Whether you want to shed a few pounds, go for that association certification or save some money for a vacation, chances are without the right framework, those goals will fall by the wayside within Q1. 

So how exactly do you set goals and actually achieve them?

In our Guide to Goal Setting, we’ll outline some of the most common methods, how they work and some examples to get the new year started off right! 

We’ve also made things easier with our goal templates, which you can download here:


7 Free Goal Setting Worksheets and Templates

As we close the door on some of the most challenging years in recent history, finding motivation for personal growth and development can be tough. As folks reflect on things...

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Benefits of Structured Goal Setting

Ask any of your friends, family or colleagues, and chances are they’ve set goals at some point. Why? Because it works. 

By outlining the things you want to do, learn, or experience and tracking what it takes to get there, chances are you’ll be more likely to achieve them. Some other benefits of goal-setting include: 

  • Helping to structure and identify the things you want to achieve 
  • Allowing you to prioritize achievements 
  • Adding specificity to the timeline and scope
  • Motivating you to conquer bigger goals 

As mentioned above, structured goal setting can mean the difference between success and failure. But how do you choose the method that’s right for you? Every method and process is different, but a common method that many larger organizations use, including Google, is OKR goal setting. 

What Does OKR Stand For?

Objectives and key results are the foundations of OKR goals. Originally created by John Doerr, this methodology is based on setting a big-picture objective and then tracking the key results that will get you there. 

How Do You Set an OKR Goal?

In an interview with Harvard Business Review, Doerr outlined setting OKR goals saying, “The objective is what I want to have accomplished. The key results are how I’m going to get it done. The objectives are typically longer lived. They’re bold and aspirational. The key results are aggressive, but always measurable, time-bound, and limited in number.”

So how do you create OKR goals for your association?


As Doerr says, objectives should be long-lasting and bold. For many associations, this translates to a big-picture shift in the way things are done. 

For example: 

  • Expedite  certification process for members by X days
  • Increase association membership by X%
  • Hit $X amount in non-dues revenue

Key Results

The key results are going to be the way you track progress on your objectives. These results need to be measurable and specific, as this allows you to assign them to staffers or teams, and they should be tracked as often as possible to help determine if any strategy changes need to be made. 

For example, the key results for our objectives above could look like:

  • Streamlining certifications for members
    • Create a landing page/website outlining certification requirements 
    • Increase the number of times credentialing is reviewed 
    • Hire at least two new staff to process applications
  • Increase association membership by X%
    • Host at least two free webinars in Q1
    • Create a new marketing funnel for potential members
    • Achieve target cost per acquisition spend on paid advertising
  • Hit $X amount in non-dues revenue
    • Identify two new non-dues revenue models
    • Create an email campaign promoting the new model
    • Hire one sales staff to support model

It’s also important to note that OKR goals need to be specific in terms of time. Whether you’re using it personally or as a larger team initiative, setting a specific timeline such as 90 days, will help track and reassess data more often.  

SMART Goals 101

S.M.A.R.T goal setting is a popular framework popularized by George Doran in 1981. In an article at the time, he outlined that successful goals needed to follow a formula of being specific, measurable, assignable, realistic and time-related. 

Some of the letters have changed meaning over time. The “A,” for example, has been reinterpreted as “attainable” in recent iterations. Similarly, the “T,” can be interpreted as time-bound, encouraging you to set a target for completion. These changes in interpretation simply allow for more flexibility when tailoring the SMART method to your needs. 

What are SMART goals?

  • S-pecific: The specificity of a goal can take two forms – both in the goal itself and the process of achieving it. You should outline a few different factors such as a detailed outcome of your goal, when the deadline will be, where you will be doing the work, why you’re doing it and who will be your accountability partner should you need one. 
  • M-easurable: Data is always going to be your friend with goal setting. Your metrics should be binary and simple – i.e. If you have a savings goal, the amount of money you saved. They can also be qualitative – i.e. if your association is trying to determine the success of an event, ask for reviews and feedback. (But even then, consider measurable outcomes when you can, such as NPS scores or ratings.) 
  • A-ttainable: The attainability aspect of a goal is often a challenge because goals are meant to be ambitious. With that being said, your SMART goal should be achievable within the given timeframe, which is one way to help dial in your goals. Remember, goal setting is an ongoing process and finding early success will be critical to keeping you motivated so start small and move on to more ambitious goals. 
  • R-elevant: Goals should have some significance to either your personal or professional life in order for them to be motivational. For association professionals, consider your organizational goals. Is there a specific certification you need to move up the ladder? Is there a skill set the organization needs that you can learn? Setting goals that have an impact on your daily life is key. 
  • T-imely: A common reason that goals fail is we either forget about them or simply never find the time to do them. The timely section of a SMART goal is your deadline. How much time are you giving yourself to accomplish this goal and what are some milestone achievements you can set along the way? 

Example SMART Goals

It’s important to note that not everyone will be able to write out a SMART goal without first putting in some work. A good place to start is with a vague goal that then becomes more specific as it passes through each letter of the framework. 

For example: 

I would like to get my CAE certification. 

While this is a fine goal, without any framework, it can be hard to achieve it. 

The SMART version of this goal would look something like this:

Specific Goal: 

Pass CAE test. 

Measurable Steps:

  • Step 1: Study at least three times a week for one hour or more.
  • Step 2: Join a study group in my area.
  • Step 3: Take at least two practice tests before the test date.
  • Step 4: Interview at least two CAE certified professionals for advice.


In order to sit for the CAE exam, association professionals need to meet specific requirements and standards of conduct. As long as you fit within those eligibility requirements, then yes, CAE certification is attainable. 


CAE certification is an important step for advancing my career and can open doors to new opportunities. 


Check the exam schedule first. From there, choose an attainable testing date and use that as your goal. CAE testing schedules are available online with dates often landing in December and May. Setting a specific test date and study timeline can ensure you’re prepared. 


When choosing which method works best for you, it really depends on the amount of support you need, how you visualize things and the outcome you’re looking for. Additionally, consider the timeframe and scope of the goal as this could also impact the method you choose. 


Both OKR and SMART goals are similar in the sense of their specificity and the tracking used to quantify whether or not a goal is successful. For example, if your association has a specific membership or revenue goal, you can easily find and track that data. Also, they both generally have timelines that make it easy to focus on them for a given period. 


One of the major differences between the two goal-setting frameworks is their scope. SMART goals are often used by the individual because they can be short-term  – i.e. save money, lose weight, prepare for a specific exam.

OKR goals on the other hand generally have far-reaching implications for an organization and can change the way day-to-day operations are run. 

Also, while SMART goals should have an attainability aspect, as in you should be able to achieve it, OKR goals can be larger scale and aspirational – not necessarily achievable within the next quarter or even year.  

Using the “Wheel of Life” to Help Find Your Goals

Both SMART and OKR goals are often focused on the professional aspect of things, but your goals can take a more holistic approach as well. One example we included in our goal template download is the Wheel of Life. This tool is designed to help you visualize and assess your work-life balance. 

You should divide your wheel into eight categories that can include things like your family, health, finances and education. From there, you can evaluate each area giving it a rating from 0 to 10 based on how much time is being devoted to these areas, giving you a visual representation of where you’re spending your time.

Ask yourself, are you satisfied with these ratings? Are there any areas you can improve? What activities can you do to help increase the time spent in the areas you want the most? 

Should You Set Goals for Your Association?

While many of the goal setting methods mentioned above are aimed at personal development and growth, for associations looking to make the most of their efforts for the new year, setting organizational goals is an integral part of success. 

According to a recent Inc. article, one step many organizations are missing during the goal-setting process is finding the connection between large-scale goals and a staffer’s day-to-day life. 

“They forget that for many employees, there's no clear connection between the work that they do and sweeping, company-wide ambitions. You can almost hear the inner monologue down the reporting chain: ‘Sure, it's nice to be included in company strategy talks, but how do I contribute to all of this?’”

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As an association, ensuring organization-wide goals are broken down into smaller steps or benchmarks can help achieve key results as outlined in the OKR model, for example. Outside of helping with the success rate of the goal, some of the other benefits include: 

  • Makes collaboration easier: In the era of remote work, completing projects in a group setting can be a challenge. However, small teams can still do a lot, especially when the scope of the work is specific.  
  • Improves timeline: As mentioned above, SMART goals should always be time-based. Whether your team is setting new goals every quarter or annually, reevaluating these goals during team meetings and huddles can help ensure work is always on track. 
  • Reduces scope: Conquering a large project can always seem overwhelming. However, breaking that project into bite-sized tasks, which is a part of goal setting, can help teams handle even the largest undertaking. 
  • Staffer satisfaction: As organizations continue to focus on satisfaction (it’s a major component of retention), pointing out how they contributed to the overall success of that goal is critical. During your next one-on-one or performance review, managers should point out these contributions and open the door for staffers to suggest goals for the organization as well. 

In addition to setting company-wide goals, integrating goal setting into the culture of an organization is also key. Associations should be invested in the wellbeing of their staffers and members, which is why doing periodic check-ins and assistance with goal setting can go a long way to improving overall culture. 

According to an article from Align on how to use OKRs, “OKRs are dynamic and aspirational. They can change as quarters move along to incorporate new information. They allow for a process of continuous refinement and improvement.” 

As opposed to being a short-term process to reach goals, they are an adjustable and long-term commitment to growth for staffers. “They are a living blueprint for the direction of the organization and the collective efforts of every individual.”

Complement Your Goals with Habits  

Although the focus of our guide has been on goal setting, it’s important to note that goals can sometimes put unnecessary stress on people – especially if they are not met. So, as you set your goals and outline all the steps you’ll be taking in the coming months, it’s also important to begin setting healthy habits. 

In James Clear’s book, “Atomic Habits,” he outlines the power of small changes and improvements. Even if it’s just 1 percent, that change can lead to huge growth over a lifetime, going beyond the scope of just a single goal. 

The bottom line is there are many different goal setting methods and choosing the one that gives you the best results is key. One consistent factor in all of these methods, however, is the process of data collection. Whether it’s a formal spreadsheet where you log the hours put into your goal or even something as simple as a journal, being present and aware of your goals and how you’re moving towards them can be all the difference when it comes to success.

Jose Triana
Post by Jose Triana
December 16, 2021
Jose Triana is a writer and creative focused on helping purpose-driven organizations learn and find value online. When he isn't working on content, you can catch him going for a run or resting with a good book.