When we think of goals, they’re usually the big, audacious, life-changing ones. Like getting that promotion, launching your company, or penning a best-seller.
But effective goal setting isn’t about the end result, but about learning to be 1% better every single day.
Sounds easy, right? But consistently keeping up with your goals and sticking to your daily schedule is no small task. To help understand what it takes, I reached out to hundreds of RescueTime users and asked how they set, track, and build on their daily goals.
Why it’s so important to set daily goals
The easiest way to reach your big goals is to break them down into smaller chunks. Not only does this turn massive, scary, overachieving goals into manageable and exciting tasks, but it allows you to see progress, build your momentum, and fight procrastination.
Author and Dilbert creator Scott Adams, calls this setting up systems. With systems, you know the concrete processes you need to take every day rather than feeling overwhelmed by some huge goal.
A good day is made up of a bunch of these small tasks. So whether that’s practicing a skill, completing part of a larger project, or hitting a daily quota, with the right daily goals, you’re building momentum and getting closer to reaching your larger goals every single day.
Speaking to RescueTime users, we started to see specific trends come up around why setting daily goals is so important to their success:
They show your progress (even when you don’t think you’ve made any)
For one user, setting daily goals is a chance to feel more accountable, while also reminding them that they are doing enough each day:
“I feel more confident when I look back week-by-week and see that what I remember as unproductive periods were actually baby steps.”
Daily goals bring a level of control and prioritization to your day
While for another, setting daily goals brings a level of control to their otherwise hectic days and helps them to prioritize what work really needs to be done:
“I feel more in control. More organized. I can easily see (and quickly visualize) my progress and recognize how much I’ve accomplished (even when it doesn’t feel like a lot).”
They give concrete steps for what needs to be done
Many people mentioned feeling more confident and procrastinating less thanks to their daily goals giving them a clear action plan for the day. Even if they didn’t hit their goals, taking the time to write them down and prioritize them helped set their intentions for the day.
“‘Plans are nothing, planning is everything’. It’s ok if plans change, but without plans, you don’t have any control over whether you get done what you need/want to get done.”
Small wins build momentum
For many users, the most important aspect of setting daily goals was how they help bring momentum into their days. Breaking up large tasks into small, daily goals helped them get more “wins” that in turn boosted their momentum:
“Write down everything you need to do, even if it’s simple. Completing goals will give you a boost, and you’ll simply feel more productive, which in turn can motivate you to attack the bigger or more complex goals.”
The baseline: How most people currently set daily goals
Despite knowing that it’s important to set daily goals, 65% of the people we spoke to said they are actively trying to get better at setting them.
Setting daily goals is a powerful tool. Yet, most people feel they don’t do a very good job at them. In fact, 65% of the people we spoke to said they were actively trying to get better at setting them.
When do people write out their daily goals?
Are we more successful if we plan in advance or if we write our goals right before we start working? According to our research, 31.5% write out their goals for day that morning, while 24% do it the night before.
How many daily goals do most people set?
The average person sets 4 goals. However, those who set their goals either the night before or further in advance were more likely to set more goals (5+), while those who were consistently successful set a lower goal (3).
How successful are most people at reaching their daily goals?
Only 3% of people we spoke to said they always hit their goals, while 30% said most of the time. The remaining ⅔ only hit them half of the time or less (with one person saying they were “hopeless”).
How do people set and track daily goals?
36% use a pen and paper to-do list, while 43% use a digital tool. 15% either just try to remember them or don’t try to track their daily goals at all.
The best practices of people who successfully hit their daily goals
Despite only a very small percentage of people saying they consistently hit their goals, those that did showed a few common traits:
They always write their goals in advance
No one who said they wrote their daily goals in the morning said they consistently hit them all by the end of the day. And even looking at those who said they hit their goals “most of the time”, those who wrote them the night before or further in advance were 11% more likely to be successful than those who wrote them in the morning.
They only set an average of 3 goals per day
While the average daily goal-setter had 4 or 5 daily goals, people who consistently hit them set a smaller number each day (3). As one respondent noted: “Start simple. Even just one a day. Then build it up. It’s better to hit a small number most days than never hit a large list and feel disheartened.”
They focus on action, not planning
Almost every person who consistently hit their daily goals said that they tried to keep the practice of actually setting goals as minimal as possible.
“Just do it. Any sort of goal setting will help you organize your thoughts and make you less anxious. Don’t overthink or pre-optimize it.”
They use daily goals as guardrails, not a set of rules
Surprisingly, those people who were more likely to hit all their goals were also the most relaxed about not hitting them. Instead, they said that their goals were simply a guide for the day, pushing them in the right direction but not dictating where they should end up.
“Make them small, realize you don’t have to hit them all every day. They’re goals, not absolute requirements.”
Additionally, they put less pressure on themselves to always hit their goals:
“Slipping up? Getting distracted? That’s okay, just get back on track. Quitting? That’s not okay, that’s the only time you will truly fail.”
What gets in the way of hitting your daily goals?
Lastly, we can’t really talk about setting goals without talking about what gets in the way of hitting them.
Our days are filled with tasks and interruptions that threaten our attention. But when we spoke to users about what specifically got in the way of hitting their goals, it became clear that it was mostly external forces doing the damage.
Distractions were the biggest blocker, with 48% of people saying they get in the way of hitting their daily goals. While a lack of focus or motivation affected 24%.
Despite seeing a connection between a lower number of daily goals and higher levels of success, only 16% felt they are overscheduling themselves and less than 7% said they were setting goals that were too big.
Overall, it seems like if you want to consistently hit your daily goals, creating a work environment free of distractions is one of the best things you can do.
Daily goals keep us in check
They let us know where we want to get each day and help us see progress when we feel like we’re just spinning our wheels. But they’re not easy to keep up with.
If you want to get better at hitting your daily goals, our research says you should follow these 5 steps:
- Keep it short (maximum 3–4 daily goals)
- Write them out the night before
- Allow time for extra work (i.e. don’t schedule your entire day)
- Use whatever tool you’re most comfortable with
- Set up a distraction-free environment