People with clearly-defined goals are potentially successful people, mainly because there’s so little competition. If you don’t have a plan of your own then you’re going to be a part of someone else’s. Here are some golden rules of goal-setting.

Rule No. 1. Goals need to be specific. Unclear goals are just wishes. Saying that you’re going to improve your communication skills is meaningless unless you decide exactly the steps you’re going to take, such as determining which courses would be most beneficial in your particular circumstances, which books you’re going to buy (and read), and how you intend to increase your vocabulary. Confused or unclear goals breed apathy and disinterest. A person trying to reach a definite goal will exert that extra bit of effort; a person without a definite goal doesn’t have the same incentive.

Rule No.2. Goals without timetables aren’t goals at all. You have to decide when you’re going to enroll in those courses, when you’re going to buy and read those books, and how many words a week you’re going to add to your vocabulary. There’s no point aiming at something unless you intend to pull the trigger.

Rule No. 3. Goals need to be realistic. Ambition is a good thing, and you should have to stretch a bit to reach your goals. But if your short-term goals are set unreasonably high you will become a victim of constant tension and frustration. It’s always expectations that cause frustrations, so keep your short-term goals practical. Aim high enough to stretch yourself but not so high that you give up hope after a try or two. Goals that are difficult, but not impossible, will keep you moving in the right direction and will gratify rather than disappoint. Be realistic: set a reasonable goal, and when it’s reached, set another one a little higher. This keeps you going. For example, it would be fine for a young lawyer just called to the bar to set a short-term goal of getting a promotion to the next employment classification within a year. It would be totally unrealistic for the goal to be reaching partnership without having to go through the intervening steps.

Rule No. 4. You need both short-term and long-term goals. Long-term goals, of course, can be set much higher than short-term ones; but they should never be set so high that they can’t be attained by successfully reaching a series of compatible short-term goals. You need long-term goals to maintain your momentum and discipline. Long-term goals also keep you from being frustrated by short-term setbacks. If that young lawyer doesn’t, for whatever reason, get that first promotion as scheduled, it needn’t frustrate the long-term goal of becoming a partner because there is lots of time left to get back on track. Long-term goals should always be capable of being broken down into short-term steps. Reaching goals on time is not always easy. When setbacks start to get you down, set some simpler short-term goals and work your way back up. Remember, too, that your objectives, not events, should set your agenda. Suppose that young lawyer takes maternity leave for a year. She should not abandon her goal of becoming a partner; she should simply re-set the timetable and the short-term goals as required. Never take your eye off your potential. Most achievements start out as dreams; and obstacles are what you see when you take your eye off your goal. It’s usually a good idea to reward yourself occasionally along the way.

Rule No. 5. Goals should be personal. Wise people don’t waste time and energy on pursuits for which they are not suited; and they are even wiser still who resolutely follow the thing that they do best. No goal should ever involve topping someone else (even if you attain it, how do you know the other person isn’t simply failing?), but all goals should be about topping yourself. As a matter of fact, your number one goal should always be to become the best possible version of yourself. If you’re having trouble developing a framework for your goal-setting, try planning 90-day segments over a three-year period. Ask yourself what has to happen over the next three years to prevent you from looking back and saying, “I wish I had….”, or “I wish I hadn’t”. It might help to think back over the past year or two and identify your successes and setbacks. Pretend it’s three years from now and you’ve been able to turn time back to today. What would you change? Consider: health, free time, career, earnings, financial cushion, and relationships (some people have too many; others not enough). In the meantime, pretend you’re going to have a press conference ninety days from now to discuss your activities. Think about what you’ll want to say. Plan and act accordingly.

The most important rule of all: Always know exactly what you’d do if you lost your job tomorrow.