Goal Setting – Means goals vs End Goals

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Have you ever set yourself a goal and then got bogged down in trying to achieve it? You may be setting the wrong type of goals.

Understanding the difference between means goals and end goals is the key. Very often the two types of goals get mixed up. An end goal should be something that brings you fulfilment, the means goals are the steps you need to take to get you to the end goal. When we focus only on the specifics of how to get something rather than the ‘what’ and the ‘why’, we can get blocked and frustrated.

Often, we set goals based on what we know right now and then what we can see as the next logical step. However, this can keep us narrow minded. If we set a goal based on the end result, we want our brains are then free to find multiple ways of achieving those goals.

As an example, say you want to progress in your career, you want a promotion, you may focus on working harder, staying later, going to certain networking events. To a certain extent that goal is out of your hands to a certain extent because it depends on other people, the type of company you work for, your boss or the opportunities available within the company you are in. If you instead focused on the end goal, your pathway to attaining a promotion might look very different. The end goal then might be “I want to reach my full potential within the environment I am in”. In defining the goal in this way, you are opening up your options and your brain is then able to tap into all sorts of inspiration to help you reach it and you are more likely to feel fulfilled rather than frustrated. That goal is portable, you can take it anywhere: you can reach your full potential within your environment regardless of whether someone rewards you for it, you can reach your full potential within your environment whether it is at company A, B or another route.

Separating means goals from end goals.
There are a couple of exercises that can help you work out your end goals and separate them from your means goals. One is based on the Japanese business practice called the 5 whys (originally aimed at getting to the root cause of a problem, but it can be used in goal setting also). The process involves looking at your goal and asking yourself a series of why’s until you reach a conclusion as to why this is your goal. It helps separate the two types of goals out from each other:

  • I want a promotion (why)
  • Because I want more money (why)
  • Because I want to travel (why)
  • Because I want a life of experience and adventure…. (Your end goal)

  • I want to leave my job (why)
  • Because it isn’t flexible enough (why – is this important)
  • Because I am not around enough for my children and I feel I am not performing as a parent (why – is this important)
  • Because I want to be present for my children as they grow up (end goal)

The end goal should always be the starting point, all the other goals above become means goals. The end goal is the one that will keep you motivated along the way and help your creativity and inspiration flow in order for you to achieve that life of adventure and experience or find the job that creates the freedom and choice around working hours.

You can bring this mode of goal setting into the workplace which also works really well in a team setting:

  • We need to call 10 clients a day (why)
  • Because we want to win new business (why)
  • Because we want to grow as a team (why is this important)
  • Because we want to open up more opportunities for team members to progress within the business (why is that important)
  • Because the team members have end goals they want to achieve (end goal)


  • We need to call 10 clients a day (why)
  • Because we want to win new business (why)
  • Because we know the product, we are selling really helps people (why is this important)
  • Because it is important to me/us that I /we work in a place where what we do or sell helps people (end goal)

By stepping away from the means goal – call 10 clients a day - the end goal becomes apparent and the daily task has a purpose that is greater than itself, that 10 client calls a day may turn into other creative ways of winning new business.

Exercise two:

This exercise revolves around three questions and helps you really define what your end goals are. Once you have defined them you can then put things in place to help you achieve them (the means goals).

Take a piece of paper and divide it into three columns. In the first column write the heading Experiences, in the middle column write the heading Growth and in the final column write the heading Contribution. When you break goals down into these three areas it really helps you cover all the important elements of what is likely to fulfil you.




Think about how you want to feel, where you want to go, what you want to see, what you want to do

What do you need to learn, who do you need to become in order to have those experiences

How will you contribute to the world? Your community (local, company you work for, family etc).

(E.g of a work based one)
I want to speak on stage at the next company conference

I want to overcome my fear of speaking in public


I want to deliver real insights on xyz to the business that will help us to grow


I will go on a public speaking course

I want to become a thought leader in my field of expertise and offer knowledge to help others in my field

(Other examples)

I want to travel to Kenya

I want to learn a new piece of information every week

I want to visit my elderly neighbour on a weekly basis to check in with her

When you look at goals in this way you can then start to find multiple pathways to achieving them.

The brain’s contribution to goal setting
If you start with the end goal, you will increase your chances of succeeding. The brain thrives on end goal setting because of the way it is wired to respond. The part of your brain that creates emotion is called the amygdala; part of its job is to evaluate the degree to which the goal is important to you. The frontal lobe of your brain then defines the specifics of what the goal entails. These two areas work together to keep you focused on, and moving towards, your goal and help you ignore the behaviours and situations that move you away. Your brain structure constantly changes (through a process called neuroplasticity) to keep itself optimised to reaching that goal. Of course there are other parts of the brain at play which may try to tell you that you can’t achieve the goal (your fear centre, the amygdala again!) because of engrained beliefs you have about yourself (usually from childhood) which is why the goals that you are more emotionally attached to, the ones you feel, the ones that will fulfil you, are more likely to be achieved.

In conclusion the brain needs to know how important a goal is to you to help you adopt behaviours and spot opportunities to bring you closer to achieving that goal. If you identify what you want and why you want it (the end goal) first, you are more likely to be motivated to achieving it. The brain will help you find multiple ways of reaching your goal. The skill lies in separating out the end goal from the means goals first.

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