Every day in my class, we talk about our goals for the day. I've learned to guide my students in identifying goals they can control, as opposed to goals that others control. For example, they may want the class to get a whole class award. But they can't control the whole class. They can only control their own choices. So a goal of completing their work or staying on task is a more useful goal.
A recent comment on my other blog, Writer's Wavelength, got me thinking about this. The commenter posted that her goal in writing a novel wasn't to get published but to finish the novel. This makes sense. There's a lot of factors involved in getting published that you can't control. But you can control whether you finish your novel (barring unforeseen acts of God, as they say).
Setting goals that work means thinking about what you want or hope for and then identifying the parts of it that you have the power to control. That way, you set goals that you have the power to achieve regardless of external forces. I may want to get published or find an agent or get a job, but I am not the publisher or the agent or the one who makes the hiring decision. So my goals need to be the parts I control - writing every day, finishing tasks, putting together a strong resume, making contacts.
Some of this sounds very mundane and practical, but there's a larger philosophical element in play. "You can do anything you want if you just work hard enough" is a lie. However, even if life is full of stuff outside your control, you still have some power. You can do things to set yourself up for success. As the Tao says, do your work and then step back.