Set realistic goals that will help you achieve your dreams.

By Carla Goodman

Some entrepreneurs achieve whatever they set their sights on, while others fail miserably. Does one have a more exciting product, a better marketing plan, more working capital? Sometimes. But it's more likely that entrepreneurs who succeed know how to set smart business goals.

J. J. Stupp regularly set goals for TableTalk, her St. Louis-based business which produces decks of cards to inspire conversation on various topics, from sports or science to the Bible. Each card presents a fascinating fact and poses an open-ended question to stimulate conversation. She sells her cards in 2,500 retail outlets across the country.

"Goals are vital to the work plan of any small business," says Stupp. "Writing down short-term and long-term goals for my business helps me stay focused. That's really important when I'm involved with multiple projects."

To start setting goals for your small business, follow these six important strategies:

1. Set your sights. Start by identifying what you want to accomplish. Is it getting a start-up loan or generating publicity for your business? Knowing what you want to achieve will start you thinking about what you'll need to get the job done. If hiring your first employee is high on your list, you'll need to start thinking about writing a job description, contacting an employment agency, creating a help-wanted ad, and coming up with job interview questions.

2. Write them down. The most effective way to reach your goals is to write them down. Putting pen to paper "helps imprint the goals in your mind and helps you to stay focused," says Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Simon & Schuster, $14, 800-223-2336).

3. Make goals measurable. The key to reaching your goals is to start with a quantifiable list, such as "By March 1, I'll have completed writing my business plan." Now you can identify specific actions to achieve these goals, such as "I'll spend four hours each Thursday afternoon writing my business plan."

4. Take incremental steps. Setting short-term goals makes your long-term goals easier to reach. For example, if you want to increase production by 40 percent this year, break that goal down into smaller segments--say, 10 percent each quarter. In setting short-term, incremental goals, Covey suggests asking yourself, "What could I do this week that would have the greatest positive impact on my long-term goals?"

5. Set realistic deadlines. "Schedule enough time to reach a goal, otherwise you'll get stressed and give up your goal-setting program," suggests Stupp. "You might need to adjust your schedule because a project takes longer than you anticipated. That's all part of adjusting to the ebb and flow of your business."

6. Reward yourself! Setting and sticking to your goals is hard work, so pat yourself on the back as you achieve each goal. Treat yourself to a mini-vacation, or a special night out on the town with your spouse. Positive reinforcements such as these will keep you energized and on target to complete your next goal-setting plans. "Celebrate as you reach each major goal. You deserve it," says Stupp. "Then you're ready to buckle down and start again."