The average person spends 80,000 hours working over the course of his or her life. That’s a lot of time. Those hours can build a career that you can be proud of or it can build a life that leaves you wanting. No matter what your situation, setting goals can improve your performance and feelings of satisfaction.
In this article, I’m going to remind you why goals matter and walk you through a step-by-step process for setting goals. I also offer practical tips to help you achieve your goals well after everyone else has given up on their new year’s resolutions!
A pleasant byproduct of achieving your goals is that you will inspire others in the process. Have you noticed that when you hang around people who are achieving meaningful things in their lives and careers, it inspires you to do the same?
The Benefit of Having a Goal
The research is clear. People who set goals achieve more with higher levels of satisfaction than those who don’t. The alternative is to just “go with the flow” or perhaps, wait for someone else to set a goal that you can latch on to. Those behaviors result in your missing out on the benefits of a goal-driven life.
Learn more about achieving your goals in 2017 from Ravi Raman in his MPUG webinar, How to Achieve Your Big Goals in 2017 (and Inspire Others to Do the Same) available on-demand and earn one PMI PDU in the Leadership category.
For example, research on thousands of students dating back to the 1970s has suggested that those who set goals exhibit more persistence, creativity and risk-taking in their efforts. Studies in numerous fields show that those who set goals are more satisfied and proud of their accomplishments. We also know from the work of noted expert on influence and motivation Robert Cialdini that once you commit to something, you will act in a manner that is consistent with that commitment. A goal is a powerful commitment that will align your actions in a productive direction.
What this means is that setting a goal sets forth behaviors (conscious and unconscious) that support achievement of that goal. It’s like having a tailwind at your back pushing you forward. Who wouldn’t want that? The key is to set your goals well. Let me show you how.
SMART is a mnemonic that stands for:
It’s a common method for structuring goals, particularly in business environments. Peter Drucker popularized this approach in the 1950s and it’s stuck around ever since. It’s simple and effective for personal or business-oriented goals. Let’s look at the components of a S.M.A.R.T. goal.
A specific goal is tangible. It embodies clarity and focus. For example, a goal of “get healthy” is opaque. A goal that states the following is specific: “Train and complete a 5K race in 2017 in fewer than 25 minutes, to improve my health and daily energy levels.”
Measures provide hard evidence that you have accomplished something. They provide feedback that you are progressing. Metrics are like your own personal GPS system. They show if you’re getting closer to your destination (or off track) and when you have finally arrived! Metrics for a fitness-related goal might include: bodyweight, body fat, running speed, running frequency, cumulative mileage and the longest distance of run. You might also include self-reported metrics such as “my energy level today” rated on a 0 to 10 scale.
Is your goal meaningful and challenging, yet achievable? Do you have the capacity to learn the skills and abilities to complete the goal, even if it takes a lot of effort? For example, if you have never run more than a mile before, and are suffering from a broken leg, a goal of running the 5K won’t be realistic. Yet, perhaps you could achieve another health-related goal by swimming or lifting weights despite your broken leg. Ensure that your chosen goal is within your realm of possibility given your current circumstances.
Your goal must direct you to specific results, not activities. The activities matter, but it’s the end goal — for example, “completing the 5K race in my desired time” — that is the focal point when setting a goal. Keep your eye on the prize. This will help you find the fastest and most efficient path to achieving your goal. What’s ironic, is that once you set a results-focused goal and have crafted your plan to achieve it, it is then crucial to focus on the process (not the outcome) for achieving the goal. This will make it easier to enjoy the process and not feel overwhelmed. In other words, enjoy the journey, but make sure you know where you are headed!
Have you noticed that deadlines spur you to action? The same is true for goals. Having a deadline is a key aspect of a S.M.A.R.T. goal. The ideal deadline is one that sparks a practical sense of urgency. Goals that are too distant will lose their power. Goals that are too proximal will be overwhelming and create stress. Choose a deadline (and set milestones along the way) that inspire you to action. In my coaching practice, I encourage clients to set challenging goals that are, ideally, no further than six months into the future with interim milestones and checkpoints along the way.
With a SMART goal in hand, your motivation will be running high, at least in the beginning. It’s no surprise that most gyms are packed in January but empty by March! The challenge most people face is consistent execution over the long term. Let’s talk about a few things you can do to improve your success rate. Nobody wants to rely on sustained willpower for achievement. After all, willpower is a finite resource. The good news is, you don’t have to.
Commit (Really Commit!) to Your Goal
Having a goal isn’t enough. Your goal needs to be worthy and meaningful, and you should have a stake in creating it. In a corporate setting, for example, goals are less meaningful when handed down to you by someone else. When you create the goal (or collaborate in creating the goal with others), there is more meaning. The underlying power of the goal depends on the meaning and importance you attribute to it, not what others have to say.
Why does your goal matter to you? How does your goal benefit others? If your answers to these two questions are clear and compelling, you know you have a strong goal. If not, rework the goal so that you feel a strong sense of ownership.
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
Research on “flow” states, where an individual is absorbed in his or her actions at a high level of performance, give us a clue into how to design optimal goals. Flow is most likely to arise in situations where tasks are challenging but not so hard that you will probably fail. It occurs in the space between guaranteed success and absolute defeat. When you’re in the flow, you experience effort without mental stress. Joy is a common and welcome byproduct. To get into the flow, you must set challenging goals and tasks that will push you beyond your comfort zone.
Focus on Your Near-term Impact
Long-term plans and visions are vital and important. BHAGs (big, hairy and audacious goals) are crucial to motivate individuals and teams. Yet, long-term goals often fail because our minds diminish the value of a long-term payoff, no matter how big it is. In such situations, procrastination replaces progress! As human beings, we just aren’t hard-wired to understand how near-term work can be worth a long-term reward. It’s the same reason why so many people have trouble saving money for retirement or sticking to a healthy eating habit!
Knowing that our minds work in this way, we should set goals that have a near-term impact and reward, even when they ladder-up to a bigger vision. For long-term goals break them down into smaller milestones. Create rewards that will come your way as you make progress. The closer in time we can expect to achieve something and reap the rewards, the more likely we are push through near-term challenges!
In research studies, when students are provided examples of high-performing project assignments before beginning their homework, the quality of their work output massively increases. It’s also a known technique for artists and athletes, to spend time with world-class performers to observe and learn the subtle methods that an expert applies to a craft.
This technique, called “modeling” by psychologists, is a powerful method to help anyone achieve a goal by raising the expected standard for what a great result is. For example, if you have a goal of growing your business, identify someone who has done what you are trying to do and spend time with them. Learn the tactics and strategies they apply. Understand, in detail, the results they achieved. Then go back to working on your business and see what breakthroughs you can produce.
Modeling happens by immersive learning from and about experts — through verbal and non-verbal means (after all, 93 percent of communication is non-verbal). Ideally, model others in person. However, you can also benefit by reading books and watching videos about people who have achieved success. Immerse yourself in examples of excellence to raise your own performance.
Get Professional Support
It’s no surprise that anyone who reaches a high level of performance in their field has someone (perhaps several people) they work with behind the scenes to help them. These advisors help them see blind spots, overcome challenges, offer feedback and provide built-in accountability. Coaches, mentors and trainers are all invaluable as tools to help you move past whatever stands in your way.
Research by Pricewaterhousecoopers and the International Coach Federation shows a staggering median return of seven times a company’s initial investment for businesses coaching. Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt and countless other leaders have worked with coaches in the past and see the value in working with one. Perhaps the right coach can help you achieve your New Year’s resolutions (and more) this year!
Among the Proud 9.2%
Goals work and they work best when they are SMART, meaningful, challenging and designed to provide near-term results and rewards. As you progress in pursuit of your goal, don’t forget to model and expose yourself to those who have been successful in doing what you aspire to do. If you feel the need for an added boost, hire a coach to help you out!
If you apply everything you have learned in this article, you will not be one of the 90.8 percent of people who fail to achieve their New Year’s resolutions. Instead, you will be among the proud 9.2 percent who do. In the process, your progress will motivate others. You will notice that those around you — at work and in life — will be inspired to reach higher and achieve more in their own lives.