How do you go from idea to implementation? By setting goals.
In your personal life and at work, goals give you direction. They allow you to split projects into manageable pieces, and they help you hold yourself accountable along the way.
But setting goals is only the first step. More than nine in 10 people who set goals for the new year never achieve them.
If you want to actually accomplish your goals, you can’t just think of the finish line. You need to set yourself up to reach it, which means strategizing how you’ll run the race.
What’s the best way to do that? By setting some ground rules for yourself:
1. Setting Goals the SMART Way
Setting any sort of goal is better than nothing, but you can set yourself up to succeed by keeping the acronym “SMART” in mind. A SMART goal is:
Whatever your goal is, you need to know when you’ve achieved it. The more specifics you give yourself, the better.
Say that you’re saving money with the goal of buying a new car. How much money, exactly, do you need? Are you willing to defer some of the cost through financing, or would you prefer to make a cash purchase. When do you hope to make the purchase?
Your specific goal might be, “I want to save $5,000 for a down payment by December 2020.” You’ve given yourself a yardstick by which to measure your progress.
A goal can be specific but not measurable. You might want to become a better father in the new year — but by what standards will you judge yourself?
Those standards are obvious for goals like saving money. But for something like becoming a better father, you’ll need to come up with proxies.
If you’re worried that you don’t spend enough time with your son or daughter, maybe you want to measure the time you spend per week with him or her. If you haven’t been giving your child the help he or she needs with schoolwork, perhaps improvements in his or her grades is how you’ll know you’ve been a better parent.
Specific and measurable goals aren’t necessarily attainable. If you’re trying to get fit, good on you. Realize, though, that you probably won’t be able to run a marathon by the end of next week.
Shoot high, but beware: A recent study by the University of Basel found that people who set attainable goals for themselves enjoy greater wellbeing than those who set unreasonably high ones. The reason, according to researchers, is that a sense of control over outcomes results in greater life satisfaction.
Your goals should always map to a greater plan. Why bother to lose weight, for example, if your body mass is already at a healthy mark? If revenue is your company’s greatest need, then don’t set a goal to deck out your company’s office.
Relevance is also important for two less obvious reasons: If a goal doesn’t actually matter to you, you’ll struggle to stick with it. And at least in the context of workplace goals, you’ll struggle to get team buy-in or resources if it’s not clearly relevant to your mission.
Although attaching a timeline to your goal does make it more specific, timeliness deserves a special shoutout: If you have no deadline for achieving your goal, you will struggle to make time for it.
Think through what the actual work of the goal will look like. Say you’d like to lose 25 pounds: Medical experts suggest aiming to lose 1-2 pounds per week, which means you should expect to reach your goal in 12-25 weeks.
Be patient with yourself. We’d all like to achieve our goals faster, but setting unrealistic expectations is not the solution. You may burn out or, in the context of the weight-loss example, even endanger your health.
You know that setting goals is important, and you know what a good one looks like. But your time is limited; the next step is to choose: What do you most want to achieve, and how do you actually do it?
Every goal has an opportunity cost. Working toward one means that you can’t use that time to do something else. And so, the next few points will focus on how to achieve the right goals.
2. Think about Others
Few real achievements involve just one person. Be a team player: Before deciding to spend weeks or months working toward something, think about others.
It’s important to keep your ears open. Say you learn that you’re not the only member of your family who’d like to get fit in the new year. Prioritizing that goal is a good idea because it benefits you both: Having an accountability partner makes you both more likely to hit the gym after a hard day.
3. Know Your ‘Why’
As great as it is to take others into account when setting goals, your first priority should be just that: yours.
To maximize both your time and your chances of achieving a goal, it’s important to stay inspired.
Think deeper than “earning more money” or “being healthier.” Do you want to build a better life for your family? Is seeing your kids graduate college what gets you out of bed every day?
In professional life, this is particularly key. Mike Novotny, CEO of clinical trial software company Medrio, gets through the hard days by thinking back to his mission is to cure disease and save lives. Medrio won’t cure every disease, Novotny realizes, but he does believe it’s possible for the industry to do so.
Your “why” doesn’t have to be changing the world in order to be a worthwhile goal. But it should be something that you believe in, stand a good chance of achieving, and are able to break into specific steps.
4. Look at the Long Term
Short-term goals have value, but they should really be seen as steps toward long-term goals.
Use legacy goals to organize your operations. Challenge yourself: Can you map every item on your calendar to one of those three long-term goals? What about your task list, purchases, and investments?
What might legacy goals look like in your personal life? Think about things that would actually alter your life trajectory. If you want to improve access to education, perhaps starting an online learning company should be one of this year’s legacy goals.
5. Put First Things First
Once you have your big picture and annual priorities in mind, you need to drill down: How are you going to get there?
Start with a simple question, suggests Say Insurance’s Erin Thompson: “What do I want to achieve today?” Without a specific plan of action for the day, it’s all too easy to get caught up in the little things.
The truth is, most of what you do in a day probably doesn’t get you closer to your goals. Things like answering emails, cooking meals, and commuting have to happen, but they’re best seen as chores rather than steps forward.
6. Be Humble
Whether you’re working on a solo goal or one that involves a whole team, recognize that others’ ideas can help you achieve it faster and more effectively.
Look beyond things like age and job title. Teenager Greta Thunberg has broken through to more people on climate change than many scientists. Mahatma Gandhi was a small-time lawyer before he helped India overcome British rule.
Always assume that the person you’re interacting with has something valuable to tell you. Be open with people about what you want to achieve, and humbly accept their input.
7. Give Yourself Some Credit.
Most goals worth setting are achieved in phases. If you can’t see and feel yourself making progress toward them, warns Teamwork CEO Peter Coppinger, you’ll struggle to achieve what you set out to do.
When setting goals, think about the waypoints you expect to see along the way.
Say you hope to become a CEO someday. You can’t expect to leap straight to the top, so consider what roles you might want to hold first.
As you work your way up, celebrate those wins. When you earn your first management role, go visit a national park you’ve always wanted to see. Once you become a VP, take that European vacation. After you’re promoted to the c-suite, reward yourself with a cruise.
Setting goals is good, but achieving them is even better. Choose wisely, listen carefully to those around you, work hard, and remember to celebrate the wins along the way.
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Featured photo credit: NORTHFOLK via unsplash.com