It’s a new year. That means two things: one, the world didn’t end in the so-called “Mayan Apocalypse” of 21 December 2012; and two, since the world didn’t end it’s time to figure out some resolutions for the New Year. Perhaps a good one is not worrying about Mayan Apocalypses or Aztec Apocalypses or whatever the next apocryphal apocalypse might happen to be! At least that one has a chance of being kept.
Of course, as we all know the problem with New Year’s resolutions is that they never last long anyway; indeed, in most cases a New Year’s resolution has about as much likelihood of coming true as the latest predicted Apocalypse. Even when we move from the realm of resolutions, which tend to be fairly vague, to the more specific area of goals, we don’t see a significantly greater success rate.
The major problem most people have with setting goals is that they don’t take the time to really think through what they want to accomplish. They fall back on the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) formula, and then wonder why it didn’t work. While the formula is a good mnemonic, the mnemonic doesn’t really tell you how to use it.
The trick is to start at the end: what are you *really* trying to accomplish? When someone says they want to “get in shape,” do they mean run 2 miles? A marathon? Bicycle? Play tennis? Lose weight? When a business says it wants to ship a product, again, what is the outcome they are seeking? Who will buy it? Why would they want it?
It’s important, therefore, to describe how the world will be different if you accomplish your goal. By fleshing out that description, you can then identify which pieces you can control and which ones you can’t. You can write a novel, but you can’t force any given publisher to accept it. However, you can engage in behaviors that will make it more likely (researching appropriate publishing houses, investigating agents, getting advice from published authors, researching the steps to get a novel published in the first place!, etc). This will develop into your strategy: a series of steps that move you toward your goal. Those strategic steps will often turn into smaller goals along the way. That’s great: it helps you manage and track your progress.
The time element comes in when you start planning how and when you will execute the steps. You can also define trigger conditions that will cue you to work on your goal: “on Monday after I finish my coffee I will…”
Don’t try to keep all your goal directed behavior in your head: calendar entries, checklists, etc, are all good tools for keeping track of what you should be doing when. Indeed, just the act of writing out your goals at the start of the year can help you focus on them. Silly as it sounds, we tend to not believe ourselves if we don’t write down the goals. The act of writing is what moves us from dreaming to doing. While the complexity and number of people involved will vary depending on whether you are writing out an individual or a business goal, the process is fundamentally the same.
It’s important, by the way, to not set too many goals. If you overload yourself with goals, you will fragment your attention, and that may well make it hard to focus on work or make you short-tempered: you’re using your brain power to manage all your goals and have nothing left to resist the urge to snap at that irritating co-worker. 3-4 large scale goals are usually as much as you want: remember that the process of designing your goal strategy means that a few big goals can generate a lot of little goals!
The challenge is thinking big and simultaneously being realistic about the commitments on your time and energy. The best goals strike a balance between the two.
Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author, and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. Steve is the author of “The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development,” published by McGraw-Hill, and a contributing author to volume one of “Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play.” Steve’s latest book, “Organizational Psychology for Managers,” is due out from Springer in 2013. For more information, or to sign up for Steve’s monthly newsletter, visit www.7stepsahead.com. You can also contact Steve at 978-298-5189 or firstname.lastname@example.org