Thursday, January 3, 2008

Goalsetting for the New Year

There are a lot of things that I learned & experienced in the corporate world that, in my opinion, should just stay there. But there were also a lot of things that helped me immensely, and one of those things is understanding goalsetting.

You may ask, “What’s to understand? You set a goal and then you go for it”. At the very basic level that’s true, but by really understanding the “how’s & why’s” of setting goals, you’ll be much more apt to actually set some goals in the first place and then actually achieve them, whether for financial freedom or anything else in your life. After all, we can set goals for any aspect of our lives: financial, personal, physical, spiritual, etc.

First, it’s important to understand why we should set goals at all. There are a lot of reasons: They give us clear & focused direction which enable us to make maximum use of our time (since we’re not wasting it doing something else that doesn’t really matter). Having goals makes us more enthusiastic about what we do since we know what we’re working for and can see our progress. And in seeing our progress and reaching our goals, our self-esteem, confidence, and belief in our God given abilities all increase. Studies have shown that people who use goal-setting effectively suffer less from stress and anxiety, concentrate better, and are happier and more satisfied with their lives.

All of those are great things, but in my mind, I think that the biggest single reason we need to set goals is because by doing so, we are defining what we view as success. Think about that for a minute. For the first 18 years of our lives, all of our goals are set & defined for us by our parents. We know what we are supposed to do, how much of it we’re supposed to do, and by what criteria we will be given an “A” (whether in school or at home). Then suddenly, we reach adulthood and all of those goals vanish and we’re on our own. We go to college, or the military, or the workforce and just kind of “go” into our lives. But what are we trying to accomplish? And how will we know when we’ve accomplished it?

If you don’t think that’s important, try asking someone you know that isn’t very happy with their lives to define for you what happiness looks like for them. Chances are, they would have no trouble telling you all of the reasons why they are not happy, but I’ll bet they would have some difficulty telling you specifically what it is that they want.

If you take a look at people who are successful and happy in life, what you’ll probably find is that they know what they want, they’ve defined it in some way, and that makes them happy even if they don’t have it yet. And by the way, it’s very possible that when they do get what they want, they might find out that it wasn’t everything that they thought it was, but that’s okay too, because at least then they know what they don’t want and can set new goals to take themselves in another direction.

So, we know that goals are important, and that there are a lot of desirable side effects by setting them for ourselves and working towards them. But before you run off and start defining your goals, there are 6 things that I would ask you take into consideration before you do, because as easy as the concept of setting goals might be, if it’s not done right it can not only be a waste of time, but can actually be a demoralizing experience.

1. Elements of a Goal
The first thing to understand is that a good goal – for anything - has 4 criteria that it must answer:

- Who?
- What?
- How much?
- By when?

Usually when we come up with goals we sometimes skip the “who” and go straight to the “what”, because that’s kind of the “meat” of the goal. Skipping the “who” usually doesn’t hurt, since we’re normally thinking of goals for ourselves which makes the “who” implied to be us. But if you’re setting goals for someone else, or goals that include someone else, be sure that it’s clear who the goal applies to.

More damaging is when we neglect to include the “how much?” and “by when?”, because without those we have inadvertantly built escape routes into the goal. Using me as an example, I weigh 210 lbs, which is about 20 lbs over my “ideal” weight. So maybe one of my goals would be this: “I’m going to lose some weight.” On the surface it sounds okay, but look how worthless it really is. By the way it was defined, if I lost 1 lb I would have technically “achieved” my goal, but I can promise you that losing 1 lb wasn’t my original intent. Just as important is the “by when?”, because in this case, I’ve given myself an unlimited amount of time to lose that 1 pound. I could lose it this week or 30 years from now, and again, by how it’s defined, I would have technically achieved success.

A better goal for the same thing might be this: “I will lose 20 lbs by the end of the year.” This goal is much better because it answers all 4 questions. I now have something very specific that I’m going to do, and I have a deadline to accomplish it in. Even so, it still might not be the best goal for me if I have a tendency to rationalize things. For instance, what if I started the year at 210 lbs with that goal, then chowed my way up to 220 lbs before getting serious and finishing the year at 200 lbs. If was a rationalizing sort of soul (which I can be), I could easily feel satisfied that I met my goal - I did lose 20 lbs after all - even though my original intent was to finish the year at 190. My point is that if slimming down to 190 was what I really wanted, it might have made more sense for me to make 190 lbs my goal in the first place. Whether or not you need to be that precise in your goals depends on whether or not you’re the type of person that would use a “loophole” to make yourself feel better.

2. Meeting the SMART Criteria
The “SMART” criteria sounds like one of those clever overused acronyms that get thrown around in the workplace (and it is), but it does actually serve a purpose when used with goalsetting because it’s a good sounding board to bounce your goals against. SMART stands for:


For each goal that you define for yourself, it’s a good idea to check it against each of the above. We’ve already talked about goals being specific, and if you answered all 4 of the goal criteria questions, any goal you came up with should already meet this. But the other 4 are just as important to meet.

Is your goal measurable? This one is pretty obvious, but don’t overlook it. If you can’t measure your goal, how will you know if you’ve met it? If there is no way to check the final outcome, there’s no way to see if you actually achieved you goal, no matter how noble the cause may be.

Is it achievable? You want your goals to have some “punch” to them if they’re going to make a difference, but you also want to be careful that you don’t set them so high that there isn’t a realistic chance of ever reaching them. Push yourself, but also give yourself a chance to succeed. If it turns out that reaching your goal was too easy, you can always make another one that stretches you a little farther.

Is it relevant? To me, this is the most important of the SMART criteria. We can all set goals, and they can all technically be “good” goals that stretch & challenge us, but will they matter? I mean, I could set a goal for myself to buy a new pair of shoes every week for the entire year – and meet it - but so what? Who cares? What difference did it make? The best question to ask here is probably, “What positive outcome will achieving this goal have on my life?” If you can’t come up with a good answer, you may want to reevaluate why you have the goal in the first place.

Is it trackable? Just as it’s important to be able to measure the final outcome, it’s also important to be able to see how we are doing as we work towards our goal. When we can see that, we can determine how much more (or less) effort & attention we need to expend. While it isn’t absolutely necessary to be able to track a goal as we are working towards it, reaching our deadline and finding out that we were way off can be a real buzzkill, especially if there were things we could have and would have done differently had we known sooner that we weren’t going to reach it.

3. Short Term vs. Long Term
The timeframes you set up for your goals could be a major contributor to your success or failure. Consider the following 2 goals that you could set for yourself:
“I will add $20 to my savings account every week.”
“I will grow my savings account by $1,000 this year.”

Realizing that both of them essentially accomplish the same thing, which one would you use? The short term goal breaks it down into smaller, bite-size chunks, but it also requires the constant discipline to add that money every single week. The long term goal provides much more flexibility, but could also lull you into a trap by allowing you to cruise through the year until you get to a point where meeting your goal just isn’t possible.

What timeframes you set for yourself really depend on you. Don’t be afraid to experiment with both to see what works best for your personality.

4. Objectives vs. Activities
The “what” of a goal can be one of two things: either an objective or an activity. In most cases, you want to set goals on objectives, not activities, because objectives reflect a concrete outcome, while activities merely reflect that you did something without regard to an actual end result.

For instance, maybe I set a goal for myself in my spiritual life to invite 1 person to church every week. That goal has all 4 elements of a “good” goal and also meets the SMART criteria. Is this a good goal for me? Well, it would really depend on what it is that I’m trying to accomplish. If my intent was just to get into the good habit of inviting people to church (an activity), it might be fine. But if my intent was to actually get more people to come to church, it might not be so good, because I could easily accomplish it without anything happening.

If I instead set my goal on the objective of getting 5 people to come to church this year, how might I do things differently? I might still invite 1 person every week, but if that’s not working real well, I might realize that doing that isn’t getting me to my goal. I might have to invite 5 people a week. I might have to do a lot of other things as well. The big question to ask yourself when thinking about activities and objectives is, “What is it that I want?”, then see if your goal will actually satisfy that question.

5. Limit the Number
Just as you want each individual goal to be achievable, you also want the total number of goals you make to be something that you can reasonably accomplish. You could easily set 10 personal goals, 10 work goals, 10 spiritual goals, and 10 financial goals, but - Whoa Nellie! - all of a sudden you’ve got 40 goals! Remember the benefits of having goals in the first place; focus & direction, less stress & anxiety, more confidence, better concentration, etc. Are you feeling any of those things when you think of the prospect of having 40 goals? I’m sure not. That’s a little scary.

Even if having 40 goals doesn’t make you feel overwhelmed, there is another danger with having too many. Let’s say you set 40 goals for yourself this year and you achieve 37 of them. That’s not bad shootin’ by anybody’s standard, but knowing human nature, my guess would be that you spent the majority of your time working on easier goals and not on ones that were more difficult. I would suggest to you that the 3 goals that you didn’t achieve were probably the most important ones; the ones that would have taken the most effort to achieve and would have had the biggest impact. I would also suggest that it’s very possible that those 3 goals could have been more important than the other 37 combined, and that if you hadn’t spread your efforts across those other 37 you probably would have had a good chance of knocking out the 3 that would have really made the biggest difference.

In the end, how many goals you set is up to you, but remember that you can always replace the goals that you’ve accomplished with new ones, so don’t make it harder than it has to be.

6. Write Them Down!
Sounds silly, doesn’t it? But it’s not. In fact, not writing goals down is probably the single biggest reason why they don’t get met. Putting your goals on paper helps you to remember them and focus on them, but more than that, it commits you to them. There’s something about putting them on paper that makes them real. If they exist only in your mind it’s too easy to forget about them, whether by accident or on purpose. Write them down. Post them on the refrigerator, or the bathroom mirror, or above your desk. Make yourself look at them every day. It will make all the difference.

Whether your goals are grand and far reaching, or small and repetitive, if you follow these guidelines and consider your goals carefully, you can literally change your entire life if you so choose, and do it with surprising ease. And though it may seem that I’ve taken something very simple and made it very complex (a skill that I seem to have been blessed with), it’s really not that complicated. Most of the things I’ve mentioned we do unconsciously anyway, just maybe not everything and maybe not always. For me, it helps to just spell it all out. I hope it helps you as well.

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