Do You Suck at Goals?
Goal-setting is easy. Execution is hard!
The topic of goal setting is a perennial favorite and it’s rare to find a college student or working professional who hasn’t had at least some training in one or more goal setting tools or methodologies. From creating SMART goals (specific, measurable, actionable/achievable, relevant, and time-bound) to Tiered Goals (monthly, quarterly, and annually) – and everything in between – there are resources aplenty. With a quick web search you can find hundreds of books and thousands of blog posts on tools, techniques, and tips to help you set goals for yourself.
Is this yet another post on how to set goals?
Not exactly. I’ll walk you through one of my favorite goal-setting methods in a couple days but right now I’d like to share some thoughts on why it’s so easy to set goals and so damned hard to achieve them. As an example, just think back to your New Year’s resolution from a few months ago. How long did you work on it? A week? An entire month? Or maybe you thought about it but haven’t actually started working on it yet?
It’s not because the goal wasn’t something you would love to achieve. In fact, I imagine the opposite is true! Chances are you looked at your life, figured out something you really need to improve or change, and thought, “This is the year! I know what to do and how to do it, so I’m going to dive in on January 1st!”
If your goal was related to health and fitness, like so many other millions of people, then it’s likely an admirable and worthwhile goal. It’s something you really should achieve and the ripple effect on the other parts of your life would be significant and profound. But even if your resolution was something else entirely, I’m betting it was a goal that would have a very positive impact on your life.
Aren’t New Year’s resolutions just whimsical nonsense?
A New Year’s resolution might be a bit whimsical but it’s not nonsense. Though you may not have spent much time consciously thinking about it and laying out an action plan, it’s likely been an issue needling your subconscious mind for a while. Daydreaming about losing 5 pounds a week for the next 10 weeks is certainly a flight of fancy, but the need to lose 50 pounds and get to a healthy weight could be very real.
Besides, aren’t all big, hairy, audacious goals whimsical to those with little vision? It’s not the whimsicality of the goal that causes problems – it’s the lack of change in ourselves. Marshall Goldsmith said, “What got you here won’t get you there.” And that’s exactly the reason we fail at our personal goals while we often succeed in our jobs.
Why is goal-setting on the job different?
When we set goals on the job, one of the very next things we talk about is what has to change in order to reach that goal. Need to make more sales? Okay. Do we need to reach more customers? Improve the conversion rate on leads? Get more warm leads?
We identify the goal and then start looking at various strategies and tactics we need to implement to get there. But we don’t just talk about the strategies and tactics, we also talk about the process changes, the measurements, and various ways of reinforcing the changes. We might conduct training and then measure performance, making adjustments and improvements along the way. If one tactic is working well and another is having no impact, we’ll either double-down on what’s working or at least stop doing the one that’s not (while we identify other potential approaches).
“What got you here won’t get you there.” ~Marshall Goldsmith
When we set personal goals, we may very well identify strategies and/or tactics but we leave the implementation up to sheer willpower. We don’t make process changes (i.e. adjust our routines) or conduct training (i.e. get friends and family involved so they can support us); nor do we set up metrics and measures to be reported on a regular basis. And when something isn’t working as well as we’d hoped, we don’t look for a different strategy or tactic. We just give up.
You’re saying that everyone fails at personal goals?
Of course not. Plenty of people succeed all the time! But most of them are doing at least some of the things the rest of us often fail to do. The people who regularly achieve their personal goals don’t just set a goal and rely on willpower to see them through. They understand, at least instinctually, some of the psychology behind goal setting and personal achievement.
Now, I’m not a psychologist (and I don’t even play one on TV), but there is a mountain of actual research on “the science of goal setting.” Before I go on, I’ll boil it down to three key take-aways:
Having a goal is better than not having a goal.
Having a specific goal is better than having a broad, generic goal.
Having a difficult (and specific) goal is better than having an easy goal.
When you don’t have a goal of your own, you’ll end up having to work towards someone else’s goal – which often means toiling away in obscurity while someone else profits and you barely make ends meet. But not just any goal will do because broad, generic goals don’t provide enough focus.
My suggestion is that you start by creating your Personal Vision Statement and then make sure you set a clear, specific goal to move you closer to your vision. However, easy goals don’t provide enough of a challenge to be motivating, so set your sights a bit higher!
Simply having a goal isn’t good enough?
Start with a clear vision that motivates and inspires you, then set a goal or goals to move you closer to that long-term vision. Once you’ve identified a goal, determine what strategies you’re going to take to reach that goal and consider how to effectively implement AND reinforce tactics so you stick with it.
The way I tackle this is I don’t try to change everything all at once. I use the Japanese Kaizen approach, which means “change for the better” or “continuous improvement.” The idea is to identify something that needs to be improved and make a small change, then measure the impact. If it helped, then keep doing it and identify another small improvement to try.
For example, part of my Personal Vision is to be at a healthy weight and live an active lifestyle. According to my doctor, I need to lose a LOT of weight to be where he would consider it “healthy,” so that’s not my first goal. My first goal is to lose 35 pounds. Once I do that, then I’ll set my next goal – but 35 pounds is the first one.
In order to lose that much weight, I’ll need to change (because what got me here won’t get me there). I started by brainstorming all the things I could change and, as you can imagine, the list was long. Below are a few of the ideas I came up with. You’ll notice that some are variations on how extreme I could be:
Eliminate all between-meal snacks.
Only eat healthy snacks.
Stop eating fried foods.
Switch to the Keto diet.
Reduce serving size at meals.
Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables.
Exercise every day.
Go for a bike ride or walk every day.
Train karate again.
Go to bed earlier and get up earlier.
Reduce alcohol consumption.
Do intermittent fasting.
Do HIIT workouts a few times a week.
Anyway, you get the idea. There are a few key strategies – consume less calories, consume the right kinds of calories, and burn more calories – and then numerous possible tactics to support those strategies. But instead of trying to change a dozen or more different aspects of my life at the same time, which forces me to rely too much on sheer willpower, I can be a bit more systematic about it.
To start, I will eat more fresh fruits and vegetables by having them on hand for snacks throughout the day. It will get me consuming better calories AND will reduce my caloric intake because I’ll skip the chips and other salty snacks.
The second thing I’ll do is a basic stretching routine every day. If I do dynamic stretching for at least a few minutes each morning, it will loosen me up and get me energized to start my day. It’s something that can last anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes, depending upon how I’m feeling at the time, so it gives me plenty of flexibility (pun intended).
In order to reinforce these changes, I’ll keep track of my snacks and exercise time in my Bullet Journal. If I find that I’m struggling to keep up these changes, then I’ll take a look at the reasons why. I can either make adjustments or try something different. And once these changes simply feel like part of my routine and really don’t require any willpower or monitoring anymore, then I’ll go back to my list of potential tactics and see what other small changes I can make.
Goals are BIG but changes are small? How does that work?
Very well, as a matter of fact! Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” It’s a way of approaching life that a Relaxed Leader needs to embrace. We can achieve truly remarkable things if we’re willing to persevere through the long journey.
In business, I’ve heard something similar: “It took years of hard work to become an overnight success.” Every once in a great while, someone is truly an “overnight” success – but more often than not, it only appears that way from the outside.
When singer and songwriter Billie Eilish seemingly stormed onto the scene in 2019 with her debut studio album, most people saw her as an overnight success. But her first song was uploaded to SoundCloud in 2015 (when she was 13 years old) and she was touring small clubs with her brother starting in 2017. She had recording deals and publicists and people working with her to develop her image and create a persona, focusing on building a following – instead of banking on a big breakout hit to catapult her to stardom. Years of hard work, support, and focused effort helped turn the young artist into what many people saw as an “overnight success.”
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” ~Lao Tzu
For Leaders, our version of overnight success is often something revolutionary - like landing the dream job with the massive paycheck or hiring the perfect team. We can get frustrated with small steps – what we often view as being evolutionary changes – and we long for something bigger and bolder. Especially when we have a clear vision of what’s possible, we want to go there in one massive leap! But what we forget is that to make a massive leap, we need to get a running start.
Have you ever watched a high jumper? They start off slowly, then pick up the pace – but it’s not a sprint. They need to get the right amount of forward momentum but then they need technique and amazing leg strength to plant and launch. Getting up and over the bar – their bodies seemingly bending and flowing around it – takes amazing amounts of practice and patience.
When it comes to leading change and driving towards a long-term goal, think of “evolution” as all of that practice and patience. It might take years of working diligently, doing all the right things, in order to reach the point where we can launch and effectively make the big “revolutionary” leap. Unlike the high jumper, it’s not just ourselves who need to evolve though. We need to bring lots of other people along with us on the journey. If we lead effectively, then those people will be ready when the time comes to move from evolution to revolution.
Sounds logical – but how do we bring people along?
Oh, that’s simple – but not easy.
Articulate a clear vision. Set appropriate goals. Meet those goals. Rinse. Repeat.
Like most important things in life, knowing WHAT to do is only part of the solution. We also need to figure out HOW to do it. I’ve already shown you how to create your own Personal Vision Statement, which is a process you can tweak a bit and use with a team. And my next post, I’ll teach you the goal-setting framework I’ve used successfully for years. In fact, it’s the basic approach I took to executing the project for which I was selected as one of FCW's 2021 Fed 100.
It’s my “secret weapon,” but what it is and how it works isn’t a secret. You can Google it and learn all about it. The “secret” is to actually use it, relentlessly, and don’t just talk about it. No one you work with cares to hear about what you read in a book or on a blog like this. They want to see what you can do with that knowledge.
Show, don’t tell.
If you’re ready to get to work, check out my article Think BIG to learn about BSQ – the only goal-setting strategy a Relaxed Leader will ever need!