Tips for creating meaningful goals

“Life is the art of finding or building a bridge with great determination every time you come across a precipice!” ― Mehmet Murat Ildan

January is, for many of us, the month we think about our goals for the year ahead. I love the process of setting goals and am constantly exploring ways to do it creatively and effectively. Often, I’ll take the whole month of January to get clear on my goals for the year, feeling into the initial goal and taking the time to adjust and re-shape it so it lands at that ‘just right’ sweet spot. It feels challenging yet achievable, I’m excited by it, and it has meaning for my work and/or life.  

And, some of us may have set goals on January 1st that have already been placed on the backburner as the demands and requirements of work start to crowd out what felt like a priority just a few weeks ago. The good thing about goals is that we can set them at any time, not just at the start of the year. For setting personal or professional goals, helping team members set their targets, or even developing organisational objectives for the year, below are a few reminders and prompts for crafting goals that make sense.

We’ve all heard of SMART goals by now, and it’s a useful framework. In case your brain is still in holiday mode, a reminder that SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bound. To illustrate: a common start-of-a-new-year goal is ‘I will get fit’. Whilst laudable, it has no measurable outcome, no deadline, no specificity. A SMART version of this goal would look more like “I will be able to run 5km without stopping by March 31, 2023.” Defined this way, the goal is detailed, it’s possible to achieve, it’s measurable and what success looks like (for you) is crystal clear.

Another example. As a leader, perhaps you want to develop your strategic thinking capacity this year. Using the above framework one of your goals might be “Complete ABC University’s Business Strategy for Professionals short course by 30 June this year.” Ensuring your goal is specific, feasible, useful to you, and has a deadline, means you are more likely to achieve it.

Below are a few more suggestions that can enhance your goal setting and increase your probability of success:

  • Write them down. This helps you clarify your thoughts and makes your goals feel more real. It can be helpful to keep them somewhere you can see them regularly. Have a range of short term (next few months) and longer term (1-5 years) goals.
  • Make it meaningful. Ensure your goals are ones that you want for yourself, not something you think you should strive for because others are. You are unlikely to stay the course on a challenging goal if you haven’t explored “why” this goal is significant for you. Ask yourself “why” this is important at least 5 times and journal your response to each question to uncover the deeper resonance of this goal in your life.
  • Determine your accountability strategy. Sharing your goals with your team or peers can provide accountability. Publicly sharing goals makes us want to live into them, as well as avoid the consequences of having to admit we didn’t do what we said we would! Somewhat counterintuitively, focusing on the positive isn’t always the best way to achieve what we want. Negative consequences can also be influential motivators. For example, having to pay your friend $20 each time you don’t turn up for your training run together means you are more likely to show up.
  • Create smaller milestones as part of your action plan. Break down your goal into smaller, more manageable tasks and create a plan for completing them. If you know you want to run 5K in two months, you can start to plan your incremental increases in running time over that period. If you want to develop your communication skills as a leader, create small, practical milestones around speaking up in meetings (or speaking less), or using a structure for clearly assigning work (e.g., what, why, who, by when).
  • Remember that a goal doesn’t have to be earth shattering.  The principle of ‘marginal gains’ is useful to consider. Several small incremental improvements in any process add up to a significant change over time when they are all added together.
  • Regularly track your progress and adjust your plan as needed. This will help you (and your team) be more adaptive when presented with obstacles and keep you focused on where you are headed. Don’t expect linear progress. Stuff happens and we might feel we are off course, but when the goal is clear, we can refocus our energies after setbacks. Think of a sailboat tacking its way to the destination – it is course correcting all the time, not travelling in a straight line.
  • Remember to celebrate your achievements. Both the milestones along the way, and when you reach your goal. Take time to acknowledge your accomplishments (and those of your team) as they happen.
  • Finally, get obsessed with your habits. As boring as it sounds, it’s the little things we do consistently, over time, that leads to our outcomes. Both ones we want and ones we don’t!

The next two posts in this series will explore an approach for supporting your team members to set goals, and we’ll share why the unglamourous strategies of consistency and habits are key to achieving what you want in your leadership, and in your life.