Goal-Setting Basics

I fly 125,000+ miles a year traveling to speaking engagements. When meeting my seat mates on planes, they usually ask what I do. When they hear I speak and write on personal productivity, many of them will quip, “Work smarter, not harder.” I will cringe a bit inside, smile, and tell them, “Most professionals are working very hard these days. I’ve long since discarded that philosophy and prefer to live by my own mantra: ‘Motion Beats Meditation.’”

Goal-Setting Basics by Laura Stack, MBA, CSP

Too many people spend time getting ready to be ready, setting up their systems, organizing their work, and figuring out what they need to do—but then they don’t DO the work—to-do lists just keep rolling forward and important projects fall through the cracks.

Only results matter. And the first and most critical step in getting results, as I define in my newest book What to Do When There’s Too Much to Do, is knowing what to do. You must define your goals, so you know if you’re spending your time working on tasks that will have the highest personal return on investment (PROI).

You’ll have a hard time reaching your destination if you have no idea of where the endpoint lies, what obstacles lie between here and there, and what roads (and shortcuts) to take. And you definitely won’t make any progress if you have only a vague notion of where you’re going in the first place.

I Can See Clearly Now…

Set yourself well-articulated, achievable goals with hard deadlines. Many people never do this; you can recognize them by the ruts they’ve dug in their career paths and the tremendous frustration they feel due to their own self-limitations.

So if your progress on the Workplace Highway seems stymied lately, take the next exit and pull into a (metaphorical) Starbucks. It’s time to grab a nice latte, sit down with your electronic or hardcopy tablet, and start mapping out your route to the future. Deeply consider what you really want—not what you ought to want, or what someone else thinks you should want—but what you want. Craft that into a personal mission statement based around your core values and important areas in your life (work, family, health, self, friends, education, etc.).

Then plot out a rough plan, based on what success means to you. These interim goals could take the form of relatively minor achievements (“I need to revamp my website this year”) or audacious outcomes (“I want to leave my company in five years and establish my own consulting firm”), the principle applies.

This is the basic foundation for the goal-setting process. Let’s look at some specifics in creating your goals.

On Top of Spaghetti…

Think of your tasks as your short-term tactics for achieving your long-term goals. As such, you must define them tightly. In my book Leave the Office Earlier, I use the term “SPAGHETTI” to describe the crucial components of a worthwhile goal:

S = Specific. Use specific metrics to measure your progress, using positive, actionable language while refining it. Rather than producing something vague like, “I’d like to lose some weight this year,” instead decide, “I will lose one pound per week until I’ve lost 30 pounds.”

P = Potential problems. What could go wrong? When? How can you avoid these obstacles? If you can’t avoid them, how can you push through them? Put contingency plans into place for the most likely scenarios before starting.

A = Acceptable. Is this your objective, or someone else’s? If it’s not yours, you may find it difficult to scrape up enough motivation to do it. How can you buy into it?

G = Gift. Promise yourself a reward when you achieve the objective, so you have a “why” to help you define the “how.” Is it an internal reward? Something fun to do? Something you will buy for yourself?

H = Hard enough. Set realistic objectives, but make sure they challenge you. The tougher your objectives, the harder you’ll try. They’ll mean more to you, too; we don’t really value what comes too easily. Plus, achieving a serious objective pumps up your confidence for the next try.

E = Evaluate. Set milestones so you can check your forward process. Review your goals and project plans at least monthly, to ensure they remain relevant and realistic.

T = Tangible. If you don’t document your objectives from the very beginning, they may change imperceptibly as you go. Furthermore, documenting the objective helps refine it, and acts as a constant reminder of what you want to achieve.

T = Time bound. Give each objective and action step definite start and stop dates.

I = Inspirational. Let’s be honest here: most objectives are boring, representing as they do necessary steps in achieving your final goal. But if you phrase each objective positively and make it uplifting, you’ll find it a lot easier to proceed with the proper confidence and positivity. Imagine how good you’ll feel once you’ve achieved the objective, and you’ll find it easier to inspire yourself from the get-go.

Hold on Tight to Your Dreams

In Magical Daydream Land, your sterling leadership qualities are obvious to everyone, and you succeed through sheer, effortless brilliance. In the world we actually live in, your dreams can come true, but you’ll need to put in some serious effort. This means putting your goals under the microscope and winnowing the gold from the ore. This takes thoughtful preparation, so put these steps into play for each of your goals, large and small.

1. Dream it. Create your personal mission statement, defining what success looks like to you in all the arenas of life.

2. Refine it. Formally create goals for each, whether on paper or at your computer, thinking through the SPAGHETTI components.

3. Plan your attack. What has to happen to take you from start to finish? Brainstorm for a while, breaking your goal down into individual task components.

4. Schedule it. Put achievable dates for each milestone and action item on your master to-do list. Determine how much you have to accomplish each week and day to meet those dates. If you must, block out periods of time on your calendar to get that work done, and focus on it when you do.

In order to clear your path, you may have to invest in more education or otherwise acquire new knowledge, skills, and abilities. Don’t hesitate to do so, especially since you can apply almost anything you learn to other goals. At the very least, it ought to broaden your horizons and heighten your flexibility and agility, crucial factors when it comes to meeting new challenges and rolling with life’s punches.

In the End

Once you’ve applied these four steps, you’ve made your goal real and you know exactly how to achieve it. Now the most important part—GET MOVING! Remain flexible as you proceed upon your path. If you need more time for certain steps, revamp your schedule. If something else takes precedence, reprioritize your objectives, or (if absolutely necessary) let a few things go. Just remember this: as long as a goal continues to matter to you, don’t give up—and you’ll eventually get there.