Most of us think goal setting is a good thing and research strongly suggests it improves performance, enhances engagement in attaining those goals, keeps you focused, gives you direction and can be a great source of motivation. 

Goals and goal setting are modus operandi for most of us and the organisations we lead.

So why do most of us have a graveyard full of unfulfilled or abandoned resolutions or goals? Why are only 8% of us consistently achieving our goals? Why does the average person make the same resolution several years in a row without success!?

Because goal setting is complex and nuanced. Goal setting is fundamentally about behaviour change and change is hard.  

As I coach I focus on helping people make changes and at the core of it is goal setting and putting in place strategies to achieve those goals. While this approach works really well for some, it doesn’t work for everyone. Some leaders find it really hard to set goals. Partly it appears to depend on the goals and type of change desired (e.g. something very specific vs something more abstract), partly because they don’t know what goals to set (i.e. they don’t know what they don’t know and we need to accelerate their self-awareness) and partly goals are a real turn off for some people. 

Also being goal-focused can have some downsides – narrowed focus at the expense of other things, risky and unethical behaviour, feelings of failure and a ceiling for performance (check out research from Ordonez et al). 

Interesting research by Anne McKee showed that only 25% of people are motivated by SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound), and that 25% prefer to work to an image of desired vision, 25% prefer to focus on the steps toward the goal itself and 25% don’t like to have goals. She concluded that in all but the first group, SMART goals induce stress, reduce motivation, creativity and resilience.

I remain an advocate of goal setting but I do not believe a SMART goal has to be set every time in order to move from one state to another i.e. to make changes. 

I have set out below nine areas for you to reflect on when you set personal goals for yourself or others. I will leave business goals and more specifically OKRs to a different blog. 

1. Reflect on the hierarchy of goals 

This feeds into the study I mentioned by Anne McKee. Different goals suit different situations and different people as do the different goal setting methods like SMART or visualisation.

I think it is helpful to think about the hierarchy of goals, with more abstract (larger in scope and more distant in time) to concrete (smaller in scope and closer in time). The abstract includes core values and future self. 

For example, you may want to “be kind” but right now you don’t believe you are living that value enough. Where am I now? Where would I like to be? That is a fairly abstract goal. You need to break it down into smaller chunks to help you get there. So as you move down the hierarchy we ask the question “how?”. If I want to be more kind, how do I do that? Express my gratitude more often to team members. When you move up the hierarchy, you are asking “why?” questions. Why do I show more gratitude to my colleagues? So I can be a better me. 

So summarising this, the “why?” moves you up the hierarchy, and the “how?” moves you down i.e. higher levels of hierarchy yield meaning, lower levels yield action (Action Identification Theory – Vallacher and Wegner). 

Often people can spend so much time on the “how?”, they lose the connection to the “why?” and motivation evaporates. Equally too much focus on the “why?”, can result in no action and movement towards the goal. 

Leaders, who focus on explaining the “why?”, allows their team members to have the autonomy to select their own “how?”. Less micromanaging, more motivation.

2. Create a mission i.e. a big goal

Big goals can be scary. They can stress us out. Not everyone can win the gold medal and you can’t always control whether you will achieve your big goal.

But I look upon big goals differently. My big goal, or mission as I call it, is to help one million entrepreneurs survive and thrive so they can create more meaningful jobs and solve more of society’s problems. 

As Gary Latham, University of Toronto professor, says not every goal is the same. “We found that if you want the largest increase in motivation and productivity, then big goals lead to the best outcomes. 

I believe my mission is achievable but what is more important is that it gives me direction, a North Star to aim for which helps guide my decision-making, where I spend my time and what goals to set. 

Whenever I set my smaller or sub-goals I will always have my mission in mind and this takes me to the next point.

3. Align your goals to your big rocks 

Few self-help books actually encourage you to reflect on what goals you should set in the first place. 

A big mistake that people make is to pursue goals that don’t serve their big priorities. 

My previous blog on time management behaviours talks about figuring out your big rocks or your big priorities. 

Setting goals around your big rocks is going to lead to the impact and results you desire. 

My big rocks are: coaching clients, collaborations, learning, investing, family, friends and health.

4. Link your goals to personal values

Another big bear trap people often fall into is to pursue goals that don’t serve their core values.

Values are how we want to behave in the present and on an ongoing basis. 

Four of my core values are curiosity, connection, caring and contribution. 

I’ve seen people, and it’s something I have to watch for in myself, who value achievement and self-improvement and get obsessed with optimising everything in their lives, to the point where they forget anything exists outside of themselves. 

Also too often I have observed people who value freedom and autonomy getting stuck in a high paying, stressful job because they believe status and money will give them the power to control their time. The opposite happens and they end up miserable. 

You need to set your own goals, and not confuse what you value with what others value around you. 

5. Consider the different types of goals

It’s helpful to think about which type of goal will be most effective for the change you are trying to achieve. Here are a couple of examples.

Outcome Goals vs Process Goals

I can’t control whether I reach one million entrepreneurs to achieve my mission. But I don’t mind because I’m probably happier with the journey than the ultimate goal – whatever happens it will be a learning experience. I have a growth mindset about my goal, I’m focusing on the learning and the effort, and don’t have a fixed mindset approach where I only feel good if I win. As the famous tennis player Arhur Ashe said, “Success is a journey not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.”

My mission has guided me to create an action plan or a series of process goals which enables me to focus on what I can do today to move towards my big goal.

Examples of my process goals include:

  • Collaborate with at least two other coaches to facilitate group coaching and initiate two cohorts in 2021
  • Become a trainer of entrepreneurs within an accelerator program
  • Create value added content for entrepreneurs e.g. monthly blogs, 5 linkedIn posts per month and videos

The action plan is about seeking small continuous improvements one day at a time. Creating small steps so you can’t fail. This is the kaizen way – “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”   which is a highly effective way of building new neural connections in the brain. The small steps disarm the brain’s fear response, stimulating rational thought and creative play.

Performance Goals vs Identity Goals

A performance goal might be “I want to make more than 40 cold calls each day”.

An identity goal might be “I want to become a productive person”.

Performance goals have a specific target (this is when SMART goals work well) and are useful but once they are achieved you have to set another goal or you may fall back to where you started. And it can make you feel like a failure if you don’t hit the goal, you can’t control whether you get the outcome or not.

Whereas identity goals focus on who you want to become. It is more of a learning goal and it is about changing your beliefs, your worldview, your self-image. 

According to James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits:

“Your behaviours are usually a reflection of your identity. What you do is an indication of the type of person you believe that you are – either consciously or unconsciously. Research has shown that once a person believes in a particular aspect of their identity, they are more likely to act in alignment with that belief.”

For example, someone who identifies as a productive person is more likely to focus on doing the important work than getting distracted by a ping from their phone.  

6. With goals, visualise the outcomes, the actions and the obstacles with all of your senses

As we’ve seen, SMART goals don’t resonate with everyone – only 25% of people are motivated by them. For example, many entrepreneurs and high achievers I coach spend little time reflecting on whether their goals are realistic. If they spent more they probably wouldn’t be an entrepreneur! Entrepreneurs often act out of passion and it is their belief that they can achieve something which others might think is unrealistic that makes them special.

If you think about what you really want, if you imagine what it is like to have what you really want – 25% of people are motivated by an image of a desired vision – then you will be committed, motivated and influence others because your enthusiasm will be contagious. This is a major reason why visionary leaders attract followers.

With 23 Olympic medals Michael Phelps is the most decorated athlete in Olympic history. During his training regime for the 2008 Games in Beijing, Phelps’s coach asked him to practice ‘mind sculpture’ while lying in bed. Michael imagined he was inside the actual aquatic centre, competing in his event. He used his visual imagination. Importantly he envisioned the potential obstacles too which included getting water in his goggles – a problem which could have slowed him down. In one of his actual races he did get water in his goggles but because he had prepared himself using all of his senses, he was able to keep going and win the race. 

When you focus on the outcome, the actions, the obstacles and what you really want, you need to make sure it satisfies a number of criteria.

  • Consider how you’ll know when you have arrived. What does it look like, sound like, feel like physically, taste like, smell like and feel like emotionally? Your unconscious mind does not know the difference between what is imagined and what is real. The more vividly you imagine your outcome, the more your unconscious mind believes it has it and will program you to act as if you do. This is what happened to me when I was transitioning from being a business angel to a business coach – my imagination was ignited by interviewing very experienced coaches and studying their responses. I was able to imagine myself in the future and this accelerated my transition.
  • Make sure you are comfortable with what it takes to achieve what you want. What are the risks, what discomfort will you have to go through, what resources will you need, and what will you have to give up?
  • Recent research has shown that visualising your actions, and your path to success, is more effective than visualising your outcomes. This is because visualisation of an action leads to following through on that action. And action gets results. 

My recommendation is that you experiment and find out what type of visualisation works best for you. I prefer to do it the Michael Phelps way and visualise the outcome, the actions and obstacles.

7. What we measure is what we get – feedback is key to goal achievement

Goals can fall through the gaps if you don’t measure them regularly. Remember, it’s best to break down your larger goals into smaller sub-goals. These might be stepwise milestones or you might have alternative pathways running concurrently. 

Check-in on a regular basis to monitor progress, review how you are doing, seek feedback and make adjustments to the process and adapt to the circumstances as needed.

The more feedback processes that are in place and the more varied they are, the more accurate a  picture of performance improvement.

Without a way to measure success and the feedback thereof you will miss the opportunity to iterate and improve your skills as you go along.

8.  Hold your goals lightly and discuss them frequently

Just because you want something now, does not mean you want it in the future. You won’t achieve something if you don’t want it. 

And so don’t become too dogmatic about your goals and make sure you continually reflect on whether they are still what you want. 

If you look back five years the chances are you don’t want much of what you wanted back then. You’ve changed, your circumstances have changed and therefore your goals should have changed.

Abandoning goals which are either unrealisable or not serving you has various benefits, less stress, feeling more competent and more positive feelings. 

There is no shame in dropping a goal which is no longer what you value. 

9. Build your confidence in relation to goals

Two aspects to building your confidence. 

One of the benefits of breaking down your big goals into smaller subgoals is that you are more likely to achieve them, gain the feeling of accomplishment, up your motivation levels and build your confidence step by step. 

Ask yourself the following questions.

  • Where am I now?
  • What are the wins from the past 60 days?

Looking at where you have come from and recent wins gives you a sense of momentum and confidence. Key to feeling that sense of reward from achieving your subgoals is to celebrate each time. 

Confidence is also key to the goals you set in the first place. The more confident you get the more imaginative and ambitious your goals will become. 

“The reason most of us are unhappy most of the time is that we set goals not for the person we’re going to be when we reach them, but we set our goals for the person we are when we set them.”

  • Jim Coudal

In summary, goals are complex which means you cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach. 

The list of goal setting topics I have included here is not meant to be exhaustive. 

You need to be agile on which ones, and how you set and apply them. For some, goals are very off-putting and stressful. For others they give direction, encourage focus and the motivation to improve performance. 

Not everyone is motivated by goals in the same way. 

So although I am an advocate of goal setting I encourage you to experiment in order to find the right goal setting strategy for you and your team members. 

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Keep well. To anyone out there who has recently lost a parent I empathise with you. 

Give > Take. 

Mark