Set Goals: Your Steps to Success
“Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.”
You have done a lot of important work, so take a moment to pause, reflect, and acknowledge what you’ve already accomplished. Don’t worry that you’re not “finished.” As long as you’re living and growing, you never will be. That’s a good thing. You can go back to the foundational steps you have just completed and update them at any time as new information, experiences, circumstances, and feelings arise. This is a dynamic process that invites regular reviews and adjustments.
Up until now, your work has been to do some strategic soul-searching and analyze what you need to succeed in the business of your life. Your vision statement describes what success means to you and your critical success factors are a list of things you’ll need to make it come to life. Your SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) summed up your position and provided you with intelligence about what you have to work with and work around. So you now have a great foundation on which to build an action plan.
A vision is just a pretty picture until you actively breathe life into it. Your prioritized list of goals gives you a wonderfully effective way to think about how you’ll want to spend your precious resources of time, energy, money, and attention that works in harmony with your core values, mission, and vision over time. The next step is to determine what you need to do to make real, steady progress toward living your envisioned ideal. That includes finding pleasure in each day while you work on getting “there.” To do that, you will set some goals. Accomplishing them will give you an energy boost and keep you moving forward. Especially when some of those goals include spending more time with people you love or having a peanut butter and pickle sandwich every day if that’s your thing.
Later in this chapter, we will look at how to make your goals as effective as possible. Taking the time in the goal-setting phase to ensure they are specific, measurable, and timely will make it possible to create successful strategies for accomplishing them and tracking your progress toward fulfilling your vision.
These early steps were just what Sandra needed to get motivated to work in a more holistic manner. Because of her left-brained, “let’s get it done” tendencies, the conceptual work involved in creating a vision gave her focus and brought her pleasure as she contemplated a fulfilling future. For someone so task-oriented, it provided a well-rounded basis for setting goals and choosing carefully considered tasks likely to bring her great results as she crossed them off her list. Creating a vision did two other important things for her:
• She noticed that among the many aspects of her personal vision, she felt a particular urgency to launch Fertility Within Reach, her nonprofit organization that aims to empower infertile couples to advocate for themselves in order to build their families.
• She realized that, as a leader, she had been “pretty loose” about project management and, as a result, several initiatives languished. Involving her team in creating a collective vision for their department created a new sense of commitment to their work. Setting clear goals to make it happen was an important motivator and those goals were the basis for establishing the accountability needed to keep herself and her group on target. She no longer leaves it to chance.
Sandra’s SWOT told her a lot about her considerable assets—strengths she needed to leverage and opportunities she could seize. She also confronted a weakness she’d never really looked at as such until performing this analysis. Sandra, who is mindful in many ways and extraordinarily effective in completing projects, discovered that her way-too-long to-do list spread her attention too thin and threatened her ability to concentrate enough effort on her highest priorities. This was an important wake-up call and something she could readily address. Her vision statement snapped her right into focus and guided her next steps.
Move from Dreaming to Doing
Formulating goals is the step that creates the bridge between dreaming and doing. As you will see, the more specific you can be about what you will do to bring your vision to life, the more likely you are to do it. Your goals articulate what you want to accomplish. The strategies you will develop specify how you will accomplish it all. For now, your job is to get clear on what you want to do. Many people get so hung up on how they will get things done that they get stuck right here. If you’re not clear on what you want, it will be hard to figure out how to get it. So, your task for this step is to stay focused on setting your goals. Once again, the key is to not cut off your options too soon by worrying about how you will achieve them. That is the work of the next step.
Bruce is the strategic planner whose vision included having a third child. He had a hard time committing his vision to paper because he couldn’t see how he’d ever accomplish that when his life was already so busy. Now that he had it written down, he felt more committed than ever to doing whatever he could to make it happen. So he wrote down a specific goal—he wanted to have a third kid within the next two years. How he and his wife would find the time to devote to another child was not yet clear, but he wanted it enough that he would give his full attention to finding a way.
Remember, you were challenged to aim high and create a grand vision. In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins talks about the importance of setting “BHAGs”—big hairy audacious goals.1 For a company, this is a high-reaching goal that reflects its peoples’ passions, their ability to be the best, and something that will drive their economic engine. For you, audacious goals may also reflect your passions, tap your unique talents, and be something that will pay major dividends—such as bringing you joy, fulfillment, or financial rewards.
If you are like most people and organizations, you will have many more goals than you can tackle all at once. You will need a way to look at everything you’d like to accomplish so you can put first things first. It probably won’t surprise you that, once again, the first step in that process is writing it all down so you can get a good visual of the what and when. Your custom closet holds the key—and your priorities.
Devise and Conquer
It’s time to dig in and organize your thoughts. Here’s how you will do it so you can get a well-rounded look at what matters most to you across some key areas. We’ve talked about the elusive balance that everyone seems to be seeking and not finding. The largest section of your custom closet is devoted to displaying your goals and priorities in a way that lets you visualize the balance you are emphasizing. Creating a clear picture will make it easier to see how to make it happen. There are two important dimensions to consider when setting and prioritizing your goals: what you want to do and when you want to do it.
WHAT You Want
One way to attack the challenge of deciding what your priorities should be is to set goals in each of four major areas:
• Family and relationships
• Career or vocation
Remember that this is a custom closet, so it is up to you how much emphasis you want to place on each of these areas. Balance is a function of your individual priorities.
WHEN You Want It
The second dimension you will consider is the time horizon. I happen to believe you can have it all—just not all at once. Nor would you want to, really. How can you be fully present to experience everything all at once? So, you will think about when you want to get to everything over time. Once again, you can customize your closet to reflect the time frames that make the most sense for you given the nature of your goals and their relationship to one another.
People often ask me about the “right” time frame for goal setting. The answer to that question always depends on the nature of your goals and your particular circumstances. The goal of curing cancer would obviously take a lot longer than finding retail space for your new bakery. Likewise, the goal of earning your MBA will take longer to achieve if you don’t have your undergraduate degree than it would if you already have that credential.
As you consider your priorities, it’s easiest to begin by thinking about what you want to accomplish right now. What do you need to do to fulfill the vision you’ve established for yourself? Do you have a good balance of activities across the many roles you play, given your current circumstances? Are you getting enough exercise? Sleep? What represents a good balance for you today may not be so relevant next year. If you’re working full time and pursuing that MBA at night, your goal may just be to hold it all together until you earn your degree. A year from now, with classes behind you and a new credential, you may have very different goals. In fact, it’s not unlikely that earning your degree is a short-term goal that you undertook in order to fulfill a longer-term ambition.
If you have small children at home, you may have some things you’d like to pursue once they go off to college. Or, if you’re facing retirement, you may be looking forward to how that new phase of your life could be most satisfying. If your current circumstances won’t last more than a few years, thinking in one- and five-year increments might make a lot of sense for you. This is particularly true if you need to do something in the short term to be ready to meet your long-term objectives.
On the other hand, you might have such consuming short-term goals that taking a long-range view is too overwhelming for you. Only you can determine the appropriate time frame for your own goal setting in this moment. You will have ample opportunities to review your goals and add to them as it makes sense for you to do so. Set long-term goals if they serve you. Just be sure to avoid being so rigidly attached to making them happen that you pursue them even if they no longer fit a few years down the road.
What Goal-Setting Looks Like
Let’s take a look at Regina, a project manager in a large information technology operation, who took my Business of Life course offered through her employer. She had an eighteen-month-old baby girl, and just the mention of her name lit up Regina’s face. Her career was thriving and, overall, things were going pretty well. Her major issue: she was overweight and exhausted. While she had a satisfying job and a family she adored, she experienced melancholy that sometimes bordered on despair. As she considered her priorities, she realized that, as is all too common with working mothers, she was ignoring her own health just to get through her epic daily to-do list. It was clear that she needed to put some emphasis on taking care of herself since her bouts of depression coincided with the ebbs in her energy level. Her goal-setting exercise made it very clear how she could accomplish this goal while meeting other key objectives at the same time.
REGINA’S PRIORITIES EXERCISE
Regina was relieved to see her priorities seemed doable once they were laid out before her. She was happy to see that she could do things that brought her joy, met her family goals, and put her health in the mix. She vowed to get some physical activity daily and committed to getting to the gym three days a week. On her off days, she would take the baby for a walk. In that way, she could spend some time on her family priorities and get some exercise at the same time. Likewise, she loved to sing and decided to join her church choir. That gave her some much-needed connection to her community and built in time to attend to her spirit. Just seeing these few shifts boosted her morale and gave her hope that her health—and moods—would improve.
I’d like to underscore the importance of this exercise reflecting your own priorities. It’s very easy to get so caught up with people pleasing and other tendencies that you end up spending inordinate amounts of time on activities that don’t really mean that much to you. This can be an insidious problem because we’re often fooled by the way the invitation or request is framed. Like the time my nine-year-old niece told my sister-in-law, “It’s Mother’s Day. You can use whatever kind of fabric softener you want.” Generous offer indeed, but who said she wanted to spend her special day indulging her laundry habit in the first place? So beware, this is one way to get pulled into doing someone else’s bidding even if we’re invited to do their thing our way.
The Goals of Goal Setting
A detailed list of goals acts as a ready reminder of your priorities and serves as a rudder that guides your investments to produce the best possible results given your current circumstances, while still taking the long view.
This tool worked so well for reordering my priorities when my son was born, after I’d spent my whole pregnancy wondering if he would survive birth. Thankfully, he did, but we weren’t out of the woods. He had an unusual set of cardiac anomalies that required we keep close watch on him because sudden death was a lurking possibility for the first two years of his tender life. There was no question that family was my top, burning priority in those years. Community service, as important as it is to me, would have to wait until I saw my son through this critical time. Other people could support worthy causes, but only I could mother my son.
Once his condition no longer required such vigilance and I could do a limited amount of volunteer work, my priorities were clear. After facing the prospect of losing my precious child, I knew that as long as my children lived at home, family life was my absolute top priority and other decisions would be shaped by what was best for them. So as I added community service back into the mix, I had specific criteria for which projects I would accept. The organization requesting help would have to:
1. Benefit my children or family
2. Need a skill that I uniquely possessed
3. Require a time-limited commitment
4. Have a pleasant team capable of sustaining the value of our work
If those conditions were met, I would accept. If not, I would politely decline, saying I’d consider it once my kids moved on to college. Done. No guilt. No second-guessing myself.
Balance and Perspective
Many professionals I work with struggle with finding a good balance of work and personal life. Paul is no exception—except he had no awareness of his problem until he got to the goal-setting exercise in his Business of Life workshop. He’d signed up for the course because he had just relocated to Boston to take on a new position as finance manager in a large corporation. He felt that all he’d learned in his MBA program years earlier was a bit rusty, so he thought the class would be a good chance to brush up on his skills. He came expecting to focus on strategic planning and implementation techniques. But when he started filling in his priorities in his Custom Life Closet, he was slightly alarmed to see that he had put all of his attention on his career and he’d paid scant attention to any other aspects of his life. He was living in a new city where he didn’t know anyone and had no connection to the community. What’s more, he was so concerned about meeting the expectations of his new boss that he’d not focused much on his own health or recreation. This look in his closet was a big wake-up call.
Melissa is a manager who came to my Business of Life course hoping to find a way to be recognized by her vice president as the leader she was and to upgrade the status of her position to reflect that understanding. Achieving this goal would also affect her forty colleagues holding the same title. Almost as soon as her six-week course began, she realized that she had a number of additional areas to improve beyond work, and creating a business plan for her life was the key:
The most important thing I learned from the class, what really turned things around for me, was setting long-term goals. I’d been a big fan of to-do lists and loved crossing completed tasks off my list. But I’d never really stepped back to think about what I wanted to accomplish over time. Changing the operations coordinators jobs to operations managers wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t able to take that longer-term view. Everything I’d done up until then was just responding to doing what needed to be done. Thinking about what I wanted to accomplish long term let me set goals and make strategies to accomplish them. That was big.
Taking the long view also allowed Melissa to see that just “going along to get along” was driving her to make decisions that were in conflict with her personal goals. She described it this way, “The closet also really helped me see I was putting all my effort into work and my personal life was suffering. So I used the same goal setting to accomplish personal goals as well. This made it possible for me to find balance between my office and home life.”
Melissa’s vision statement had her in her new position as an operations manager and working on mastering the art of managing other people. But her vision expanded well beyond work and included a vivid description of her joyful home life that included a husband and children. Until she started working on her priorities, she hadn’t really thought much about how that was going to happen.
Many times we’re doing something that keeps us from fulfilling our desires that is so obvious, but only once we stop to look at it in context. Yes, Melissa wanted to get married and build a family. But it wasn’t until she looked at this goal with the intention of creating a plan to make it happen that she could see she was doing things that were not conducive to finding a husband. Not only was she focused almost entirely on her career, she had allowed her brother to move into her tiny apartment rent-free. With little free time and no privacy at home, it would be hard to find and nurture an intimate relationship with anyone else.
Within a year of developing her plan, she’d worked with the other operations coordinators to develop a forum where they could share challenges and best practices. I was delighted when she asked me to facilitate a retreat for this group and help them develop a strategy to get their positions upgraded, even at a time when her employer was facing layoffs and budget cuts. Melissa was fortunate that Jeanette, her senior vice president, had created an environment that encourages innovation from all the clinical and administrative staff and “supports their power to create positive change.” Melissa’s director, George, attended the retreat she organized. While the leadership needed to eliminate some positions, Melissa and her colleagues agreed to cover more units if their positions were upgraded to compensate for the additional work. That way, they would need fewer people and would save money while still getting all the work done. They found the win–win for her group and her department’s leaders, and Melissa and her colleagues got the title and salary they so richly deserved.
With that success under her belt, she saw the power of setting specific goals. Thus emboldened, she turned her attention to her personal life. Melissa made a point of doing something every week where she might meet new people and she asked her brother to find another place to live. With a new focus and a bit of luck, it didn’t take her long to meet and marry her husband. Their first child is due any day and she couldn’t be happier.
Presence Leads to Pleasure
The hundreds of busy professionals I’ve taught and coached over the years share a common struggle: they try to do too much. High achievers think they can do it all. Often they can, but at a great cost to themselves.
A physician enrolled in the Business of Life course because she was feeling burned out from the emotional intensity of meeting her cancer patients’ medical and personal needs while keeping up with the demands of her young family. She said of her experience:
I came to this class feeling guilty trying to do it all and doing nothing well. Now I feel so empowered. You taught me to be present and fully commit to whatever it was I chose to do. Everything changed. I actually played trains with my son without folding laundry at the same time. And to my surprise, it was fun. Until recently, I haven’t had much fun in my life.
Even work has changed. I experience much more joy when I allow myself to be fully there for my patients and give them my undivided attention. It gives me great satisfaction to help my frightened patients face their disease with optimism. The tools you taught me allowed me to let go of worrying about all the trivial tasks that needed doing. Your advice to schedule time on the calendar to complete these tasks was so simple, yet so powerful.
All it took for this bright and talented woman to find some joy from all of the effort she was expending was setting a goal of doing so and shifting her focus enough to let it happen. She learned to let go of the unimportant to make room for what really mattered. And it took no time at all to accomplish that—just awareness.
Staying in the moment is a powerful tool for finding joy or at least fully experiencing whatever it is you choose to do. We miss out on a lot of pleasure when our minds are on anything but what we’re doing in the moment. So when you choose to do something, commit to focusing on it and giving it your all—in that moment.
Choose and Commit
One thing that makes me exceptionally sad is hearing from new mothers who return to work after their maternity leave saying, “I didn’t accomplish a thing.” They had expected to paint the house, write the great American novel, or plant a new garden in their “time off.” I ask them how many diapers they changed, how many times they fed and bathed their tiny new companion or kissed his sweet-smelling head. Their job was bonding with their baby and giving her a good start in life. And yet, they missed the fact that they had indeed accomplished what they’d really set out to do. Their wistful, in-retrospect smile breaks my heart every time. So please be conscious of what you’ve chosen to do and commit to it fully. Then savor the memory of those satisfying moments. Don’t look back with regret.
I witnessed a poignant reminder of just how important committing to being present is to those around us during my son’s seventh-grade soccer season. His teammate’s father traveled routinely for business and seldom came to his games. He finally made it to the last game of the season and the boy triumphantly looked to the sidelines when he scored the winning goal. But he crumpled to the ground in a sobbing heap when his searching eyes found his father on the phone with his back to the field. It would have been better for him if his father hadn’t come at all, since his expectations were raised and then his hopes dashed. If you choose to go to a soccer game, or your equivalent, commit to really being there and let other distractions wait. Especially if someone else is counting on you.
Claim Your Power
Once we determined that the main thing standing between Brenda and the management career she desired was the college degree she never pursued because she simply accepted her middle school teacher’s inaccurate declaration that she had no aptitude for math, she was able to set specific goals that would set her up to fulfill her dream. “Earn a college degree” was her ultimate goal, but that was so large and lofty that Brenda was afraid to commit to it. So, we talked about what she felt she could tackle as a first step. She agreed to face her fear head-on and set an immediate goal of taking a math course at a local university the very next semester. She agreed that if she passed that course, she would commit to the longer-term goal of pursuing her bachelor’s degree.
Another compelling reason to commit your goals to paper is the simple fact that it works. A recent study by Dr. Gail Matthews at Dominican University of California confirmed that people who wrote down their goals and committed to giving regular updates to their friends were 33 percent more likely to accomplish them than people who simply thought about their objectives.2 For years, I’ve been pairing participants in my workshops with a “buddy” when the course ends and instructing them to check in at regular intervals to see how the other is doing. The accountability and mutual support has really helped people stay committed to their goals, ensuring long-term dividends on the time they invested in creating their personal business plan.
If you are like many people I work with, you carry a lot of details in your head and worry that you’ll forget something critically important. By writing down your goals and referring to them frequently, you can let go of that concern. You can free up some valuable real estate in your brain for other important pursuits.
Goal setting may also help to clarify how you can use your strengths to achieve your vision, sometimes in a most unexpected way. Remember Diane, the doctor who wanted to positively impact the practice of medicine nationally while maintaining her busy clinical practice and being available to her young children? How she would achieve this eluded her even as she listed her critical success factors. Conducting her SWOT analysis reminded her of the pleasure she got from thoroughly researching the issues related to prescribing narcotics in order to write a policy manual for her hospital’s primary care department.
She enjoyed being an expert on the nuances of this delicate matter facing doctors across the nation, and she’d noted this as a major strength on her SWOT. She realized that her depth of knowledge and understanding was a strength that would be of value well beyond the walls of her own institution and which had the potential for widespread impact on her profession. She’d recorded the need for better prescribing guidelines as an opportunity to leverage her knowledge on the national stage and she set a goal of establishing herself as a recognized leader in this area within five years. She had the added goal of having family dinners at least five nights a week until her youngest child left for college in thirteen years. With her list of critical success factors and SWOT in hand, she set an immediate goal to turn a spare bedroom into her home office. She would use the laptop her husband had given her as her home computer. She made a priority of speaking to her division chief about rearranging her clinical schedule and she booked another coaching session to work on strategies to put the remaining two critical success factors in place: her communications platform and salary for the nonclinical time. You will see the strategies she developed in step 7.
I’m often asked what makes a “good” goal. The goal that you’ll work toward, the one you’re committed to achieving and whose achievement is likely to bring you closer to fulfilling your vision is a good one. In management circles, the goals voted most likely to succeed are SMART:
So consider these attributes as you think about your own goals. A specific goal says “I will lose ten pounds by Christmas by exercising before work three times a week and cutting out sweets.” This goal has a much higher likelihood of getting results than the more general “I want to lose weight,” because it leads clearly to specific actions. Wishing doesn’t make something so. And plenty of research bears this out. In her book Succeed,3 Heidi Grant Halvorson describes an experiment conducted by German social psychologist Peter Gollwitzer that showed that students who planned the time and place that they would write their essays were more than twice as likely to complete them on time than those who simply agreed to write it over Christmas break.
Measurable goals can be tracked easily, and monitoring your progress can keep you motivated to keep moving forward. Watching those ten pounds melt away, one at a time, inspires continued vigilance.
Setting attainable and realistic goals is not the same as setting easy ones. You can still challenge yourself and aim high. Attainable means that you have the skills and capacities to make them happen—these are the strengths in your SWOT. Realistic means that you are willing and able to work toward it. If there’s no way you’ll give up your daily hot fudge sundae, losing ten pounds by giving up sweets is not a realistic goal for you.
Finally, time-bounded goals create a sense of urgency and get you moving. Losing those ten pounds by Christmas means you’d better get started with your exercise program now since that’s right around the corner. Without that deadline, you can always start your regimen tomorrow. A tomorrow that never comes.
Melissa’s goals were SMART. To meet her future husband, she set a goal of enrolling in an on-line dating service and meeting at least one new person a month (specific and measurable). She had plenty of friends who had done the same thing, so she knew this was attainable and realistic. She also planned to start immediately. It would be hard to be more timely than that.
As you prepare to write down your own goals, here are a few points to consider.
• Remember that having it all is not the same as doing it all. So focus on what’s most important. You will never be able to do everything, and accepting that simple fact can be liberating.
• Don’t let fear inhibit your ambitions.
• Consider breaking large goals into smaller “mini goals.” “Lose one hundred pounds” is such a big goal that it may seem undoable. “Join a gym” and “hire a nutrition coach” are actionable priorities that you can commit to and hold yourself accountable for achieving.
• Be sure to include “joy notes” and keep pleasure among your priorities. As Danielle, our soon-to-be-laid-off fashion buyer, approached redefining her work life, she had a hard time knowing where to start. When she reviewed her self-assessment, she took note of how much she enjoyed cooking even though she hadn’t done much of that while she was working and commuting such long hours. So, to prime her goal-setting pump, she put taking a cooking class on her list of short-term priorities just to inject some fun into her days. Little did she know where that decision would lead her a few months down the road.
Set Your Goals and Priorities
Make your own version of a custom closet in your notebook or download one from joyofstrategy.com.
• Write down your goals and priorities across the four major areas: work/career, family/relationships, community, and mind/body/spirit. Check to see that you are happy with the distribution of your priorities and that they reflect your sense of a good balance among them.
• Consider your short-, medium-, and long-term goals. Those shelves are there for you if you find them helpful. You are under no obligation to fill them all with priorities. Recording long-term goals is especially helpful if you need to accomplish short-term goals to be ready when the time comes to fulfill the later objective. If you have the goal of flying around the world in ten years, you may want to set short-term goals that include getting your pilot’s license and saving up to buy a plane.
• Be sure to include some health-related goals to make sure your body runs efficiently, so that you feel well and are capable of enjoying whatever it is you choose to do.
• Once you’ve recorded your priorities, color code each one as follows:
yellow = medium priority
red = least important, low priority
Consider why any low-priority items are on your list and think about eliminating them.
Your color-coded closet gives you a nice visual of how you want to spend your precious time and other resources. Take one more look at your priorities and goals. If you are able to accomplish everything, will you fulfill your mission and vision? Consider adding to your list until your answer to that question is a resounding “yes.”
As you set your goals and priorities, do a gut check and see how you feel about your choices. Do your goals excite you and inspire you to act? Do they tip your scale away from hassle toward joy? The goals that you are most likely to pursue fully are those that will bring you pleasure and fulfillment. Be sure to include a healthy dose of happiness among your priorities.