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Anyone who has ever sought advice, looked for a mentor or hired a coach has done so because, at least intuitively, they know that transformation and success seldom happen accidentally. Often, we need help achieving our dreams, but we also need a plan. That plan inevitably includes goals, but how does one make sure those goals serve you? Genuinely effective goal setting is part art, part science, and very very personal.

Setting goals? Perhaps another time.

My 11-year-old daughter loves to-do lists. She makes them about everything and then goes into a state of transcendental delight as she crosses items off them. The other day I caught her making a list of the lists she needs to make. ‘It’s so much fun,’ she says with a beaming smile, inviting me into her well-planned world of order and contentment. No thanks, darling. To-do lists numb my brain, bore me to death, and build up an intensity of resistance that ultimately defeats the objective of the list: to get things done.

I always struggled with this aversion, but as I grew older, I got the sense that it was somehow limiting my personal growth and development. It wasn’t like I wasn’t getting things done, but I wasn’t moving forward in directions I wanted to. I wasn’t getting the right things done. It was around that time that I was first introduced to goal setting and the notion that, to get where I want to be in my life, I need to set goals that reflect that reality. My first reaction? No thanks, darling. Setting goals felt a lot like putting together a to-do list, just more work. And I was right: effective goal setting does require work, as does the achievement of those goals, but the rewards are significant.

Working smarter, not harder

Initially, I struggled with achieving my goals, but in retrospect, this wasn’t because I didn’t work hard enough, it was because my goals were badly crafted. They were vague, uninspiring, didn’t connect with what I really wanted to achieve, and were difficult to measure. Enter S.M.A.R.T goals – one of the most well-known and effective techniques for establishing goals and chasing them down. This system makes goals stronger and easier to achieve by improving their quality, and dictates that goals be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

Specific: Compare ‘I want to lose weight’ to ‘I want to lose 10kgs’. Specific goals are easier to envision and therefore easier to achieve. If the goal can’t be defined properly, it can’t be reached.
Measurable: Can the goal be measured? If yes, how? Some goals can be measured with a simple yes or no (like seeing the Eiffel Tower), some require progressive measurement (like gradually losing 10kgs over the course of 3 months).
Attainable: The goal should stretch your abilities, but still be attainable. ‘Learn to speak French in 3 weeks’ is not attainable, but by changing the structure of the goal, it can be kept challenging, but made achievable.
Relevant: The goal needs to be relevant to you, your broader objectives, perhaps even your life purpose. It also needs to correspond with support systems that you have in place.
Time-bound: Many people have the goal of writing a book, but one of the reasons most fail is that they make it a lifelong goal. A target date, or a deadline, is necessary to keep you focused on achieving the goal.

Dumb down to step up

This step-by-step process can be enormously useful in setting goals that stick. But, according to Derek Sivers, the next step is not to announce your goals to the world. Though it feels self-affirming to share one’s goals, research suggests that this reduces your likelihood of achieving them.

Others have also questioned the universal application of S.M.A.R.T goals, concerned that the process breeds limiting behavior and thinking. In this video, for example, Brendon Burchard advocates a new system for uncovering and achieving destiny-oriented aspirational goals: D.U.M.B (Dream-driven | Uplifting | Method-friendly | Behaviour-triggered).

Goal setting is also critical to organizational success. Research indicates that employee performance improves through goal setting while challenging and specific goals increase employee engagement in that process. This is the driving intelligence behind OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). A fixture in Google project teams, OKRs is a methodology that gets employees’ work to sync with the organization’s plans. Objectives are aspirational and ambitious, and may even feel uncomfortable. Key results are measurable steps towards the objective and should be easily graded with a number. Typically, OKRs are public and separate from employee evaluations. Used well, they help motivate and innovate, and create greater alignment between employee and organization. As with Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle, a well-positioned objective should include a strong ‘why’, which encourages a unified focus on achieving key outcomes.

Feel the force

However, regardless of the goal setting modality used, it’s critical that the process be very personal. All the doing in the world is going to be useless if it’s not preceded by some being. No matter how you get to them, your goals need to be aligned with meaning to make a difference in your life. Perhaps the first step, then, in planning your actions in the world out there is to start by focusing on the world in here. Spend real time understanding what motivates you, and what you want to achieve with your energy, your time, your life. Goals that come from that place are unstoppable.

Photo by Tim Graf on Unsplash