I’ve achieved many of the biggest achievements in my life without specific goals. I’ve been offered terrific jobs which I applied for on a whim, and had wonderful experiences and opportunities that just seemed to open up.
And yet goals have been essential to me to achieving other things: hitting certain financial targets, or getting big projects completed on time and budget.
There’s lots of evidence – some anecdotal, some scientific – that setting goals works, and that people achieve more and do more challenging things when they’ve set themselves a particular target. But if that’s the case, why do we fail to achieve them so frequently? We might resolve to make 6 sales calls a day, or go to the gym 3 times a week, but many of us fail early and often.
So should you set yourself specific goals in your life or your work?
Do goals really help?
A goal helps you pin down what you want. If you’ve had any dealings with the corporate world, you’ll probably be familiar with the SMART acronym. If they’re going to be effective, goals need to be
S: specific (stating exactly what it is you’ll do: lose weight, or gain clients)
M: measurable (2kg, or 2 clients)
A: achievable: Is 50kg achievable, or sensible? Is 200 new clients even possible?
R: relevant: Is is the right thing for you or your business?
T: time-bound: When you’ll do it by
For some things, SMART goals are very effective. They help you focus on achieving that one goal, and provide a way of knowing when you’ve reached it.
But being very specific can have a dark side. What happens if, by focusing on gaining new clients, you neglect your current ones? You might be able to lose weight quickly by using a diet that causes your body to burn muscle rather than fat, but is that your intention?
Is focus a better option?
Should you forget the measurements and just concentrate on one area? Peter Bregman, author of 18 Minutes, argues that choosing an area to focus on more broadly is more likely to be successful. If increasing customer revenue is key, you’re maybe less likely to let one group suffer if you’re looking at your clients as a whole. If you want to improve your health, it encourages you to lose weight, improve your fitness and eat more healthily at the same time.
What’s more, looking more broadly allows you to see connections between information or possibilities. It allows you to respond more quickly to a situation, adjusting what needs doing according to what’s going on.
One of my favourite business thinkers, Nigel Botterill, talks about his ‘aha’ moment of realising that the most important thing he could do in his business was to get and keep customers. By focusing on that each and every day, no matter what else was going on, he’s been able to grow a series of multi-million pound businesses. His secret was deciding on one area, and not allowing anything to distract him from it.
However, the danger is that it’s an easy excuse to change your focus. One month you’re all over cost-cutting, the next you’re interested in only networking. And if you don’t have any way of measuring what you’re doing, you can easily be lulled into a false sense of making progress simply by being busy. If you haven’t defined success, can you be sure whether you’re successful?
If you don’t believe it, it won’t work
When focus fails, it’s often not to do with an unrealistic goal or an undisciplined mind. A clash of values can derail any objectives.
Any kind of achievement requires a certain amount of discipline. We have to continually overcome the temptation to do something easier or less stressful. However, our minds like to work within their comfort zone. Out brain reacts to changes in its environment by sending out messages that cause anxiety or discomfort, or simply tempt us strongly in the other direction.
That means that if you’re trying to achieve something that you’re fundamentally uncomfortable with, you’re unlikely to manage it. If it contradicts something you believe in, you may be able to achieve results in the short term, but long-term it’s going to cause stress and extreme discomfort.
However, it might not be the goal that’s the problem. The way you perceive the process of what you need to do might be the thing that puts you off.
Many businesses owners hate the thought of doing sales, but they need business. If they’re afraid of being seen as pushy or arrogant, they’ll probably back off.
Dieters may resolve to cut out alcohol, or big meals, but if it feels as though they have to sacrifice seeing friends or a social life, it’s unlikely to succeed.
If you find that the goal you ‘ought’ to set yourself is making you uncomfortable, ask youself what’s going on. Is it the result that concerns you, or the process you think you need go through?
How to align values and goals
We’re much more able to resist temptation when our overall goals, or focus, are in line with what we believe. Most of us can walk into the most expensive shop and leave without shoplifting, because we believe that theft is wrong.
If you’re comfortable that your goal, or your focus, is right, ask yourself what approach you need. There’s rarely only one path to a destination. Entrepreneur Catherine Watkin, for instance, has built her business training small business owners to sell without compromising their own values. Choose a diet only after you’re looked closely at how you can integrate it with your life. If you’re struggling, look for other people who’ve succeeded, and ask for tips.
A coach or mentor can also help you work out the best approach for you, and help keep you on track. There’s evidence that commitment to an achievement is a much more poweful motivator than measuring simply progress, so once you’ve worked out what you want to achieve, consider doing it with other people as a shared commitment.