Busy lives require better goal-setting

Setting goals doesn’t mean expressing your hopes, but instead planning the steps required to achieve them.


Do you ever feel like days, weeks or even months go by when you’re not sure what you’ve really achieved or what your hard work has been in service of?

All too often, our minds are reactively focused on the estimated 35,000 decisions we make each day and the management of the 150 tasks on our to-do lists that research tells us the average professional has at any given time.

It’s easy to lose sight of where you’re headed and why when you’re running on autopilot.

While we can’t necessarily slow things down, we can increase our ability to control outcomes by working with goals. The idea of goal-setting is far from new, but what I notice from people I coach and manage, and from my own behaviours, is that the way we approach goals is often flawed.

We repeatedly set far too many ambiguous goals and make no time to understand the practicalities of how we get from where we are today to where we want to be in the future. The result is an increasing list of unmet goals and decreasing confidence in our ability to get what we want out of work. It’s certainly not a recipe for a happy and fulfilling career.

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Over the past few months, I have been taking a new approach to creating and completing goals, which has helped me to achieve more impactful outcomes and increased my motivation to keep going.

I have learned that there are specific ‘tricks’ in goal setting and in how you go about achieving your goals that can increase your likelihood to actually complete them. Armed with these tricks, you can stop yourself getting stuck on autopilot and increase your sense of achievement and fulfilment.

Setting better goals

First, you need to focus on how you can set your goals, and yourself, up for success. I think about this in terms of how ‘zoom-in’ and ‘zoom-out’ goals work together. Think of these like a map. With a zoom-out goal, you’re taking a step back to see the destination you’re aiming for. In contrast, a zoom-in goal provides you with visibility of the route to get you there.

An example of one of my zoom-out goals is completing my MBA dissertation by 31 December. All too often, this is where people stop. It’s the ‘new year’s resolution’ syndrome of setting an aspirational goal that delivers a future benefit, with no thought of the steps you need to take to achieve it. To combat this, you need to bring in a series of zoom-in goals, which build on each other to gradually progress you to your desired end goal.

In the example of my dissertation, I have created achievable weekly zoom-in goals. Rather than fixating on the end goal, I can take confidence in knowing that if I complete each of these weekly steps, in five months I’ll be pressing submit. I have set similar zoom-in/zoom-out goals for a book I’m writing and for my career development aims over the next 18 months.

I have learned that there are specific ‘tricks’ in goal setting and in how you go about achieving your goals that can increase your likelihood to actually complete them.

I currently have three active goals, but this is where I have stopped. It’s very important that you have a realistic number active at any one time to avoid ‘goal competition’. Goal competition is a significant barrier to achievement as you risk spreading your limited focus and attention too thinly.

Instead, set a maximum of three active goals to work on and have a bank of other goals you can swap in when you’ve achieved them. Accumulating goals can feel attractive in the moment, however your wish list can soon feel like a motivational deadweight if you don’t start to make progress.

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A final tactic, that many of us will be familiar with, is the idea of making your goals as specific as possible. While the concept of SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound) may feel like a buzzword hangover from the 90s, there is a lot of truth in their value. Research by the British Journal of Health Psychology has shown that 91% of people who wrote down goals with a specific plan of how, where and when they would be achieved, actually followed through with them. It’s not hard to do. Just make sure for each of your goals you’re clear on when you’re going to achieve them and what success really looks like.

Reward yourself for progress

Let’s imagine you’ve taken forward this goal setting approach and you’re now left with three specific goals to focus your attention on. Unfortunately, this isn’t enough to guarantee your success. Your goals may still fall by the motivational wayside. The good news is that there is a ‘hack’ that can increase your commitment to achieving your goals.

Instead of fixating on how much better you’ll be/look/feel when you finally achieve your goal, focus on the positive benefits of the steps you’re taking towards your goals today. Each time you complete a ‘zoom in’ goal, find some way to recognise and reward your progress.

A study by Harvard Business Review found that focusing on immediate benefits increases your persistence and likelihood to achieve your goals. The study also found, that if you can create a sense of enjoyment in working towards your goals, you’re more likely to stay the course.

To go back to my MBA dissertation goal, one way I could enjoy each step of progress would be to work alongside my fellow students or to work outdoors in my garden, rather than stuck in my study on my own. What these rewards or enjoyment look like is very personal.

Undoubtedly, you’ve set yourself goals before; some you’ve achieved and some have been cast aside. But rather than thinking ‘been there, done that’, I’d encourage you to look again at how you’re setting goals, how many you have active and how you’re sustaining your motivation to achieve them.

Effective goal-setting is one of the most powerful ways to make sure that you are in control of your career and time spent setting them up for success is just as important as the effort spent achieving them.



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