Smart Goal Setting
Goals vs resolutions
It’s that time of year. The time of year where we reflect on the year that has passed —
- What went wrong vs what went right?
- Did we do certain things really well?
- What did we accomplish?
- What can we improve on and what do we want to accomplish?
Although, I would argue, that focusing on the positive questions is just as meaningful and important, it’s really the last two questions that fill our thoughts as we head into the New Year. As a result, these drive what we refer to as our New Year’s Resolutions but is a resolution really what we need? I am arguing that we do not. Rather, what we need are New Year’s Goals and there is a major difference between a resolution and a goal.
So let’s explore those differences:
First, let’s explore the difference between the two words (which are often (and inappropriately) used interchangeably). To start, from a purely academic perspective, here are the definitions of “resolution” and “goal”:
- a firm decision to do or not to do something
- the end toward which effort is directed
- Resolution: I have made a firm decision to prioritize my relationship with my significant other
- Goal: In 2019, I will direct more effort into prioritizing my relationship with my significant other. I will do this by committing to spending at least 2 (kid-free) hours together out of the house twice a month.
Clear difference between the two right? You can DECIDE to do something until you are blue in the face but that doesn’t mean much. In fact, you can even be really FIRM about it and still get nowhere.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally fine setting a resolution; in fact, the “firm decision” to change something is a necessary first step. My problem with setting a resolution is that there is nothing actionable behind it. Consequently, without the follow on step of turning this resolve into a goal, it’s meaningless and destined for failure; this is backed in morose statistics regarding the unsuccessful nature of resolutions. I’ve heard various stats on how often resolutions are successful ranging from 8% to 20%. At any rate, nothing that I’ve read has indicated that resolutions are ever wildly successful.
The goal of this post is not to demoralize or to discourage you from making meaningful changes in your life as we enter the new year. Contrarily, I’m actually big fan of self-improvement. The takeaway is that, whatever name you want to give it, our New Year’s Decisions need to be accompanied by an actionable path for which we can direct our effort.
Smart Goal Setting
Feeling motivated yet? Yea, me either. Let’s change that. Let’s talk about how to best set goals and the related action plan:
- Write it down
- Re-write it
- Foreshadow road blocks
- Develop contingency plans for your identified roadblocks
- Make an action plan
- Make it visible
1. Write it down:
First, write it down! Don’t overthink the format. Just write down whatever comes to mind.
2. Re-write it:
Second, write it again! Already? That’s right, already. Using the S.M.A.R.T. format of goal writing, re-write your goal.
Anyone that has ever spent a minute in the corporate world has heard about this method of goal setting. Although it’s not new it is effective which is why it’s used over and over and over. S.M.A.R.T. stands for:
Smart Goal Setting – Specific:
To begin, the more specific you can be the better. For example, turn “I will prioritize my relationship with my significant other” into “In 2019, I will direct more effort into prioritizing my relationship with my significant other. I will do this by committing to spending at least 2 (kid-free) hours together out of the house twice a month.”
If you find yourself unable to define your goal in a specific way, ask yourself some key questions:
- What exactly do I want to achieve?
- Why do I want to achieve this goal?
- How am I going to achieve this goal?
Smart Goal Setting – Measurable
Second, break your goal down into measurable components. Doing so is key because creating a measurable goal allows you to get specific feedback on how you are progressing toward the ultimate goal.
Smart Goal Setting – Actionable:
Third, set a detailed plan that will guide you to attain your goal. I like to make quarterly actionable plans. Though my eye is always on the end goal, I haven’t found success planning actions too far in the future. Things change and you need a little bit of flexibility and reassessment along the way.
Smart Goal Setting – Realistic
Next, be realistic. This is where I struggle the most. Specifically, I have a SLEW of things that sound great or that I’d love to take on and I am not always great at considering my limitations. Spare me the motivational quote about the sky’s the limit and what not because it just isn’t true. In other words, be honest with yourself here. Be honest about your priorities and really consider what is on your plate.
To illustrate, currently, my primary limitation is time. I have a demanding career and a spouse who also has a demanding career. Further, I have a toddler and a baby on the way (so this time limitation thing isn’t going away anytime soon). Being a good employee, wife and mother are my top priorities and it doesn’t leave a lot of time for goals outside of those categories. These three categories are my non-negotiables. The priorities that I put above all else.
Now, this doesn’t mean that I NEVER set goals outside of these categories.
Rather, it means that I take very seriously the opportunity cost of setting goals outside of these categories.
It means that I consider the loss of potential gain in my career or my marriage by choosing to dedicate time elsewhere.
In summary, the limitations on my time have a massive impact on the goals that I set for myself. Consider also monetary limitations and physical limitations. To illustrate further, I’ve alway wanted to learn to cook. Like properly learn to cook not 1-hour class at Sur la Table learn to cook. In order to do this, I would need to enroll in a cooking class and, therefore, clear my schedule one night a week to attend it. Now, this might not seem like a big deal but, in the context of my competing priorities, it would have massive repercussions. It means that I’d be out one night a week to catch up on work, to help with dinner/bath/bed and to reconnect with my spouse.
The opportunity cost of taking a cooking class one night a week means that I would have to forgo other activities that either bring me great joy or, and more importantly, are necessary to bring me closer to other goals and priorities that I’ve deemed my “non-negotiables”.
Smart Goal Setting – Time-based
Finally, connecting your goal to a specific time frame creates a sense of urgency. Procrastination be gone!
3. Foreshadow road blocks:
Third, foreshadow road blocks. I know; this seems very negative Nancy but it’s really meant to be a realistic Rachael. If you’re thinking “I’ve written my goals! I’ve re-written my goals and boy oh boy are they SMART. This will be executed flawlessly” then you’re just setting yourself up for failure.
Write down as many things that you can think of that would throw you off your action plan. Write down at least three but if you can think of more keep going!
4. Develop contingency plans for your identified roadblocks:
Fourth, develop a contingency plan for your identified roadblocks. Ok; you’ve considered what could go wrong. Now, consider how you can right size your plan if you are actually faced with those roadblocks.
Let’s take prioritizing my relationship with my spouse goal as an example of how to consider #3 and #4:
My actionable plan is to spend 2 hours, kid free and out of the house twice a month with my husband.
Roadblock: When our new baby comes in February, it will be very difficult to be away for a two hour block (#NursingMomProblems)
Contingency plan: Until we can get away for longer stretches, we will go for an outing (coffee, walk, etc.) with the new baby. Yes, I know this is breaking the rule a little bit as the action plan said “kid free” but I’ve decided that my husband and I can still attempt to have meaningful conversation and connect with a new baby present (ThriveToddler will NOT be invited as there is NO meaningful conversation that happens when he is around). We both agreed that, while not perfect, this contingency plan would keep the ultimate goal in site.
Roadblock: Can’t find a sitter or sitter cancels
Contingency plan: We have four Date Night In boxes in the closet. We will turn our frowns upside down and use those instead!
No matter how meticulous a project is planned something will go awry. That’s just life. The goal of #3 and #4 is to be prepared for as much as possible and eliminate any excuses along the way so as to not completely derail your action plan.
5. Make an action plan:
Fifth, make an action plan. Revisit the “S” and “A” in S.M.A.R.T. Really lay out the specifics of how you are going to achieve your goal and create a detailed action plan. Like I said, I like to lay out my action plans quarterly and get more granular from there. I can more or less tell you what I have going on in the upcoming three month block. This allows me to better foreshadow specific roadblocks. For example, my goal might be to work out three days a week. If I have a business trip next month, I know I won’t be able to make it to spin class. I can do a quick Google search for 3 hotel gym workouts now and eliminate any excuse of not working out while I am away.
Ultimately, how to develop this action plan is up to you. I find myself a bit overwhelmed if I try to create a longer action plan than quarterly. As a result, my head starts spinning, I can’t focus and I don’t create a detailed enough action plan. I also have found that monthly is too short of a time frame. It’s just too much to ask to dedicate 12 “goal setting” sessions a year. I’d rather put this time into actually achieving the goal rather than planning to achieve the goal.
6. Make it visible:
Finally, make it visible! Now, you have a lot of flexibility in how you execute this step. “Make it visible” can mean writing your goal down somewhere that only you will see every day. It can also mean making a vision board (personal favorite) and hanging it somewhere that your entire family can see. Further, you can make this as detailed as you want. You can include your quarterly action plan or just keep it a few sentences. The point here is to remind yourself of your goal every. single. day.
I’ve actually made a printable that you can use to go through all of these steps. You can visit with your completed printable daily as well!
- Setting Goals Worksheet: A Free Printable
- What is Effective Goal Setting
- Mini-Milestones in Goal Setting
- A Collection of Ted Talks: Ideas about Goal-setting
- 10 Best Mantras for Working Moms