Let’s Get Smarter About Goal-Setting

The rhythm that we established as school children lives on in many of us.  Admit it:

  • You get antsy in the spring, realizing that summer is just around the corner.
  • Feeling like September is a fresh start, you clear out a few old files and bring in a few new office supplies.

‘Back to school’ is a groove that many of us fall back into long after we’ve graduated and moved on. We think of this time of year as an opportunity to focus and work diligently to achieve what was set out as objectives for the year... all in the final four months.

So, this is the ideal time of year to revisit, revise, and reignite a commitment to our goals. It’s also the ideal time to challenge how we approach this important task.

The traditional SMART approach to goal-setting has been drilled into the brains of employees and leaders alike; yet lack of goal clarity and achievement continue to haunt organizations. The challenges of this popular method make focusing on it alone no longer so smart.  Here's why...

Specific - Given today’s dynamic workplace, it’s dangerous to narrow our thinking too much, to become too fixed in one direction. Developing a focus that’s more diffused and broader in scope might help you remain flexible and able to pivot when necessary.

Measurable - How do you measure enthusiasm, inspiration, and excitement? These are the currency of sustainable business and sustainable satisfaction with one’s work... but they may not neatly fall into a spreadsheet that tracks metrics and milestones.

Attainable - Would you have accomplished all that you have if you had always been realistic? Would you be where you are if you’d set only do-able goals? This is a low bar that can inspire complacency rather than motivation and excellence.

Relevant - Let me be honest. Despite all the management courses I’ve taken and taught, I don’t really even know what we mean by this one. It’s always felt like an add-on because "SMAT" doesn’t work.

Time-bound - Einstein anticipated the current workplace when he announced that time is relative. The speed and volume of business means that the ink isn’t even dry on one deadline before the landscape shifts creating a cascade of downstream implications.

Perhaps it would be smarter to reconceive goal-setting in a way that goes beyond a traditional, cognitive understanding of what needs to be done and activates an affective reaction to the goals we set out. What if we instead set goals the ensured:

Alignment - For goals to have power and drive a sustained focus, there must be a clear line of sight to what’s important to us. Lining individual goals up against department or organizational objectives can help paint us into the bigger picture and give our work greater meaning. But goals must also be aligned on a personal level. Do your goals reflect your values? Do they support you in achieving other important outcomes?  Alignment on a personal and professional level will enhance goal achievement.

Challenge - Study after study confirms that challenging goals lead to enhanced performance. Finding the right level of challenge is key. Ridiculous, unattainable stretch goals are quickly shed and forgotten. But goals that push us to the edge can enhance attention, effort, persistence, and motivation.

Emotional connection - Attainable is boring. Relevant is ho-hum. Measurable doesn’t matter if the goal doesn’t ignite a powerful, emotional reaction. Goals that are inspiring, exciting, even thrilling will ensure the sustained focus and effort required to see them through.

You have four months to achieve this year’s goals. If you really want to ACE them, it’s time to pull out some of those fresh office supplies and spend a few minutes making sure that you have the alignment, challenge, and emotional connection required to achieve extraordinary success.

Image: Liz Price