A framework for setting goals

Many of us have an allergic reaction to goal setting. We’ve set goals before and not stuck to them, so why bother this time?

If a person doesn’t have a goal, they can’t fail. That’s why so many don’t set goals: they don’t want to set themselves up for failure.

In the article To Whom Do We Bow, Mel Weitsman writes:

“If you think about all the things that you promised yourself you would do and didn’t do, and look back on that, you’d be amazed at all the intentions you had that you didn’t honour. Sometimes this holds us back.“

Getting over our past failed attempts at goal setting requires a mindset shift. Rather than seeing goals as these binary, success or failure metrics, try thinking of them as guiding principles. If you set a goal and you get 80% of the way there, you’ll be better off than if you didn’t set a goal in the first place.

That’s the way I see goals. They’re milestones in a bigger journey. They’re stepping stones to where and who I want to be.

3 mistakes people make when setting goals

These are the mistakes I’ve made and have observed others making when it comes to goal setting.

Mistake 1: Setting bad goals

The most common mistake is simply not thinking through your goals properly. You’ve probably heard of the acronym “SMART”. Yes, it sounds a little silly and comes straight from business school 101, but it’s worth keeping in mind when creating new goals. Let’s recap on what SMART means:

Specific – The more specific your goal, the better. You want to avoid vague, lofty goals.
Measurable – The goal should be measurable to keep you on track. Adding a number usually helps.
Achievable – Make sure the goal is realistic. Goals should push you, but they should also be possible. Do you have the time or resources to accomplish the goal?
Relevant – Is the goal relevant to your current situation? We’re all in different phases of life or business, so make sure the goal aligns with where you’re at.
Time-based – Put a deadline on the goal. As the saying goes, a goal without a deadline is just a wish.

Mistake 2: Setting too many goals

The mistake I make most often is trying to do too much. If you set too many goals, you’ll lack the focus to achieve them. I set 3-5 goals per quarter, which usually includes 1 or 2 bigger goals and a couple of smaller habit-based goals. Working in 12 week intervals has worked well for me. It’s a big enough chunk of time to make real progress, but small enough that you can review, change direction (if required), and set new goals several times throughout the year.

Mistake 3: Not reviewing goals on a regular basis

Most goals aren’t achieved simply because they’re forgotten about. I know I’ve done it. I’ve set a new years resolution, then gone about my year, only to find the resolution I’d written down 3 months later. If you don’t have a system for reviewing your goals, you’ll likely forgot them. Each week, or even every day, run by your goals. Reviewing your goals helps clarify what you should be working on. Each day, I try and do at least one thing that moves me closer to achieving my goals. It’s a great way to make progress on the things I care about.

The framework I use for setting good goals (and an example)

I like to escape from the day-to-day noise and really think about where I want to be heading before goal setting. I’m idea generating and note taking for weeks before I actually sit down to think about the goals I want to set for the next quarter. Don’t rush this process. I’ll often come up with 10 or more goals, before discarding or pushing back the things that are less important. Again, aim for 5 goals or less.

This is the framework I use for each goal that I create:

1. Write up the goal, making sure it’s SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based).

2. Write your motivations for achieving that goal. These are short statements about why the goal is important to you. It’s good to keep these motivations in mind while reviewing your goals.

3. Set a reward for when you achieve your goal. This is often missed: we rarely celebrate what we achieve. Write down how you will celebrate. It could be buying something you want, taking someone out to dinner, or going to see a band or comedian you like. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but it should motivate you.

4. Finally, write down the next steps. What are a few simple actions that can move you towards your goal? You don’t need to plan out the entire project – in fact, you probably shouldn’t – you just want enough to get you started.

Here are some questions to ask yourself while putting together your goals:

  • What one thing do you need to do this year for you to consider it a success? That’s what you should focus on.
  • What goals can you set that focus on helping others? Personal goals are important, but setting goals that focus on other people can have a positive impact on your happiness.
  • What do you need to say no to in order to accomplish your goals?

Here’s an example of a goal I set this quarter. I had neglected my mailing list and wanted to start sending out monthly newsletter again.

Goal: Send out monthly newsletter on November and December 1st

To get back in the habit of sending regular newsletters
To keep my list warm and engage with like-minded people
Drive traffic to my blog
To share what I learn

Buy a bottle of Ardbeg Uigeadail (one of my favourite whiskies)

Next steps
Move all subscribers to one list in MailChimp
Decide on new newsletter name
Modify existing email template to fit new format
Draft ideas for first newsletter
Schedule first newsletter in MailChimp on Monday 30th Oct

Now the important part begins

Goals by themselves are meaningless. Setting a goal is easy, it’s following through that’s difficult. To achieve our goals, we need a system we can rely on. Here’s how I do it:

1. Write down your goals using the format above. Get them down on paper (the act of writing by hand helps reinforce them).

2. List the projects that you’re working on that contribute to your overall goals. Prioritise as much as you can. Add the projects that don’t contribute to your list of goals to the “must avoid at all costs list”. You can come back to these but for now they’re not important.

3. Break down each project into actionable chunks. Each chunk should be something you can complete in a 1-2 hour sitting. Add them to a Trello board or your todo list system of choice.

4. Book time on your calendar to work through the items above. If it’s not in the schedule, it’s not going to happen. Every day, try and accomplish just one item. There’s approximately 251 working days this year; that’s a lot of progress you can be making.

5. Review your goals daily. Reviewing keeps you on track and focused. You’ll be more inclined to say “no” to things that don’t matter.

I often refer back to Will Smith’s analogy of the brick wall:

“You don’t set out to build a wall. You don’t say I’m going to build the biggest, greatest wall that has ever been built. You say I’m gonna lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid and you do that every single day and soon you have a wall.”

And that’s the key to accomplishing your own goals: breaking them down into small actionable items and then consistently working on them one at a time.