Millions of people set New Year’s resolutions— 141.1 million adult Americans to be exact!— and yet only eight percent, or roughly 11 million, will see their goal through to completion. While 11 million still sounds like a large number, it’s trivial compared to the 130 million who won’t succeed in achieving their goals.
How can you be in the eight percent that succeed?
Setting goals is easy; achieving them isn’t.
In order to achieve success, it takes more than simply having a desire. While we often grow up with people telling us to “do our best,” this mentality does not serve us well. When we set goals to simply “do our best,” we have no reference point to judge whether or not we’re making progress. This leads to lowered performance. In order to motivate ourselves to achieve, we need goals that allow us to measure our progress, provide sufficient challenge to keep us energized, and to be within our reach. We need our goals to be SMART:
Your goal must be specific, leaving no room for ambiguity. Use clear, precise language to define both what you want to accomplish and the path you will take to get there. This does not have to be a list of all the steps you will take, but it should cover the 5 Ws: who, what, where, when, and why.
If you set a generic goal, such as “to increase revenue,” how will you know if you’ve been successful? Is it when you’ve made $100 more than the month prior? Is it 50% increased revenue over the course of the year? Select metrics that align with your vision of success. For longer-term goals, set milestones along the way to help track your progress. Accomplishing each milestone will serve as motivation to continue working towards the larger outcome.
If your goal is so challenging that it’s virtually unachievable, you’re setting yourself up for frustration and discouragement. At the same, if your goals are too easy, you won’t experience a sense of satisfaction upon completion. Goals are meant to inspire and motivate. By setting realistic yet challenging goals, you strike the necessary balance between working hard and receiving reward. Moreover, accomplishing goals that push your abilities increases self-efficacy and allows you to set, and achieve, even more challenging goals in the future.
The goals you set should have a purpose in the greater context of your work and life. They can address a skill necessary for your job, a hobby that brings you joy, or be focused on a relationship that increases your happiness. Regardless of whether it is a work goal or a personal goal, it needs to relate to the bigger picture of who you are, who you want to be, and what brings value to you and/or your team and business.
Just as you must define metrics in order to measure success, you must have a deadline to recognize your accomplishment. The timing must also be realistic. If you’re too ambitious with your timing, you may become discouraged when the due date comes and goes, and you’re still not finished. If you give yourself too much time, you may be tempted to procrastinate, and the motivation to get the job done will wane. The timeline for goal completion should be in alignment with the level of challenge - you want enough time to succeed, while constrained enough to feel a sense of urgency. If you’ve broken your goal into milestones, you should set a specific date for each benchmark. Then, if need be, you can reevaluate your timeline as you accomplish each component.
While making your goals SMART helps enhance your likelihood of goal achievement, there’s still a chance that you set your goals, write them down, and then continue your day-to-day without taking any action toward them. Once your SMART goals are set, you still need to implement processes to hold yourself accountable.
When you share your goals with others, it creates enhanced intrinsic motivation. When you keep your goal to yourself and have a slip up, it’s easy to shrug it off. However, when someone else is aware of what you’re trying to achieve, there’s a desire to maintain your self-image. Having an accountability partner also means having someone who you can check in with and help monitor your progress.
When you are ready to establish an accountability partner, it’s important to select the right person. Think through who is in your network that can provide you with support and feedback in reaching your goals. Consider the following groups of individuals:
Once you’ve set your SMART goals, implementation intentions can help you stay on track. Implementation intentions are the when, where, and how of goal-directed behavior. Broadly speaking, implementation intentions follow an “If…then…” format, articulating a specific behavior to conduct. When a specific situation, or trigger, occurs. For instance, if your overarching goal is to write 10 pages in a week, an example intention may be, “If I complete 7 pages of writing by Wednesday at noon, I will take a ten-minute walking break to get fresh air and relax.” Or, if you’re trying to take breaks from sitting at your desk, one could be, “If I get up to use the restroom, then I will take two minutes to stretch before sitting back down at my computer.” The “if-then” strategy helps create a clear plan for overcoming challenges that exist in meeting our goal achievement milestones.
When developing your timelines for goal achievement, you should have a specific deadline for each milestone. If you’ve set only the final deadline for a longer-term project, motivation can wane as you feel your continued work is making little progress toward the overarching goal. Therefore, for larger goals it’s important to set a schedule with specific deadlines, and to celebrate the small wins you have along the way. This will help build self-efficacy with each component you achieve, as well as build your motivation to keep moving forward.
Even when our goals are SMART, we’ve established an accountability partner, developed implementation intentions, and set a specific schedule, there are times when our plans change. Whether organizational changes prioritize other goals, a societal shift changes the course of work, or a global pandemic drastically changes the workforce, there is a constant barrage of potential obstacles that can disrupt one’s work. When this occurs, it’s not always the wisest decision to simply muster through; in certain cases, time may be better spent elsewhere. Thus, it’s important to make sure you evaluate and readjust as necessary as you pursue your goals.
When developing your timeline for goal achievement, and when developing implementation intentions, be sure that you call out scenarios that should prompt reevaluation and, potentially, adjustment, to ensure you’re always working on the goal(s) that will provide the most benefit.
Setting a goal is the first step toward achievement, making that goal SMART is the second, and making the goal SMARTER is what will ultimately lead to success. Determine who in your circle can serve as an accountability partner, and practice setting implementation intentions across varying aspects of your daily life. The more you practice, the easier it becomes, and goal setting and getting becomes your reality.