How to Set Your Goals so That They Make Any Damn Sense Whatsoever

The end of the year is quite a weird moment, isn’t it? It is a time for making summaries. For some, though, it’s time to start a desperate race against the clock to deliver what’s left to be delivered or perhaps fulfill the goals that were set back in time. My impression is, however, that for most of the people I know, it’s rather the time to accept the fact that they haven’t managed to achieve all these beautiful things they wanted to (and that there is not enough time to make it happen before the year ends, anyway). It often happens that we look at the upcoming first day of the new year as if it was some breakthrough and as if the next year itself was a magical land where all our dreams come true. Where we are effective and determined, where we have a relentless warrior spirit to fight against all the odds to reach all the goals we might have put on ourselves.

You’ve been around for long enough to know that it is quite unlikely that Cinderella comes home before midnight strikes, just as you probably understand that the sole fact of hanging a different number on your wall is not going to change a single thing. If you are reading this, there is a good chance that you got an uncomfortable feeling when you looked at your achievements vs. your goals last year, and became frustrated enough to seek advice. Good. It’s a great first step to changing something.

Why is This so Freaking Hard?

In theory, it was all supposed to go smoothly. You planned some stuff you wanted to do in 2017. You were fairly thorough about it. And you were determined to go through with your plan.

And yet—life happened.

Different things kept coming up—more urgent and more important. Things that were not expected. Things that couldn’t be predicted. Or could they?

how-to-do-it

I am aware this might be a classic case of oversimplification, but from my observation, not being able to follow a long-term plan for self is caused by one and/or two factors. The first one is, as simple as it sounds, poor planning. Not choosing the right tools to set up your personal plan or not choosing any tools at all is quite likely going to make you fail on the quest for personal achievements. The second one is equally obvious, and it’s personal inconsistency, meaning—not following your plan. The funny fact is that it is poor planning that can be disturbingly often identified as the main cause for personal inconsistency. To be more exact, it’s the very first phase of planning that, if or when executed poorly, will lead to getting quickly detached from your goals if you don’t allow yourself to understand WHY these specific things are important for you to achieve.

Start With “The Why”

It doesn’t matter whether you are trying to get in shape or guide your company through an image transformation—without a clear understanding of what achieving it means for you, personally, chances are it’s going to keep falling low in your daily priority list, because of the lack of emotional value. If you already have something on your to-do-list for 2018 [you should definitely have some of these], my suggestion is to run it by the so-called “Rule of 5 Whys.” It’s very simple. Just take a goal and ask yourself why is it important for you to achieve it. After coming up with an answer—follow up with the next “why” for the next answer, e.g.:

Goal: I want to get in shape in 2018.

Question: Why do I want to get in shape in 2018?

Because I want to look better than I do now.

Question: Why do I want to look better than I do now?

Because I don’t feel entirely satisfied with my looks today.

Question: Why am I not satisfied with my looks?

Because my image is important to me and there is a mismatch between how I want to look and today.

Question: Why is image important to me and where is this gap coming from?

Because I care about being attractive.

Question: Why do I care for this?

(DEEP, EMOTIONAL REALIZATIONS ABOUT SELF).

Now, this technique is widely used by businesses to find the root cause of a given problem, but I believe it can be adapted as a tool for discovering ‘the root motivation.’ Trust me, sometimes the answers might come out as ridiculous, but that’s good. It’s much better to realize that at this stage, instead of getting involved in fighting for a personal goal that you subconsciously know to be fundamentally ridiculous. It’s rather hard to have consistency for a goal based on motivation you undermine yourself, deep down in your heart, don’t you think?

On the other hand—if you find a reason that you truly believe to be right, that you can relate to, one that you fully embrace and accept, it’s going to be a lot easier to spark day-to-day discipline.

Define Your Scope of Achievement

Once you are done with choosing what’s most important for you, it’s about time to define your goals in the right way. This is where a lot of people fail, and there are multiple reasons for it. Sometimes it’s because they don’t understand what the goal is, because it’s so vast and vague. Sometimes the goal itself is so short-sighted and simple, that achieving it doesn’t feel like an achievement at all.

The first thing to do is to specify the task at hand—what does it mean to get in shape? What manifests the sweet state of ‘being-in-shape’? What is the transformation you are looking for in your company? This part will also allow you to parcellate your plan, which, in turn, will enable you to set smaller goals and distribute them in time. It helps to avoid a situation where goals become some gargantuan monstrosities haunting you in your nightmares as huge and complex systems of things you neither understand nor want to have anything to do with anymore. Smaller plans are easier to deal with. Period.

Once you know specifically where is it that you are headed, it would be good to know what will indicate your arrival. Numbers are usually a big help here. Set KPIs you will be following through the process that will tell you if you are closing in or quite the opposite. Define a measure of success—otherwise, how would you know that you achieved what you were going for?

Oh, and by the way, if we are talking numbers and measures—a deadline must be in place. Push yourself. If you ask me if there is any source of magic in our world, I would be 100% positive it’s deadlines. I don’t think it requires any further explanation, as you probably experienced it yourself, so help me here and just put a goddamn deadline on your goal.

And one last thing—challenge yourself. The journey to achieving your goals should be, by definition, exciting. Otherwise, why would you even bother? Test your limits. This way the whole struggle will be much more rewarding, both in the end but also throughout the process. Well, you’ve got to remember to keep it within the scale of explainable sanity—if you go full throttle into ambition-driven hyper planning, well, I guess you’ll know the outcome before you even start.

Wait. Doesn’t this paragraph look suspiciously familiar?

Goal Refinement Tool that Everyone Thinks Everyone Takes for an All-rounder

If so, then yes, you are right—it’s no more and no less than the good old SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-Bound) rule that has been around for a long time. As with many other popular tools for a variety of things, it gets heavily misused, and I find it to be the fundamental problem causing people to bounce off once they get to work with it for the first time.

It’s not a tool that will tell what to do. Every time I see a manager facing an employee’s creative crisis and the sole offer is to use the SMART rule to set goals I feel like something dies inside of me. It’s like your friends called you that they ran out of gas on the highway and all you do is give them the address of the closest refinery. No help at all.

SMART is a tool that will help you clarify the scope of your goals. By its nature, it’s a system of descriptions rather than something that enables creativity to find solutions. In other words, it structures the ideas you have and helps you put them down in a specific framework. Great way to finish your goal setting process and polish its outcome, but a total disaster if this is where you start.

Plan is Nothing; Planning is Everything

planning is everything

Planning your goals is a process of unprecedented value if done right of course. What I mentioned here is going to help when you already have an idea about what needs to be achieved in your life—if you feel more or less clueless about it, please read my other article that targets this issue. Once you have ideas in mind, analyze them, ask yourself why are they important to you. Only then you can proceed to use methodologies like SMART to describe and bind your goals with effort and energy expenditure. Otherwise, I’m sorry to say that, but it might turn out it will all become worthless over time, and you will end up with the same frustration that brought you here to read this text.

Just remember that a plan is just a plan. It will still require a lot of action to come into being.