“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
“I don’t much care where –”
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
– Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
“We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”
And so perhaps the most famous goal in history was set by President Kennedy in a speech delivered in May of 1961. We now know the USA would succeed at putting a man on the moon within that decade. But how certain was Kennedy of his goal at the time?
While some conspiracy theorists claim this feat was technically impossible and never happened, we’re quite confident Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon in 1969. But back in 1961, this is how certain Kennedy was about the feasibility of his goal:
“He had asked his advisers to find him a ‘space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win.’ […] Well, the technical basis for choosing the moon was, it was the first thing that [famed rocket designer] Wernher von Braun and others in NASA said the Soviet Union could not do with its existing rocket. They would have to build a new, larger rocket to send people to the surface of the moon. And so the moon became the first thing where the United States had, as von Braun said, a sporting chance to be first.”
– John Logsdon – NASA Advisory Council in an interview with Space.com
In other words, while it was a tall feat, Kennedy’s challenge was potentially achievable. As we’ll see later, this is one of the hallmarks of sound goal setting.
The dark side of goals
Not all goals are good. Take GM (General Motors) in 2000. Having lost their position as market leader and falling below their high water mark of 29% market share, the company leadership set one clear goal: getting back to that 29. It was announced in the media, the number was spread in internal documents, people even got to wear golden 29 pins. But GM would never reach their 29% market share again*.
The goal became a symbol for failure and led to various bad practices within the company. One example was short-sighted spending on sleazy advertising to lure drivers into buying their unpopular cars, as opposed to investing for the long-term in innovation to create better cars.
Which brings us to several downsides of goals, especially unrealistic ones:
- Encourages cheating: people will do anything to reach a goal, especially if it’s slipping out of reach. This encourages cheating and all kinds of unethical behavior**.
- Tunnel vision: as folks get obsessed with a goal, they’ll be so focused on that one thing, they might miss out on exploring other possibilities and opportunities.
- Losing sight of the big picture: you can become so obsessed with reaching your goal that you might lose sight of the reason you wanted to pursue the goal in the first place.
- Mindfulness: you’re at risk of forgetting to enjoy the present and instead constantly live in the future, craving what it will be like once that goal is finally completed.
Goals are not the one-size-fits-all solution they’re sometimes made out to be. Used in the wrong way and under the wrong circumstances, they can be counter-productive. But even when the situation is right, the goal itself can still be wrong…
Aiming for the moon isn’t high enough?
A lot of advice on goal setting goes something like this:
“What I am trying to tell you is to stop playing it safe and setting small goals that you know you will achieve. If you aren’t setting goals that scare not only yourself, but others as well, then they are not big enough.”
– Matt Mayberry on Entrepreneur.com
This is nothing new. Similar recommendations have been around forever, even from the great masters:
“The greater danger for most of us isn’t that our aim is too high and miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.”
The problem with this type of advice is that it doesn’t match up with what research on goal setting tells us. As we saw from Kennedy’s moonshot example, a goal needs to be challenging, but there has to be some chance of achieving it. Just dreaming up the most ambitious outcome will not miraculously make it come true. Then why do we see this advice coming back over and over again?
The abnormal experts
Consider the people who bring you this type of advice; since we still know his name today, 640 years after his birth, it’s safe to assume that Michelangelo was probably not your average Joe. And people who put a lot of time into becoming experts and influencers in a particular field usually have more ambition than most.
This is not normal. Most people don’t have such grand aims, because either they don’t care, they don’t have the time, they don’t have the ability, their circumstances don’t allow for it or a combination of those reasons. And that’s perfectly fine!
Any prominent researcher or self-proclaimed productivity expert you’re likely to read, will surely be above-average ambitious (else you wouldn’t be reading his articles somewhere in public). This means those writers are projecting their insane approach to goal setting (and life in general) onto you. Unfortunately for most people, this approach will not work, because the willingness, ambition and circumstances are very different from those who give this advice. This is important to keep in mind when receiving recommendations from influential and successful people.
Getting your goals right
“If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.”
– Yogi Berra
September 27th, 2014 marked my last day of work at Happylatte, the mobile gaming company where I’d been running the marketing team for about a year. Having unexpectedly lost my job there (along with 55 others), my girlfriend and I boarded a plane to Vietnam that same day for a week-long retreat in paradise (I know, that sounds cliché, but look at the pictures!).
One main item on my todo list for that vacation (yes, I actually have a todo list for my vacations…) was completing Chapter XI from the book “Unlimited Power” by Anthony Robbins. It helps you figure out what you want to do in life and turns those goals into visualized outcomes, with powerful questions such as:
“If you were 100% certain you couldn’t fail, what would you do?”
By then, I had a vague idea I wanted to develop some productivity trainings and perhaps launch a product. I used my time there to run through the entire chapter and exercises. Here are some of the things I wrote down, along with their deadlines:
- “Create a product / business which makes international impact in a specific sector / industry, run in a completely transparent and ‘new management’ style way.” – to be done by 2021.
- “Manage a large company / team successfully (few hundred people)” – to be done by 2034.
- “Publish a book.” – to be done by 2019.
- “Inspire other people through creating a blog which reflects my own learnings, thoughts and stories” – to be done by late 2016.
- “Give (productivity) training at least once per month” – to be done by late 2015.
- “Be able to work location and time independently” – to be done by late 2019.
- “Travel the world as a public speaker” – to be done by 2018.
As recommended by Robbins, I then went on to describe in detail how I’d know these outcomes were achieved (what would life look like with each goal completed). This included a story of several paragraphs describing a day in my life five years from now.
I’m not the type to believe too much in vague you-can-wish-anything-into-existence-type philosophies (e.g., like The Secret). But a recent review of this list shocked me: most of these items are indeed happening in my life, with a substantial part of them way ahead of schedule. How is that possible?
The upside of goals
Defining desired outcomes helps in four ways:
- Focus and prioritization: by setting a goal, you choose not to pursue a whole bunch of other stuff.
- Increased effort: faced with a goal that needs to be met, energy and extra effort will be applied to ensure you achieve the goal.
- Motivation: with a goal firmly in your sights, it can become easier to overcome setbacks and keep yourself motivated.
- Learning and self-development: a goal can help you attain more knowledge or change your behavior in order to be able to achieve your goal.
Over the past year, all my Chapter XI goals have brought these factors into play; I’ve been focused by saying no to many things that don’t relate to these goals. I’ve devoured books and articles on topics I need to learn about. I’ve had no problem working hard toward these goals and when I did hit a motivational bump in the road, imagining my desired outcome was enough to get me going again.
Strangely enough, I have pursued some of these goals consciously (like starting Saent), but others seemed to happen on their own, even without me realizing they were part of the original goals I wrote down in Vietnam (like “be able to work location and time independently”).
Why does it work?
By now, we’ve seen two examples of goals which worked; Kennedy’s moonshot and my own Chapter XI goals. So why do these work, while GM’s 29% goal failed?
“Studies by Edwin A. Locke and his colleagues have shown that more specific and ambitious goals lead to more performance improvement than easy or general goals. As long as the person accepts the goal, has the ability to attain it, and does not have conflicting goals, there is a positive linear relationship between goal difficulty and task performance.”
– Wikipedia entry on “Goal setting”
This short paragraph holds a lot of answers to that question:
- They should be ambitious, but not too ambitious.
- The person who needs to achieve it has to truly accept and believe in the goal.
- There should be no conflicting goals.
These factors were all present in the put-a-man-on-the-moon mission, as well as in my own life goals. GM on the other hand messed up on a lot of counts here: the goal was handed out top down, it was not realistic*** and, with a company the size of GM, it’s plausible it may have conflicted directly with other existing priorities and processes within the organization.
There’s more to the art of goal setting than mere guidelines though. How you actually set and execute on your goals (the practical) also matters.
1. Write ’em down.
“Most people know intuitively (and research has proved) that those who write their goals down accomplish significantly more than those who do not write their goals.”
– Michael Hyatt in The Beginner’s Guide to Goal Setting
While there are different theories about why writing goals down sets you on a path towards success, it does seem to be true (it certainly did with my Chapter XI ones).
2. Break ‘em down
Another crucial factor is breaking larger goals down into much smaller subgoals and tasks. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to meticulously plan every little subtask of your goal. But instead of staring at a grand goal like “publish a book,” have a goal of writing 30 minutes every day.
3. Review your goals…
While you don’t have to stick your goals on a poster on your bedroom wall, you have to review them every now and then. David Allen, originator of the Getting Things Done system, recommends you do it every week; I probably looked at my Chapter XI goals once a month or so.
In case you’re worried you might forget a goal, a great trick for constantly reminding yourself of what you want to achieve is changing all your passwords to your goal. This trick comes from Mauricio Estrella, who changed his password to Forgive@h3r to remember he should forgive his ex. He then realized this was an amazing way to be constantly aware of your most important goals and turned it into an ongoing habit.
4. …and measure their progress
You don’t have to keep track of your progress like a professional project manager. But as you review your goals, it makes sense to consciously consider whether or not you’re on track.
In my case, I simply highlighted the Chapter XI goals I felt I was falling behind on in yellow, to pay extra attention to them. But you could also keep a journal and write about how you’re doing, or use a tool such as iDoneThis.
This still leaves one major issue, which perhaps holds the key to why generic advice on goal setting often fails…
Not everyone is the same. As we saw earlier, some people are insanely ambitious, while most others don’t necessarily feel the need to conquer the world. Could it be that different kinds of people need different kinds of goals?
“One group of people seek to develop their competence by acquiring new skills and mastering new situations. They are not concerned about their performance relative to others, but rather with furthering their understanding of a given topic or task. These individuals have a learning goal orientation. Others, with a performance goal orientation seek to demonstrate and validate the adequacy of their competence in order to receive favorable judgments and avoid negative judgments.”
– Wikipedia entry on “Goal orientation“
In other words: do you want to achieve things because you crave recognition from others? Or are you pushing yourself towards a goal because you want to learn and develop yourself****?
In case you’re not sure, here’s what different goal orientations look like in the real world:
|Learning goal orientation||Performance goal orientation|
|more likely to seek feedback||less likely to seek feedback|
|seek feedback on past performance to evaluate current performance||seek feedback for positive reinforcement|
|will intrinsically put forth effort to improve skills and acquire knowledge||don’t want to put forth a lot of effort unless they will be positively evaluated|
|less concerned with making mistakes||tend to avoid tasks where they may make mistakes and therefore be poorly evaluated|
|has an intrinsic drive not to lose skills and knowledge||avoids situations in which they will receive evaluations or risk demonstrating lack of confidence|
|doesn’t want to misunderstand material or leave a task incomplete||common with individuals who have high fear of failure|
Perhaps you feel strongly about one or the other side of this table. But maybe you feel you have a bit of both? That’s totally possible, because we all have a bit of both of these types inside ourselves; most of us want to improve our own performance (for our own good), while at the same time we strive to outperform competitors.
The intensity of these motivations just varies person-to-person and even between different contexts; you might crave recognition at work but be very learning-oriented when it comes to your spare time passion for flying drones.
Figuring out what drives you (or your team members) in a given situation is perhaps the most important step in picking the appropriate goals for yourself. If the goal is not phrased in a way that matches your goal orientation for that situation, you’ve set yourself up for failure before you even started.
What does this look like in practice? A learning oriented goal might be that you want to perfect your car driving skills, before you move onto driving trucks and busses. A performance oriented goal might be that you want to do so faster than your little brother.
A whole lotta goals (summary)
That was a ton of information on goals. Here’s what is comes down to in a few bullet points:
- Figure out what drives you in which context; intrinsic self-development, recognition from others or a bit of both. Phrase your goal accordingly.
- Make sure your goal is ambitious, but at least somewhat achievable.
- Write it down, then break it into smaller parts.
- Review progress regularly.
Remember goals are not the solution to every problem. They can also make you too focused, obscuring other paths and possibilities. Don’t treat them as a God to be worshipped under all circumstances, but instead as a good friend whose advice you can sometimes ignore.
* Via the Boston Globe.
** In the early 1990s Sears, an American retailer, discovered that mechanics at its car-servicing business had been telling customers they needed repairs even when these were not necessary. They also overcharged for some work to meet stretch revenue targets set by management. Sears eventually settled a lawsuit relating to the fraud for $46 million, admitting that the aggressive sales goals led to mistakes. A more recent example is Volkswagen, which built software into its cars designed to cheat emission goals.
*** As we can see from these statistics, no car manufacturer holds anywhere close to a 29% market share these days. This makes sense, given the rise of new car manufacturers from Asia as well as new entrants such as Tesla. 29% was therefore a lost goal as soon as it was set.
**** One of the other keys to successful goal setting identified by Edwin A. Locke is specificity. Locke found that specific goals are often better than general ones. For example, “get to the moon first” is better than “beat the Russians at something.” However, specificity is really only a benefit for performance oriented goals. If your goal is learning oriented, then getting too specific can lead to tunnel vision, which can impede your ability to recognize what knowledge to pursue.