Earlier today, I had a strange experience. I was catching up on people’s posts on Facebook, and I saw a post from a friend who said that she had set aside the weekend for reflection, planning and goal-setting for an upcoming change in her work life. She then asked everyone, “What are your top techniques for setting and effectively reaching your goals?”
My immediate thought was, “Which post on my blog will I send her?” 🙂
That isn’t as arrogant as it might sound, because I’m kind of passionate about goals. I’ve been doing a version of yearly goal- and priority-setting since back in the late ’90s, about the time I turned 30. So I have almost 20 years of decent experience and success in trying different things and figuring out what works for me. Plus over the last 5-10 years, I’ve blogged about my goals and progress regularly. Checking my site, I have 107 posts about goals. But here’s the strange thing. I don’t have hardly any about “how to set goals”.
Sure, I’ve done some informal coaching of others. I’ve had many conversations with a coworker about things like “Getting Things Done”, the “Seinfeld Method”, Harvard studies, etc. And I’ve worked in planning and performance measurement for work for the last 9 years, plus a fair amount of professional exposure to the topic and related fields in the last 20 years, plus formal training here and there. I just had a conversation with a former colleague who is now heading up a unit at another department, and she wanted to pick my brain about the planning world and how to move forward. I’ve even entertained the thought of writing a book about some of it at some point, because most of what I read is, well, crap.
Okay, that’s a little harsh. I really mean that it’s either too prescriptive or theoretical with no real world testing and application, or it’s way too general to be of much use. I also find that it often confuses goal-setting, objectives, indicators, measurement, and time management. Those are all VERY different things. So I thought it was a great topic for a post. And here we are.
Almost anyone starting on a new goal-setting exercise is going to trip over advice to set “SMART” goals. The pop advice is to make sure all your goals are:
While almost NONE of the books draws the advice back to the king of examples, most having been written by people who weren’t alive when the example took place, everyone knows one of the most infamous “SMART” goals of all time.
I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.
— John F. Kennedy, May 25, 1961
A specific goal (to go to the moon and back), clearly measurable (yes or no, moon or not, safely or not), attainable (welllll, that wasn’t quite true at the time of the speech, now was it?), relevant (set by a new president early in his term), and timely (before the decade is out).
Some more historical experts in the field LOVE that goal. And trot it out as evidence of a perfect goal that was realized.
Except the idea that goals should be SMART is, in my view, one of the worst things you can do, at least when you are SETTING goals. Does anyone really think the goal was moon + safe + 10 years?
Of course it wasn’t. The goal was to go to the moon. That’s all they talked about. That’s also how the idea would have started. “Go to the moon.” Everyone at NASA, everyone in the labs, everyone involved knew the goal — to go to the moon. If they “expanded” on that in their vocabulary, it was simply to go to the moon AND get back.
Goals are not meant to be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, or timebound — they’re meant to inspire you. They should even scare you. They should make you want to get out of bed in the morning and you should be able to say on a second’s notice, “What’s my goal? My goal is X”, whatever X is.
What’s the most common goal people set? Weight-loss. What do they do? They say, “I want to lose weight” or if they use the SMART approach, they say, “I want to lose 15 pounds by Easter.” SMART says the second way is better. Specific, measurable, probably attainable although past success says otherwise, relevant, and timebound. Perfect. And they’ll miss the goal. Because losing 15 pounds by Easter isn’t a goal that will inspire most people. For some people, it’s great, but they’re also the ones that don’t have any trouble setting and achieving goals. Which is often because they aimed too low. And SMART encourages you to do that, again and again.
What’s my approach? It actually draws from time-management, which is surprising, I know, after I said most people confuse the various topics, and here I am seeming to do it intentionally.
What are your rocks?
There’s a story about a Harvard business professor teaching his students about time management. He came to class with a glass vase and started filling it full of large rocks. He then asked the class if it was full. They said yes, and then he started filling up the extra space with medium-sized rocks. Then he asked again if it was full, and the class said yes. So he used smaller rocks, and the class said this time tentatively no, it wasn’t full. He then added sand, and finally water. At which point, the vase was truly full. So he asked what this taught them about time management. They said, “No matter how full your schedule is, you can always fit more in?”.
He replied, “No, it teaches you that if you don’t put the big rocks in first, they don’t go in at all.”
So, while the metaphor was about time management, for goal-setting, the question is clear — what are YOUR big rocks? What are the big things that YOU want to accomplish but are afraid you won’t do if you don’t set your sights high?
If I take the weight-loss example above, you can ask the person “Why lose 15 pounds?”. They’ll immediately say because they’ll be (generally) healthier. Really? Cuz they could starve themselves and lose the weight, it wouldn’t make them healthier. Oh, they’ll say that they mean by working out. So ask them why 15 and not 10 or 20? is it a failure if they lose the 15 but don’t feel healthier? or if they only lose 14? or they just turn their fat into muscle? Keep asking them why they want to do it, and eventually they’ll say because they want to be more fit, able to do things, live longer, etc.
I’ll digress for a minute. I love the TV show American Ninja Warrior. I love watching the “average Joe or Jane” take on these obstacles and hit a buzzer. But what I love most about the show? The fact that people of incredibly different body shapes and types can do it. Kacy Catanzaro is 5 feet tall, a little more than a hundred pounds. There are guys on the course that are 18 inches taller than her, and almost double her weight. They’re all incredibly healthy. So it’s not about the exact weight, that’s not the goal. The short-term goal is to hit the buzzer, but the real goal is to be physically fit so they can individually run the course with the body they can create.
Let’s take another health goal instead, where someone says they want to run a 2-hour marathon by the end of the year. SMART, right? Except, well, why? If they hit 2:01, will that be a failure? 2:00:01, a single second off…is that a failure? Again, a great specific goal but if you poke them hard enough, they’ll really say they want to be in better shape, to run faster, to have more stamina at higher speeds, and then they’ll break it down to the nuts and bolts — the 2 hour mark is just a way of measuring it.
Hallelujah! Yes, they have seen the light.
The 2-hour number was a way of measuring success on a goal, as was the 15 pound weight loss. It was a way of measuring a goal, not the goal itself.
With my work in government, the goal might be a healthy population, or a skilled workforce, or combat-ready troops. The GOAL isn’t to have a population with an average BMI of x or longevity of y, or # of troops ready by October. The goal is BIG. It is ASPIRATIONAL. It is possibly UNATTAINABLE.
But BAU doesn’t sell books. SMART does, but it won’t get you closer to your goals. Don’t get me wrong, SMART has its place, but not in goal-setting.
Figuring out your rocks
If you are setting a small set of goals for something specific, you probably already know what they are. Kennedy knew, NASA knew, everyone knew — it was to go to the moon. Heck, even the janitors at NASA knew (a classic story for another time). Or at least you know the “category” they’re in. Work. Health. Relationships. Finances. Whatever your heart can dream, you can set goals for it.
However, for me, that isn’t what I do each year. Instead, I have a long history of setting a LOT of goals and I’ve done a lot of thinking about how to group them so that they inspire me. Or simply so that I can remember and remain committed to them instead of them being simply shelfware that doesn’t help me achieve anything.
That’s often the problem with people’s bucket lists, in a way. The only common thread for them is “things to do before I die”. But would “bungee-jumping” ever be in the same category as “weigh 200 pounds” or “go hunting” or “see the Taj Mahal” or “drive a dogsled”? How would you compare them? Rank them? Choose which one is next? It’s why most people’s bucket lists are theoretical, not actionable.
And for me, the laundry list of priorities is often at the wrong level, often closer to SMART goals than true goals. At one point in my career, I spent a bunch of time trying to harmonize Amartya Sen’s and Mahbub ul Haq’s human development model with Robert Putnam’s approach to social capital, along with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, with just a touch of learning approaches and preferences thrown in. I didn’t succeed to my boss’ level of satisfaction at the time, perhaps the goal of doing it was unattainable at the time, but it did start me thinking about various aspects of a person’s life. I may not have succeeded at the work project, but I did come away with thoughts on how to merge a bunch of it with Carl Jung’s approach to archetypes, and the various parts of a person’s personality.
While that sounds very scholarly, what it really means is that I came up with a model that resonates with me. Your mileage may vary, but here’s the model:
I can tell you that there is a LOT going on in that model, and if I ever do write a book about goal-setting, it will be the basis for the first third of the book. Suffice to say for these purposes, I have it grouped around four main aspects of my life:
- Blue — the intellectual and cerebral part of my life, including analytical / rational things like being organized, understanding myself, etc.;
- Green — this is the emotional side of my life, around things like relationships with family and friends, a sense of belonging, connectedness;
- Yellow — this is the more “social side” of things, going beyond the intimacies shared with friends, but also expanding out to things like creativity, etc; and,
- Red — the action-oriented, take-charge side of life, for work, health, etc.
I blogged about this when I created it (First draft of my new personal development model , My “red” goals for 2016, My “yellow” goals for 2016, My “blue” goals for 2016, and My “green” goals for 2016).
It was just a way to let me keep track of all areas of my life and make sure I wasn’t “neglecting” an area simply because I didn’t want to spend time on it. Take health for example. I’m mostly a slug. I’ve love to be the type to do the American Ninja Warrior course, but it hasn’t motivated me enough to take concrete action. Partly as I’m more naturally drawn to “blue” intellectual goals. I’ll talk a bit more below about resistance to change, but suffice it to say that I look at all four areas for one specific reason.
Everybody uses the generic phrase about work/life balance, but do they have any idea what that means? In its purest form, you would spend 12 hours at work and 12 hours doing “life” things. Sooo, you’re saying work isn’t part of your life? You get no satisfaction from work, it’s just a prison that you do to pay for the rest? I think I have a new priority for you — it’s called get a better job you don’t hate. What people really mean in that sense is something like making time for family and making sure they aren’t either always at work, or too tired when they come home that they can’t “unplug”. That’s not what I mean by balance. Another way people interpret it is to say “Family comes first”. Well, okay, you’ve got your priority. Perfect. So, you’re going to quit your job and stay home with the family, right? Cuz family comes first. And the phrases are so vague that they might as well be as useless as “Lean In” as a piece of advice (just the slogan, not the sub-parts, some of which are decent).
The real goal that everyone can probably get behind is a bit more Zen. It is to be in the moment whether you are at work or at home or working out. To commit to what you are doing RIGHT THEN, and not always thinking of work or worrying about your finances or whatever else that pulls you out of the moment. What often pulls people out is thinking, “Oh, I’m not doing X, which is really important, and I’m not making progress on it, so I should be doing that instead.”
It’s a popular feeling, particularly for those who are new to setting goals. It makes them think it is all or nothing. If they are working out, they’re going to do it EVERY SINGLE DAY FOR A YEAR! YEAH! With typical and expected results of quitting the first time they miss a day.
However, if you use the “balanced” approach that I use, you might have the same feeling I get…which is that I have blue goals, green goals, yellow goals, and red goals (I try to keep the overall GOAL-SETTING somewhat balanced at least in the sense that I have some of each). So if I happen to be doing something “yellow” at that moment, I don’t suddenly panic that I’m not doing a blue, green or red goal. You have all four in your personality, and if you have goals in all four, you get to embrace all four at different times. And just as you can have too much of a good thing, having too much of one colour isn’t great either (hence the person who looks like a workaholic because they put all their “goals” in the red column around employment and work, and didn’t give themselves permission or support to do some blue, green or yellow things too).
I posted the links above, but the basic “sub-headings” that will likely work for most people are:
- Blue / Rational
- Self-confidence, calm
- Green / Emotional
- Family and friend (intimacy)
- Emotional intelligence
- Social connections
- Yellow / Social
- Social friendships (light)
- Red / Action-oriented
What does goal-setting look like?
Initial stages of goal-setting should look a lot like simple brain-storming. No ideas are off the table. Take for example those 13 “sub-headings” above and ask yourself, “What could I consider as a goal for myself for _____?”
Maybe for creativity you have always wanted to write an opera. Great, put it down. Are you going to do it? Maybe, maybe not. But the act of goal-setting isn’t about being rational, it’s about dreaming big. Scare yourself if you can. Don’t say too many vague things, dream big. Don’t say you want to travel, say you want to visit every continent in the same year. An around-the-world tour. Heck, if you want, say you want to go to the moon. At least for now, there are no obstacles. You’re just dreaming.
So let’s say you’ve done that, what’s next? Well, believe it or not, you just wrote down a list of possible rocks. Some are big, some are small, some are just right for Goldilocks. Now group them in their categories and look at them again. At this stage, I want you to come up with three blue goals, three green, three yellow, and three red. But not just any three, or even the three most important.
- One that you think you can do in a year;
- One that you think you can do in three years; and,
- One that you think is scary as heck, but if you could achieve THAT, well, dang, that would be something;
I have to digress for a minute and talk about terminology semantics. For most people, these are truly goals. Maybe not worded the best, but the list was “goals” — things you wanted to achieve. For me, that’s not entirely true. I think your goal was do more “blue” things or more “green” things or more “yellow” things or more “red” because you felt that area of your life was in some sort of deficit or at least stagnating.
But “Be more blue” doesn’t really have the same ring as “Going to the moon”, now does it?
Yet technically those were your goals, more red / blue / green / yellow or all of the above, and they can stay that way for a bit longer (big and generic colour commitments). Which then makes the “sub-goals” really something else — objectives. This is why I asked you to think of one you can do in a year, 3 years, or a lifetime. And so I’m telling you that I’m going to talk about them as “objectives” from here on out instead of “goals”, as I can almost guarantee the terminology is a bit off from normal usage.
Almost time to be SMART
Now for each of those, I want you to try rewording them slightly, not quite “SMART” so much as SAR. Forget measurable and timebound for the moment.
If you did true brain-storming, your three objectives per colour are likely to be of different levels of prevision i.e. not all three are equally “SPECIFIC”. They might be either way though — too narrow (lose 15 pounds) or too general (sing more). Try and be a bit more specific, but generally avoid any numbers (I’ll explain why shortly).
At this point, you should have 12 “objectives” (formerly goals or sub-goals), and they are likely specific. Now, ask yourself a really difficult question…are they relevant to you?
This is perhaps the most difficult of all, and there is no room here to explain why. That would take up a whole psychology textbook. So I’ll give you an example. Lots of people are culturally/socially indoctrinated to think that their life will be “right” if they have a spouse, house, picket fence, 2.2 children, and a dog.
For me, the biggest question mark I had for a long time was about children. I was single when I started making my goals, and kind of messed up for knowing what I wanted or not. And I was ambivalent about having a child. Kind of, “Well, if it happens, it happens, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t”. At least, that’s what I told myself. Because I was single. And male. So having a kid on my own was a bit of a complicated world. I kind of needed a partner, and not just because I didn’t think I would make a good single parent, but just pure logistics. It wasn’t like adoption agencies were lining up to give kids to single males. Hell, to be blunt, I didn’t even think it was really possible at the time. So since I couldn’t do it on my own, I just said, “Well, that’s off the table, no need to figure anything out.” Except it wasn’t true. I actually knew that I DID want kids. Not alone, but if I was with someone and they were willing, then I wanted them. Wholeheartedly.
But the house, fence, and a dog were kind of just scripts that I was following. Parts of the normal stereotypical life. I like dogs, but I don’t want to own one, or more accurately, I don’t want to look after one. There is a very long list of things I looked at over the course of five years before I started to really understand not only who I was but what I wanted out of life.
So, relevance is a huge weedwhacker for goals. Are they truly YOUR goals, manifestations that resonate deep within your soul, or are they just things you think you should do? Or things your spouse or children or parents or friends think you should do? Do you really want to attend more parties even though you generally hate them? Or do you just think it would be cool to be the type of person who went to a lot of parties?
The goals have to be yours, and yours alone. Or they aren’t worth writing down because you’ll never commit to them.
Last but not least, it’s time for a reality check. You did a basic one when you applied the 1, 3 and lifetime criteria to them, but now it is time to be harsh with yourself.
You do not have infinite time nor infinite resources. Can you REALLY do it? The harsh reality is we have lives already in progress. We’re also not newborn babies with our whole lives in front of us. We’ve made choices, we’re living with the outcomes now. I love space, but deciding to become an astronaut at age 50 is a bit outside of reality. However, nothing stops me from getting into astronomy. Or if I really wanted to, I could try saving up money for a SpaceX voyage when I’m old and grey.
Let’s be clear though…I’m not saying to jettison the goal, I’m asking if you can tweak it to make it slightly more attainable. Realistic.
Putting the M and T back in SMART
I asked you above not to worry about measurement or time because those aren’t about goals or objectives. They are about indicators.
Now we take those specific, attainable and relevant goals and ask ourselves, “How will I measure them? How will I know if/when I’ve achieved it?”.
Kennedy knew what the real goal was — to dominate space. And the objective was to go to the moon and return safely. But the measurement and time was to do it (yes/no) and to do it in a specific timeframe (within the decade). Those aren’t the goal itself, it’s measuring how we’ll know if we achieved the objective or not.
You might even have several indicators. Maybe the marathoner wants to have improved stamina and speed as their goal (a little low, but workable), their objective is a fast marathon time, and their indicators are more than one marathon, improved times, and perhaps even to break the 2 hour mark. The weight loss person wants improved fitness, their objectives are healthier food choices and working out, and their indicators are signs of weight-loss and/or BMI. Not perfect examples, but you get the idea.
Most people stop at this point. They have goals, they have objectives, and they have their indicators. All done, right? Not necessarily. You *can* stop here, but it increases the likelihood of failure.
There’s actually four other things to consider.
First, your goals might still be the equivalent of “more red” or “more blue”. Not very inspiring. But you know what your three blue goals are now, you have them narrowed down, with smart objectives and indicators. Which should help you to work backwards to think again about the overall “goal” level. If for blue, for example, you had learn a new language, take a course, and set your goals (i.e. the exercise you’re doing), maybe your “goal” could be something like “Challenge your mind”. It’s a little soft, but you get the idea. What does each of your objectives have in common that you could explain to someone else, “Yes my blue goal is X, my objectives are Y1, Y2, Y3, and my indicators are Z1A, Z1B, Z2A, Z2B, Z3A, Z3B” and it would make sense to them. Why is that important?
Because if you can explain it to someone else in a coherent fashion, you can explain it to yourself. It’s obvious how X, Y, and Z fit together. It’s (almost) a full plan.
Second, time for the kicker. You have 4 or 5 goals now, with 9-12 objectives. Which ones are your priorities?
That’s right. You may have a nice rockpile of 12 objectives (or old sub-goals), but it’s time to know, “What are your rocks that are going into the vase?” Because you likely can’t fit them all in. You essentially have two choices now:
- Cut the number down to a smaller set of priorities for this year; or,
- Implement tiered progress.
There’s a popular saying that life is about the journey, not the destination, and most of the time, we forget that idea when we talk about goals. The act of planning for your goals is really important, but when you’re done, the plan isn’t as important as the process you went through to get there. Tiered progress lets you keep all of your goals, but recognizes that you cannot meet all of them simultaneously. And, so, you go back to your indicators and say, for example, your marathon time is 2h15 right now. Tier 1 progress would be if you get it below 2h12. Tier 2 is to get it to say 2h07. And tier 3 would be 2h00. I started this approach this year, but I did it because I set a LOT of goals, and often then feel like I’m really slacking because I’ll miss most of them. Of course I do, there’s 50-odd goals some years. I was bound to miss most. But by implementing “tiers”, I give myself permission to celebrate progress towards a goal, even if I can’t reach full attainment this year for every goal, for whatever reason. I can aim for tier 1 on all of them (progress), rather than full for all.
I have just finished reading Jeffrey Kottler’s “Change” and I love his chapters that talk about resisting change. Someone may want to lose 15 pounds, but they don’t because their psyche has stopgaps in the way that resist change. Like for example being heavy has given them an excuse not to go running with their neighbour, or perhaps reinforces a belief that they’re single because they’re fat, and if they lose the weight, and they still don’t go running or find a date, then their excuse is gone and they have to accept that they’re too lazy to run or hate their neighbour, or that they’re single because of a fear of intimacy or being vulnerable. Often our goals tell us things that we want to change but haven’t been able to do without a conscious concerted effort, which means full attainment is not necessarily likely in the first attempt. Which is okay. Progress lies in the attempt, not only in the full achievement, grasshopper.
Your third step, and probably just as important as your “relevance” test above, is to ask yourself, “Why might I not try as hard as I think I should?”. If you want, think of it as cataloging your likely factors for failure. It’s one of the reasons why some addiction programs suggest going through it while single i.e. avoiding relationships because one of the biggest resistors of change are anchors to the past, including those in your previous life who saw you in a certain way. In some ways, their continued presence can be a reminder of past failures, and it isn’t uncommon for addicts to use them as an excuse to relapse…”Oh, my family / parents / wife / brother / sister / friends think I am just an addict, so I might as well just prove them right.” It’s not real, it’s just rationalization, but resistors exist in a lot of rationalizations. They allow you to avoid doing the hard work to change, which is often the trigger for setting goals — wanting to rationally commit to a new course of action to achieve something you wouldn’t achieve otherwise. And hopefully will identify some mitigation factors for the factors that might stop you from progressing.
Last but not least, you can think about some time management aspects. You know how big your vase is, how are you going to arrange your rocks each day? For some people, they want to write, and they do it on the bus or train on the way to work. Or at break. Or they get up an hour before their kids. Or they have their spouse or friend look after the kids two nights a week, while they have “writing time”. Lots of specialized texts will turn this into habits, i.e. write everyday at lunch for a month and it will become a habit. I prefer the Seinfeld method, which really is doubtful that it had anything to do with Seinfeld (he disputes it himself), but the idea is that you try to do things every day and you just track whether or not you do them. Keeping a “streak” alive. But if you miss a day, that’s okay. It happens. You start the next streak. Your goal is the longest chain / streak you can do. For those who are treating it like creating a habit (like working out every day), as soon as they miss a day, they bust. The Seinfeld method says, “You know you’re going to bust eventually, so don’t use that as an excuse to quit. Start again.” Not unlike sobriety for alcoholics. Day by day, count the days. If you relapse, you’re not done. You just start over.
A more positive image is likely that of “Number of days without a workplace accident”. They know accidents happen eventually, but the goal is to see how long they can go without one and build awareness. If it happens, or more accurately, when it happens, that doesn’t mean they say “Screw it, let them happen all the time now.” It just means that streak ended, and you start a new one.
I am going to end on another quote from Kennedy as I think it shows the true “breadth” of goal-setting, as it starts to show the degree of planning that goes into one of the most famous goals ever publicly announced:
For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding…
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 which we intend to win, and the others, too…
But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun–almost as hot as it is here today–and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out–then we must be bold.
— John F. Kennedy, speech to Rice University, September 12, 1962
Be bold, not SMART.