It’s the new year, and I hope it’s going to be a great one for you. Whether it is good, bad or great, is largely a result of how you choose to use your energy and focus. A common habit at this time of year is to look at what you want to change in yourself and commit to it. Sadly, most people find it incredibly hard to stick with these changes. I heard this today: “New Year’s Resolutions are just a to-do list for the first week of January.” It doesn’t have to be like that. You get to choose whether your resolutions are a Rocket set for Mars, or if they will simply fizzle out on the launch pad.
Resolutions, the good ones, come from a desire to make a meaningful change in your life. Maybe you want to loose ten pounds? Perhaps you are looking to learn a new language? Be a better father? Get a promotion? Start your own business? Write a book? Create a body of artistic work? There are an infinite number of resolutions, but first I’m going to show you why so many people fail to stick to their goals, and then give you a framework for how to make yours stick. Once you know this framework, you can apply any growth goals you have in your life to this framework and see an opportunity for massive growth in all areas of your life.
Why SMART Goals don’t work
SMART Goals – Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. Sounds logical, which is why this framework has persisted. Specific is good, so that you know what you want to achieve. Measurable is valuable so that you can track your progress. Attainable and realistic are logical descriptors: I was in a meeting where one engineer proposed we “take a stand to make a unicorn.” (he was joking obviously) – but the point was that it’s nice to make a big goal in your life, but what if it’s not attainable or realistic? Timely, is another useful descriptor. As a concept this works in practice, and for some goals it is a framework that helps.
But what about big goals? What about goals where you know there’s ambiguity? Perhaps you have wanted to loose weight for years, but just can’t keep it off–so what’s holding you back? Most people want to be better in their relationships–be a better father/husband/friend, but how do you take action on something that is harder to measure? Or, what if you want to take a chance and do something truly big and take a chance on something that may not be attainable? The first person to reach the North Pole didn’t know if it was possible. The first person to climb Mount Everest didn’t know if it was possible. Even many people creating their own businesses or art don’t know if they can be successful – they choose to try anyway. These things aren’t SMART goal, but they are ambitious and exciting goals.
Secondly, why does your goal even matter? If you set a goal that doesn’t help you live a life that you desire, you’re not going to stick through the difficult parts. I wanted to start running for years, but couldn’t bring myself to do more than a few runs and then I would decide it was “too hard.” It took me signing up to run a race for me to finally have the motivation to break through the training barrier that was holding me back from enjoying running. Even still, just signing up for a race may not be enough for people. I signed up for a half-marathon so that I could really push my boundaries of what I thought was possible for me. I cared about training and doing the race, because it would help me move my life forward in a way that was holding me back. If your goals don’t matter in the grand scheme of your life, you won’t stick with them.
How to set goals that you will reach (even big, hard, and potentially impossible ones)
A powerful goal setting Framework looks like this;
- Set your target end goal
- Define the Habits (or practices) that you will use to make it happen
- Define the foundations you need to make those habits stick (knowledge, skills, time, resources, relationships, etc.)
- Track your progress of your habits and adjust as necessary to keep forward momentum towards your goal.
Habits are more important than anything else when trying to accomplish big goals. If you want to loose ten pounds, it is more important to consider what are the habits that you have that make this difficult, and what are the habits that would support this goal. Choosing habits of “running three times a week”, or “practicing yoga three times a week” or even “walking for an half-hour every day”–these are going to make a measurable impact towards your goal. Then, consider what you need to make that habit stick – how are you going to find the time to run? Perhaps you want a few lessons to learn the mechanics of running so that it won’t hurt? Perhaps you like doing things with other people, so you need to find a running buddy who will help you go running when you don’t feel like it.
Finally, track the progress of you sticking with your habits. It feels good to look back and see that you’ve run twelve times in the last three weeks. Even for weeks that you miss for what ever legit reasons, you can still see that you’ve made progress if you track how you are working towards your habits. If you are sticking with your habit consistently, then its easier to see how you are working towards your bigger goal–if your goal was to loose ten pounds, and you’ve been running consistently for six weeks, what is your weight now? If you haven’t lost as much weight as you want, how do you want to modify your habits? Do you want to increase the length of your runs? Do you want to add another habit around what you eat (like not eating chocolate/cookies/sweets for five days a week)? If you are moving towards your growth goals, you will develop more confidence, which will support you as you want to take on new habits that support the bigger goal. The key is to judge yourself on how far you’ve moved forward, more than how close you are to your goal. The goal is there to give you direction, but the practices and habits are there to support your growth.
Looking at something more complicated, like “being a better father” – this is now more ambiguous. What does being a better father mean? Do you want to spend more time with your kids? Do you want to change how you discipline your kids? Do you want to yell less? You can take a more ambiguous goal, and then break it into things that matter to you which can then support you defining the new habits you want.
Now that you have a habit defined, consider what you need to support making the habit stick? Do you need new knowledge? Do you need new skills? Do you need a practice to perform outside of a situation so that you are better prepared when it happens (i.e. how to handle your own anger when your kid is being a pain in the ass–its best to create a practice to help you learn to manage your emotions outside of the situation first so that you are better prepared, much like you practice plays before entering into a game). The key is to choose habits that are going to support you in your desire to grow into the person you want to be, and track the progress as you follow through on the habit.
But, what about when it gets too hard to stick with it?
I think its safe to say, we’ve all experienced times when we have done everything “right”–we’ve set goals that we care about, and worked hard to make the habits stick, but life becomes challenging and it all starts to fall apart. Here’s where I add three extra supports to the goal setting framework above.
What are your strengths?
If you don’t know your Character Strengths, I highly recommend you take both the StrengthsFinder2.0 assessment, and also the University of Pennsylvania Values In Action Character Strengths assessments (VIA Survey of Character Strengths). Every person has unique abilities that they can summon when they are trying to do something challenging. Gallup, the creators of the StrengthsFinder test have studies to back up the following: you enter the Flow state more easily when you are using your strengths. If you don’t know what that means, essentially the Flow state is what high performance athletes are trying to experience when they are performing at the highest levels. Its an experience when you are fully engaged in your work AND enjoying it, free from mental processes that prevent you from being the best you can be. The Flow state is a powerful mental state to be in when you are trying to work through difficult challenges.
So, back to the framework – what are your strengths, and how can you set up your habits to take advantage of them?
Sometimes, you need something more than a little boost, which is where the next addition to the goal setting framework comes in.
What are your values?
Values are the philosophies, motives and principles that are important to YOU. These are the ideas that when you are living them out create deep satisfaction in your work. When you are doing work that doesn’t engage your values you often feel a sense of apathy. When doing work that goes against your values, you feel a deep sense of dread and disengagement.
For instance, one of my values is creativity. I can tell if I am setting bad habits if they don’t allow me time and space to experience and express my creativity. Or, another value of mine is “learning and personal growth”–so if the habits that I am pursuing don’t lead me towards that, I know I have set poor habits in pursuit of my bigger goal.
Sometimes the goal may not support your values. Perhaps you’ve set a goal like “getting a promotion”, but the circumstances at your workplace require you to do something that goes against your values in order to achieve that goal (I speak from experience on this). If you have set a goal that turns out to be opposed to your values, you may not need to abandon it. Consider if you can reframe the goal in a way that supports your values by asking yourself “how did I want this goal to change me, and how might I achieve that goal another way?
There’s one more tool that I add when supporting my clients to help them set goals that will propel them into the lives they want, and that is called your “Life Purpose”.
When are you at your best?
The coaching model I use, called Co-Active Coaching has a tool that they call “Life Purpose”. The concept of Life Purpose can be summed up as “what is the impact I desire to have with my life.” This isn’t a fixed concept, and will change in your life. Your life purpose will change as you experience major events in your life, like getting married, having kids, and changing jobs. The process for defining Life Purpose is not intended to create a rigid goal, but to use a metaphor, its more like finding out what puts wind in your sails. You can live your life purpose in almost any situation in your life, even if things aren’t ideal. When you start to experience the truth of this, it is a huge confidence boost which will support you as you want to make specific changes or growth goals in your life.
Make 2016 a year to remember
A new year gives you a chance to reassess what’s important to you, and then adjust how you are living. You can choose to allow old habits and patterns to continue, or you can choose to dig in and do the work to make the changes you want in your life to grow into the person you want to be. This goal setting framework is deeply individualized, because no two people are the same. Each person has different strengths, values and life purpose. Knowing these things about yourself and then committing to using them will make your life more exciting and enjoyable. It’s hard work, but then if you’ve made it this far in this post, I’m guessing you’re not scared of hard work.
If you set goals that are aligned with your life purpose, honor your values, utilize your strengths, and define habits that actually mean something to you, even if you don’t achieve your goal, you will be making your life more exciting, enjoyable and meaningful to you. That will go a long way towards supporting your desire to make 2016 a year when change happens, sticks and helps you become your next better self.
If you want to know more about how I can help you use this methodology to dig deep in 2016, reach out and e-mail me at James.Mondry@gmail.com with the subject line ‘goal setting’. I would love to hear from you how I can help you make 2016 an epic year. Or, comment below – what are the goals that you want to accomplish in 2016, and how will this new understanding of goal setting help you make that happen?