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Goals: When Is Enough Enough?

Dear Justin,

How many goals should I make at a time? At work, we set specific goals dealing with our jobs that I go over monthly with my manager. I also have personal goals related to health, family, personal growth and so on. I don’t feel overwhelmed because they are each so different, but my friends think I am asking too much of myself. I’m just wondering if there’s a good rule-of-thumb for setting and sharing goals.

Signed,
Goal Getter

Dear Goal Getter,

Kudos to you! I think most of us wish we were better at setting goals in all areas of our lives. We understand that, theoretically, if we set more meaningful goals we’d likely accomplish more meaningful stuff. But few of us sit down and record our goals, say nothing of maintaining them on a regular basis.

Let me share some perspective and best practices on goals and sharing them, with a focus on helping each of us get more of the right stuff done each day, each month, each year. I have found these tips help me get more big projects done without adding to my stress.

Having Clear Goals Helps You Focus

Recorded and defined goals are incredibly motivating (they connect to a greater purpose we care about) and they give us clarity when we have too much on our plates. When we’re reaching our max capacity and a new task threatens to put us over the edge, a quick review of our defined goals makes it easier to know what to do, what to decline, or what to renegotiate. Clear goals result in clearer decision-making. Clearer decision-making allows for focus.

For most of us our issue isn’t too many goals, it’s the nature of our goals—they’re vague. They’re unclear. They look like this: Family trip, training program, employee handbook, client experience.

These vague statements represent some outcome wanted, but the process of achieving the outcome is nowhere to be found in the name of the goal. Your written goals should answer this question: “What would have to be true, and by when, for me to say this goal is accomplished?” The author Brené Brown likes to say, “Paint done for me.” My friend and mentor David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, often summarizes all of productivity best practices in one sentence: “You have to define what done means and what doing looks like.”

My Approach to Goals

Here is how I approach goals each year. At the start of the year I like to define four to five goals for professional life and four to five goals for personal life. After I set a few goals, I define what “done” looks like and when I’ll achieve them. I’ll be as specific as “Make successful Disney World trip with family May 8–13.” I am super specific so I can envision “done” and I can plan on the satisfaction that will come from doing or finishing that thing. It’s that clear “painting” that motivates me. Then I make sure it aligns with my values and long-terms goals.

For professional goals, I make sure they align with my organization’s most important strategic plans. That has been key to my own career growth. I’ve found that if you want to grow in your organization, work on the stuff that connects to the goals leaders care about most.

Concerning Too Many Goals—Beware of Your Values

Whenever we have too much on our plates sometimes the advice is to go back to your values to simplify. Sometimes this can help you decide what to work on, but it doesn’t reduce your workload or minimize your challenges for getting work done. For example, the fact that you value your kids so much is the reason you volunteer for all the duties you didn’t even know existed a month ago. You now coach the football team, volunteer on committees, lead fundraisers, and are playing the “tree” in your child’s ballet performance.

I’m not saying those things aren’t worthy activities, but can we all agree that there are more worthy activities in the world than we can possibly do? Reminding ourselves of our values doesn’t always simplify our lives. It can make us want to do more, often out of a sense of guilt. Be cognizant of that fact.

Should I Share My Goals?

If a goal is incredibly personal and you’d be embarrassed if anyone knew it, then I’ll leave it to you to decide whether to share it. But for most goals, yes, you are much better off if you share them. But who you share them with is the biggest deal here. Here’s my rule: share with those who care…to hold you accountable. Sure, you could share your goals on social media and those who care will cheer you on. But the key to consistent accountability is someone who will take the time to hold you accountable.

The American Society of Training and Development found that people are 65 percent likely to meet a goal after committing to another person. Their chances of success increase to 95 percent when they hold ongoing meetings with their partners to review progress.

And it’s not enough for your accountability partner to ask you once a week how you’re doing on achieving your goal. It’s better for them to ask how you are doing with the small daily actions that will drive the goal or outcome. A constant reminder of a long-term goal might actually discourage you. Period reminders can inspire you. If you want constant reminders of anything, they should be about the actions that drive you to your promised land. Remember this: you don’t actually DO a goal, you do small daily actions that help you achieve your goal.

Justin

Justin Hale

"You change your life one action at a time. My next tip is your next action.” Justin Hale is a speaker, trainer, and training designer. He plays a key role on VitalSmarts’ product development team and is often the face of VitalSmarts’ award-winning classroom, virtual, and on-demand courses.

The ideas expressed in this article are based on the skills and principles taught in Getting Things Done®. Learn more about Getting Things Done.

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