Goals are the vitamin tablets of the self-help world! Apparently, the only benefit people get from vitamin supplements is very expensive wee.

Anyone who has set a new year’s resolution understands this metaphor. Traditional goals, just like vitamin tablets, rarely have the lasting effect we anticipate. We join the gym, buy the gear and then stop. In business we plan to set aside time for analysing our financials, we commit to networking more regularly, we aim to grow our client database, we are determined to have quality, performance conversations with our staff. We return to work in January all fired up to work differently and …. nothing changes.

But why?

There are a number of reasons why we find it difficult to change our behaviour. Our brain is not sophisticated enough to process the millions of bits of information that it receives so it automates a lot of what we do. Habits are behaviours – both good and bad – that we don’t have to consciously think about thus freeing our mind up to concentrate on other things. Imagine getting into your automatic car and preparing to drive “You open the door, throw your bag on the passenger seat, get in, keys in the ignition, belt on, car in gear, foot on accelerator, check your mirrors, change gears into drive, take off”  If you have been driving for a while, all of these movements are instinctive.  Now imagine performing this task without using your right foot, the one that controls to brake and accelerator. It’s possible but it’s HARD. How many times do you think you would have to practice driving without your right foot before it became automatic? Plenty! Some say it takes up to 10,000 hours or repetitions and while that research is a bit wobbly, the premise holds true.

Changing a lifestyle or a work habit is exactly the same, it takes intention, effort and a great deal of time.  

How can we write goals that stick?

Most of our goals are absolutely achievable, so why do so many fail?  The problem lies with the way many see goals as actions whereas;

Goals are the habits you want to create.

After years of reading the research on goal setting, coaching executives as well as training others to coach,  I believe it all comes down to this one phrase: Goals are the habits you want to create. Goals must be a combination of two factors – a clearly stated new way of working/living/being or doing PLUS a motivating desire to change.

The following goals all contain both a clear picture of what will be happening in the future when the goal has been achieved and the motivation to achieve it.

Chris: In six months’ time I am regularly exercising so that I have the energy to keep up with my kids. Habit: regularly exercising. Motivation: having the energy for my kids.

Wendy:  By the end of the financial year I will be consistently devoting two hours a week to strategic planning so that I am feeling proactive and planning ahead in my business.

Habit: spending 2 hours per week on planning. Motivation: feeling proactive.

Renee: In 2018 I am consistently creating quality content for my website to keep it fresh and raise website hits from 100 – 200 per day.

Habit: creating quality content. Motivation: client engagement with the website.

Edwin Locke and Gary Latham are the key researchers on goal setting and while their work is quite dense, the basics are easy to understand.

Goals need to be challenging – they need to stretch you but not strain you. We are more likely to achieve goals if they are challenging, however, there is an proviso. Australians are not generally keen on Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGS) in the same way Americans are.  Our natural cynicism stops us from claiming: In 2019 I will be THE BEST florist in Australia. Aussies are more likely to think, “Yeah right?? I am a florist in suburban Brisbane, that’s never going to happen?!”

Getting the balance right is crucial. Too easy we lose motivation. Too challenging we give up.

SMART goals need to be motivating.

Despite most of us being familiar with the SMART acronym, most goals I read lack specificity, a way of being measured and they generally lack a motivating element. The truth is we are not very motivated by other people’s goals or incentives. Achieving goals takes effort so unless we are clear about what’s in it for me we are unlikely to be motivated to start or unable maintain effort.

My coaching client Julie felt that she was working really hard for no recognition and said she wanted to be noticed in the workplace for her contribution. After lots of discussion about what that meant for her we framed her goal:

In six months’ time I will be regularly speaking up in meetings so that I appear confident and competent. Currently I feel 4/10 in confidence and I want to be an 8/10.

This goal is specific about the habit Julie wanted to create – speaking up in meetings. Her motivation to achieve the goals is the desire to feel confident and competent. Lastly, she has given herself six months to practice a number of strategies to get to her goal, which is approximately 30 opportunities to repeat and refine her skills.

SMART goals should measure progress not product.

Our brain is rarely satisfied. If you hit this month’s sales target, next month you will need to increase it to feel the same buzz. Have 3000 Instagram followers and your brain won’t be satisfied again until you get 4000. Research shows that individuals who notice and reward progress toward a goal have higher life satisfaction than those who are relentless in pursuit of the goal itself.

As an example, Julie’s goal is less about the number of times she speaks up and more about building confidence. It is confidence that will make her feel satisfied in her work. So, how do you measure confidence, or any other feeling for that matter? Solution focussed rating scales are really useful.  Julie could clearly describe to me what it felt like to be  4/10 in terms of confidence and she could also describe what an 8/10 in confidence would look and feel like. Our short term goals was to take her from a 4/10 to a 5/10.

Goals require time and practice –  and lots of it!

If goals are the habits we want to create – we know that changing a habit takes time. Give yourself a few months, at least, to achieve a goal so that you have multiple opportunities for practice. If your goal states: Next week I am going to write 5 blog posts ; that’s an awesome intention and fantastic item on your to-do list but it’s not a goal. In 2018 I am consistently creating quality content for my website to keep it fresh and raise website hits is a goal and writing five blog posts this week could be an action you take. It may be useful to ask yourself – who do I need to be and what do I have to do to continue to create content regularly? What do I have to do more of, less of or differently? What writing habits do I need to get into to ensure I meet my goal?

Goals aren’t going to be achieved using old habits and ways of thinking.

Once you have set your goal, brainstorm every possible option or action you could take that might get you to your goal – even the outrageous options. Don’t miss this step. You need to generate as many pathways to your goal as possible. Frankly, if the obvious option or answer to your dilemma had worked you wouldn’t be stuck here procrastinating. Find a buddy, colleague or coach to help you. Once you have a very long list choose one to start with – the easiest one!

Habits require action and quick wins.

Start with the smallest step possible – the one that you can not fail at. Julie’s tiny step was to circle in her diary the first meeting she was going to ask questions at. Her second tiny step was to write three possible questions she could ask. If you haven’t taken one small step toward your goal on the same day you set it, chances are you won’t.

Learn more about simple, busy proof habit creation by checking out the work of Michelle McQuaid www.michellemcquaid.com/make-habits-stick.

Goals need social support. We are more likely to achieve our goals if they are linked to group goals or we have support from our friends and colleagues. We need a friend, a coach or accountability buddy to give us feedback, prod us when required and most importantly celebrate the small wins.

Goals – go early, go public, go get ‘em!

This article was recently published in Roooar.