“It is not enough to take steps which may someday lead to a goal; each step must be itself a goal and a step likewise.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
I have an interesting relationship with productivity. Deep down I truly believe that productivity alone does not equate to success or value. I internalize a childhood lesson from my mom, “don’t confuse motion with progress,” and am a huge fan of my wife’s sweatshirt that reads, “your worth is not measured by your productivity.”
However, I have a bevy of passions – my faith, family, fatherhood, professional work, writing reflections on this platform, mentoring, self-development habits, and other interests like endurance running – that together require a lot of time. To successfully attend to all these passions, I have to be intentional and productive in how I spend my time. I often become frustrated if I find myself inadvertently ignoring any of these identities.
I believe others can relate to this productivity conundrum.
But to pile onto that, I’ve also never been a successful goal setter. In my previous job working with West Point Cadets (undergraduate students), many of my coaching and mentorship conversations involved the topic of goal setting. Cadets would ask how I set and achieve goals, and I often found myself without a helpful response because I felt I didn’t have a great approach to or history with goal setting success. I was disappointed that my struggles in this area hindered my developmental impact with others.
Fortunately, I recently started reading James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits, and had the opportunity to receive some executive coaching where we explored my self-prescribed challenges with goal setting. Through these I found that there is no right approach to goal setting, but our own authentic and effective path. I have also realized that goal setting is so much more than merely setting a SMART goal; it’s a system integrating our compelling purpose, focused issue, and comprehensive approach.
So, I felt it appropriate to start the new year by sharing my recent lessons in goal setting, and that these reflections from a self-identified non-goal setter can help others integrate identity, development, productivity, and goal setting to be a more intentional leader.
Goal Setting as a Means of…
Goal setting can be a dynamic developmental activity both for ourselves and for helping others. I mentally organize goals into three basic categories which help frame the goal, purpose, and process for all involved parties:
- Development Goals: Goals to keep our self-development efforts focused, effective, and efficient. These help us remain aligned to our identities, so we commit our time to what is important, not merely urgent. Developmental goals can be established metrics to maintain developmental habits like routinely reading, writing, reflecting, and so on. For example, a personal developmental goal is to read a Harvard Business Review article and my three news emails every day of the work week.
- Performance Goals: These focus on improving results within work, habits, or activities we already do, leading us to refine our approaches to current processes. These can be things like setting a higher sales goal at work, improving our marathon time, or setting a new annual goal for number of books we read.
- Achievement Goals: These are achieving something new in life or work. Achievement goals require a whole new set of behaviors and habits that we are not already doing. This can include things like getting published in an academic journal for the first time, applying for and completing a PhD program, or running our first marathon.
6 Important Components to Successful Goal Setting
Again, though it is an important step, a complete approach to goal setting is much more than simply setting a SMART goal. My learning and experiences lead me to qualify successful goal setting as a process of six important components that we generally follow in sequential order as shown below.
This process helps us approach achieving goals by first creating and clarifying our compelling purpose to form commitment (why before what or how), then identifying the goal (what), and finally forming our actionable plan (how).
1 – Connect to an Identity. In Atomic Habits, James Clear distinguishes outcome-based goals versus identity-based ones. The former is generated by a desire to achieve a result while the latter come from a deep seeded personal identity. It’s the difference between “I want to run a marathon” and “I am an endurance athlete,” or between “I want to reflect more” versus “I am an intentional, life-long learner.” Identity-based goals give us a greater purpose behind a goal rather than creating an arbitrary idea and associated goal. Before we engage in the actual goal-setting process, we must clarify who we are, what we believe, our values, and the big rocks in our lives. These create the compelling purpose behind what we want to achieve.
It is important to also understand that this process of clarifying our purpose, values, and identity is iterative, which takes time. We cannot capture such important beliefs in a single session or in a day. It takes time to reflect, refine, and discover. These are not static either; they can evolve as we mature, collect more experiences, and gain more knowledge.
2 – Create a Sense of Urgency. As we clarify our identity, we then begin to assess how aligned we are to that identity. How do we spend our time? What activities and habits do we currently sustain? And how do these compare to who we see ourselves to be according to our identity? Are there gaps in what we do and who we see ourselves to be? Or is there something we must achieve next to maintain this identity? This analysis surfaces a need in our lives – a need to adjust or to achieve something new – which creates a personal sense of urgency in our lives. This establishes a relevant and compelling motivator for change.
3 – Set the Goal. Once we have our clear purpose for change, we can then define what we want to achieve by creating our goal. The goal needs to be complete to remove any room for vague interpretations, doubt, or commitment issues. I prefer to create a SMART goal statement, making the goal specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time bound.
4 – Create a Robust Systems Approach. While the goal defines our desired end state, it does not help us determine how to get there. We need to create a system of mutually supporting processes and activities to reach our goal step-by-step; these are the things that will keep us moving toward our goal every day. Though the system we create will be unique to our goal and ourselves, there are two important components to include: lead and lag measures; we must incorporate both.
Lead measures are the actions we take that make progress toward our goal. Lag measures are the metrics we use to assess progress. If we want to lose weight, lead measures include our daily nutrition and exercise plans; our lag measures are the results on the scale every week. If we want to achieve a new marathon personal record, our running plan incorporating different types of important runs (intervals, tempo runs, long slow runs, etc.), rest and cross-training plan, and nutrition plan are all lead measures; the lag measures can be time trial runs like a 10- or 13-mile runs to assess ability to maintain pace for our target marathon. If we are a salesperson, lead measures are how many sales calls we make per day; lag measures are how many sales we actually make that day. We can apply this system to our leader development efforts as well – writing a certain number of gratitude cards to actively lead more optimistically, asking a certain number of questions before offering advice to build a coaching habit, or planning and scheduling weekly one-on-one meetings with your direct reports to give more routine feedback.
Lead measures alone cannot provide timely updates on progress and effectiveness. Lag measures alone are only after-the-fact assessments and do not provide an actionable strategy.
5 – Identify Small Wins & Make Necessary Adjustments. Important goals often take months or years. To stay committed day-after-day through the struggles and monotony, we need to structure opportunities to identify and celebrate progress. We can use lag measures or other planned events to demonstrate progress; ensure to celebrate them to foster continued motivation. If our lag measures report less optimal or overwhelming success, consider relooking our goal or system to make appropriate adjustments as needed.
6 – Anchor Habits. Finally, consider the ways that we will make our new behaviors and habits last. Are we strictly temporarily complying with a certain set of behaviors that we likely can’t (or won’t) sustain, or have we truly internalized them by integrating them into our identity? I recommend thinking through embedding and reinforcing mechanisms to anchor our new behaviors long-term (these terms are adapted from Edgar Schein’s model to establish organizational culture and anchor change).
Embedding mechanisms are personal methods like our attention, measurements, and control. Examples include continued scheduling and tracking of behaviors, how we react to critical incidents, use of mentorship and accountability relationships for support, and things like a personal (and appropriate) rewards system.
Reinforcing mechanisms stabilize our new behaviors to help them remain attractive, easy, and “sticky.” These mechanisms can be things like how we structure our environment, automating behaviors and processes as much as possible through self-running systems, and soliciting feedback.
Goal setting and habit forming are important components of our development in any area of our life. And while this model is a personal approach, it is just one way and far from a complete resource. However, I hope this can be a primer to help others think more broadly about goal setting for self and leader development. I encourage you to explore more about goals and habits to equip you to create your own successful system. Below are a few initial recommendations. Onward toward our best selves.
- Atomic Habits, by James Clear
- The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg
- A Model of Effective Goal Setting for Leaders (SMART goals), 3×5 Leadership
- What is Your Leadership “One Big Thing?”, 3×5 Leadership
- James Clear’s portfolio of self-improvement articles
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