As I neared the end of my doctoral program, I convinced myself that I must be an idiot because I couldn’t get the hang of writing a dissertation. Time after time, I would write a chapter or section only to have my advisor tear it apart (sometimes literally) and tell me to start over. One day when my frustration level was very high, my advisor asked me a simple question: since I had never written a dissertation before, why did I expect that I would be able to do it perfectly the first time? In effect she was asking, “What’s your evidence that you should be able to do this without making mistakes?” That question was a gift, as it forced me to consider my underlying assumption, which turned out to be, “Because I should.” Wow – talk about an unrealistic expectation!
That experience is why I was the perfect person to answer a question posed by a client recently. He wanted to know how to set goals that are appropriate, especially when they represent something new for which one has little or no frame of reference. By “appropriate” he meant goals that are neither too challenging nor too easy – i.e., those that provide just enough of a stretch to engender a sense of motivation. What I told him is that there are four critical success factors to setting appropriate goals:
1. Realistic expectations
2. Regularly tested assumptions
3. A properly aligned mindset
4. Celebration of forward movement
You set realistic expectations for your goals by looking at the evidence, including your own and others’ experiences. For example, if you know it takes you two days to write an article and your goal is to write an article in two hours, you break the goal into steps – i.e., you don’t expect to bridge that difference overnight. Your first step toward reaching that goal may be to do some things that will help you write more quickly, such as creating an outline first, or blocking out some uninterrupted time to work. If after trying those techniques you still are unable to write an article in two hours, it’s possible that you need to adjust your goal a bit – which is okay. Not only have you gained some valuable information by this effort, but by virtue of trying to get to two hours, you will end up getting much closer to two hours than the two days it’s taking you now.
Another way to set realistic expectations is to make evidence-based decisions. By that I mean take a realistic look at your experience to date, and make choices and decisions based on that information. If you don’t have such experience, take a look at those who do. Having said that, I hasten to add that it’s important to use the correct “comparison other” – who often is YOU rather than another person.
Regularly tested assumptions
Often the assumptions on which we base our thoughts, beliefs, and actions do not make themselves known easily – i.e., we have to seek them out. It’s safe to say that there are underlying assumptions lurking in the background, influencing our choices and decisions. Sometimes our assumptions are correct; other times they are not. Sometimes they become outdated and need to be replaced.
One easy way to test an assumption is to ask “Why?” Look for the evidence to back up the assumption and/or to ask what purpose it serves. If there is a reasonable answer, then the assumption probably is sound; if not, this is likely the time to release it.
Properly aligned mindset
Let’s face it: especially when faced with a new goal, few of us are likely to achieve it exactly as expected the first time. Being okay with that fact is the first step to a properly aligned mindset. When you make mistakes (notice the plural here!), learn from the experience and move on rather than judge the effort a failure. Welcome the information as a way to calibrate your next effort. Think of Goldilocks in the fairy tale of the Three Bears: she had to try a bowl of porridge that was too hot, then one that was too cold before she found one that was just right for her.
Another important tip about goals is to refrain from thinking about them as being set in concrete – they are not. Especially when you are setting goals in new areas, take your best guess about what’s realistic, then move forward. As you work toward that goal you will learn how realistic it is and adjust accordingly. If you think of goals as long-term aspirations rather than as win-lose events, you are better able to adjust your expectations as you go. When your goals are too low, then you adjust them higher. When they are too high, you lower them a bit. To be motivating, goals should be challenging AND achievable. Otherwise they will become your enemy instead of your friend. Treat your goals as learning opportunities rather than as “gotcha” mechanisms – i.e., look for the learning, not for the pain.
Celebration of forward movement
In December 2002, I walked my first marathon to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society as a member of that organization’s Team in Training program. Although we trained for this marathon with a goal of finishing in 8 hours, it ended up taking us over 9 hours – and we were thrilled! The time was immaterial (at least once the course was behind us); the important part of the goal was that all 17 of our team members FINISHED. That called for a celebration, which lasted most of the night and long afterward.
The point is, we need to give ourselves credit when credit is due. Even when we don’t achieve our goals entirely, or we find that realistically we overreached, we need to CELEBRATE our forward movement! After all, what’s the fun in achieving something if we don’t take the time to recognize and celebrate it?
In summary, goals are our gateway to success, not failure. Make them work for YOU instead of the other way around. By keeping these four critical success factors in mind, you will be able to set goals that work FOR you instead of against you. And won’t that make your life much easier?
© 2012 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.