If you are like me, each January you blithely state your New Year’s resolutions, work diligently on them for 2-3 weeks, and by February have reverted back to your old habits. Setting goals and working towards achieving them are activities that receive much attention, particularly at the beginning of the year. But when it comes down to it, accomplishing meaningful goals leading to lasting change is hard for both individuals and organizations.
I think we have trouble achieving our goals not because we aren’t trying hard enough, but because we are missing a critical step in the goal setting process- linking how we will accomplish the goal to why we have the goal in the first place. Stating a goal and then listing steps to achieve it is a very logical, organized way of going about things, but most of us work from a place of habit and feelings. If we don’t connect feelings to our goals, and practice new habits to achieve our goals, our goal-setting exercises are for naught. For example, it is very easy to state that you are going to lose 10 pounds in 2 months, and establish your specific diet and menu in order to lose the weight. But after your 5th salad lunch, when your office-mates are going out for burgers, it is very hard to say no if you don’t have a powerful reason to stay true to your goal.
One of my major goals for 2017 is to be more organized and disciplined about writing. I have many reasons for choosing this goal: to be thorough and detailed and not wait until the last minute to meet my responsibilities, to become a thought leader in my field, to make sure I don’t forget things, etc. The most compelling thing for me however, is to be more productive overall. I have just started a consulting business, and yet I feel like I am wasting valuable time because I am not thoughtful and planned about my writing. So I need to figure out how I am going to be able to write more, and then identify the steps I need to take to be consistent about writing.
Three simple, but not so easy, steps for goal setting:
1. When identifying a goal, articulate why that goal is important. Why do you want to lose 10 pounds? To fit better in your clothes? To have more energy to play with your kids? To lower your blood pressure? Each of these reasons will require a different approach to achieving the goal. If you are trying to lower your blood pressure by strict dieting, this may add to your stress and have the opposite effect! Spending time thinking deeply about why the goal is meaningful in the first place is the first step.
In order to achieve a significant goal, you need to be fully committed to it. You therefore need to be clear about if you really want to achieve the goal. Setting a goal because you think you should, or because someone else wants you to accomplish it, or without being fully clear why you are working on it, will usually mean you won’t accomplish it.
As for me, I am very motivated to make my new business a successful venture. I believe that by organizing my writing schedule, I’ll be more productive which will generate more business. This is my goal and I’m clear about why it is important to me.
2. Before creating your list of action items, establish how you are going to achieve your goal. This can also be thought of as creating a strategy, or a group of behaviors that lead to an outcome. If you want to lose weight, think about the strategy that will address why you want to lose weight. If you want to look better in your clothes, perhaps you need to focus on exercise and strengthening your body rather than on strict dieting. If you want to lower your blood pressure, you might need to address stress and binge eating which may be contributing to accumulating and holding onto extra weight. Before getting into details, think about a strategy that will help you accomplish the why of your goal.
For my writing goal, I could choose several different strategies. I could plan on writing for a specified amount of time at at a certain time each day. I could block large amounts of time for writing, several times a week. I could focus on writing a page a day. I could promise myself rewards for accomplishing a certain amount of writing (Starbucks for each page…). I need to think about my current habits, energy levels, motivators, other responsibilities, and schedules in order to find the strategy that will be most likely to help me achieve my goal.
3. Once you establish your strategy, now you can think about the action steps that will lead you to success. Your action steps need to connect to the why of your goal in addition to leading you to accomplish your strategy. If you want to look better in your clothes, and your strategy is to exercise and strengthen your body, you’ll need to create a schedule for working out that meshes with your habits, energy levels, motivators, etc. If going to a gym makes you want to throw up, you need to find another way to exercise.
For my writing goal, I think I’ll try creating “content” once a day- at some point. My schedule varies each day, so locking myself into certain times for writing doesn’t always work. And I’m not particularly motivated by external rewards. So if my strategy is to try and write something each day, now I can establish steps for that: will I try to schedule when I’m going to write or will I just fit it in each day? Where will I write? Will I have set a time limit or a length of writing limit? How will I document that I have written? What will I do when I don’t write on any given day? These specific steps that connect to my why and how will be the guideposts for achieving my goal.
The building blocks for goal-setting success are these three basic steps- articulate specifically why you have the goal, establish a strategy or how you will achieve the goal, and then create specific action steps that connect you to the why and how of your goal.
There are, of course, many other activities that are helpful in achieving goals: tell people about your goals, have long-term rewards for achieving goals, post motivational pictures or statements to encourage yourself, etc. I’ll work on writing about some of these soon!
As I embark on a new role as educational consultant, I am actively looking for useful suggestions to enhance my skills and also to share with other educators and parents. Many blog/LinkedIn/Facebook posts succinctly encapsulate their messages into lists of actions or tips one should follow to be a better manager, parent, communicator, etc. I’ve written posts such as these myself! I enjoy reading these lists of action steps, and often find the ideas helpful. Because I want to be the best that I possibly can be, it is tempting to try to reach all of the lofty goals at once- but I’ve learned over time that this never works.
I was lucky enough to work with an incredible Educational Director at Seneca Academy who is practical, detail-oriented, and deeply understands the work of educators. Invariably, in August, when I would excitedly explain to her the list of initiatives and themes I had come up with for the year, she would have to patiently reel me in by reminding me that teachers (and administrators) can only work on one or two new things at a time. She helped us all become successful at several initiatives and skills over the years because we didn’t try to do too much at once.
There is a lot of speculation on how long it takes to change behavior or create a habit, but there is not a lot of actual research to support any specific time period. The most current and oft-cited study, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, suggests it takes an average of 66 days for a new behavior to become “automated,” depending on the habit you want to create (Lally et al. 2009). That means you need to really focus on a behavior for 2 months before it becomes a part of your regular routine. While it is certainly possible that you could try to achieve more than one behavior change at a time, this seems quite difficult- especially if you are trying to maintain all of your other positive habits!
So what do you actually have to do if you want to use those 10 management tips or incorporate those 7 habits of effective communicators- as promoted on social media? Start with one thing and work on it for at least two months. If you really want to change your behavior, it is going to take time and effort. Taking on too much at once is a recipe for failure. Then follow the SMART goals practice of articulating your specific goal, in measurable language, that is achievable and relevant, and identify how long you will work on it. Start small: pick a “habit” that will be easily achievable but that will also have meaningful results. It can be anything from saying “thank you” more, to spending 30 minutes each day engaged in relevant reading, to writing daily intentions each morning. Pick whatever you need to do to move your behavior in the direction you want.
Knowledgeable writers have offered many other suggestions to consider when trying to change behavior such as writing down your goal, telling others of your goal, charting your progress, etc. For example: 29 Ways to Successfully Ingrain a Behavior, 5 Secrets To Behavior Change and 5 Scientific Ways to Build Habits That Stick. But key to all of these strategies is starting with just one goal and then committing to work on it for a significant amount of time.
I’ll keep reading the lists and tips on social media. But I know that if I actually want to benefit from them, I can’t take them all on at once. And then I’ve got some work to do.