How to set the right goals this year
Why your #1 goal should be to change your goals
I hope you had a restful and enjoyable break. Hopefully, you’re feeling refreshed and optimistic for the year ahead. In the first edition of Rethink in 2023, we’re going to explore a topic I’ve talked about previously: goal setting. I’m sure that the process of setting goals is applicable to many of you at this moment - but are you setting the right kinds of goals?
Common problems with goal setting
Popular wisdom goes that the best way to achieve what we want personally and professionally is to set specific, challenging goals. For decades, I swallowed the Kool-Aid that goals – sales targets to hit, products to sell, marathon to run - are universally positive for improving motivation and performance.
Maurice Schweitzer, a professor at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and his colleagues have conducted some fascinating research on what happens when we overprescribe to goal-setting. Here are some of the problems they’ve identified:
Problem #1: Too focused or narrow
I used to think that they needed to be quantifiable for goals to be successful. Easily measurable goals would focus people’s attention. But it turns out a narrow focus can lead to what is known as ‘inattentional blindness.’
“The intense focus can blind people to important issues that appear related to their goals,” writes Schweitzer.
When I lived in New York, some of my closest friends worked in a prestigious ‘Magic Circle’ law firm. Whenever we got together, they’d talk incessantly about the hours they were required to bill their clients. They’d round up their hours, regularly cancel social plans, and confess how they’d charge clients 0.15-minute units when thinking about cases on the toilet! I often wondered how this goal setting be healthy or even ethical for clients? Narrow goals are often the loudest signal of what’s appropriate and valued in a culture.
Problem #3: Quality versus quantity goals
A quantity goal is something like: “I would like this newsletter to have 10,000 more subscribers by the end of 2023.” A quality goal is: “I want every piece of content I produce to be well researched and stimulate rethinking.” Research shows that ‘quantity goals’ that are easier to measure are given more attention than ‘quality goals’ in a multi-goal situation. We can see measurable progress. We can compare ourselves against others. We can celebrate objectively hitting the target. Problems arise, however, when we sacrifice quality goals to meet quantity goals.
Problem #2: Deprivileging other values
Some goals we set might prioritise some values at the expense of others. For example, my husband wants to run three marathons in a year - all in under three hours. Great goal. Upfront, however, he needs to acknowledge that the intense training is going to take time away from his family or from having the time to cook elaborate meals or whatever it is. When we set a goal, we need to think about a simple but critical question: what will we need to give up in pursuing and achieving this goal?
How can we solve this goal-setting challenge?
Here are four principles that have helped me enormously:
1. Learning goals vs performance goals:
Best summed up by this quote from Michelangelo: “What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.” For more on setting learning goals, I’d recommend reading Locke and Latham’s Goal Setting Theory.
2. That’s my goal unless:
When we set a goal, particular in a high-risk or challenging situation, we also need to be thoughtful about “This is my goal unless____” We set goals based on the information we must hand right now. And that might very well change. It sounds ironic, however, sometimes we need more flexibility in our goals to help us pay attention to when they should or shouldn’t be met. (Read more about this idea from Annie Duke).
3. Fall in love with systems:
“You don’t rise to the level of your goals but fall to the level of your systems.” James Clear. It must be one of my favourite rethink quotes of all time. As Clear succinctly explains in Atomic Habits, if you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your system, would you still succeed? Goals set direction; however, it’s the design of our systems that is key.
4. Change the time horizon:
Look at your goals list. How many are short-term? Say the next quarter or end of this year. Short-term goals lead to focusing on what we want to do versus what kind of person we want to be. (Dorie Clark has written a wonderful book on this topic called The Long Game.) I have in my life ten-year goals such as winning the Chelsea Flower Show. I know, so British and ridiculous. But when we set long-term goals, tied to our learning and our identity, they take us on journeys rather than focusing on endpoints.
Here’s to a refreshed approach to goal-setting this year - let’s make changing goals our #1 goal in 2023.