By Pete Kadushin, Ph.D.
Here’s something that most performance coaches won’t tell you. Bad goals are worse for you than having no goals at all. Bad goals make it harder to see your progress, make it harder to stay motivated, and mess with your confidence. You end up with a negative spiral where your big, ambiguous goals loom over you like a big black cloud of demotivation, all while you keep hearing that goal-setting is one of the keys to progress and success.
My radical suggestion is that if you’re not going to take the time to do it right, you’re better off not setting goals. Show up, do your best, rinse and repeat.
However, when you get goal-setting right, the opposite is true. Good goals can’t help but show you how much you’ve improved, which in turn fuels your desire to keep marching forward, creating a positive domino effect that boosts motivation and confidence. Each goal builds momentum that urges you forward as you get 1% better every day and makes you feel capable of taking on your to-do list each day.
So how will you know if your goal-setting routine is clearing the bar? Ask yourself the following questions to see if your goals are working for you or against you:
- Are my goals aligned with each other, and are they aligned with my vision of an exciting future?
- For each of my big goals, do I have a VERY NEXT STEP that’s small, concrete, and actionable?
- Am I in contact with my goals daily (preferably both morning and evening)?
The good news is that leveling up your goal-setting routine doesn’t have to take a lot of time or energy. It just requires some consistency and a bit of discipline.
Begin with the End in Mind
Goal-setting works best when it works backwards. Start with your vision of an exciting future – anywhere from three months to a couple of years into the future is a good place to start.
Write out all your current goals, including the medium and short-term ones that will help you progress towards the bigger long-term goals. Using that vision of the future as your destination, do the goals on your list line up? Are your long-term goals building towards that exciting vision of the future? Do your short- and medium-term goals connect clearly towards your bigger goals?
Taking time every 3-6 months to zoom out and look at all of your goals from a 30,000 ft view is critical since it becomes easy when we’re down in the weeds to lose sight of the objective and just keep marching for the sake of movement. Progress towards goals that aren’t important isn’t really progress.
The Very Next Step
Many of the bigger goals we have are not entirely in our control. Things like getting a promotion, winning a race, or even losing weight include some aspects that we can influence and others that we can’t.
Goals can trip us up because our mind and body know that something is out of our control, and they get stuck not knowing what to do next. This usually results in distraction and procrastination instead of progress.
To avoid this pitfall, each of your goals should come with a VERY NEXT STEP that is concrete, framed as an action, and is entirely in your control.
This is really the key to unlocking the motivation inside your goals. By breaking big, not-entirely-in-our-control, and sometimes vague goals into clear and controllable action steps, we aim our mind and body directly at something it can do – TODAY – to make progress towards the stuff that we’ve already decided is important.
Build a Routine
Our minds are designed to tackle what’s right in front of us, particularly when it feels urgent. Especially when we’re stressed, it becomes easy to stay reactive, bouncing from task to task and putting out little fires without making progress on the big important goals.
By building a goal-setting routine, you can consistently put your time and energy – which are your most valuable resources – towards what’s most important. Start by anchoring your goal-setting routine to habits that you already do consistently.
This might be coffee, breakfast, or brushing your teeth in the morning. By letting your goal-setting tag along with pre-existing habits, you don’t need to fall back on willpower or create a brand new habit, and you can make it way more likely that you’ll check in with your goals in the morning, helping clarify what’s most important and what your very next step will look like.
In the evening, this could be after dinner or as part of your ‘shut down’ routine before bed.
Checking in after work to cross a few goals off your list, update your very next steps, and take a couple of moments to savor the progress you’ve made will help refill your motivational gas tank, and sets the following day up for success.
One Step at a Time
Effective goal-setting is a 1,000-mile march. It’s about taking small and consistent steps on your way to accomplishing the big goals you’ve set and turning your exciting future into a present reality.
With goal-setting, perfect is the enemy of great. A “pretty good” five-minute routine is better then the perfect twenty-minute routine you can’t do every day. It’s also important to remember that some days on the march are going to feel better than others, and the fastest way to undermine progress and motivation is to beat yourself up for days that you don’t knock off as many goals as you think you “should”.
Lastly, your goal-setting routine should grow as you do. Find what works for you and adapt as necessary. As long as you’re marching towards an exciting future, giving yourself clear next steps, and letting your routine support your hard work, you’ll be getting 1% better every day.