Making Resolutions about Goals

Posted: January 1, 2008 in Professional Development

Yes, it’s that time of the year again. It’s the time when we make resolutions and set goals for ourselves for the New Year. I thought it would make sense to give you my thoughts about this topic, because so much of my interaction with clients and others focuses on setting goals and identifying objectives for improvement. I also spend a lot of time thinking about my own goals. I would be interested in your ideas about this topic, so just send me a response to this newsletter with your comments and pointers of your own if you have any. If I get a good response, I could incorporate these into a future newsletter (with attribution, of course).

  1. Review your accomplishments. I find that we often launch into goal setting without first identifying our own accomplishments. I think it is important to do this because of something I call the horizon problem (a metaphor I got from Bill Harris at Centerpointe Research Institute). Just as we finish something or achieve a goal, whether by training or by disposition, we automatically start thinking of a new goal. There is nothing wrong with that, but it can sometimes seem that we are never getting to where we are heading. This is like the horizon. No matter how far you advance, the horizon always recedes. Taking some time out to look back, say a year, to identify accomplishments and goals attained creates a sense of achievement and closure at important junctures, such as the arrival of the New Year. I started doing this exercise about a year and a half ago, when I was launching my consulting business just a few months after retiring from my military career. I was getting a bit discouraged with the apparent slowness of progress. However, just by listing everything I had achieved since the beginning of that year and my decision to retire from the military lifted my spirits and gave me new momentum to continue the drive for business success.
  2. Learn from the past. This one might seem odd for an article about goal setting, but I think not. I’ve written about learning from failure before (see Why I Love Negative Feedback), but that’s only half the equation. In the past few months, I’ve learned that it is just as important – indeed more so – to learn from one’s successes. We only truly improve by building on our strengths, and not just by correcting mistakes and weaknesses. Unfortunately, many goals and resolutions at this time of the year take the following form: “I resolve to start doing X”, or “Next year, I will stop wasting time and procrastinating.” The problem with such intentions is that they represent the horizon problem run amok. How will you know when you’ve attained them? There is no measurable outcome, and they are often inherently moral in nature. You’re setting yourself up for guilt and other assorted bad feelings when you don’t attain the horizon they represent. Wouldn’t it make more sense instead to create goals that build on success? “Next year, I will approach more prospects using approach Y, because I got two sales in the last month of the year that way. I resolve to drop method Z, because I got no traction with prospects using that approach.”
  3. The nature of goals. I’ve only recently come to the realization that there is a difference between setting a goal and making a resolution. They are both useful, but it is critical to understand the distinction. A goal is expressed as a measurable outcome. “Our goal for 2008 is to increase sales by 20 % in Quebec.” We know what is to be achieved, by when, and where. It can be readily communicated to co-workers and a team and fairly easy to determine relative success or failure. What’s more, it doesn’t specify how it is to be achieved. Assuming you give yourself and others the tactical latitude and flexibility to find ways of achieving it, it just may be within reach. I would put more effort into creating clearer goals and finding ways of communicating and achieving them, rather than in issuing lists of resolutions, whether personal or organizational.
  4. The nature of resolutions. A resolution focuses on changing one’s thinking and behaviour. Behaviour can be observed – sometimes – but thinking can’t. Especially one’s own. Resolutions also focus on input, rather than output. A resolution should be expressed as an intent to take a particular action or to modify one’s behaviour. “Next year, we will start all meetings on time and adhere to the agenda. I will ensure we stay on track by creating a critical issues list as these are raised and assign responsibilities at the end of the meetings, because not doing so is what gets us off track and into long discussions.” It is measurable and focuses on actions and behaviour and represents an analysis of past action. On the other hand, resolutions that focus on perceived character defects or problem areas (for an organization) are notoriously woolly and moralizing. “Next year, I will be more patient.” How will you know you’ve achieved it? What happens if you don’t? A better formulation would be: “When I catch myself losing patience, I will exit the room, giving me time to cool down and regain my composure.” This is action oriented and is based on a method which can be validated – and changed if necessary – for effectiveness.

I’ve resolved to make my newsletters shorter (well, not much shorter) so that’s all for now. If I have one final bit of advice, it is this. Resolve now to make your goals more precise and measurable. Endeavour to drop vague intentions to correct mistakes and perceived weaknesses. Resolve to build on your successes and to focus 80 per cent of your efforts on the 20 per cent of your character that represents true strength. As consultant Alan Weiss says, “the secret of life is success, not perfection.”

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.

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