6 Tips to Failure-Proof Your Goals
I’ll admit it: I used to be one of those people that was too freaked out about failure to set goals. I so desperately wanted to avoid failure that I thought it was better to watch my life and business passively unfold in front of me rather than set specific targets. Unfortunately, I think a lot of creatives fall into the same mental trap.
As a person, setting goals can be transformational. But, as an entrepreneur, I believe setting goals is essential because they:
Help you define success. Especially in the early days of your business, it can be really hard to know whether you are winning. Setting clear goals will help you know what success looks like.
Provide motivation. When you sit down to work each day, you need to know how your actions in the day-to-day are connected to a bigger picture.
Encourage perseverance. Having goals that you accomplish along the way will provide the encouragement that you need to survive as an entrepreneur in the long-run.
Whether you are the king of New Year’s resolutions or have never set a goal in your life, here are six tips for you to failure-proof your goals. I think the last one is the most important, so be sure to read until the end.
1. Goals should be possible, but not easy or automatic.
A lot of people use the word “realistic” to describe their goals. While I understand and generally agree with this idea, its not my favorite word in to use for goal-setting. “Realistic” is a word that dupes us into thinking our goals should be things that we accomplish by accident without any additional effort or intention.
Obviously, your goals need to be possible. But, I also think that the purpose of setting goals is to push you forward, and, if that’s the case, your goals should be impossible for you to accomplish without dedication and focus. They should be something you won’t wander into by accident. They should make you feel slightly uncomfortable.
2. Make your goal an outcome, not a tactic or behavior.
A lot of people fall into the trap of making their goals behavior-oriented, such as "go to the gym three times per week” or “post to Instagram every day” or “start email marketing." However, the best goals are outcome-oriented, such as “do my first pull-up” or “hit 10,000 followers on Instagram." If you set a goal that is an outcome, you have the flexibility to change the tactics as much as you need in order to reach it.
There is one caveat to this: you might want to set a goal that helps you start a new habit or practice. If that is the case, attach a time frame to the goal. If you want to start a daily habit like journaling, set a goal of journaling for 25 days in one month. If you want to start a new practice in your business, like email marketing, set a goal to send a weekly marketing email for eight weeks in a row.
3. Commit your best effort, understanding your capacity.
When you are setting a goal, you are making a commitment to yourself to put forward your best effort, whatever that looks like for you. You need to understand what your “best effort” is going to look like right now in your life. Practically, I think this looks like this:
Don’t set goals that will compete with each other for your energy and attention, leaving you feeling frustrated on all fronts. If you are setting big-time goals in your business, it might not be the right year to compete in your first IronMan Triathlon.
Don’t ignore major lifestyle, emotional, or relational factors. Things like having a new child, an illness or injury, or a personal crisis have a real impact on your capacity.
Don’t write yourself off if your capacity is different than you would like. Consider how much time and energy you have, and create goals that will help you honor that time and energy.
Do commit yourself to doing your best, without giving up, and accepting the results of your effort.
Don’t set goals for your past self, your future self, or some version of yourself that doesn’t exist. Set goals for where you are right now.
4. Keep your goals in front of you.
If you are going to set goals that take you a year to complete, it is critical to develop systems to keep your goals in front of you, and on your mind, on a regular basis. One of the best tools I have found for this is the Weekly Review. I review my goals once per week and make note of progress that I have made. This takes less than 10 minutes, but makes all the difference.
It is also a good idea to review your goals once per quarter to re-calibrate. For instance, in December of 2016, I was preparing to move to Washington, D.C., a place where I had never lived and knew almost no one. So, I set a goal to build my personal and professional network. I wanted to meet and share contact information (email or phone number) with 150 new people by May 2017.
When I reviewed my goals in April, it became clear that my original goal was way too aggressive considering that we were in the middle of buying a home and moving, and considering that I work from home. But, the spirit of the goal was still important to me, so I revised it to be less aggressive but still motivating to keep putting myself "out there" in new relationships.
Reviewing your goals at least weekly is a non-negotiable; reviewing them quarterly is helpful to recalibrate and revise as needed.
5. Share with some, not with the world.
If you are setting goals that will require your full effort, dedication, and focus to achieve, you will need some help and accountability. You need to share your goals with a handful of like-minded and supportive friends or colleagues that will hold you accountable to what you have set out to do. If you have employees, you also will need to share the company’s goals with your team so they know where the organization is headed.
But, you should be cautious about sharing your goals with a wide circle of people, and even more cautious about sharing on social media. When we get positive feedback and acknowledgment from others for our plans and intentions, our brains feel like we have already accomplished something, and, as a result, we don’t put forth as much effort. (This phenomenon, called social reality, is described here.) Be aware that all of those likes, comments, and shares may be chipping away at your motivation to take real action.
6. Know that you can’t really fail.
If you set goals that will push you forward, commit your full effort to meeting the goal, keep your goals on the top of your mind throughout the year, and ask for accountability and support from friends and family, then you are in a great position to succeed. But, of course, nothing is guaranteed. You might go through the process and fail to reach your goals.
I set nine goals at the beginning of 2017. Here’s how they worked out:
I reached four of them.
For one of them, I didn’t reach the goal precisely as I wrote it, but I still achieved a significant improvement over the status quo.
For four of them, I tanked. I didn't follow through for a variety of reasons. The situation changed, my priorities shifted, or other goals took more energy than I originally anticipated.
For all nine goals, even the ones that I didn't reach, I learned something.
You should approach goal-setting not as a binary process, with the only two possible outcomes being “success” and “failure.” You should approach goal-setting as an exploration of what’s possible when you really commit yourself to something. In that exploration, there are many possible positive outcomes, including learning. Don’t miss out on these important lessons.
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