How to Get More from Setting Goals

by Robert Moskowitz on October 25, 2012

“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low and achieving our mark.” —Michelangelo (via Toastmasters)

We’ve all heard that we should set more and better goals, and there’s little doubt that doing so can boost our levels of success, achievement, and self-confidence. But too often the givers of goal-setting advice neglect to mention how to get the most out of setting goals.

Here are a few tips for small businesses:

Set the Bar for Success

There are moments, such as when you’re trying to change the course of your life, when you may want to set a goal beyond your reach. And when you’re competing at the highest level — say, in the Olympics — it’s appropriate for your goal to be in the realm of a personal best.

In daily situations, however, you don’t want to set such demanding performance targets. That’s because you can’t always count on delivering a personal best and, besides that, the situations in which you really need to uncork such a major effort are few and far between.

Most times, most days, you’ll make more progress by aiming high enough to require a strong effort, but not so high that you run a serious risk of falling short. You’ll go farther and faster with daily goals that require between 90 and 100 percent of your best effort — nothing more than what we might call a practical maximum.

The results of reaching your practical maximum most of the time far outweigh those of occasionally delivering a personal best (and more often falling short).

Budget Time Correctly

For various reasons, most people are overly optimistic about how long it will take them to achieve a specific goal. Perhaps this is related to the same sense of time that kicks in when we are enjoying ourselves (time seems to fly) or when we are not (time seems to creep at a snail’s pace).

There’s no real way to change your sense of time, but you can use your intelligence to compensate for poor time estimation. If you habitually miss your goals’ deadlines, teach yourself to allow more time than originally seems necessary. Try doubling, or even tripling what seems like a reasonable amount the time to get where you want to go.

Accurately estimating the time you’ll need to accomplish a goal can reduce frustration, aid planning, enable more efficient use of external resources, and improve your ability to collaborate with others.

Monitor Your Interim Progress

You may think your goal is unitary and singular, but you can almost always break it down into smaller components. In fact, it’s common to do so.

There are major benefits to measuring your progress against each of these “mini goals,” because tangling with each obstacle, taking each baby step forward, and confronting each countervailing force contains opportunities. At a minimum, you can learn something useful, feel good about your interim success, and reconsider your strategy, tactics, and timetable toward reaching the final goal — and perhaps even revise the goal itself.

Organize Your Goal-Setting

Life is complicated, and when you start taking a goal-setting approach to solving problems and capitalizing on opportunities, it’s easy to set a great many goals. That in itself is not terrible. What’s terrible is trying to reach too many goals at once.

Most of us are limited in the number of goals we can meaningfully and successfully strive for at any one time. To avoid putting too many irons in the fire, pay attention to your goal-oriented behavior and compare your effectiveness at accomplishing your goals to the number of goals you are working to reach.

If you’re like most people, you’ll find that two or three simultaneous goals are within your capabilities, but half a dozen or more usually overwhelm you, resulting in confusion, consternation, and collapse of your overall productivity. In general, it’s more effective to prioritize your goals and knock them off in smaller sub-sets that you can handle easily.

Broaden Your Abilities

Experts disagree on this point. One school of thought says you should focus intently on your specialty; doing anything else is inherently less productive, inefficient, and a waste of your time. The other school of thought says most people are multidimensional, and there’s value in pushing the envelope of your interests and abilities, as well as your career … or at least regularly revisiting the edge of that envelope to keep it from shrinking.

If you agree with the single-focus school, you’ll probably decide to ignore this point of advice. If you resonate with the multidimensional school, you’ll recognize the value of setting goals in many areas and attempting to grow in several directions.