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Personal growth

Goal setting: a guide to setting meaningful goals & measuring progress

Goal setting is an art of it’s own.

We all set some sort of goals.

Do it right and it helps you make progress and feel great about the progress you’ve made.

Do it wrong and it can make you feel like you’ve made progress when you, in fact, haven’t.

Why do we need goal setting?

We set goals to clarify where we want to go and to define what success looks like.

It might feel clear what “earn more” or “lose weight” stand for right now, but in a few months, you won’t feel the same.

You might make a ton of progress, but feel like you’ve made none. The underlying phenomenon is called the Hedonic Treadmill, i.e. our tendency to get used to a new normal very quickly.

By setting goals with absolute measures, we make it easier to see if we are making progress and when we have achieved our original goals.

Goals tend to change as we go along, and that’s ok. But in order to have realistic data on progress, you should know if you’ve reached your earlier goals or not.

Setting goals that work: defined, measurable and time-bound

What’s a good goal?

In my opinion, a good goal is defined, desired outcome. Plain and simple.

A goal is a defined, desired outcome
A goal is a defined, desired outcome

If we want to make the goal more actionable, it also needs to be time-bound.

Why?

Because you would have to do different things in order to earn $1M in one year vs earning $1M in 10 years.

A goal is measurable and time-bound
A goal is measurable and time-bound

Which brings me to the thing separates goals from dreams. That’s a plan how to achieve said goals.

Without an action plan a goal is just a dream
Without an action plan a goal is just a dream

There are many different frameworks that help with setting goals. The two I’d recommend as further reading are:

  • SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound)
  • OKRs (Objectives and Key Results, a goal-setting system used by the likes of Intel and Google)

(Note: I’ve used action and activity interchangeably in this post and the accompanying images.)

The difference between goals and todos

A goal is a desired outcome and an action plan is a collection of activities we believe will give us the desired outcome.

It’s important to note that plans are based on beliefs of what might or might not help you reach a desired outcome. Most meaningful goals require that you figure out what works, even if there are blueprints available to guide the way.

Let’s say you set as your goal to bench press your own bodyweight by the end of the year. Then this is your desired outcome.

In order to reach your desired outcome, you need to make a plan.

An action plan makes goals attainable
An action plan makes goals attainable

The plan is based on which actions you think you will need to do in order to reach your goal.

This might mean bench pressing exercises 2x per week together with some isolation exercises to fix weaknesses holding you back.

At this stage, you can’t tell whether your actions will lead to the desired outcome. They might. Or they might not.

You will need to start implementing your plan and measure progress. When you see progress over a longer term, you can adjust your plan accordingly.

Which brings us to the next subject: what to measure and how.

Measuring progress towards the goal you set

In an ideal world, progress would happen one small step at a time, just like we plotted in our plan.

Ideally, one would make linear and steady progress towards a goal
Ideally, one would make linear and steady progress towards a goal

Too bad reality doesn’t work this way.

Instead, we’ll make some progress, stall, make some more progress, stall, regress, stall, make some progress and so on.

In reality progress towards a goal is messy and inconsistent
In reality progress towards a goal is messy and inconsistent

This has implications for what to measure and how to measure it.

Actions can be performed neatly according to the plan. It’s within your power to do so. This means that it makes sense to track progress on our actions day-to-day.

Deviations should be acted upon immediately, or we risk the desired outcome. Why? Because we believe we need to take all the actions in our action plan to reach the desired outcome, i.e. the goal.

Let’s say you insist on measuring progress towards your desired outcome day-by-day instead.

Take a look at the graph showing how progress usually looks like. If there was no progress today, should you change your plan? Probably not. What if there was no progress during the entire month, should you change your plan then? Yes, you probably should.

You should measure actions consistently, but progress towards your goal more seldom
You should measure actions consistently, but progress towards your goal more seldom

Hence, you should only care about outcome measures on a cadence you feel comfortable changing your action plan on.

Would you change a 1-year plan daily? No.

Weekly? Probably not.

Monthly? Definitely.

You get the point.

You can only manage actions, not outcomes

A common mistake managers do is to try to manage an outcome instead of managing actions.

A sales director can see her sales decreasing and push her sales team to sell more. But that’s useless.

Instead she needs to figure out which actions need to be changed and how. She can look at the sales funnel and see her people are meeting too few new prospects. With that data in hand, she can require her sales reps to meet a minimum number of new prospects each month.

After those changes are made, the sales director will see if they had the desired effect or not.

You can only manage actions, not outcomes
You can only manage actions, not outcomes

Since most goals require complex actions, it makes much more sense to manage the actions than to manage the outcome.

Actions are easy to understand and implement. The changes in actions let you learn how they effect the desired outcome in your unique situation. Hence, actions are a better way to manage.

Summary

A good goal:

  • Is desirable
  • Is well defined
  • Is time-bound
  • Comes coupled with an action plan

When working on the goal you should:

  • Remember that your action plan is just a best guess of what might or might not lead to the desired outcome
  • Focus on measuring progress by comparing what you’ve done to what you planned to do day-to-day
  • Measure progress towards the goal only as often as you feel comfortable changing your plan
  • Remember progress isn’t neat and linear, but messy and incremental
  • Remember you can only manage actions, not outcomes
Goal setting summary
Sketchnote summarizing the main points from this blog post
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By Pär Österlund

Pär is a generalist interested in marketing, innovation and personal growth.

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