Though most common at year-end, goal-setting doesn’t have to occur only in December or January! You can pick any time of the year to reflect and make your annual plans. I did write this article during the holiday season but skip the December references and the goal-setting traps I discussed still stand.
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You can feel it in the air.
We are getting to that time of the year when most of us will be sitting down, with a hot cup of coffee or a glass of fine wine, to reflect upon the ending of the year and to make plans for the new.
It’s a time-honored tradition. For thousands of companies across the world, this year-end reflection and annual planning are mandatory exercises. And for many of us, we’ve incorporated this practice into our personal lives as well.
It’s one of those common activities that mark the end-of-the-year or the beginning-of-the-new-year. If you tell someone that you’re spending the weekend reflecting and setting your goals, you’re unlikely to meet raised eyebrows. “Of course, you’re doing that,” they’ll say.
Maybe because it is such a common practice that we don’t think about it all that much. We know how to do this, right?
With the S-M-A-R-T guidelines deeply ingrained in our heads, we sit down resolute to come up with our very own smart goals. We come out at the other end proud to have come up with a list of strong goals. Meaty goals. Goals we can really sink our teeth in. We start the year excited and pumped and psyched.
And then, something odd happens.
That excitement fades. We lose steam.
At some point during the year—we don’t really know when—we disconnect with many, if not all, of the goals. Maybe, if we feel so inspired (or get a kick-in-the-pants), we rally mid-year or around September to re-commit to our goals and make one last final push.
Why didn’t the magic last? Why couldn’t we hold on to the excitement and commitment that we felt when we first came up with our goals list?
But here’s one thing I’ve learned—from my own experiences as well as from decades of working with companies and individuals on goal-setting.
Crafting SMART goals doesn’t automatically make them meaningful, resonant, or relevant.
It takes more than making them specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound.
For starters, there are some landmines we need to avoid.
Here are four common traps that I’ve experienced and observed that we’d be well-served to move away from:
Trap #1: Setting too many goals
Full disclosure: this was my goal-setting problem. I tended to come up with a long list. More than I could chew.
In my previous role, when I was part of a large organization, the impact of this tendency was somewhat weakened. I had a team. Most of my goals got converted into my team’s goals, spread among different team members. Nowadays, I don’t have that team. I don’t have an operational budget that would allow me to hire contractors to help achieve my many goals.
This constraint highlighted the flaw in my goal-setting habit. I could no longer hide the impact of having numerous priorities and a goals list as long as my arm.
I’ve told myself that setting lots of goals for myself was a good thing. It meant that I was still hungry. That I was still swinging for the fences.
But really, what it meant was I wasn’t doing a good job prioritizing. I wasn’t doing a good job discerning what’s most important.
In the process, I was dispersing limited resources – my time, my energy, my attention – across many different things instead of laser focusing on the most important things.
Ultimately, setting too many goals got me smaller results across different areas. Whereas I would rather have bigger results in the few that matters.
If you face a similar goal-setting challenge, I recommend the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Gregg McKeown. This one, about trade-offs, I need to re-read often:
“Essentialists see trade-offs as an inherent part of life, not as an inherently negative part of life. Instead of asking, “What do I have to give up?” they ask, “What do I want to go big on?” The cumulative impact of this small change in thinking can be profound.
As painful as they can sometimes be, trade-offs represent a significant opportunity. By forcing us to weigh both options and strategically select the best one for us, we significantly increase our chance of achieving the outcome we want.”
Trap #2: Setting goals that aren’t yours
Yep. Think about the goals that you write up at work, usually at the beginning of the year (fiscal if your company follows a different cycle).
Often, those goals that you include in your “personal annual plan”? They’re what other people (your boss, HR, etc.) expect you to write. They are goals that are related to company goals or your team’s goals. Or your boss’ goals that he wants you to include in yours. They may be goals that are expected of someone in your position, at your level. That kind of thing.
In other words, they’re not your own. They are not personal enough. You’ve merely inherited them, by virtue of your job or role. And truth be told, you probably aren’t all that gung-ho to work on them.
Yes, your position in the company may require you to have such inherited goals. But if the majority of the career goals are in this category, it may be the reason why you’re not able to sustain your motivation or focus throughout the year.
Trap #3: Setting goals that aren’t exciting enough
A client of mine was working on his career goals a few months ago. I could tell just from the way he was talking about them that he wasn’t really all that psyched about them.
He sounded like a wide receiver talking about making a “few catches” instead of catching the ball at the 30-yard line and running all the way to make the game-winning touchdown.
I called him on it and told him why. They weren’t game changers for him. They were “low-hanging fruits.” He’s totally expecting himself to achieve all these goals. No challenge. I asked him, “Why bother setting goals that won’t stretch you at all?”
Trap #4: Setting goals that aren’t connected to a bigger picture
Yes, every football play intends to move the ball so that within 4 downs (or really, 3), they’d have run it by at least 10 yards. You can say that’s the goal.
But that’s not the end goal. The end goal is the end zone. That’s the “real” goal. It doesn’t matter if you move the ball 50 yards, if you don’t make it to the end zone, you don’t get the score.
So the question is, to what end are your annual goals leading you? What’s the big picture you’re going after? And does that big picture/end goal mean anything to you?
Because if you’re not crystal clear about an end goal that means something to you, then it’s unlikely you’ll be inspired to work on your interim/annual goals.
The S-M-A-R-T guidelines for goal setting make sense. We should follow them. But using this framework doesn’t mean we end up with meaningful goals.
Goal-setting is a means to get us to a different plain, the next level, or a new normal. Avoiding the common traps described above is the first step toward creating resonant goals that you will want to work on during the year.