On Goal-Setting

After the post a couple of weeks ago on Trusting Process, a furious debate ensued between myself, Crazy Nut Job, MJ Hoy, and Ben Kraal (all of who have fantastic Tumblrs, by the way!). After that conversation, I decided that it might be time to talk a little bit about goal-setting.

As many of you know, when I was in high school, I was a competitive skier. During this time, I studied goal-setting fairly extensively, reading into the psychological literature, trying to understand how I should set my goals. I combined what I read with the strategies that actually worked for me - you will find there’s lots of contradictory literature and opinions on the subject. Combining my more “academic” and hands-on experience, I have a well-formulated view on goal-setting that I’m going to share with you today.

Ok, so now, all of that aside, let’s get into it.

What is goal-setting?

Goal-setting is an attempt to answer the following questions, depending on the type of goal you set:

  • What do I hope to achieve? Goals are really all about what you want to achieve. Whether that achievement be an outcome or an action, however you state the goal, you need to have an idea of what you want to achieve.
  • Why am I doing what I am doing? If a goal doesn’t explicitly state what you are going to do, it should state instead why you are doing what you are doing, in the form of an outcome you would like to achieve. Then, every action should be a step closer to bringing about the outcome you want to achieve.
  • What am I going to do? Whatever goal you set should either mandate what you are going to do as part of the goal, or provide a clear set of criteria by which to decide this (this being an interaction of what you hope to achieve or why you are doing it).

There are two main types of goals: Short-term and long-term goals. I’ll be focusing mostly on short-term goals, but I will take a second to write on long-term goals.

Why is goal-setting important?

So, first thing’s first. Goal-setting is essentially a problem statement. It forces you to evaluate the current state of things, attempt to understand where gaps exist between how you would like the world to be, and the way it is right now. Once you’ve identified that, coming up with specific solutions (actions) that one can take to bridge that gap becomes the goal. And, similar to a problem statement, goals should be carefully thought out and worded.

Goal-setting is generally spoken of for its amazing performance benefits - by creating a goal, we find ourselves closer and closer to bridging that gap between what we wish and how it is. In addition, goal-setting informs our actions, meaning, that goal-setting dictates the actions we do and why we do them. Lastly, goal-setting becomes a frame of reference for our thoughts. We now can evaluate ourselves against our goals, evaluate the world against these goals.

Lastly, I’ll add as a caveat that sometimes, we don’t even need goals. Letting ourselves explore and play a little can often lead us to a better understanding of our own motivations, that then leads to better goals, and often, better outcomes. I’m a big believer in intuition, and if you feel like you want to do something aimlessly, you can learn a lot. That was the way I originally learned to use Photoshop and Illustrator. I didn’t have a goal, I just aimlessly played around and saw what I could do. For many people, not being under the pressure to set a goal, and instead being driven by curiosity, can actually cause them to set a goal subconsciously (and these subconscious goals often follow a good framework).

*What makes a good goal? *

That all sounds wonderful, but the only real problem is, goals are actually really hard to set, particularly in the short-term. Most people believe that you can simply state what you want - “Higher sales for the third quarter” - and call that a goal. I’m here to say, sorry guys, it doesn’t really work that way.

The key to understanding what makes a good goal is to accept one uncomfortable remark.

You cannot control outcomes.

At some point, an outcome becomes about luck. Suppose you decide that you want to beat a competitor. Even if you did every single thing you could possibly do, and do it all well, that is no indication of whether you achieve your goal or not. Your competitor could unexpectedly become much better, much faster, or could benefit from a well-timed wind burst or better course conditions. You could suffer from injury, suffer from bad course conditions, etc. Although these seem like they’re dramatic, they do bring to the spotlight the central truth: you cannot control your competitor, you cannot control the environment around you. What you can do, is control what actions you take to achieve that outcome.

So, instead of focusing on that outcome, I believe you should make a goal based on process instead. Process means, you should focus on the things you can do, the actions you can take to make that outcome more likely. No amount of focusing on the outcome will magically make it happen. No matter how hard you stare at a clock, you cannot make it speed up or slow down.
Actually, these things can hurt you: by focusing your attention elsewhere, it reduces the effectiveness of your actions and thoughts. It can lead to frustration and stress. In skiing, focus on going “faster” for many people led them to make stupid mistakes, lose the finesse in their skiing, and ultimately go slower.

Start by paying attention to the gaps you see, the things you’d like to outcomes you’d like to bring about. Be careful of the breadth of your outcome - it shouldn’t include a “teaser” to the type of action that would achieve it. For example, “Increasing [accounting] profit” is a better goal than “Reduce costs,” “Increase revenue,” or “Increase sales.” Increasing profits is the end outcome I’m hoping for, but reducing costs, increasing revenue or increasing sales are all actions that I can take to achieve that outcome. From there, you can then look at the full scope of options you have - increasing revenue or decreasing costs - and have a much larger set of actions available to you.

Remember, when you set your goal, the golden rule is:

Goals should focus on process, not outcomes.

How do I decide on metrics for evaluation?

Metrics is one of those hot things right now in the start up world. Everyone is always talking about how you should be using metrics to evaluate your progress.

But I’m not so warm to the idea.

Using metrics is, as always, dangerous. Our initial goals can be muscled out by the goal of achieving better metrics. Read that sentence again, folks: Our initial (process) goals can be muscled out by the (outcome) goal of achieving better metrics. All that work that you just spent on formulating the perfect process goal has become a waste. Be aware that oftentimes, what you measure becomes what you optimize, so always always always pick your metrics wisely. If you measure traffic information, you may find your website getting lots of visitors, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get more sales. Your process could actually be the best thing for you to be doing at the time, but the metrics may not reflect that due to external circumstances.

Measure what matters.

And, be careful of how much attention you pay to metrics. Do not sit there and stare at the clock, as I mentioned above. Use the metrics to establish the validity of your own process goal - if you are achieving your process goal, but your outcome/metrics aren’t improving, then it may be time to consider a different process goal. However, use common sense. If your metrics are sucking, do a quick check on external sources that may be affecting the metrics. Imagine for a second that you make MMO games. If your users drop, it could be for any number of external reasons: It’s Thanksgiving, so folks are visiting family. Another game company has just released their game, and people are checking it out. Your servers are lagging, so people got frustrated and stop playing. Depending on their permanency, you might have to deal with these problems in separate plans of action. Similarly, be careful of establishing false positives, either. Players go up? Maybe it’s not because of your viral marketing campaign, but rather, a magazine covered your game recently. Play-time increase? Might not be your awesome new feature, but rather that summer holidays just started.

What is a good long-term goal?

A long-term goal, of course, is a different thing all together. A long term goal becomes a mission statement, a dream, a wish. Make sure that your long-term goal is an act of passion, above and beyond all else. A long-term goal is a purpose, something that we spend much of our days attempting to achieve, however removed we are from that in our day-to-day work.

Another way to understand the longer term goal is, generally, that gap which we identified and wanted to bridge. Proper goal-setting should include a long-term goal, but shouldn’t focus on that long-term goal. Instead, focus on your short-term, immediately actionable goals in order to achieve that long-term goal.

Sitting around, thinking about how you want to make the Olympics isn’t going to help you make the Olympics. Instead, you might decide you need to make the Junior Olympics first. But thinking about that isn’t going to work either, it’s still too broad. So you might say you want to get your time under a certain number. But that’s just the bridge you want to gap - you’ll have to focus on specific parts of your technique, mental game, or fitness in order to bring that time down. Those are the action goals that should occupy much of your time. Set your “actionable” goals instead, and make sure that each smaller goal is working up to your long-term goal.