What is a good goal?

Soccer ball going into a goalA goal can be a great thing. Although social networking tools are widely used to incite action, the people who have used them most effectively have one thing in common: a laser-like focus. As big, daunting, and impressive as some of their movements seem­ – Egypt, anyone? – each started small, with a few people and a goal.

Unfortunately, all goals were not created equal. Think about it: Kiva and Microplace were created with the same goal in mind – to provide microfinance lending to entrepreneurs – but I’m willing to bet you’ve only heard of one of them. Why does Kiva successfully empower so many while MicroPlace doesn’t have nearly the same brand recognition? Perhaps because having a goal does not guarantee success. You must also make sure that you have a good goal.

A recent post from PsyBlog’s Jeremy Dean explores the dark side of goal setting and highlights the following unintended consequences of a poorly formulated goal:

  • Too specific: It’s easy to get stuck on a goal that’s too specific and lose sight of the overall aim. Goals should be in the service of our overall aims, they shouldn’t be our masters
  • Too many: when people have too many goals they tend to concentrate on the easy ones. If the difficult ones are more important, once again the overall aim can suffer.
  • Too soon: short-term goals encourage short-term thinking. Do you want your business to be around in five, ten or twenty years? The reason it’s difficult to get a cab on a rainy day in New York is partly because cabbies do such good business that they go home early, having met their daily target. Why stop working when profits are high? That’s short-term goal-setting for you.

Later on in the article, Dean concedes, “If you set yourself a specific goal, you’re likely to do better, as long as the goal is a good one.” So how do you set a good goal? Here are five elements to think about when setting a single (emphasis on the single) focused goal to provide direction, motivation, and operational guidance:

1.     Humanistic: Staying focused on you audience may sound basic, but in practice, most of us are easily distracted. Before you can involve your audience members, you need to understand them and connect with them as individuals. Start by answering the following questions: What is she like? What keeps her up at night? What do you want her to do? How might she resist?

2.     Actionable: Striking the right balance between visionary and realistic goals is key to maintaining focus. As Dean notes, goals that are too easy to reach will encourage short-term thinking. On the flip side, goals that feel out of reach can discourage people, leading them to quit easily or not try at all. You must at once have a long-term macro goal and tactical short-term goals that will help you get there. Why? Because research confirms that imagining the process of reaching a goal is more effective than envisioning the outcome. If a micro goal is set – for example, to run thirty minutes a day – it’s more achievable, and the person who pursues it will be working toward a macro goal of becoming healthier. In addition, the positive feedback he receives will encourage him to take the next step.

3.     Testable: As Dean points out, “It’s easy to get stuck on a goal that’s too specific and lose sight of the overall aim.” Say your tactical micro goal is to write a 5 blog posts a day to achieve the macro goal of promoting awareness of homeless cats in your city. But when you look at the metrics, only the posts you spend significant time on are being read and shared by many people. Should you continue to write 5 blog posts a day? Well, if your goal is just to stick to your goal, then yes. But if your goal is to spend your time the most effectively in order to spread awareness of homeless cats, then you should alter your means of getting there by spending more time writing fewer posts. This example illustrates why you must use metrics to test the validity of a goal: you need to be able to tweak it as necessary along the way, based on what you learn as you monitor your progress.

4.     Clarity: A clear goal may have multiple dimensions, but pursuing multiple goals is counterproductive, as it causes people to lose focus. Highly specific goals promote better performance than general, do-your-best goals. They beget greater satisfaction and, ultimately, a stronger commitment. Why? Nonspecific goals overtax the prefrontal cortex, the brain area largely responsible for willpower. When the prefrontal cortex becomes overly occupied, willpower weakens.

5.     Happiness: the goal you choose needs to be personally meaningful. The mere thought of achieving it should, at some level, make you happy. Too often in business, the goal is to increase sales or maximize profit, which may be clear but is hardly motivating. Those firms that can get beyond financials to more meaningful goals are more likely to excited employees. Kaiser Health is about helping members thrive; Whole Foods is about making healthy eating pleasurable; Pampers is about providing the best care for babies. These are all meaningful goals with the potential to inspire. If people really care about your goal, they will be more willing to work longer and harder.

What steps are you taking to ensure that you have a good goal? To learn more about setting a focused goals and other elements of the dragonfly model, click here.

  • Hi Andy. It’s a nice post. You have put some nice attributes of a good goal. Though you have mentioned it, I think the idea of creating a goal together (in the case of an organization) and creating a share-able goal (in the case of an individual) merits a subtitle for the sake of emphasis. Thank you.

    • I think that’s a great point, that goals created by individuals and goals created by organizations might be different. I have to ask, though: how do you think they are different?

      • Hi Jessie, I have tried to communicate that both organizational and individual goals should aim at creating a “shared future”. There is a big different between the goal of “making profit” and the goal of “making healthy eating pleasurable” of Whole Foods, for instance. I think the goal of Whole Foods can strike a chord with all its stakeholders – employees to customers. It is a share-able goal. And in the case of an individual too, the goal should not be individualistic, because even an individual is a part of Society Inc. Of course, everyone agrees that organizational goal should be shareable, but not all cultures agree that individual goals should be socially acceptable. Since I know, I am talking to a graduate of philosophy, I would share my personal belief that actually an individual does not have to identify himself or herself with a goal. In the play of things, depending on the situation one faces, goals are presented from within, just-in-time!

  • Dhyana

    I am just saying that this is a very good post, but when I was on the Internet I was looking for some examples of a good goal! Can you please give me some?