I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the advantages of “goaling.” Not goal-tending (although the hockey term has its business applications) but actual goaling — the habit of listing our goals and working the list. It seems every business conversation I’ve had lately relates to the challenge of finding success in times of massive change. And that’s where the habit of goaling can be a lifesaver. When it feels as if we simply don’t have time to do everything we want and need to do, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. That leads to frustration, where we actually lose energy, waste time, and achieve less. (Don’t get me started on the myth of multitasking.) When our life’s work is reduced to a plate-spinning act — where the goal is to keep things from crashing — nothing meaningful can be accomplished.
If this sounds familiar, set the plates down for a few minutes and create a comprehensive “universe” list of your goals. All of them. This can be incredibly liberating, because once you commit those goals to writing, your mind is free to start dealing with them in a prioritized, strategic way. Instead of trying to do everything at once — and failing — you set yourself up to win.
Of course, you need to be realistic and thoughtful about your universe list by only including “SMART” goals. “SMART” stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound. Those five requirements will keep you on track. You may have the goal of winning the Nobel Peace Prize someday. That’s great. But why not start by reaching out to a quarrelsome colleague and engaging his help on a project before next week’s staff meeting? Sticking to goals that meet SMART qualifications is a simple discipline that pays real dividends.
The idea is to push yourself in a constructive way, by setting ambitious but realistic goals and knocking them off one at a time. That last part is key. Too often, we measure our own success against how well we conquer a mountain of goals. That’s daunting, and we can quickly become paralyzed by anxiety, fear, and guilt. We are human beings, not micro-processors, and not plate-spinners.
To help me stay focused on accomplishment, I create my universe list on index cards — with one goal per card — and shuffle through them as I plan my week. (And yes, there’s an app for that; I also use Wunderlist.) I may schedule several hours to really focus on just one of them, but I generally pull out a few others that I can start on during a cab ride, between conference calls, or on Southwest Flight 432 to Dallas. This lets me better manage where my energy is spent, because it’s designed to work within my ever-shifting work schedule. And I’m rewarded with a sense of accomplishment every time I tear up a card.
Another way goaling helps is that it eliminates those “OMG, I forgot…” moments when important things are superseded by things that are simply urgent. The habit of working the list keeps important things top of mind; we then act with intent regarding what we choose to do or not do. Of course, if one of my goals never makes it to the top of the stack, it’s probably not the right goal for me. Perhaps I need to enlist the help of someone better suited to tackle it. Maybe it’s just not that important.
To make goaling really work, we need to follow through and evaluate our level of success. That way, we learn what works and what doesn’t, and we start to see behavior patterns —our own and others’ — that affect our success. For example, if a deadline is missed, is it because someone on the team is habitually running behind? Or did I create a logjam by insisting that I approve each little step in the process? Either way, I know how to improve going forward. And that leads us to one of the best things about goaling: It makes us better managers of other people by setting specific, realistic expectations. And that lets us provide specific feedback against these more granular goals.