June 12, 2024
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Set Positive, Actionable Goals

In a previous series, I laid out a five-step productivity process for leaders, which I then turned into a Productivity Blueprint. (See my bio for how to access.) This post goes deeper on the first of the five steps, planning for maximal productivity.

Now that we have determined which tasks we need to be doing, the next step is to set clear, actionable goals that will help us get our tasks done. Goal setting is a critical component of any growth process, personal or professional. There are many benefits of setting goals, including…

Clarity and Focus—Goals motivate us to cut through the weeds and get focused on what’s really important.

Planning—Goals help us map out the necessary steps to achieve our desired result.

Accountability—Goals force us to set and meet deadlines and be accountable to others.

Transparency—When shared, goals help others understand what we’re focused on.

Self-esteem—Goals raise our self-confidence as we see ourselves grow and progress.

And who wouldn’t want added motivation, better planning, increased accountability and more?

But let’s try to make this more than a mental exercise. We need to infuse some emotion into this as well. For goals to be effective in moving us forward, they need to be expressed in actionable terms that also detail how you would feel from achieving your objectives.

When we tie emotions to outcomes, we activate feelings within us that motivate us towards achievement.

A Gallup study by researcher James K. Harter and his colleagues found that business unit sales and profits at one point in time are predicted by employees’ feelings at earlier points in time. People’s emotions impact their performance, and if they’re healthy and happy they perform better.

The most effective goals are stated in the positive and are “S.M.A.R.T.”

Positive goals focus on what you will do, as opposed to stop doing. Examples (stated loosely for now) include being more punctual, completing additional tasks, and losing weight. The negative versions of these goals might instead focus on not being late, spending less time web surfing, and not overeating.

It should be fairly obvious that positive goals are superior to negative ones because they are clearer and more motivating. When stated in the positive, goals point us in a specific direction and allow us to measure ourselves continually towards that end. Using punctuality as an example, we can determine what standard we will set (how we are defining “punctual” and the frequency and/or circumstances to which we will measure our performance) and then take purposeful action to ensure success. If, by contrast, we set out to “stop being late,” there is little to drive us to succeed.

One way by which we can get closer towards actualizing our potential is to set “S.M.A.R.T.” goals.

There are a few different versions of the acronym S.M.A.R.T. Perhaps the most popular one is this:

Specific—well defined, you know exactly what you seek to achieve;

Measurable—quantifiable in a way that helps determine whether the goal has been achieved;

Attainable—a goal that is within reach, largely because of your deep desire to attain it;

Rewarding—fulfillment of the goals should provide you with a feeling of satisfaction and achievement. (NOTE: many put “realistic” or “relevant” here—see example to the right—as in has anyone ever achieved this before, or how is this aligned with my key objectives, respectively);

Time-bound—set to a timeframe to ensure continued, focused efforts towards attainment.

S.M.A.R.T. can also stand for…

Specific—see above;

Meaningful—something that is important to you and will serve to motivate you;

Agree upon—the task should be agreed-to by those tasked to complete it;

Results-focused—the goal should be written in terms of outcomes;

Trackable—progress should be trackable to determine that efforts are on track.

And then there’s this application of the “ART” of S.M.A.R.T.:

Accountability—to succeed, you need to be held accountable, such as by a person or a program that you sign up for;

Resonance—the goal should reverberate within you, demanding attention;

Thrilling—it should be big, something that excites you and keeps you going.

As you can see, it works particularly well with a larger, more involved goal. For example, running a marathon for the first time or writing a book. Both are thrilling goals that can easily resonate. To be held accountable, find others who will keep you on track and motivate you, or a program to commit to. The more accountable you feel, the sooner and better you will get the job done.

Perhaps the most important letter in the S.M.A.R.T. acronym is “S,” which stands for specific. Specific is the Who, What, Why and How of the goal.

Who will do the work.

What will be done.

Why that is important.

How you will achieve the goal.

How doing this will make you feel.

Goals should be simplistically written and should clearly define what you are going to do.

Say, for example, you seek to concentrate more deeply on a specific task, such as writing a proposal. To do that, set specific goals of what you will do and for how long. Include elements that will keep you from becoming distracted and/or motivate you to stay on task.

It may read something like this:

“In order to complete the proposal (specific goal), I will set aside 30 minutes at the outset of each morning for the next four days for in-depth, uninterrupted work. (What).

“By completing this important task first thing in the morning, I can do it while my mind is freshest and still attend to many other tasks and responsibilities afterwards. (Why important).

“During this time, I will not answer phone calls, respond to emails or texts, or engage in any form of web surfing. (How achieved).

“When the proposal is completed, I will feel as if a huge burden has been lifted from my shoulders and that I am infinitely closer to closing this deal.” (How you’ll feel).

Determine how you will measure success, in terms of your ability to work for X minutes without interruption, complete a percentage of the task in Y minutes, or something similar.

Make sure that the goals that you set are attainable and not beyond the pale of what is presently realistic. (This, of course, can and should change as you grow in this area.) Then, set a time frame for your goal to keep you on task and moving in the right direction.

Detail how this goal is rewarding. In this example, the reward may be that others get what they need in a timely fashion and/or that you don’t need to stay late to get it done.

Now, let’s look at how this breaks down in “S.M.A.R.T.” terms.

Component: Details

Specific? Yes. (30 minutes of uninterrupted work at the beginning of each day for four days.)

Measurable? Without question. (Did I work for the stated duration without interruption or not? A timekeeping app may be useful here.)

Attainable? Indeed. (I can block out the time on my calendar and leave my phone off or set to “silent.”)

Rewarding? Absolutely! (What a difference it’ll make when I am done with this proposal.)

Time-bound? Check. (30 minutes a day over four days.)

Other “goal worthy,” outcomes might include:

Becoming more knowledgeable about work-related or other topics;

Better relationships with co-workers;

Improved fitness and weight loss;

Leaving the office by 6 p.m. each evening.

The key is the 3 c’s—clarify, contract and commit—so that this goal does not become another flash of inspiration that quickly fades into distant memory.


Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, is an executive coach who helps busy leaders be more productive so that they can scale profits with less stress and get home at a decent hour. For a free, no obligation consultation, please call 212.470.6139 or email [email protected]. Buy his leadership book, “Becoming the New Boss,” on Amazon. Download his free productivity blueprint at ImpactfulCoaching.com/ Productivity-Blueprint.

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