7 tips to help you set (and actually meet!) your professional goals this year
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7 tips to help you set (and actually meet!) your professional goals this year

New and Updates
January 10, 2017

It’s that time of year again — when we all look at the year ahead and set our ambitious goals. But the stats paint a bleak picture: all the data we have says that only a minority of people actually meet their new year’s resolutions.

The Shortcut team wants to make sure you’re in that successful minority, so we’ve created this quick guide to effective goal creation.

Three Questions for Successful Goal Setting

What are my goals?

A goal is something specific, actionable, measurable, and time-based, whereas a priority is just an important area of your life (whether personal or professional), like “career advancement” or “health.” Getting clear on your priorities is a great first step to goal-setting — but it’s not the end of the process, even though many people treat it like it is.

“Advance my career” or “become more known in my field” are priorities, but “lead three internal projects to a successful launch” or “speak at six meetups over the course of the year” are goals.

You will want to define goals and keep the number low — no more than three main goals. If some of the goals are related to each other, then one or two more is okay, but just know that the more goals you have, the more scattered your attention is going to be, and the less likely you are to get it all done.

Am I focusing on the process, instead of the outcome?

One of the biggest mistakes that many people (my past self included!) make is focusing their goals on the outcome, and not the process. That sounds like common sense, right? Why wouldn’t you create an outcome-focused goal? The problem is that most of the time — especially when it comes to the professional realm — the outcome isn’t actually in your control. You can do all of the standard steps someone normally does to get a promotion, and yet, a higher-up could nix it at the last minute. Because of this, hanging your goals on an outcome is likely to lead to disappointment. This is why behavioral psychology experts like James Clear say that you should be focusing on behavior, not outcomes.

Instead, create process-focused goals (or what Clear calls “systems of habits”). So instead of saying that your goal is to speak at six meetups over the year, your goal would be something like “pitch three meetups a month on a relevant talk/topic.”

What’s my motivation?

We tend to talk about motivation as though the most important factor is how much of it there is, but the type of motivation matters just as much…if not more. There are two general types of motivation: intrinsic (coming from your internal desires) and extrinsic (motivated by something outside of yourself, like money).

Extrinsic motivation is so common that we rarely stop to think about how it affects our goals. Why do you want to get more speaking opportunities or advance your career this year? “Money” or “accolades” are common answers, but unless you’re at a point where your lack of money is making you actively uncomfortable, it probably won’t be a strong enough motivator to keep you going after the enthusiasm and momentum of the new year wears off.

Instead, you should be digging deeper to find the “why” behind your goals — the intrinsic motivation — and reminding yourself of that when the going gets tough. With the speaking example, your reasoning might be something like “I love teaching and want to help beginners in the field.”

That sort of motivation comes from inside and according to business writer Dan Pink, intrinsic motivation is the “secret to high performance”. For more on this topic, check out Dan Pink’s TED Talk on the puzzle of motivation.

Actually Meeting Your Goals

So now that you’ve got clear process-based goals that you’re motivated to complete, how can you make sure that they’ll get done?

Take your time

Don’t rush yourself through this process. Putting thought and effort into your professional goals takes more time and effort than writing something slapdash on New Year’s Day, but it’s worth it. Some people take a whole month to do this. Mike Vardy, of the Productivityist blog, doesn’t consider his new year started until Groundhog Day, giving himself the time, space, and energy to create solid new year’s resolutions that he can actually get done.

“Stair-step” it

You should always stay focused on your goals for the year (and, if possible, keep it visible — on a post-it note in your office, or your phone background, for example), but you may need to break them down into smaller, more actionable chunks. I like to call this approach “stair-stepping.”

With his 12-Week Year method, productivity guru Jeff Sanders breaks his goals down into smaller three-month goals (and then breaks those goals down into even smaller action steps). Tools like the Best Self journal are built on the same idea. This creates a sense of urgency that just isn’t there with a deadline that’s 12 months away.

Using our previous example of pitching meetups, this might look like:

  • Two-week goal: Create a list of 15–20 meetups and save it somewhere easily accessible, like Evernote. Why not a full list of 36 meetups to last the whole year, at a rate of three meetups pitched a month? Mainly because it’s possible that by the time you get to some of the meetups on the list, they may have changed direction or stopped completely, and then you have to go do more work. In this case, you’d choose several month’s worth of meetups, picking ones that were long-established and likely to still be around in a few months.
  • Three-week goal: Create a rough pitch template that can be customized for each individual meetup.
  • Four-week goal: Pitch three meetups. And then, every other week after that, pitch three meetups (or plan to pitch one meetup a week on Fridays, if you want to be an overachiever).
  • Twelve-week goal: Pitch nine meetups.

After you do the initial groundwork, the rest of the goal is achieved by simply sticking with your habit of regularly pitching meetups. The next tip should help with sticking to it.

Find a way to hold yourself accountable

This can look like a number of different things, depending on your personality type and preference:

  • Tell your friends and family about your goals. Ask them to check in with you on a regular basis about how it’s going and encourage you when you get down. Aside from receiving encouragement from people important to you, the thinking behind this method is that you won’t want to go back on your word to people, so you’ll stay motivated to complete your goals.
  • …or don’t. There are some studies that indicate announcing your goals soothes your self-identity just enough that you feel better about yourself, without having to do any of the work to actually meet your goals. In other words, telling the world that you’re going to do XYZ (and then getting encouragement to do so) can, counterintuitively, sap your motivation to actually do XYZ.
  • A possible middle road between these two paths is to have a small (think 1–5 people) accountability group, consisting of people who all have the same or similar goals. By keeping the group intimate, you aren’t getting the (ultimately meaningless) endorphin rush of 50 people “liking” your Facebook status about how you’ll crush it this year, but you still have the accountability and support of a few people you trust who are going through the same process.
  • Make very specific plans and write them down. In multiple studies, participants have been shown to be more likely to meet a goal or commitment they agreed to if they wrote it down and especially if they included a time and date. You can also word your plans as “if then” statement, as outlined in this Psychology Today article.

While statistics show that most people don’t meet their new year’s resolutions, implementing these tips can help make all the difference for you this year.

Good luck with those resolutions!

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