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Goal Setting: 3 PRO TIPS for 2020 Inspired by Assertive Principles and Critical Thinking

When used properly, productivity-related habits such as GOAL SETTING can help you optimize and speed-up your achievements in both personal and professional settings.

As you’re reading the previous phrase, you’re probably already thinking about the S.M.A.R.T. Goals strategy, which is an OK-ish start, but definitely only part of the story when it comes to efficient goal-setting.

Why the S.M.A.R.T. Strategy is not SMART enough

  • It was built with a corporate setting in mind. It does not necessarily work for individuals.

When first presented by George T. Doran, a consultant and former Director of Corporate Planning for Washington Water Power Company in his paper “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives”, Management Review. [1981], – it is generally accepted that this was the first use of the acronym – the five criteria meant Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, and Time-related. Obviously, for individuals, outside of a corporate or team-based environment, the Assignable part – who should accomplish the goal – makes no sense.

  • There are too many alternative and additional criteria, and even alternative acronyms.

To make the acronym fit the environment they wanted to use it, people started transforming Doran’s criteria into ones that would work better for them.

They sometimes tried to maintain the acronym SMART and redefine what each letter meant in the new context – thus, A could be considered Action-oriented or Achievable, R could stand for Relevant or Result-based.

At other times new criteria were added – such as Evaluated and Reviewed, which generated a new acronym, like SMARTER in this case – Graham Yemm, in Essential Guide to Leading Your Team: How to Set Goals, Measure Performance, and Reward Talent. Pearson Education. [2013].

Other authors simply dropped the SMART approach and build their own acronym to reflect their own opinion regarding the criteria efficient goals should satisfy.

  • It gets confusing and the main purpose may be lost.

With all the alternatives and new approaches, it can get really confusing to implement the strategy in a way that suits you. Solution? Make the strategy fit your needs, don’t try to squeeze your life into an outline configured by someone else. But How? Read on.

What to Keep from the S.M.A.R.T. Approach and How to Build your own Goal-Setting Strategy*

The thing is George Doran isolated several elements that are critical to goal-setting. They make or break your optimization habit and directly affect your results. Without them, the goal is nothing but a wish.

So here is what I would keep from the original strategy:

  • Specific – Each goal should be formulated in relation to a single area of improvement.
  • Measurable – You should be able to tell whether you achieved your goal, in an objective way. You will need to be able to quantify your results. Therefore, name an indicator of progress.
  • Realistic – There is no point in setting goals if it is not possible for you to achieve them. The inability to achieve a goal can be mainly linked to these causes:
    • a] The goal itself is of fantastic origins. It cannot be achieved in the natural world. Example: “Grow 2 wings by December 31st”. The goal is specific – it only regards one area of improvement, i.e. growing new body parts, it is measurable – goal achieved when growing 2 wings, and it’s even time-limited – there is a deadline, December 31st. But none of these things matter, since humans cannot simply grow wings. I know, a little upsetting. We’ll have to cope.
    • b] The available resources are not enough for the completion of the goal. Example: “Write a 500-page book by the end of the year.” – Goal set on December 31st, 23:00. There is simply not enough time – time is the resource in this case – to achieve that goal. Same with “Donate $100K to charity this year”, when your present yearly income is less than that. Consider all the required resources and those available when setting your goals.

What I would add from the alternative strategies and criteria:

  • Time-component  –  To plan the steps needed to achieve your goal, you will have to determine when is the goal likely to be achieved. This will also tell you when to actually measure the final stage of progress. Depending on the complexity of the goal you can simply consider this element as pertaining to one of the following categories: Time-related or time-bound: a relative time to complete a goal – “in less than 30 days”, “in a month/year”; Time-limited: fixed deadline – “by December 31st”; Trackable – offers a time-related mark to help track whether the goal has been achieved – “monthly”, “yearly”, “each month”, etc.
  • Action-oriented – Start formulating your goal by using a verb that describes an actual action you can perform to achieve the goal. “Write 3 Emails to congratulate friends on their achievements” is better – read “more structured” – than “3 Emails to congratulate friends on their achievements”. It is also a better formulation than those that would rather describe objectives, not goals – “Be a better [email] writer”. Some consider action-oriented goals versus result-oriented goals – those that reference the outcome of a set of actions and start with verbs such as “Decrease/Increase”, “Improve”, etc. I do not consider these formulations goals, but objectives.
  • Relevant  – Make sure that your goal is aligned to one of your main, significant objectives and that it blends with what you would consider your main purpose – general [such as life purpose] or specific [professional purpose]. You may set hundreds of attainable goals and actually complete them all, but what if all of these smaller achievements do not count toward your bigger dreams and aspirations? Then you would only misplace resources and may even deplete them, thus making your significant goals unrealistic from that point on.  So pay closer attention to the goals you choose to set for a specific stage in your life.

So up to this point, my Goal-setting Strategy would ensure that my goals are, in order of the steps I would take to establish them: Relevant, Realistic, Specific, Action-oriented, Measurable, and have a Time Component.

But is this everything you need to consider when formulating reasonable, motivating goals that convert into significant steps toward your personal and professional growth? I do not think so. I think that there are also a few more key factors to consider to ensure the success of your Goal-setting Strategy.

My 3 PRO TIPS to OPTIMIZE your Goal-setting Game in 2020.

What is so special about my additional tips? They are linked to the two concepts that I advocate for the most in my professional and personal life.

Next-level Goal-Setting uses Assertiveness and Critical Thinking principles and techniques to achieve better, personalized results.

So here are my 3 PRO TIPS to optimize your Goal-Setting Strategy.

1. Formulate your goals using only variables that you can control.

To maximize the chances for the successful completion of a goal, stay away from including elements that are outside of your control are either by nature – someone else’s actions, social contexts, environmental factors, or by the degree of uncertainty involved – a company may disappear completely from the corporate map, so if your goal would be company-specific, and not role or activity-specific, you would fail to achieve it.

This recommendation stems from principles that pertain to both Assertiveness and Critical Thinking.

While the critical thinking part is rather obvious in this context – if you have no supporting evidence for the status of an element included in your goal, then it is better to simply not use it, particular attention should be given to the root that has to do with Assertiveness, mainly meaning that you should not formulate your goals in a way that includes other people – unless this is a common and agreed-upon goal.

“Marry Jim by the end of 2020” may seem like a perfectly well-formulated goal – and by the criteria we mentioned earlier, it really seems like that is the case, with the exception that it isn’t. Here’s why: You do not control Jim. [And shouldn’t want to do so, if you are to marry him or even just to maintain a healthy, assertive relationship with him as a friend.]

Assertive principles promote individuality, equal rights, and context-specific responsibility.

In this case, you would have no idea what Jim’s plans and actions will be next year. Maybe he proposed and said he wishes to marry you in 2020, but the thing is … objectives, needs, desires, and plans can change. we all have the right to change them. Maybe by April 2020, Jim will realize that he still needs some time, or wants to marry someone else, or never wants to marry at all. He is entitled to all of these changes in his thinking and actions. What he conveyed at one point in time does not bind him to an outcome, or to anything else, as a matter of fact. This is why, if you want to set achievable goals, you would have to formulate goals that are not Jim-dependent.

You could now reformulate your goal without “Jim” and say – “Marry by the end of 2020”, in which case, since getting married still involves someone else, you should be open to the idea of marrying someone else on short notice, just in case Jim gives you the news 3 days before December 31st, 2020. Who knows, maybe that would still keep your goal realistic. You decide how relevant it would be to keep it in that form and want to fulfill it.

Otherwise, I would recommend that you simply exclude from your list goals that involve variables that you cannot control, and either keep “Getting married” as a general life objective, if you consider it significant for you or place “Marry Jim by the end of 2020” in a Wish List.

2. Consider Modifiers and Alternatives for each of your Goals.

Let’s say you’ve set a goal for yourself that goes something like this: “Walk from Location A to Remote-Wild-Far-Away Location B in June 2020”. You carefully plan your trip: You know it will take you 5 days to walk that distance, the weather forecast seems to be in your favor, you pack carefully, and plan to start your adventure on June 4th. Plenty of time margin to accommodate your goal.

Everything goes according to plan and you start walking that distance on June 4th. June 7th though you come across a flooded area of significant proportions. You cannot cross it by foot. Avoiding it would mean to change your course significantly and you do not have, nor can get sufficient resources. However, there is a boatman willing to take you across. Yet your goal says “walk”. What do you do?

Do you cancel your trip and cross your goal? Do you take the boatman’s offer, complete your journey and check off your goal? Do you take the boatman’s offer, complete your journey, check off your goal, but feel undeserving or like an imposter, because you think you cheated? You could also modify your goal to say “Get from A to Remote-Wild-Far-Away Location B in June 2020” and then you wouldn’t feel like cheating. What would your decision be?

Well, my recommendation is that you cover some of these options before you even start your trip. When setting your more complex goals, I would also consider what makes for a satisfactory or good enough progress and what would be a deal-breaker and would result in a failed attempt to accomplish that goal?

In the example above, would walking 85% of the distance count as success? If completed on July 1st, would the adventure be considered a fail?

I think these are all reasonable considerations and including them in your goal-setting strategy would increase the rate of success by eliminating irrational, irrelevant factors from the equation.

Just to give you a couple more examples, if your goal is to “Write a book in 30 days” and you complete it on the 32nd day, is it a failure? If your goal is “Send 3 Thank You Emails on Thursday” and you notice on Friday that one of the email addresses bounced, do you uncheck that achievement?

Sure, there are contexts when you need to stick to the original formulation of a goal – for example when team/common deadlines are involved, or when an opportunity is simply gone if the context modifies – but otherwise, I think we should keep in mind that the experience and the outcome itself may often be more significant and valuable than sticking to random self-imposed limits. Identify what keeps your goal relevant and meaningful to you, and experiment with the other elements when formulating it.

3. Be Flexible. Adjust Goals and List of Goals to maintain relevance and general purpose.

One of the main elements of criticism addressed to the S.M.A.R.T. approach is that the goals end up being too rigid and therefore, unusable once a part of the goal modifies.

Please keep in mind that the whole point of goal-setting is to assist productivity and growth. Goals are tools that help you identify, organize, prioritize and track your main objectives. They should be fun, not negative anxiety generators! [Positive anxiety motivates or keeps you away from dangers; Negative anxiety blocks your actions.]

The key here is to experiment and make the strategy work for you! It doesn’t matter what works for someone else, you need to discover what works for you – add the elements that you need, exclude those that make you less productive, and build the Strategy that helps you be a better you with each new achievement.

For example, I decided to completely ditch classic To-Do Lists – comprising of daily, weekly, monthly goals, etc. – because I would often become overwhelmed by the multitude of tasks that would end up in those neverending enumerations of things that had to be done – freelancers/solopreneurs tend to have those, and I would observe that the more stuff I had written down, the more procrastination and low levels of productivity occurred. Sometimes I would end up being completely blocked and would fail to complete even the less complex tasks. No categorization worked for me.

Now I have a different system, which I will not present in detail here because this is not the purpose of this post, but the key is that I discovered what works for me and I started doing more of that, while at the same time experimenting with new approaches. I am more productive and satisfied with my work than ever. Because here is the actual threat: starting to hate your goal-setting system will gradually make you hate the specific tasks linked to them, which will eventually diminish your intrinsic motivation for those tasks and you will end up feeling sad, frustrated, or unfulfilled while performing activities that you used to enjoy and which are meaningful to you. Avoid that by being flexible in your goal-setting! It doesn’t have to be perfect, it has to be good enough.

I hope my PRO TIPS will help you improve your Goal-setting Strategy and that they will assist you in having an amazing new year!

Here’s to a productive, achievement-filled 2020, guided by Assertiveness and Critical Thinking!

*The steps and recommendations presented here are part of my own strategy building process.

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