How to write better personal work goals

Photo of my notebook showing a prioritized daily list.

As managers, we require our employees to set goals, and then we measure them against those goals during annual performance reviews. While this is common and sounds reasonable, the goals often end up disconnected from real performance.

This is a waste. (Managers: it’s okay to nod your head in grim agreement.)

Why does goal-setting fail, and what can we do about it? Well, I connected a few dots recently, and have a plan. It requires us to rethink the shape of the goals themselves.

How workplace goals typically fail

This is a real 6-month goal from an employee from about two years ago.

Maintain weekly focus on defining billing business rules.

Not bad, right? Seems do-able. There’s a time-frame. The action is simple: to maintain focus on the topic. It basically means get work done on it every week.

But here’s the thing: That goal failed, but by no fault of the employee.

Instead, that project to work on business rules was scuttled by management (okay, I confess: I did it). So, according to the preset goals for that period, I would mark the employee as having failed that goal. Well, I couldn’t in fairness do that! So while I didn’t penalize the employee, the goal itself became worthless.

I trust that other managers out there agree that this is not an uncommon situation.

I’ve found that my employees’ goals fail most often in these two ways.

  1. The goal is based on a project, but the project changes or is even canceled.
  2. The goal requires another person’s action, but that other person doesn’t take the action.

Is it always a simple dependency problem? Not purely. There are other factors, such as the goal being too large to get done or too generic to measure. In that case I shrug and make my best estimation as to whether it was met.

Another problem is that goals sometimes aren’t that important. We dumb them down to something that we’re sure will happen anyway, but it ends up having little to do with the most important work.

Why would we do this? It’s a play-it-safe reaction to being beaten up by all the previously failed goals. Name it: dysfunction.

But should I gauge an employee’s performance based on unimportant goals? Of course not. That’s small-minded, desperate thinking, yet our typical goal-setting systems prod us into those sorts of goals.

So, let’s see this from the angle of sports goal-setting.

Since 1990 I have been a competitive pistol shooter. Goals are pretty important—and effective.

In that sport, I use two types of goals: achievement and process goals.

My achievement goals are based on scores, and are obvious. For example, at the next match, my goal is to shoot at least a 2430. When I shoot a 2440, I know that I’ve achieved that goal. Easy to track.

But what can I do to make that achievement happen?

That’s where process goals come into play. For this, I point to Lanny Bassham’s Mental Management program outlined in his book “With Winning in Mind.” The book is worth reading, especially if you compete in most any sport.

Couched in the methodology from Bassham, let me explain a process goal that I use when target shooting.

In preparation for firing a shot, I plan and visualize the shot, then I do it. Here are some details.

  1. Gun is on the bench, and I’ve already settled my stance and grip.
  2. I look down at the gun, glance at the rear of the gun and see that the bolt is forward.
  3. I focus my eyes on my gunbox, which is with me at the shooting bench. I’m probably seeing a cut-out X-ring, and a step-by-step shot plan I’ve taped to the inside of the box.
  4. I close my eyes, tilt my head up just slightly, and breathe in and then out, fairly deeply.
  5. As I’m breathing I visualize the gun raising, my eyes finding the sight picture, I see a good sight alignment as the gun is rising, as I start to exhale I settle the gun so the sight picture is aligned to the target at which point my breathing pauses. I confirm that my middle and ring-fingers are putting pressure straight back into the grip while my thumb is lined up parallel to the barrel towards the target. At the pause in breath, I continue maintaining solid sight alignment to the slow count of 1-2-3 as I’m applying smooth, straight-back pressure to the trigger. I don’t get to 3 because the gun has fired and I know it is a good shot.
  6. Then I open my eyes at the end of an exhalation and act out what I just visualized. (If I get to three, I put the gun down and start that shot over.)

So, my process goal is to do that for every shot. It’s an easy-to-do goal that I control, and it is up to me to do it each time. When I do, the results are unmistakable.

That’s the key. When I have the discipline to do that process goal for every shot, my overall performance goes way up. It’s a behavior that I can control that produces a result. This past summer I shot my best 50 yard slow-fire score ever, a 97 out of 100, doing that.

What if I can use that kind of process goal at work?

I was re-reading Bassham’s book as I was mulling over these ideas, and came across a section where he writes:

A habit that separates the top five percent of competitors who win from the other 95 percent who just play is the practice of carefully setting goals. Most people never set them. No surprise there. However, every major corporation sets goals. Every government sets goals. Every builder who builds has a blueprint. Every banker has a written contract on how the borrower is going to pay back the loan. But among individuals, normally only the super successful ever bother to set personal goals and plan their work. (“With Winning in Mind,” Lanny Bassham, pp. 65-66.)

So I wondered to myself, “You’re doing alright professionally, do you set goals?” And it dawned on me that I do, all the time.

I just never think of them as goals. This was the Ah-ha! moment.

So, for illustration, here’s what I already do.

My 2013 Strategic Objectives

Near the end of the year, I review my own annual strategic objectives and identify those that I have for the coming year. I do this in order to maintain a clear head about work.

  • UX: Mature the UX team’s expertise
  • UX: Improve the sustainability of UX @ CE
  • Company: Ship (That one word to me means delivering valuable updates to our services for the benefit of our members. But in notes to myself, I just write “ship.”)
  • Company: Learn to manage the business better
  • Company: Prepare CE for future growth

I know these are not attainable on my own, but I expect of myself to influence our corporate progress towards those objectives more than one might imagine. They are generic enough to leave the tactics open, but clear enough to me that I can look at any period of time and tell if I’ve seen the rate of improvement that I’m okay with.

I’ve done this same thing for 2011 and 2012, and I’ve seen the benefits for the company, although from the outside it must be difficult to see the connections.

These annual objectives provide me some needed focus and an ability to feel like I’ve actually made a difference. Without that, I’d be pretty grouchy.

My Process Goals

When I read that section in Bassham, I suddenly realized that I already have process goals, but I’ve never thought of them as goals. I just know to do them in order to be effective at the level I expect of myself.

Photo of my notebook showing a prioritized daily list.
Using a daily 6-item list is one of my process goals. A simple, thin, pocket-sized notebook is extremely handy for this. I’ve found it better than using apps on my iPhone.

My most frequently used process goal is this:

  • Every day write in my small notebook the top 6 things that I will get done that day.
  • Prioritize them, 1–6.
  • Think of how and when I need to prepare for each item.
  • Keep that notebook on me and refer to it as a guide for my day.
  • Check the items off as I do them.

I use another process goal when I’m sitting in a meeting and I know the presenter will ask for feedback at the end. This too is easy: I use my notebook to jot down reminders of the feedback I want to provide. It’s basic, but effective. Here are two benefits.

  • I can say “I have three concerns.” When conversation ensues over point 1, others already know to bring it back around for point 2 and 3.
  • I don’t waste others’ time as I stumble over my words and try to remember what I was going to say. My memory is frail, and this technique overcomes that.

Are process goals SMART?

If you’ve ever talked with an HR person about goals, no doubt you’ve heard of the SMART acronym. SMART goals are:

  • specific
  • measurable
  • achievable
  • relevant
  • timely

My process goal of using the daily list may, in fact, be the most SMART goal I’ve ever had at work. It is specific, measurable (just flip through my notebook to see the success rate), achievable (it is easy…I just need to have the daily discipline to do it), it is definitely relevant, and by its very nature it is timely.

Whoa. Now that acronym actually makes sense.

And while it isn’t on the SMART checklist, these process goals are activities that I don’t have to rely on anyone else for. If I don’t do them, it’s nobody’s fault but mine.

What if goals can be expressed instead as habits?

So, like thousands of others, I’ve been through BJ Fogg’s 3 Tiny Habits program, and I actually use that lesson on how to form habits. The daily list is one thing I’ve used the 3 Tiny Habits program to help me do better. So, before I considered these to be process goals, I just considered them to be habits. These process goals are also habits.

If you haven’t yet, go through Fogg’s program. Process goals may make a whole lot more sense and you will have the knowledge to actually train yourself to do them. I’m going to predict that most good process goals, which are probably better as daily processes, could be implemented as though they are habits you are trying to form.

So, given this insight, how have I applied this?

I’ve talked with my staff about this approach, and we’ve updated some of their goals to follow this pattern.

Here’s what amazed me: In the very first week I saw improvements in performance and morale. For example, one of my staff wrote this process goal, “Every day, write down one thing I’m proud of.” I believe this simple goal improved this employee’s morale and it has spilled over to others, myself included.

But has the quality of work gone up? Difficult problems are solved by people who can easily think laterally as well as vertically, and a person’s emotional state has an effect on this. More stress means less lateral thinking. So, yes, I’m sure the quality of work has gone up.

Further, this kind of attitude can be trained over time and will help others want to work with this employee. Who wants to work with someone who doesn’t appreciate the chance to do quality work? I know I don’t.

How can you implement this change in setting goals?

Write process goals for yourself. If you are a manager, have your staff do this.

Process goals are:

  • Easy to do
  • Quick to do
  • Done frequently (e.g., daily)
  • About how you work or think of your work, not about the outcome
  • Done by you alone, so that you alone are responsible for doing them

I’ve listed a few examples in this post. Have others? Feel free to share them in the comments on this post.

I’ll close with another quote from Bassham: “The BEST years of the BEST players are rarely foreseen in advance. Why? I believe it is because the elite are not thinking about outcome. They are thinking about process.” (62)

Author: Davin Granroth

Davin is Chief Operating Officer for Covenant Eyes, Inc. in Owosso, MI, USA, where he gets to mix his background in user experience design, research, and strategy with the operation of a software company. For more, see his LinkedIn profile.

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