Every January, my Facebook feed turns into a veritable smorgasbord of unbridled optimism. This year, my friends have enthusiastically committed to “eat cleaner and drink less,” “find a better job,” and “sleep more, exercise more, laugh more, love more, and read more” (that last person is going to be very busy).
The beginning of each year feels like a clean slate: it’s a natural time to set goals. But it’s much harder to make them happen in the months that follow. Thankfully, though, science is squarely on the side of goal-setters—they are ten times more likely to change their behavior than non-goal-setters. The secret is to create the right goals. So whether you want to improve your job performance, your career, your relationships, or your health in 2016, ask yourself these five questions before finalizing your game plan.
1. Will my goals make my job or life measurably better?
I had two non-work goals in 2015: to learn chess and read more historical biographies. I’m sad to say that I accomplished neither. But here’s what’s interesting: though I failed in this area, I succeeded on another, completely unexpected front. Without a goal of any kind, I joined a gym in January, and by December, I was going at least four days a week. No one was more surprised than me (for some context, heretofore, some of my favorite weekend activities included binge watching TV and eating take-out food).
Why did this happen? Certainly, learning to play chess or better understanding Winston Churchill would have been interesting, but neither would have changed my life. Getting in shape, on the other hand, lit a fire beneath me. In weeks, I felt stronger; I had more energy; I was less stressed. The best goals make our lives better—and in the process become self-sustaining. This is especially true at work, where so many of our goals are imposed upon us. We can’t always choose everything that’s being asked of us, so it’s especially important to set out what you want to accomplish, whether it’s for you personally, for your team, or for your company.
2. Are my goals intentions or actions?
It can be tempting to set vague, pie-in-the-sky goals. Let’s say a manager decides to improve her relationships with her direct reports in 2016. Though this is an admirable intention, if she doesn’t specify how she’ll do it (improving her listening skills, spending more time with her team members, etc.), she’s setting herself up for disappointment. Successful goals are actions rather than intentions. In one study, researchers asked dieters to create a weekly plan outlining what they’d eat and when. Compared to a control group who didn’t specify exactly what they’d do, the planners lost twice the amount of weight.
So this year, make sure you spell out exactly what you need to do. Instead of vowing to get a better job in Q1, commit to updating your resume and applying for at least five job postings. Instead of deciding to get your MBA, research, select and apply to MBA programs. Though actions are rarely as sexy as intentions are, they’re infinitely more reliable in producing results.
3. Is what I’m taking on reasonable?
We live in a world where more feels better. Instead of setting a reasonable weight loss target like ten pounds, we vow we’ll lose twenty. Rather than setting one reasonable goal, we set five pie-in-the-sky ones. But when it comes to goals, less is almost always more. In organizations, for instance, the fewer priorities an executive team has, the more growth their company experiences.
Though I’m not suggesting you set the bar too low (like my father-in-law, who proudly announced his goal this year was to “wake up every day”), it’s better to set your sights on something that’s achievable, and approaching multiple resolutions one at a time. Let’s say you want to overhaul your small company’s IT system and launch a new service for your customers—though you and your team could tackle both at once, you’d probably get better results by starting with one and moving to the other once you’re getting some traction and momentum.
4. Do I have a strategy to remain resilient?
Day-to-day stresses can thwart our most determined goals. For example, if you’re an introvert who wants to network more often, it’s hard enough to drag yourself to an office happy hour, let alone do it after a long, stressful day. There’s actually a physiological reason for this phenomenon.
One study had participants complete a series of tasks requiring self-control, like watching a disturbing video without reacting emotionally. After they finished the task, their blood glucose—the body’s main source of energy—had significantly decreased. Self-control, the researchers found, is an exhaustible resource. Luckily, we can improve our odds by anticipating what we’ll do when our stores of self-control are running low. In one study, dieters who made a plan to cope with tempting situations lost twice the weight than those who didn’t.
5. Am I prepared to commit to my daily goals without drama?
Recently, I heard a nugget of wisdom on a talk show. The host asked her guest, a dietician, the secret to weight loss. “This is not rocket science,” he declared, “The secret is wanting to lose weight more than you want to gain weight. And if you want to lose weight, you simply can’t eat that piece of cake.” This principle applies to almost any personal or work-related goal. Don’t hem and haw. Don’t make excuses. Don’t over think things. Just commit to make it happen. And if you do that, I guarantee that you’ll be as pleasantly surprised as I was when I transformed from couch potato to gym rat.