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3 Ways to Put Some Teeth into Your Goals

Jan 01, 2015

Written by: Tim Houlihan
(View Author Bio)

When you make your resolutions in the coming days, you are likely to think, “I’ve got this.” And that’s a good thing. And at work, you’ve probably been assigned goals that you either buy into or you don’t. Most of us don’t succeed because we don’t internalize the goal to make it our own; we don’t write a careful plan to achieve it and we construct the goal without short-term milestones. Don’t get caught in the maelstrom of failure this year: do these three things for your employees and you increase your chances of success. 

1. Make your goal something you really, really want.

Forgive the Spice Girls reference but it’s true. It’s easy to ask why in the world would you set a goal for something you don’t really, really want? Well, we do it all the time. Most divorcee’s acknowledge that they knew their wedding vows would fail while they were still on the alter. While hindsight provides 20/20 vision, we can use a simple parlor trick to help us understand if we really, really want something.

Try this: You’re considering committing to a goal of losing 10 pounds by the Spring (Vernal) Equinox – that’s usually March 21st. If you really, really want it, you’ll anticipate a great deal of regret by not achieving it. So assign the “I make the goal” to the heads side of a coin and “I don’t make the goal” to the tails side of a coin. Flip the coin and tune into how you feel at the moment that the coin is revealed to you. If it’s heads, do you feel a sense of exhilaration and tremendous accomplishment or is more restrained? If it’s tails, do you feel a true sense of regret or do you instantly rationalize with the thought, “Well, I still have clothes that fit me now!”

Paying attention to how you feel is key because that’s the indicator of how much you really, really want to achieve the goal. That gut feeling is your guide to determining your level of commitment. Go with it. If you discover you’re not really, really wanting to achieve the goal, then you need either a new goal or a really rigorous plan with penalties for non-achievement.

In the workplace, we are too often assaulted by goals that we didn’t create and are not truly committed to. Management bears responsibility to bring goals to their employees in meaningful and vivid ways so the employees can connect to the virtuousness of the achieved goal. The more employees feel connected to “I really, really want it” the more likely the goal is going to be achieved. 

2. Write down your plan.

Fortunately, our brains have something referred to as the automatic planning function. When you set the goal, the automatic planning function kicks in…well, automatically. But if you leave your brilliant plan to your memory, you’re bound to fail. Write it down with as much detail as you can muster. Also, try to anticipate trouble spots and write down what you’re going to do when obstacles appear. 

Try this: Remember when you set out to do something in 2014 and it didn’t work out? Remember the problems that caused you to fail and how those obstacles couldn’t be avoided or they were a result of something happening that you couldn’t anticipate? While you may be correct in your assessment, you may just be rationalizing. The best thing to do is to anticipate all the troubles you’re likely to encounter and what you’re going to do to (a) respond when that happens and more importantly (b) do things that will mitigate or even stop the problem before it occurs. And make sure you write it down. 

By the way, there’s nothing magical about writing down a goal unless you write down the plan to achieve it. There are apocryphal stories about great wealth being accumulated by college grads who wrote down their goals. It’s likely to be true only if the goal setters wrote thoughtful and detailed plans for achievement.

Employees who are tasked with great challenges will benefit from management that coaches them on the how-to and contributes to a plan to bring the goals to life.

3. Think short term.

Long range goals – sometimes referred to as BHAG’s (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) – are important to help us guide our lives. BHAG’s are the distant horizons we navigate toward and without them we are lost. BHAG’s are so far reaching that we may not even understand what it’s going to take to achieve them, which is actually okay for a very long-range goal. 

However, short-term goals are what keep fuel in our engines. Setting and achieving short-term goals reinforces our confidence that drives determination and the desire to set and achieve new, more difficult goals. 

Try this: Imagine that you could earn $1 million if you worked out for one hour the very first thing out of bed every day for the next 5 years. If you miss a single day, you forfeit the prize. Sounds daunting, doesn’t it? What if the goal were scaled back to work out every day for a month to win $16,000 (which is about the same rate)? Thirty days seems more achievable doesn’t it? Still, you know that things happen in your life and there are some Saturday mornings you just don’t want to get out of bed. So take it back another notch: what if you could win $3,800 (again, the same rate) for working out every day for one week? That sounds much more achievable, doesn’t it? Even with a million-dollar prize at the 5-year mark, it’s difficult to imagine yourself achieving it without tremendous difficulty. The one-week goal appears more manageable and psychologists say we’re more likely to achieve because it’s more relevant to our lifestyle. 

Sales reps who are tasked to achieve certain annual goals will simply give up if they see they’re not on track to make their goal. Non-sales people who work on project- based work are less likely to give up when the project has milestones that are short-term in duration. 


Three simple little tricks can get you to your goals. Be focused on what you really, really want, write it down with as much detail as you can muster and make sure the goals you select are framed in the near term. Try them and let us know how they work.

Tim Houlihan at BI WORLDWIDE

Tim Houlihan

Vice President
Reward Systems Group

For more than 25 years, Tim Houlihan has indulged his curiosities of human behavior in the workplace. He passionately pursues answers to questions such as “Why do some people work harder than others?” and “Why do some people set and achieve goals?” and acknowledges that behavioral economics holds excellent explanations for some of these mysteries. As the Vice President of Reward Systems at BIW, Tim is responsible for leading the development of innovative reward systems. He partners with academic colleagues from leading universities around the world and he is actively engaged with leaders in Fortune 1000 companies to develop solutions for the human side of business problems.

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