New Year’s resolutions can be a polarizing topic—most people I know either love them or hate them. I won’t lie, I’m kind of obsessed with goal setting, so I’m firmly in the “love them” camp. When I founded the company that defined my career, I did it all through goal setting—from a dorm-room two-person operation to our first real office to our hundredth office across the globe, every milestone began as a goal I put to paper.
But as much as I love goal setting, I do understand why a period defined by rosy highlight reels, ambitious vision boards, and the expectation that you should adopt major lifestyle changes, ditch guilty pleasures, and chart out the next year of your life is met with groans and eyerolls. It can be a lot. I also can’t say I’m surprised that certain kinds of goals—those built around the idea that we need to fundamentally change something about ourselves, completely overhaul our lives, or give up our greatest pleasures—so often fail. I’d hate the idea of goals too if that’s how I understood them.
Statistically, most people give up on their resolutions after just two weeks into the new year, and it has little to do with a lack of willpower or work ethic. What it actually suggests is that they’re not setting the right kinds of goals. So let’s talk about what goals should be and how you can not only set them, but use them to accomplish the things that really matter to you.
Goals aren’t some lofty, far-off endpoint. They’re the journey you take to get there. They’re the tiny, achievable steps you take to get to where you want to be. And as long as you keep putting one foot in front of the other and are committed to accomplishing your goals, you can’t really fail.
The way I used goal setting to build my company went something like this. I’d write down my biggest, most ambitious goals: become a billion-dollar business, have an office in every major city across the globe, be the premier company in our industry, forever change how international business is done, and so on. This was just to get myself feeling inspired and motivated—it provided a destiny to guide my trajectory long term, set an expectation so I held myself accountable, and gave me an initial guidepost for the actions I needed to take to make it all happen. If I’d stopped at writing my goals down, I would have surely failed (rather than actually go on to build a billion-dollar, industry-leading business with over 100 offices in every corner of the world!).
The real work of goal setting is what comes next. I thought long and hard about the actual concrete things we needed to achieve to get to those endpoints—we would need to bring in A number of clients, B number of employees, open C number of offices, have D dollars in revenue, and earn E dollars in profit, breaking this down by year, by quarter, by month, and by week. I then broke those down into smaller and smaller goals and actionable steps. I would need to call, for example, 50 prospective clients by the end of the day. When my goal was to meet a certain revenue milestone in a given year, I didn’t just set a number and hope for the best. I calculated how many cold calls I’d need to make and how long it would take me. As my business scaled, I primed my sales team to make the calls needed to meet that number. Most of all, I met my goals by putting in the hours and doing the hard work to complete what I set out to accomplish and incentivized my team to do the same.
I wasn’t perfect about meeting every single goal in the exact timeframe I set. But each step kept me moving forward long enough for me to get to the next step and do it all over again. Each goal brought me just a tiny bit closer to where I ultimately wanted to be. And every time I finished a goal, I set a new one.
You see, it’s not about whether you succeed or fail at any one goal, and it’s certainly not about setting unreasonable expectations for yourself and then beating yourself up and giving up when you don’t meet them. It’s about building momentum, getting yourself to take that first step forward. And then the next. And the next. It’s about finding ways to stay motivated so you can keep moving, so you aren’t derailed by minor setbacks or too overwhelmed by an unwieldy, impractical goal looming over you. Your goals should lift you up, not weigh you down.
One practical place to start is to consider the goal-setting acronym SMART—Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. So let’s say your overarching goal is to move up the ladder in your career, and you’ve decided that to do that, you need to work toward a promotion.
Specific: Your goal needs to be clearly defined with a sufficiently narrow scope.
Measurable: You need to have a concrete way to track your progress so you can stay on track and keep yourself accountable.
Achievable: Your goal needs to be aspirational, but actually achievable.
Relevant: Your goal should align with your larger ambitions, passions, and interests. This will help you stick with it even when things get challenging.
Time-bound: You need to define a reasonable, but motivating timeframe for your goal. This will keep you from getting stuck in aimlessness or putting off the things you need to do to achieve your goal.
Making sure your goals meet the above criteria will help you set yourself up for success. While it may seem like a mysterious process that just works for some people and not for others, the truth is, goal setting is a skill like any other. It takes practice for it to become a natural process that you can replicate over and over again. Most of all, you need to be committed to your goals and be willing to put in the effort to make them happen. And while it will take time and hard work to become a consistently successful goal setter, it truly is worth the effort. Goal setting done right is an invaluable tool to have at your disposal. It’s something I still do on a daily basis—both in my personal life and when charting the path for my philanthropic work through the Elizabeth Elting Foundation.
If you can master the art of goal setting, there is truly nothing you can’t achieve!