The Pilcrow

A WordPress developer's thoughts on professional and personal development. Written by Karin Taliga

Beyond SMART – give your goals some AI

One of the most popular frameworks for setting goals is the SMART framework. In this framework, goals should be

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

These criteria are there to make sure that your goal is something that actually can be reached, and that you know when you have done so. A vague statement like “Get in shape” will stay in front of you indefinitely, like the carrot in front of the donkey, because the sentence doesn’t tell you what that actually means or when you are done.

In that sense, it’s smart to make your goal SMART.

But this framework will tend to encourage setting goals that you will always achieve. Like a list of checkboxes intended to be checked off. Tick, tick, tick, tick.

This can put you in a place where you tick all the boxes of the things you said you would do, but you still find yourself empty or dissatisfied.

Objectives and key results

As an alternative way of goal setting, Google has popularised and successfully uses the OKR framework.

We specify an Objective, something we want to work towards, and then some Key Results that will lead to this objective happening. The key results are things that can be measured.

Here our “Get in shape” goal works, if we put it as an objective and then attach some key results.

Objective: Get in shape

Key results:

  • Body fat percentage is X%
  • Cholesterol levels under X
  • Able to run 5K under X minutes

Much clearer. Now we know what we are working towards, and when we have arrived.

What I find people sometimes miss when mentioning the OKR framework is that when evaluating results against the OKR, Google uses a scale between 0.0 and 1.0. And it’s expected for teams to have a success rate of 0.6 or 0.7.

That’s right.

If you fulfil and “tick off” all the key results you have specified, it means you have been too conservative in your targets. You haven’t stretched and challenged yourself enough. You are supposed to set targets that actually have a probability of failing.

This is good for our motivation as well as self-esteem. We usually feel proud over ourselves when we achieve something that was just out of reach. Ticking off a list of boxes that we are sure that we can do is not very thrilling.

So far so good. But the hardest part isn’t to formulate a good goal. The hardest part is picking the right goals for you to start with. Just like you have to begin with becoming effective before you can work on being efficient.

Picking goals that are right for you

In the end of 2015, it looked like I was going to lose my main source of income. I was on maternity leave, and had a kind of artist grant at the time that I was about to run out of. And since I also had a side business I would not be eligible for unemployment benefits.

I had about 6 months to scale my little side business to full time income. So I sat down to figure out a way to support myself. I looked at the things I could do, the things that people would pay for and saw if I could find an overlap.

Then I set some goals and planned out activities so I could get this ball moving. I had 6 months to get from A to B. That meant quite a bit of determined work.

Developing a service offering, reaching out to people and offer it, change my website to reflect the new path, write some content about the problem I would solve and how I’d solve it etc.

What happened next?

Procrastination. Nothing.

To be fair, I was also home with a little one so it’s not like I had a bunch of time on my hands. But I looked at this list of activities and only saw duty, drudgery and boredom.

This followed me and haunted me for weeks going into months. I had this massive mountain of should-do’s hanging over me. But I just couldn’t beat myself into starting working on it.

In the end I scrapped it all. If it was so hard for me to move forward on this path, it must mean that it was a wrong path for me to start with.

This all happened because when I created my plans, I had only looked at what I was capable of doing and what there was a demand for in the market. It was all logic and pragmatic.

But I had completely missed to take into account what I actually loved doing. I also didn’t consider the impact of my actions on the world at large. What I should have searched for instead is the japanese koncept of ikigai, where passion, mission, profession and vocation overlap.

Give your goals some AI

After failing so miserably with my business plan, I made sure that my goals from now on would fulfil two new criteria: they need to be Anchored in who I am and where I truly want to go, and Inspiring.

ANCHORED in who you are and where you want to go

My first mistake was that I wasn’t clear about where I wanted to go in the first place. I was so stressed that I only thought about the fastest way to replace my income, and didn’t take the time for deep introspection.

This was a bad choice, because it meant I did a lot of mental work in the completely wrong direction. In that sense I guess I should appreciate that my internal barriers hindered me from taking action, because that would have been even more waste of time and energy.

Taking the time up front to clearly define the direction you want to go in is not a waste of time, it’s absolutely crucial. Especially if you don’t have a lot of time to begin with. Investing in that first initial clarity will pay off.

Now the question of “Who am I?” is perhaps a bit big to fit into a single goal setting session. But if you have a list of goals you’ve already made, you can assess them based on a few questions.

Where are these goals coming from? Are they coming from outside, fulfilling societal expectations, or are they originating from you? Are they things you feel that you should be doing more than what you want to be doing?

No matter how logical and level-headed you think that you are, you need your emotions on board with this. When you read your goals, do you get an emotional response? Do they touch something deep inside you? Do you resonate with achieving these outcomes?

If time and money were no obstacle, would you still want to achieve them? What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?

Have something to look forward to

Happiness research have shown that one of the things that makes us happy is looking forward to something. People are more happy planning and looking forward to their vacation than actually having the vacation itself or remembering it afterwards. It’s the positive expectancy that gives us happy feelings.

I think this is why some people can get stuck forever after setting the goals and not spring into action. Because it’s fun to create and have goals. It’s fun to imagine yourself in all kinds of great scenarios. In your head, you can achieve anything you like.

As soon as you start working on that goal, you have to deal with reality and the probability that it could fail. When we attach happiness to goal completion, we might want to stay in the goal formation phase forever because we will never risk failure.

That’s where making the goal something that inspires you can help. If it’s something you really really want to see happen, it’s much easier to get working towards it. You won’t need to beat yourself up in order to work on it because the motivation is baked in with the goal.

A key here is to dis-attach from the completion of goals as a metric for success and to look for happiness in the doing.

INSPIRING you to take action

A great goal should feel inspiring to you: you want to make it happen. You need to have an emotional component involved, because this is in the end what motivation is all about.

The OKR framework touches on this since it encourages you to stretch a bit beyond yourself. For many, just the fact that it’s not a sure win makes it exciting and inspiring in the first place. It speaks to the competitive nature in them. “Can I reach this? Is this possible?”

What the OKR framework does right is that it is not expecting fulfilment on all key metrics and outcomes. Therefore you have to be dis-attached to goal completion as a success metric. If you set goals you are guaranteed to achieve, you are playing it safe and definitely running short of your potential.

We are looking for an optimal challenge point here. The optimal place to enter a state of flow is where you are challenged enough so you aren’t bored, but the challenge is within your reach so it won’t be a source of stress and anxiety.

But inspiration comes both from a challenge level and a contribution level. For many people, inspiration comes from what kind of impact you have on others and on the world at large.

What kind of contribution do you want to make? What legacy do you want to leave behind you? What changes would you like to see in the world?

In that sense, an Anchored goal is in line with your inner aspirations and an Inspiring goal is in line with your outer aspirations.

Should you skip goals and focus on the process instead?

There’s a whole movement advocating process over goals. To skip setting goals altogether and instead focus on your path – your habits and processes – since that is what achieves those desired outcomes to begin with.

I understand this sentiment. I think one reason for its existence is how the goal setting process itself can distract and derail you from the true things you want to achieve. People experience all the ways goal setting can go wrong and conclude that it’s the practice of setting goals that is flawed instead of their execution of it.

It’s probably also related whether you prefer a plodding or a bursting mode of getting things done. Goals would motivate a bursting person more and process would motivate a plodding person more.

As a person who works best in bursts, focusing only on the process would feel very boring to me. I need my targets, I want my aims and aspirations. I want to feel that I finish something before taking on the next challenge.

At the end of the day, the feeling we’re after is the feeling of knowing that you are moving forward in a desired direction. We want to feel that what we do have a purpose and meaning, and that our actions matter.

Setting your inner compass

For anything to be able to be anchored, you have to have a sense of yourself and where you want to go in the first place. That kind of deep introspection is not the subject of this article. I do think it’s a pre-requisite for really strong and connected goals though. Having a vision for yourself is more important than a list of goals.

But you’ll often hear me quote the saying that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.

You goals and desired outcomes are (or has to be) fluid. You need to allow for adjusting and changing your goals based on the shifts you experience in reality. I.e shit happens. Life happens. That’s why I have a more agile approach to goal setting.

We never know what will happen tomorrow, or next month. Planning and goal setting is only useful to the extent they inform the actions you are going to take right now.

By making your goals align with your inner and outer aspirations – making them Anchored and Inspired – you can rest assured that working on your goals move you in a direction that is right for you. Suddenly it becomes easier to take action. And, dare I say it, more fun.

We gotta have fun too. Don’t make a list of goals that are all duty, drudgery and boredom. Don’t make a list that leaves you empty when you’ve checked it off.

It’s time to upgrade from SMART goal setting to AI.

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