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In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Dick Grote cautioned his readers to avoid three popular goal-setting strategies. The three strategies were: a) “SMART” goals, b) cascading goals (or tying goals to those of supervisors), and c) using percentage weighting to rank goals. I agree with Grote, generally speaking, and his article is worth reading because it focuses us on setting goals that are worth achieving. Who cares if we achieve a goal that is unwise or unremarkable?  The next step is figuring out how to better position ourselves to achieve these “high goals—tough, demanding, stretching.”

To actually achieve your goals, I recommend that you think about using habits or projects before you actually finalize your goal. Additionally, I still believe that if we want to achieve our goals, we have to be able to measure success. Try developing a plan to reach these goals by choosing one of two very different paths, depending on the type of goal. For maintenance goals, use habits. For more transformative goals, set up a project.

Use habits to reach a goal that is more maintenance oriented.

Everyone who has ever been to a gym knows that they fill up in early January, but by the end of February the crowds are gone. How many of us rang in the new year vowing to lose a few pounds? In Grote’s article, he discusses the concern that goals may be ‘SMART’ but that doesn’t make them wise. Losing twenty pounds would be a ‘SMART’ goal, and it may be wise for some, but isn’t the bigger and better goal to maintain a healthy lifestyle?

In much of the writing on habits, authors frequently focus on daily habits – but it’s possible to have weekly or even monthly habits. If your habit is to go to the gym between 3 pm and 5 pm every Monday through Friday, it eliminates any thought process about what to do at those times. That’s the advantage that habits provide – they reduce the need to think about our days. It also provides consistency.

If your goal is to be a better writer, perhaps you set up the habit of writing every weekday from 9 – 11 am. If you run a trucking company and your goal is to have lower truck maintenance costs, perhaps your habits include weekly or monthly fleet inspections. Or, if you run a start-up and your goal is to bring clarity to the team’s work efforts, maybe you initiate the habit of weekly 1:1 conversations with everyone on your team.

So, how can we improve our habit formation? Here are four ideas. Take whatever works for you. We are all different.

  1. Stack your habits.
    Habit stacking is the notion of stacking a bunch of little things together, so when you remember the first item, the rest of the habits just fall into place. One of my goals for 2017 was to do a better job of digital cleanups. As much as I try to achieve inbox zero, I am forever looking at a full Evernote inbox or a cluttered computer desktop. So, my new habit for 2017 is to have a weekly digital cleanup, which includes my email inbox (all accounts), Evernote inbox, desktop, and a weekly file backup.
  2. Schedule your habit times.
    If it’s not on my calendar, it may not happen. So, the first thing I’ve done is put my digital cleanup on my calendar, for Friday afternoons. I understand that Jason Fried, of Basecamp fame, likes to keep a very minimal calendar, so he can seize opportunities that might present themselves. He values the freedom, calmness and clarity. I like to keep a reasonable calendar so I can protect my commitments. And, I’ve made a commitment with myself to create content, stay healthy, take care of the finances, and keep my laptop maintained. It is, after all, one of the important tools of my work.
  3. Use cool names for your habits.
    We all know that hip branding works. So, to the extent that I can find a fun name for a set of habits, and block out time on the calendar so that some cool name pops up on my laptop and phone, I’ll try it. How does “Digital Declutter” or “Financial Finagling” work? (They probably won’t get me hired at an advertising agency.)
  4. Enlist support.
    Sometimes, it makes sense to enlist support. I have purposely set up these appointments at times when I’m going to be doing something fun afterwards. So, I have made it known to my hubby that we won’t be starting the fun times until I have finished my habit stack.

For maintenance goals, it is less important to worry about measuring success because you can do that through how consistently you stuck with the habit.

Use projects to reach goals that are more transformative.

For goals that are larger and involve a lot of change, I set up a project. For example, if you are relocating your offices, developing a totally new product item, implementing a new payment processing system, or creating a new branding strategy, you might want a project. This is where it remains important to think about how you will measure success.

Suppose you are relocating your offices. Will you have achieved success if you open your new office by a certain date, regardless of any downtime to the organization? Or is downtime a critical factor? How much leeway is there in the moving date? Will a one week miss require a huge penalty to the current building owner? Is significant unpacking and setting up to be required by employees, and will that be part of how you measure success?

Take, as another example, a new branding strategy project. Branding success is often not measured overnight and yet, if you are measuring the success of the project, you may not want to wait two years to evaluate how successful the new strategy was. At what point will you measure success? Are there other factors? Perhaps you measure success by whether the branding materials are ready to go, and within budget by a certain date? That won’t tell you whether the strategy was successful but it may be a better indicator of project success. These are great topics for conversation.

Need help trying to learn how to use habits and projects to achieve your goals? Schedule a free consult.