The Science Behind Setting Goals (and Achieving Them)

Goal setting is an important part of success in any venture. How can you achieve any marker unless you’re consciously directing your energies toward the final outcome? The logical answer is that you’re not going to succeed by sheer luck with no set course. That’s why concise business plans are so imperative to garnering funding, letting institutions know that your success depends on the intricacy of your forethought.

For years, business professionals and self-help gurus have lauded the Harvard and Yale Goal studies which, as it turns out, never happened. At this point, we can conclude that the fantastic results were an urban myth. But the reason they’ve perpetuated for so long is because their fundamental assertions are believable. We know, through concrete experience, that setting goals improves your rate of success. We also know that simply setting a goal isn’t enough.

“For all the good intentions, only a tiny fraction of us keep our resolutions,” explains Dan Diamond, Contributor for Forbes. “University of Scranton research suggest that just 8 percent of people achieve their New Year’s goals.”

Business goals aren’t much different than personal goals. Writing the goal but not following up shows minimal attainment, at best.

Is There A Magic Formula to Goal Setting?

As it turns out, there is. A study from the Dominican University of California concentrated on not only goal setting, but on the actual strategies for achieving goals. Best of all, this study actually happened, with measurable results. What the findings showcased was that the group of subjects who reaped the best results followed a specific model:

  • Commit to Action. Rather than simply writing down a goal, the group was asked to commit to an action. This included filling out a survey leading them through a thorough thought process on their goals and setting concrete action commitments. Essentially they were making a commitment, on paper, to achieve their goal.
  • Accountability to Peers. This group had to follow up their concrete goal planning and action commitment by enlisting another person. They needed to send their commitment to a peer, making them more accountable.
  • Regular Updates. This group had to update their friend or accountability person on a weekly basis, which kept them focused on their progress.

Dr. Gail Matthews, who ran the Dominican University of California study, stated “My study provides empirical evidence for the effectiveness of three coaching tools: accountability, commitment, and writing down one’s goals.”

Seeing the Trees and the Forest

Goal setting is important but the follow up is integral. If you wrote a cohesive business plan, it should act as a roadmap to the forward movement of your business. The same principle works for new goals. When you develop a new goal, you want to look at the whole picture. What does this change mean for the whole of your business? What progress are you hoping to see? And more importantly, how can you set markers to check your progress?

Small goals are far more attainable, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t set overall goals or think on a larger scale. Develop your goals so that the larger picture is present, but set smaller plateaus to reach them. Your success starts with the planning process. Be as descriptive and elaborate in your thoughts as possible and write everything down. You may have an audacious goal to increase your yearly revenue, but how do you get there? Start with the larger goal and work backwards so that each step toward that goal is mapped out.

“Whether the goal is a promotion at work, a streamlined work process, a new customer, a published article, an exercise program or weight loss, the goal must be your goal,” explains the Balance, a financial advice website. “You are unlikely to achieve your manager’s goal, your spouse’s goal, or the goal you think you ought to work on this year.”

As a side note, your business goals need to allow for evolution. Things inside and outside your control can change. This is one of the reasons it’s important to keep verifying where you are in meeting your goals. If you see that you’re falling short of the progress you anticipated, it might be that your focus or method isn’t working. That doesn’t mean you should give up on the overall goal. It’s an early indication that you should revisit your business plans and see where changes can be made to improve performance.

Set Your Goals in Stone

Not really in stone—you don’t need to get out a chisel or anything—putting it to paper is good enough. You know what’s better? A living document. One that you revisit often. Once you’ve sat down and mapped out where you want to be, it’s easier to determine the path. Think of it like going on a road trip. You can’t get from your location to your destination by saying the name of the town or writing it on paper. You have to take steps to get there like filling up the car with gas, gathering supplies, packing your necessities, and yes, getting directions. You might have detours on the road. But as long as you have a map, you should be able to make it to your destination.

Goal setting is a lot like this. It’s not esoteric or mystical. It’s a concrete way to attain growth, and every area of your business can benefit from reasoned planning. Even if you’re running a small business, you should have separate plans for each department.

  • Financial Plan. This should include all of your overhead, revenue, and your goals for growth.
  • Marketing Plan. This might be as simple as your social media marketing schedule or as advanced as large, multi-channel marketing campaigns, but you’re devoting time and man hours to marketing and there should be set markers in place to see your ROI.
  • Business Strategy. This might include new services your business will go into or increasing revenue or reach in your current service.

Share Your Goals and Revisit

Setting goals for your business isn’t enough, every team member needs to be on board with the direction. This might include building incentives for employees around goal attainment and employees should be included in the planning process. Ask for their input. Often your employees see needs and room for growth, and they’re a wealth of knowledge about the inner workings of how your company functions best.

You might decide to update the entire company on progress on a regular basis. This can be via staff meetings or weekly email. You can also post visual representations of your progress to keep everyone engaged. The key is in keeping your goals in focus on a regular basis so that you’re constantly taking steps to attain them.

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