Setting Better Goals

In the last weeks of 2013, I compiled a list of new-year’s resolutions, comprising many trite clichés like “write more,” “lose weight,” and “contribute to open-source.” How did I do? Well, in 2014, I wrote a blog post, gained about eight pounds, and made five contributions totalling zero lines of code.

A post-mortem is clearly necessary: how did I fail so catastrophically?

All the goals were vague, nebulous, and ill-defined. Indeed, my resolutions usually are, and I imagine yours are too. They’re designed to create an imperative throughout the year, a framework by which to evaluate our day-to-day choices. They’re aspirational without reinforcement. They’re easy to ignore and postpone — after all, I’ve got all of 2014 to accomplish them — but cognitively burdensome, because it’s trivial to conclude I could have made more progress by now. And none can ever really be accomplished, because none of them have any sort of success condition. They were bad goals.

I’ve identified the flaws in last year’s goals, but can I apply these revelations to this year’s?

Over 2014’s holiday break, I spent some time compiling ideas for what a successful and rewarding 2015 would look like. Some illustrative examples:

1. Write more.
2. Improve my French.
3. Be a better coworker.
4. Learn to drive.
5. Lose weight.
6. Read more.
7. Moonlight as a vagabond.

No doubt this list bears some worrying resemblance to 2014’s list of resolutions; Einstein’d think I was insane if I left it unadjusted.

Thankfully, the SMART criteria exist to help me. Indeed, the SMART mnemonic throws sharp contrast on the faultiness of the goals I’ve set.

I’m all for brevity being the soul of wit, but “write more” is hardly pithy, or useful. Indeed, I write plenty: conservatively, north of 50K lines of code last year. By that metric, I’m already writing plenty — in fact, maybe I should write less. Of course, what I intend is to exercise my lexical muscles. Adding specificity eliminates a lot of the ambiguity, allowing me to focus on achievement, rather on continually interpreting my motives. When I apply specificity to my list, my real goals come into sharper focus:

1. Write more Dynamo blog posts.
2. Improve my conversational, everyday French.
3. More support and knowledge-transfer to my colleagues.
4. Learn to drive a stick-shift automobile.
5. Reduce my body-fat percentage.
6. Read more berks.
7. Learn to hop trains and to interpret hobo signs.

Looking better, but I find my list is still worrisome. One of the most valuable parts of striving for objectives is the thrill of achievement. My body-fat percentage sits somewhere between 21 and 22%. How will I know when to feel thrilled at that number’s shrinkage (and my own)? I’m notoriously hard on myself: maybe I’ll never let myself enjoy my successes. Ensuring my goals are measurable protects me from this fate. A measurable goal includes a yardstick by which to gauge my progress. Measurability transforms my ambitions into proper goals, rather than vague aspirations.

1. Write fifty-two Dynamo blog posts.
2. Take six advanced-level conversational French courses.
3. Give one workshop a month, and prey on coworkers’ pull-requests like a hungry panther on a llama.
4. Pass my practical driver’s license exam using a stick-shift.
5. Reduce body-fat from 22% to 10%.
6. Read 50 books, half for pleasure, half for business.
7. Hop a dozen trains.

My list of goals is looking a lot better. I know exactly what I’m trying to do, and when I’ll have succeeded. I’ll also have to skip sleeping, and one-up Bryan by quitting client work entirely, of course, because my goals are lofty, and I don’t want to fall behind. When I fall behind, I only tend to fall further behind, due to stress about falling behind — sounds like a vicious cycle to be assiduously avoided.

I need to make my goals more achievable; I need to give myself a chance to succeed, or I likely won’t, especially with the manifold other claimants on my time. I need to give reality its place at the table, or I might as well light my list of goals on fire.

1. Write twelve Dynamo blog posts.
2. Take two conversational French courses, one elementary-level and one intermediate-level.
3. Lead three workshops or seminars.
4. Drive a stick-shift around my neighbourhood with an accompanying driver.
5. Reduce my body-fat percentage to 15%.
6. Read twelve books, alternating between for-pleasure and for-business.
7. Hop two trans-Canada trains.

This list is looking really solid. My goals are specific, measurable, and achievable. One of these goals, as any kindergartener could tell me, is not like the others. Goals should be fundamentally worthwhile and relevant. While the idea of illicitly riding the rails might appeal to some whimsical part of my psyche, the one that craves the simple pleasures of the open road, it doesn’t really fit within the framework of my personal or professional development. So, let’s just scratch #7 off the list. Maybe next year…

The final set of tweaks needed for my manifesto is to make them time-bound. Strictly, goals for 2015 are time-bound intrinsically to the year, but adding a timeframe to my multiplex targets acknowledges their nature as an aggregation of several identical goals. Put another way: I don’t really want to wait until December to start reading my twelve books — all of a sudden, that goal will cease to be achievable.

Applying all of these principles to my aspirations, I’ve created a strong and sound foundation for achievement.

1. Write one Dynamo blog post per month.
2. Take one elementary-level conversational French course in the winter/spring, and an intermediate-level one in the fall.
3. Lead three workshops or seminars, aiming for one every 3–4 months.
4. Drive a stick-shift around my neighbourhood with an accompanying driver by the summertime.
5. Reduce my body-fat percentage by 1% every six-weeks or so.
6. Read one book per month, alternating between for-pleasure and for-business.

Setting goals such as these isn’t the whole picture. For one thing, they don’t provide the “how,” only a clearer picture of “what.” Still, in contrast to aspirations like “write more,” this year’s targets are substantially more useful for motivating and tracking achievement, and provide useful starting points for more comprehensive planning. Finally, their utility extends beyond this year, as a foundation for next year’s ambitions.

What goals have you set for yourself this year? Are they smart goals? What can you do to make them smarter? Feel free to share your comments here or on Twitter.

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