Looking Both Ways Before Crossing the Street: Backward and Forward

Even though it’s the single most cliche thing to write about during this time of year, I’ve come across a few things in the past few days that prompted me to put finger to keyboard to talk with you about goal-setting.

Two of the pieces below were written by some of the smartest, beautiful minds I know. The third is lengthier but just as valuable. In aggregate, they encapsulate and expand upon a number of powerful lessons I’ve learned within the past few months.

I have linked each below and done my best to summarize them concisely, but you should read them on your own. Some of my own comments are interspersed within, and I’ve also included links to other materials that I believe are both relevant and impactful in understanding and, more importantly, applying these concepts.

The Ultimate Guide to Goal Setting, David Perez Hernandez
This is a practical, realistic framework that anyone can and everyone should use. David outlines four steps:

  • Define your four-month vision
    • Here he mentions the SMART framework for goal-setting
    • Although his delineation of the year into three four-month periods is in itself an exercise in evaluating and revising your goals, I recommend that you explicitly follow the SMARTER framework from the start, actively incorporating the ‘E’ and ‘R’
  • Set weekly objectives and tasks
    • Make your goals more manageable and less overwhelming by outlining the individual elements that will allow you to execute on a macro level
  • Define when you will accomplish them
    • Give yourself deadlines; they can be flexible, but you need to hold yourself accountable
  • Create a vision board
    • Generate the motivation to want to act; give yourself the visual stimulus to propel you toward reshaping your reality

A Guide to Evaluate Your Priorities and Set Goals, Sam Smith
I’m guessing this is a personal framework that doesn’t explicitly follow any academic or management theory.

  • Review your life for what you want to maintain and improve
    • I got excited when I saw the first half of that; far too little attention is paid to what you want to maintain
    • Too often we slip in areas that used to be strong competencies because we dedicate so much attention to our developmental areas
    • It is critically important to continue flexing the abilities and behaviors that have contributed to our success already; just as you can improve your score on a test like the GMAT most easily by focusing on absolutely mastering something you already know very well rather than tackling an entirely unfamiliar topic, you can enjoy great reward from studying what you already do well and figuring out how to do it even better
  • Confirm the ‘pillars’ that will be the central themes in your goal-setting exercise
  • Map the specific actions under each pillar you want to improve on
  • Prioritize by tiers: ‘overall’ (macro desires), ‘second-tier’ (general initiatives), and ‘third-tier’ (micro behaviors)
  • Review frequently, adapt proactively, and track your progress

Mirrors and Binoculars: Reviewing 2013 and Preparing for 2014, Zach Obront
Go read this in its entirety, it’s that simple. It was remarkably refreshing to see how introspective this forces you to be. Zach notes candidly that the examples he voiced weren’t his most valuable, merely his most shareable. The vulnerability this exercise forces on you is its greatest value. He notes six distinct steps:

  • Reflection
    • Where was I in line with this goal?
    • Where was I out of line with this goal?
    • Where have my desires changed?
  • Highs and Lows
    • This is an exercise I was first introduced to in my freshman year at NYU within the circle of young men in the Gentlemen of Quality, an organization that perennially includes a significant number of the University’s ‘Most Influential Students’, Martin Luther King Jr. Scholars, and various student diversity clubs’ executive officers
  • Extract lessons
    • See the patterns; be thoughtful and connect the dots
      • What are the trends in the highs and the lows?
      • What kinds of behavior tend to bring you happiness?
      • Which tend to bring you pain?
  • Set your priorities
    • Based on patterns identified, choose what matters most to you and address it
    • Be good with your goals: process-based goals get you farther than outcome-based goals
  • Summarize
  • Share your thoughts
    • He links to a study two decades old that talks about how we’re more likely to achieve our goals when we publicly make ourselves accountable
    • However, it’s worth noting how divided the research on this is:
      • Derek Sivers has a very popular TED Talk where he presents research dating as far back as the Roaring Twenties that shows why people who share their ambitions with others may be less likely to reach them
      • Jeff Haden, an Inc. Magazine columnist, has a piece citing this research by NYU psychologists on the intention-behavior gap
      • One of the favorite things I ever learned was how our brain essentially processes our own vocalization of our goals and ambitions as their actualization; in short, when we say something out loud we immediately feel it is more real, more credible, and wind up working less aggressively to reach it than if we’d never voiced it at all

The beauty of these pieces is how much they have in common. David and Zach’s both speak so importantly about vision. Sam and David’s both highlight how goals should never be restricted to one timeframe, but rather evaluated and revised regularly. Zach and Sam’s both stress the importance of identifying pillars or priorities after introspection. In aggregate, they offer applicable, actionable, and accessible guidance in goal-setting. Go shopping; pick whichever pieces of their strategy resonate most strongly with you, then do them.

As you prepare to cross into the New Year and, like a child carefully crossing a street by himself, glance over each shoulder looking backward, forward, and backward again, I hope you enjoy these articles as much as I have. I encourage you to take the time to rethink your goals. If it isn’t already, hopefully it will grow to become something you do more than once at the end of each year.

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