How to set goals that you will actually achieve

Love them or loathe them, you can’t avoid the topic of goal setting when you start a business. In theory they are a great idea. Goals give you something to aim for and get you focused. Goals can keep you on track. This is useful for people who are “shiny object faffers” and who struggle with distraction and procrastination. Having goals is like having a roadmap. You can see where you are, where you want to go and then you can start to figure out how to get there.

When goals become obstacles

What happens when goals become obstacles? What do we do when instead of facilitating action and progress they become towering walls that seem impossible to scale? When it’s too scary to actually set one for fear of not being able to achieve it?

This comes up a lot with my clients. When they were in jobs, goals were easy. They were given strategic objectives and ticked them off like they were going out of fashion. Performance reviews every 3 to 6 months were enough of a motivator to propel forward motion. But in their own business, it is harder.

Deciding what your goals should be

When you’re doing everything for the first time, how are you supposed to know what a reasonable goal is? Are you supposed to have big, dreamy, mega goals? (An accountant of all people once said to me “if a goal doesn’t make your bum twitch a bit, it isn’t big enough”). Or should you have  realistic ones that you can create a plan to tick off?

I’ve worked with clients who get really energised by having bum twitchy goals, and clients who freak out and hate the pressure that goals put on them. They start to go into reverse because the idea of not meeting a goal might make them feel they have failed. They feel safer by not setting goals in the first place. It means they get to avoid those uncomfortable and unpleasant feelings of failure.  We all have our coping mechanisms.

Can you have a middle ground? Is it possible to have something to aim for that comes with a cushion? Yes, it is. The secret is to switch your thinking around goals so they are less about the end point and more about the direction of travel. The purpose of goals is progress. You might not know every step you need to take right now, but all progress is positive.

Making goals manageable

If a goal becomes a destination that you’d like to get to someday rather than something that defines whether you are a success or failure the angst and the pressure attached to it melts away. You create the path towards your goal and break down into as many steps or stages as feels manageable.

Layered goals

I also love the concept of layered goals, as explained by Ben Hunt-Davis & Harriet Beveridge in “Will it make the boat go faster?” Hunt- Davis and Beveridge describe goals as 4 distinct, but interconnected layers.  If you were aiming to run a marathon, you might set a target for being able to run a 5k first then build up a 10k and then a half marathon. This is what we are trying to achieve with layered goals.  We aren’t going to sign up for a marathon on Monday and rock up to the start line on Tuesday.  That would be enough to make anyone’s bum twitch.

The Four Layers

1. The Crazy Goal

This is something that is bold and exciting.  It has significant emotional meaning attached to it. This goal doesn’t have to be huge, but it can be! It could be the kind of thing that you daydream about but don’t necessarily think is all that possible. Maybe it’s the thing you don’t tell anyone else in case they think you’re off your rocker for wanting it or thinking it might be possible. 

This layer is the “why” of your goal. Your motive. Your reason to take action. 

I use a guided visualisation with clients that helps them explore this kind of goal, and the results are often things they didn’t even realise they hankered after!

2. The Concrete Goal

These goals are the outward signs that show you or the world that you’ve achieved your crazy goal or a milestone along the way. If your crazy goal is the business of your dreams then your concrete goal might be making a set profit or a defined number of working hours that still leave time for a life. The important thing at this stage is realising that you don’t need to know how you are going to get to the crazy goal yet. Just knowing what the measures or milestones are.  

This layer is the “what” of your goal. The things you’ll be ticking off along the way.

3. The Controllable Stuff

This is about setting challenging but achievable targets that are within your control to achieve but which support the concrete goal. In business, it might be a sales target or growing an email list to a certain size.

This layer is the “what first” layer. You’re starting to sift out the priorities and choose what to focus on in what order.

4. The Everyday Stuff

This is all about building goals around habits and processes that make it possible to achieve the controllable goals. If you want to grow an email list then you might need to have a lead magnet and promote it with a consistent approach on social media. Having smooth invoicing procedures will support your income goals.  This is about the supporting mechanisms that will contribute to the larger goals.  

The last layer is the “how” layer. The sometimes boring but oh so necessary detail that you commit to. 

If you did decide to run a marathon, your motive might be doing it to support a charity close to your heart or just for the feeling of ticking it off your bucket list. Either way I’d salute you because there is no ‘why’ in the world big enough to make me want to do it. 

Your concrete goal might just be to get across the finishing line, or to achieve a certain time. You might be that crazy. 

Then you’d probably create a training plan to take care of the controllable stuff and the everyday stuff. You’d increase distance gradually over time. Take care of your nutrition. Make sure you had the right clothing. Try out how to stay hydrated on longer runs.

Get clear on each level and ensure they all link together. However without something exciting or meaningful as an end goal the daily stuff is going to be harder to stick to. Likewise without the detail and specifics of each stage along the way the crazy goal will remain just that.

You don’t need to have all the details of every step when you start out. You can’t guarantee you’ll hit your goals. But you can guarantee if you don’t take action you definitely won’t….

Need help with goal setting or with the all important staying on track? You can always book a call to find out how working with me can get you ticking them off faster….


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