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The power of goals

GoalsFor many of us, the turning of the calendar page to a new year unleashes lots of good intentions for making improvements in our lives. Whether these take the form of personal resolutions or formal business goals, the new year seems to invite a fresh look at our lives with renewed optimism about what we can achieve.

Yet too often that initial enthusiasm quickly fades as we hit obstacles and results don’t come as fast as we would like. Looking over some of the research on goal setting and human behavior while thinking about the experiences of my clients helped me come up with some guidelines about successful goal attainment.

First, just having clear goals can be a source of satisfaction as well as motivation. The very act of setting goals increases your likelihood of being satisfied with your life, as shown by a financial magazine study of Americans’ financial habits. Eighty-five percent of people who set financial goals reported being satisfied with their quality of life compared with 53 percent who did not set financial goals.

The key with goal setting is specificity, measurability and attainability. “Save more for retirement” is a vague goal, as is “eat better.” “Contribute a minimum of 15 percent of my discretionary income to my 401(k) plan” is specific, however, as is “limit red meat to one day a week”. Not only does specificity help you accomplish the goal, it gives you the ability to measure progress along the way.

As human beings, we are hard-wired for immediate gratification, with well-tuned sensory systems giving us immediate feedback about what feels good and bad. Putting a few bucks into a retirement account just doesn’t give us the same endorphin rush that a good latte does. Whether it’s your personal financial plan or goals for your business, breaking your long-term goals into measurable objectives along the way provides the guideposts you need to stay with a long term goal.

Next, you need to measure progress. The most successful business owners I know have clear performance metrics and systems in place to track and provide continual feedback about how their businesses are functioning. The same rule applies to personal habits. It’s well documented that exercise goals are more likely to be achieved when people record their workouts or simply put a check mark on a calendar each day they make it to the gym.

Peer reinforcement also helps. (Why do you think weight loss programs are turning to social media and the Nest thermostat produces a monthly report showing how much energy you are saving compared with others?) One of my clients found that a daily email to a small peer group significantly increased his frequency of working out.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, goals need to be really compelling to engage your best efforts, and they need to address the personal side of your life as well as your business. What is a meaningful goal for your business that also provides for personal growth? If you think ahead to the end of 2013 and imagine what will give you the greatest sense of accomplishment this year if you achieve it, you’ve got a good start for a compelling goal.

(Photo: the one question)