Setting Goals for Personal and Professional Growth, written by Allison McWilliams for the Huffington Post, January 9, 2017

It’s a new year, that annual time of reflection, introspection, and setting of intentions for the next twelve months. This year I’m going to lose weight and get in shape! This year I’m going to read a book a week! This year I’m going to finally quit this crappy job and do what I love! And then what happens? It’s suddenly December again and we’ve gained five pounds, have barely kept up with email, and still slog our way to the job we hate, day after day. We all know how this goes. Next year, I’ll do better. Next year, I’m really going to get it together. Next year I’m going to live my best life! (cue Oprah voice)

Why do so many of these annual resolutions fail? As this piece in Psychology Today notes, there are two main culprits and they both relate to unrealistic expectations. On the one hand, we have unrealistic expectations of what we can and will achieve. We set a goal that we will read a book a week when we haven’t made it through more than three in the entire previous year. The goal becomes overwhelming and soul-crushing and then we just give up on it entirely. On the other hand, we have unrealistic expectations of what this goal is going to do for us and our lives. When I lose these twenty pounds I’ll be happier and have a more robust social life. But then we realize that dieting makes us super-grouchy and getting up to go to the gym in the morning means less of a social life, not more of one. We get discouraged and we go back to binging on chocolate and late-night socializing over wine.

Of course, New Year’s is not the only time that we set goals. At work, you may have to set quarterly goals for what you plan to accomplish. Ideally these individual goals tie into larger team or organizational goals, and help you to know that you are making progress on the right things in the right ways. And, while you may not be part of a larger team in your personal life, these goals are no different: it’s a way of determining that you are making progress on the right things in the right ways. So why do close to 80 percent of all New Year’s resolutions fail? Can you imagine what would happen if you failed to meet expectations 80 percent of the time at work?

How, then, do we set goals for our personal and professional lives and then actually follow through in accomplishing them with a better-than-twenty-percent success rate? Below are a few easy steps that you can take in 2017 to make sure that next December you are celebrating all that you have accomplished.

Start small, stay small. Don’t set yourself up for failure. Be honest with yourself about what you both will and can accomplish. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stretch yourself. But think about that book-per-week example, above. If you only managed to read three books in all of 2016, maybe the goal in 2017 is to read five. Total. Also, this isn’t the time to fill the kitchen sink. Pick no more than two or three goals to work on. What are the two or three most important accomplishments you would like to celebrate?

Focus on the short-term. One of the problems with New Year’s resolutions is that it’s a once-per-year process. This is like the annual performance review at work: if you’re only getting feedback and setting goals once per year, then you should prepare to be disappointed in what you learn about yourself. Set no more than three or six month goals. When you hit that mark, reassess and either reset the goals or create new ones. What will you accomplish on these goals in the next three or six months?

Write out your goal statements and action steps. This isn’t something to keep in your head. Write down your goal statements, ideally using the SMART goal model:

  • Specific – the goal statement should be concrete and start with an action verb.
  • Measurable – how will you know when you have achieved it?
  • Achievable – the goal should require work, but be attainable.
  • Realistic – do you have the ability, commitment, and resources to reach the goal?
  • Timely – when, specifically, will you achieve the goal?

Then, for each goal statement, write no more than three or four action steps, using the same SMART model. These should be written in calendar order so that they become a checklist: first I will do this, second I will do this, third I will do this, and then I will accomplish my goal. What specific steps do you need to take over the next three to six months to accomplish your goal?

Find an accountability partner. Effective mentoring conversations are goal-driven conversations. They are based on social psychologist David Kolb’s experiential learning model: first, the mentee identifies a challenge, a problem, or a decision to be addressed; second, working with the mentor, the mentee sets some concrete goals to pursue; third, she takes action towards accomplishing her goals; and fourth, and most importantly, she reflects on the lessons learned and how to apply those lessons in the future. The mentor’s role in this process is not to tell the mentee what her goal should be, or how to pursue it. Rather, the mentor is there to offer wise counsel and feedback, to challenge the mentee on her assumptions, and to be an accountability partner to ensure that the mentee is doing the things she said she would be. Who will be your accountability partner?

Celebrate success along the way. Don’t wait until next New Year’s to look back and see what you’ve done (or not done). Take time along the way to celebrate your accomplishments. Build in small rewards for getting there. How will you congratulate yourself on a job well done?