Learning To Set Goals

Setting a goal sounds like such a simple thing to do. Reaching a goal was something more involved. Until I started my current job I had no idea what goal-setting really was. When a recruiter in an interview or HR person or a boss asked me a question like, “Where do you want to be in 3 years?” I had no idea what to say. I looked at my feet, or at the ceiling, or coughed, or choked nervously and said something like, “To be gainfully employed?” It’s what my history had conditioned me to say. I lost many jobs over 20 years due to layoffs. Setting goals, or planning for the future, wasn’t something I had learned. Much of my career has been focused on adapting to situations; surviving rather than thriving.

What I’ve only recently learned was that even though the future is uncertain I had to have a goal to help create stability for myself. I learned this from a particular boss at the company where I currently work. He taught me to break down daily information and track it over time. Most importantly, make it simple. Just get started tracking the information you need to have a big-picture view of the situation. If it happens to be numbers, put it in a spreadsheet and after a month or two, you’ll have a baseline and you can plan for progress or improvement. Most importantly, make sure you do it every day.

What I learned from reading books on productivity, procrastination, and organization was how to put structure my day to make sure I remembered each task that had to be completed. I started working with Excel, then moved to Evernote, and over time I evolved toward Microsoft OneNote. I just like the way OneNote organizes things. It’s almost three-dimensional in its structure. I also like the keyboard shortcuts in OneNote because time-saving with keyboard shortcuts is what I cut my tech teeth on. Most of my career has been built on a daily routine which involved doing the same set of processes every day. Evernote was good at that, but OneNote takes it further thanks to better keyboard shortcuts.

As an example I might want a checkbox for something that needs to be done that day in a list of items. In Evernote I would type a “[” and “]” and “space” and it would make a checkbox. In OneNote I can type CTRL + 1 and it adds a checkbox at the left margin regardless of where the cursor is. It’s a small difference, but when you do this 25 times a day (or more) it adds up to real time savings each day.

Getting back to the big picture, setting goals didn’t come naturally or easily to me. Once I admitted to myself that it was a skill that needed to be developed, I took a large step forward. There are no secrets here, no arcane knowledge, no innate ability that you have to be born with. Just write down what you want to achieve and when you want to achieve it. It’s important to put a date on it to make it more urgent. Next, write down the steps you know that will get you there (along with a date) and put a checkbox in front of each one. More steps may need to be added as you start working through them, but you can do that later. Just get your initial plan on paper to get started (or in an app if you prefer that to paper).

I have a list of projects that I work on every day and I use this technique to track steps for each one. I have a monthly calendar that is broken down by week and day. At the top I write down what goals I want to accomplish for that month. For each week (written between Saturday and Sunday) I write my weekly goals. For each day of that week I write down what I want to get done that day. I often have to move things from one day to another, and that’s fine because unexpected requests or issues can arise to derail any single day. Be adaptable. Evolve with the situation.

In regards to long-term goal-setting, the approach I’ve settled on is to have a 90 day goal, a one year goal, and a three year goal. I review each of these goals every 30 days or so to make sure I’m on track. If not, I follow the words of Confucius, “When it’s obvious the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.”

I’m a late starter in the goal-setting department, but I also like what Tolstoy wrote about goals, “Have a goal for your whole life, a goal for one section of your life, a goal for a shorter period and a goal for the year; a goal for every month, a goal for every week, a goal for every day, a goal for every hour and for every minute, and sacrifice the lesser goal to the greater.”

I haven’t attained Tolstoy’s level of commitment to goal-setting yet, but after a couple of years of setting and tracking my goals I’ve seen the power of writing them down and tracking them daily. I have evolved into a much better employee, and a more focused individual.

One last critical thing I had to learn is that I had to make this happen for myself. No one else was going to make sure I achieved my goals. This is why I used to feel like I had been overlooked so often. I worked hard, but could never articulate very well what I had accomplished or what I had worked on even the day before. That’s all different with my current approach to goal-setting. I can show someone exactly what I’ve been doing, and it has the added benefit at the end of the year of getting me a nice bonus. And that makes my wife happy. 😉

Learning To Set Goals