Date posted: 11/03/2020 10 min read

The goal difference

Have your New Year’s resolutions already faded? We ask behaviour experts and CAs to share their tips on how to stay focused on goals.

In Brief

  • Just one in 12 people manage to keep the promises they made toasting in the New Year.
  • Goals that are intrinsically motivating result in more substantial and lasting changes in behaviour.
  • Goals are an ambition for improvement, but it’s important to recognise that setbacks are common.

By Fiona Smith

Back from your summer break, you slide into the usual groove. You begin the work year with the best of intentions, but too soon the only reminder of your New Year’s resolutions is the stray champagne cork found wedged between the cushions of your couch…

Don’t be surprised if this sounds like you. Experts say just one in 12 people manage to keep the promises they made toasting in the New Year.

There is a world of difference between wanting things to happen, and making them so. “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,” goes the Scottish proverb.

Executive coach and chair of the Stephenson Mansell Group, Virginia Mansell, says the summer break is a hiatus where people can take time to pause and reflect.

“It is a really cleansing thing to do,” she says. “Through that reflection, they can decide what is working well in their life and what they want to change. It is like taking an overview of your life from a health, mental, social, wellbeing, spiritual point of view.”

The value of individual goals

At work, you can get on the front foot with goal setting, presenting your manager with a well-thought-out strategy, rather than waiting to have your goals dictated to you, says Mansell.

“If you are proactive, most leaders and managers are going to welcome that.”

Whether you are making plans for your personal life or work, you will need a system to help you prioritise and stay focused.

Globally, 83% of companies ask managers and employees to set individual goals for their work. However, these individual goals may not align with a company’s broader objectives, according to research by human resources consultancy Mercer.

“Without linkage of employee goals to broader business unit goals or company priorities, it is unlikely that individuals will understand how they can contribute to the company…,” it warns in its 2019 Global Performance Management Survey.

At work, your individual goals should be linked to company strategy through a performance management system, which often includes non-work personal targets as well.

Are SMART goals always smart?

A popular framework, used for personal and professional goal-setting, carries the acronym SMART. It encourages goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-Bound.

Many people learn about SMART in high school or university and it is often used as a guideline at work, but the framework also has its critics, who say it sets the bar too low.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, management consultant Dick Grote says: “No-one is going to set goals that don’t seem attainable or realistic, but a manager’s weakest subordinates may glom on to the A [achievable] and the R [realistic] in the acronym as their justification for setting goals at the shooting-fish-in-a-barrel level of challenge.”

The formula also provides no help in deciding whether the goal is a good idea. “In other words, a goal can easily be SMART without being wise,” says Grote. (See “5 goal-setting must-knows”.)

Dr Bernice Plant, a research fellow at Monash University’s BehaviourWorks Australia (part of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute), says she doesn’t have a problem with SMART goals, which align with her research about what works.

“From a behaviour-change perspective, we would lean towards making goals specific and measurable and timely,” she says, adding they should also be achievable and realistic so they are not self-defeating.

“You want to keep your confidence in your ability to achieve your goal high. If you think you won’t achieve it, then you probably need to revise your goal.”

Find the right motivation

Goals that are intrinsically motivating have been shown to result in more substantial and long-lasting changes in behaviour, according to Plant. Your actions are naturally satisfying if they stem from intrinsic motivations, rather than being driven by external rewards, such as social status or money.

“These are things that align with your personal interests, values or needs, rather than by how other people are going to perceive you, or what is expected of you by others,” she explains.

Finding intrinsic motivations for personal goals is reasonably straightforward: You may hate the gym, but find you can more easily stick to a weekly bushwalk because it is an activity you enjoy – making the exercise part almost incidental.

Finding motivation for mundane tasks can be more challenging, but linking them to a personal value or something that’s important to you, can help.

You may hate having to visit a particularly difficult client, for example, but can look at it as an opportunity to get out of the office, stretch your legs and work towards your 10,000-steps-per-day goal

Don’t overwhelm yourself

Dr Bernice PlantPicture: Dr Bernice Plant. Image credit: BehaviourWorks Australia.

Changing habits is hard. It’s not enough to decide to transform the way you go about life – be less stressed at work or get more exercise – and just expect it to happen.

“Behaviour change is going to take a lot of practice over time,” says Plant.

“Behaviour change is going to take a lot of practice over time.”
Bernice Plant, BehaviourWorks Australia

“There’s a common myth that it takes something like 21 days to establish a new habit. Some research suggests that, actually, the average time is more like 66 days. It’s an ongoing process.”

Mansell also warns against overwhelming yourself with goals. When people already have a lot going on in their lives, sometimes “less is more”, she says.

And just as at work your performance management system should create opportunities to review your progress and seek feedback, personal goals need that same kind of follow-up, which can be attained by sharing them with others.

What if you fail?

Of course, many goals in life are not achieved and the reasons for that do not necessarily include failure. When things change and a goal is no longer working – or you have not managed to achieve it – you can reset.

The whole point about goals is that they are an ambition for improvement, but it’s important to recognise that setbacks are common. Plant says it is reasonable to reframe a missed goal as an opportunity to grow.

“Think about what you have learned, instead of being hard on yourself about setbacks,” she says. “Think about what you could do differently and revise your  ‘if-then’ plan (explained below) or your goal to address obstacles.”

5 goal-setting must-knows (from 35 years of research)

A study by US academics Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, published in American Psychologist in September 2002, summarised 35 years of goal-setting research. It found that:

1. Setting specific, difficult goals consistently leads to higher performance than just urging people to do their best.

2. High goals generate greater effort than low goals, and the highest or most difficult goals produce the greatest levels of effort and performance.

3. Tight deadlines lead to a more rapid work pace than loose deadlines.

4. Making a public commitment to a goal enhances personal commitment.

5. Whether the goal is set by mutual agreement or by the boss alone doesn’t make a big difference in goal achievement.

Words to inspire 

Sherrilyn Lal CA, senior financial auditor, Audit Office of New South Wales

Sherrilyn Lal CA uses motivational quotes to remind her of her goals. A Sticky Notes function on her computer declares: “Many people fail in life, not for the lack of ability or brains or even courage, but simply because they’ve never organised their energies around a goal.”

This quote, by US philosopher Elbert Hubbard, appears each time Lal opens her laptop.

Another quote is by 1950s US radio personality Earl Nightingale: “People with goals succeed because they know where they are going.” 

Goal setting is clearly important to Lal, who works full-time while completing a law degree. The performance management system at the Audit Office where she works is used for both professional goals (which are worked out with a manager) and personal ambitions. Midyear reviews offer the opportunity to make adjustments and the system helps identify areas for training and growth.

“Without goals, it’s like you’re a ship sailing without a destination,” says Lal.

Lal’s goal tips

Go back: Review and re-read your goals to embed them in your memory.

Remind: Write them into the Notes function of your mobile phone so you will see them each time you go to Notes.

Share: Lal shares her goals with her friends to keep her on track.

Calendar girl

Nancy Lu CA, general manager, New Zealand Fine FoodsPicture: Nancy Lu CA.

Nancy Lu CA, general manager, New Zealand Fine Foods

While some people use apps on their watch or phone to keep track of their goals, old-fashioned wall calendars do the trick for Nancy Lu CA, general manager of New Zealand Fine Foods.

Auckland-based Lu has one calendar at home for personal goals and another in the office to keep an eye on what she wants to achieve at work.

“Having something visual is very important,” she explains.

Lu also uses A4-size paper diaries. “I write a lot, surprisingly, in this modern age,” she says.

“Reflecting on the diaries, I feel like I have achieved something and I feel that is very important in setting goals.

“Writing things down clears my mind and helps me set my goals and decide what’s next and how I am going to take the next step.

“It is a very strong tool to change my behaviour and my mental pressure.”

“Writing things down clears my mind and helps me set my goals and decide what’s next…”
Nancy Lu CA

Lu’s calendar tips

Keep a timeline: For important projects, Lu writes a countdown to deadline day. This way she knows when she is 50% through a project or three-quarters through.

Use notations: When Lu has completed a task, she doodles on her calendar. For example, when she has achieved one of her weekly 15-minute catch-up meetings with a team member, she draws a figure. At home, she draws a book on the days she has managed to do some reading.

Your roadmap to behaviour change

Dr Bernice Plant, research fellow at Monash University’s BehaviourWorks Australia, says changing a habit or achieving a goal is an ongoing process. Using these techniques may help.

Begin easy: Start with a goal that is not too challenging. Once you have achieved it, you should feel more confident about your ability to change your behaviour. A technique known as “shaping”, where you work your way up to more challenging targets over time, can help. Success will increase your motivation to start the next, more difficult thing. You may use rewards as you meet each challenge.

The “if-then” plan: This technique makes it easy to do the “right thing” by committing to specific actions in certain situations. For instance, if your goal is to be less stressed, then your “if-then” plan may be: “If I am at home, then I will not check my work emails” or “If I am leaving work, then I will turn off my work email notifications”.

Substitute: You can strengthen alternative behaviours to replace the things you’d rather not be doing. If, for instance, you’re a habitual late-night snacker, fill your fridge and pantry with healthy snacks. “You want to make a desirable behaviour as easy to achieve as possible,” says Plant.

Clear the path: Remove potential blocks by, for instance, ensuring your gym gear is not hidden away under the stairs, but is always clean, in view and easily accessible.

Sabotage undesirable behaviours: Set up your environment so it becomes difficult or impossible to do the “wrong” thing. This may mean taking limited amounts of cash with you when shopping to restrict your spending, or setting complicated passwords for apps and sites you want to avoid.

The visualiser

Andrew Beattie CA, director, Newcastle, PKF

Andrew Beattie CA likes to have his goals within eyesight. He sometimes laminates them and puts them in his bathroom at home, where he sees them as he shaves.

“I put them somewhere where they are in my face all the time,” he says.

He also writes them in a journal, emails them to his mentor, and shares them with his wife.

He takes the same visual approach at work: “When we have a sales target, we get it on the wall with big butcher's paper. That reminder and constant looking at things really helps.”

“When we have a sales target, we get it on the wall with big butcher’s paper.”
Andrew Beattie CA

Beattie’s planning tips

Use tech: Use your smart watch to keep track of your physical fitness.

Plan: Beattie has two 15-minute meetings a week with his assistant to prioritise entries in his diary, starting with tasks and appointments that are “non-negotiable” and building in family events.

Prioritise: Beattie uses a “balance wheel” to ensure he is spreading his time adequately around work, family, fitness and community – as well as time for himself and couple time.

Read more:

From the CA Library

Living Forward: A proven plan to stop drifting and get the life you want by Michael Hyatt provides a step-by-step life-planning process to live more intentionally.

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