Questions for Setting Powerful Goals

Questions for Setting Powerful Goals

It’s January: The season of goal setting, good intentions and grand resolutions. It’s a fresh start to a new year and an opportunity to re-envision the future we’d like to build for ourselves. January is the month of new gym memberships, new app downloads and new habit trackers.

It makes sense that many businesses run on a calendar year and use this annual cadence to set performance targets. Yet the convention of setting personal goals at the beginning of the year introduces a host of challenges for us humans.

For one thing, we’re piling a bunch of aspirations and effort into one of the darkest, lowest energy portions of the calendar year (at least for the Northern Hemisphere). We’re also doing it right after a high-intensity holiday season where our schedules, eating habits and circadian rhythms have likely been thrown out of whack. We’re not exactly starting from solid footing.

Another challenge is the sheer arbitrariness of January 1st. Urgency is one of the key components of successful change efforts. When we’re using the flip of a calendar page as our catalyst, it’s worth reflecting on what makes this goal worth pursuing now if it wasn’t worth pursuing a month ago.

Fear not! It is absolutely possible to set and achieve powerful goals at the beginning of the year, and it doesn’t require the acronym “SMART.” Instead, I’m sharing a set of questions that will help you select, envision and plan for successful goal-setting, whether it’s at the beginning of the year or whenever the urge strikes you.

What Makes This Goal Important to You (Now)?

This might seem like an obvious question, but I assure you, it is not. When it comes to setting goals, nothing is obvious and everything is worth questioning. How does this goal fit in with our broader vision of the future? What core value is it tied to? What has changed that makes this goal a priority now instead of last month or last year?

Oftentimes, we need to conduct a “Five Whys” line of questioning to uncover the true underlying importance of our goal. For example, if you decide you want to achieve 120 percent of your sales targets this year, you might respond that it’s important because it will set you up for a promotion. That seems logical, but what makes a promotion important? It could be that it provides external validation or increases financial security for your family. It could signify status or grant power. It could position you to have more impact in the areas that are meaningful to you. There are no wrong answers, but the answers are important because they help you understand not just the payoff, but the various options you have to achieve the actual desired outcome in a way that aligns with your values.

Try to be honest with yourself. Sometimes, my clients will feel some discomfort when they realize that they want external validation or status, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s likely that throughout your life, those elements have indicated to you that you were on the right path, or that you were safe, or would be protected. If, however, it feels out of alignment with your values, then it’s worth evaluating whether this is still a goal worth prioritizing.

What Would a Good Outcome Look Like?

This question plays two roles. It helps us envision the payoff of achieving the goal, and it helps ensure the goal is concrete. Too often, we choose vague, open-ended goals such as, “I want to journal more often.” Visualizing the outcome not only helps us understand the benefits we’re attributing to this goal but also helps us articulate the goal more clearly. For example, a good outcome for a goal of increased journaling might look like this: “I have a daily morning journaling practice that has become as second nature as my morning cup of coffee, and I start the day feeling grounded and clear-headed.”

Questions for Setting Powerful Goals

How Will You Know When You’ve Succeeded?

This question is critically important for long-term goal setting. It’s important for us to be able to celebrate and learn from our successes, and yet we often skip the part where we define exactly what would constitute success, particularly around amorphous goals like, “I want to be more confident.” How will you know when you’ve achieved this? What are some indicators that you’ve achieved the desired level of confidence? In many cases, I will use a scaling question with clients to help them understand these types of goals better. For example, “On a scale of one to10, how would you rate your current feeling of confidence?” Once we assess our starting point, we can decide what point on the scale would constitute success for us.

What If You Don’t Achieve This Goal?

This can be an uncomfortable question. We usually want to stay positive and remain optimistic, yet it’s important to envision fast-forwarding into a future where your goal has gone unachieved and you’ve maintained the status quo. Is that future acceptable to you? Is it sustainable? This exercise often paints a stark picture for us of the importance and urgency of our goal, elements that can keep us on course when the going gets tough. If, however, you find yourself shrugging in indifference when considering a status quo future, then perhaps this particular goal doesn’t deserve to be a priority for you.

What Barriers Do You Foresee?

A lot of clients seem surprised when I ask this. It may seem counterintuitive to focus on the negative, yet being well-informed means being well-prepared. What’s the most likely “surprise” that will take you off track? Chances are it won’t be that surprising. Who may stand in your way or create friction? What competing priorities may take precedence? If this is a recurring goal, then you will have plenty of hindsight wisdom to help illuminate the potential saboteurs.

Often, our current patterns and behaviors, even (or especially) those we wish to change, are serving us in some way; otherwise, we would have changed a long time ago. Have you considered what you’ll be giving up by pursuing this goal? For example, if you plan to start setting boundaries with your coworkers around access to your time, are you prepared to relinquish the comfort and predictability that comes with being relied upon? Once we understand what we’re giving up, we can thank our old habit for its service and send it on its way, just like that thread-bare pair of socks that we keep in the back of our drawer.

Types of Goals

Now that we understand how to craft a goal that is truly meaningful, impactful and concrete, we should discuss which types of goals are most effective, specifically avoidance goals versus approach goals.

An example of an avoidance goal would be, “I want to stop scrolling social media so much.” Avoidance goals are inherently tough because they are entirely focused on the thing you’re trying not to do. It’s like saying, “Don’t think about elephants!” (You’re already thinking about an elephant, aren’t you?) It’s also really challenging to maintain success and claim wins when that success can be negated by one slip-up. Rather than piling up successes, you’re just fending off a looming failure. Lastly, it’s fundamentally less empowering and motivating when we think about avoidance goals. It’s like saying, “Don’t be bad,” instead of “Let’s be good.”

Approach goals are much more empowering and easily measured. The good news is that nearly every avoidance goal can be reframed into an approach goal. The Five Question framework sets you up for crafting powerful approach goals because you’ve already envisioned what a good outcome looks like. Using the social media goal, you could instead say, “I want to reclaim my peace of mind by being intentional about my use of social media and limiting my engagement to one hour per day.” With this reframing, you’re describing what a positive outcome looks like and allowing yourself a win for each day that you hit your goal of maintaining an hour or less on social media. If you miss a day, it doesn’t ruin your goal. You just get another chance the next day.

In the business world, we will sometimes have to use avoidance goals. For example, we may want to avoid “loss of primary containment” events or “first aid incidents.” Yet even in these cases, it’s useful to see these metrics as lagging indicators and to look upstream for the leading indicators that will set you up for success. In these examples, the leading indicators might be a target percentage of field-based employees who have completed Leaks and Seeps training. Or a target percentage of the workforce that indicates on surveys that they feel comfortable stopping the job.

The real value in approaching goals is focusing your attention and energy on the factors that you have control and influence over. If there are no factors that you have control or influence over, then it’s likely an unrealistic or ineffective goal to be focused on and our efforts would be better spent mitigating negative outcomes.

Whether you’re striving to establish new habits, achieve healthier outcomes or capture greater professional success, setting goals is an important step. Understanding the “why,” “when,” and “how” of your goals will be critical in choosing the right goals to set you up for success.

Author profile
Erica D’eramo

Engineer by trade. Diversity, equity and inclusion professional by choice. With a successful two decade career in the international energy industry, and having been one of the few women in her field, Erica D’Eramo has made it her life’s work to create diverse, inclusive and equitable workplaces through research, best practice and lived experiences. She is passionate about reconciling the academic perspective with practical application to enable organizations to elevate their DEI efforts and change the workplace landscape through those activities with the greatest impact. In 2016, D’Eramo founded Two Piers Consulting to support under-represented communities in the workforce, and provide companies with the tools and strategies to effectively create and grow truly diverse and inclusive workplaces. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Penn State University, and an Executive MBA from University of Texas at Austin.

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