Are we there yet?
I talk a lot about goals because I think they are a simple way to continuously improve. If you have dreams of who you want to be, things you want to do or have – goals can turn those dreams into reality! There are three key components to goals: setting them (which I’ve written about in my blog from July 2020); breaking them down in a way you can execute against them (which I’ll write about in more detail later); and tracking them – which is our focus here.
The easiest analogy – admittedly overused but effective nonetheless – is of an airplane. The flight plan is created based on where are you starting, and where are you going. This flight plan is the equivalent to your goal execution plan. But if a pilot sets a flight plan from San Diego to Boston and then closes his eyes for a nap, what will happen? There will be shifts in wind and weather, and many other factors, that nudge the plane just the tiniest bit off course. Those tiny shifts, unchecked, over the course of >4,000km mean the plane might not be positioned to land at Logan Airport – it may be closer to New York or Montreal. That’s why the pilot keeps tabs on where the plane is, relative to the flight plan, for the duration of the flight and keeps making adjustments to altitude, speed, and direction to land precisely on a landing strip ~50m wide!
Similarly, no matter how perfect your plan is for achieving your goals, if you wait until that target date to see what’s going on you might be shocked at how far off course you have gotten. By checking in along the way you can make adjustments, just like the pilot, to get back on course. Sometimes, you may even realize that you need to change the goal. Wouldn’t it be good to know that and be able to do something about it – rather than getting to the end of the year and feeling like you wasted time on something that didn’t excite you?
What gets measured gets managed. Peter Drucker
As I said, I’ll write more on this in a separate piece… but briefly, how do you think about creating that plan?
Break the goal down: The idea here is to create a project plan of sorts. For example, if you want to write a book by the end of the year, you can detail the major steps such as creating the outline, finding an agent or determining another method for publishing, etc. You would create the project plan by determining what needs to be complete by quarter, by month, and then for each week as it comes.
Identifying daily or weekly actions: The idea here is to identify the action steps that, taken regularly, will help you achieve the goal. For example, if you have a goal around self-improvement you may decide to read something on personal development for 10 minutes every day.
These are two approaches which, of course, have infinite permutations, combinations of the two, etc. The most important thing is to choose a way that makes sense to you and that you think you can follow! And it’s OK if you use different approaches for different goals, you don’t have to use the same approach for all of your goals.
So, now that you have goals and have figured out how you will execute on them, on to tracking! Just like that pilot keeps checking where he is against the flight plan, you will have a much better chance to achieve your goals when you keep regular tabs them. There are three critical time increments:
Weekly: Once per week, read your goals. It’s surprisingly easy to forget exactly what you declared, so reading them regularly helps remind you before you do your analysis what you are actually aiming for! Choose a day of the week that works best with you schedule – and stick to that day. Unless you realize it’s really not working – then pick a new one and stick to that. The point is, make your week a true week and develop a cadence to it. For each goal, take an honest reflection on how the week went. What you did well, and where could you have done better? If you had specific actions planned for the week, did you accomplish them?
Monthly: Once per month, do a slightly more in-depth review. You’ll want to decide what your ‘month’ means. It could be the same day of the week that you do your weekly assessment – and just pick the one each month that is closest to a month (which will be every 4 or 5 weeks depending how the calendar falls). Or you can choose a particular day, like the first or last day of the month. Again start by reading the goals. Then review each of your weekly assessments for that month. The monthly assessment is a level higher than the weekly one. What did you accomplish for the month? Do you see patterns of where you excelled or were energized vs. where you felt deflated or unmotivated? Are there minor tweaks you want to make to your plan for the next month?
Quarterly: Once per quarter, do a fairly critical review. Decide what your ‘quarter’ means, aligning with your monthly review, or on the first or last day of the quarter (e.g. March 31 or April 1). Read your goals, and then read the 3 monthly assessments. Here again, you’re looking for patterns and this is a good time to honestly check in with yourself. If you are totally crushing a goal, is it challenging enough? If you are really struggling, is it because you haven’t enlisted the support you need? Have you not committed to it? Are you afraid of something? Is it truly your goal? It is OK to change a goal if you realize it’s really not where you are excited and want to focus your energy!
Depending what your goals are, and how you have chosen to track them, there may be things you check in on each day. For example, I have a “me”-related goal that includes drinking 4 of my water bottles each day – at least 5 days per week. I made a very basic sheet for checking off whether I did it or not each evening when I am preparing for the next day. There is no way I’d remember how many days I drank my water by the end of the week if I didn’t make a note of it. But, in order to be able to do this every day I had to make it super easy and quick – it’s a check or an "x"! I actually use this method for a bunch of things and it takes maybe 30 seconds to do.
The final review of the goals will be the end of the year review – this is a super important process in itself and I’ll write another piece on it as we get to the end of this year.
Progress is more important than perfection. Simon Sinek
I have not mentioned yet, and perhaps it’s obvious, but you need to write your goals down and actually write these weekly, monthly, and quarterly reviews down as well. There are many aps, journal-type ‘systems’ and other tools out there to help you track your goals. Pick something that works for you – if it is hard to do or goes against ‘how your brain works’ then you’re not going to want to do it.
I’m a little old school and I just get a notebook each year. I buy into the research that repeatedly shows the benefits of writing by hand. I also just like it better because I am more easily distracted if I’m on my phone or computer. But if writing by hand is going to be a barrier to doing this process and you think you would stick to it if it were digital – go for it! I often get regular 1-subject notebooks and decorate the cover – here’s a picture of mine for this year where I’ve glued decorative paper and my WOTY (Word of the Year) on the cover!
I write my goals – one on each page – at the front of the notebook and put little sticky tabs on those pages so they’re easy to find. Each week, I start a new page, putting the date at the top and dividing the full open (left and right sides) of the page into 4 sections: one for each of my 3 goals and one to write a little about the week overall. For each goal I start by writing my + / - / (little heart symbol that I can't figure out how to put here!):
+ for something that I did well or that I’m proud of or that was a step towards achieving my goal
- for something where I could have done better
(heart) for something for which I’m grateful
Then I often just write whatever comes to mind – sometimes it’s about the wins or challenges, sometimes it’s just thoughts, can be anything really. Admittedly, I’ve never been one to journal. I’ve bought so many nice notebooks over the years, or been given them as gifts, and optimistically made a handful of entries only to fall off, often just forgetting. This weekly goals review is the closest I’ve ever gotten to journaling and I actually enjoy it quite a bit!
Last couple of tidbits: I like to read Goal #1, then do the assessment before moving on to the next (rather than reading all three and then doing all three assessments), especially for the monthly and quarterly reviews. If you do the monthly assessment on the same day as the weekly, do the weekly first. Similarly, if you do the quarterly assessment on the same day as the monthly, do the monthly first. I do my weekly reviews on Saturday mornings. Other common times are Friday afternoons, Sunday evenings and Monday mornings.
Before anything else, preparation is the key to success. Alexander Graham Bell
Does that all seem like a lot of work – that isn’t actually working on your goals? If so, please consider two things: First, don’t make it too much work. Make it simple – and quick – enough that you can get started. You can always add to it later. If you start by just doing the + / - / (heart) and get used to doing this every week – consider that a huge win! Second, goal tracking is equivalent to (dare I say a form of) preparation or planning. Perhaps I’ll write a future piece on the importance of planning – for now, just keep that airplane analogy in your mind. No matter how perfect your plan is at the outset, you are likely to get off course largely for reasons entirely out of your control. You can’t control those things, but you can control what you do in response to them and keep yourself on track.
You can do this!