This is a guest post from James Sowers.
The MBA programs at Harvard and Yale are widely known as some of the most competitive in the country, if not the world. Acceptance rates have hovered between 10-15% since the 1970’s. Those who complete their program can expect to receive salary offers starting at $100,000 or more with generous signing bonuses to help them make the transition from academia to the workforce. But, despite having a pool of the country’s best and brightest young business minds, a small selection of these graduates have made anywhere from two to ten times as much money as all of their classmates combined! What’s the difference? According to a series of studies done from 1950 – 1980, having “clear, written goals for the future and plans to achieve them.” At least that’s what the internet would have you believe.
As it turns out, despite being cited in hundreds of books, those studies never actually happened. They have since been refuted by social scientists, investigative journalists, and representatives of the universities involved. Turns out, the whole thing is just one long-lived urban myth. However, that doesn’t negate the fact that regular goal setting is still one of the most effective ways to level up your productivity.
Dr. Gail Matthews, a researcher at Dominican University, received over 149 responses to her study that attempted to arrive at a result similar to the previously mentioned ivy league interviews. Participants were divided into five groups, ranging from those who simply thought about their goals to those who not only wrote them down, but also shared them with others and engaged in weekly progress reports. After four weeks, participants were asked to rate their progress. Here are some of the results:
- Those who wrote down their goals and were responsible for submitting progress reports to someone else where the most accomplished.
- Every group that wrote down their goals (Groups 2-5) significantly outperformed those who simply thought about their goals (Group 1).
- When writing down your goals, there was no statistical advantage to sharing your goals with someone else.
In the end, there was enough scientific evidence to support that writing down goals, committing to those goals over time, and having some method of holding yourself accountable all lead to improved performance and greater achievement. So, we can agree that writing down goals is a good way to be more productive, by why?
Goals force you to find clarity in your work
Goals help you focus on one task at at time, but they also force you to spend some time figuring out exactly why you want to achieve a certain goal and what steps are critical to getting you there. As humans, we love to approach life with a sense of purpose. In their book titled The Progress Principle, Harvard professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer contend that making progress on meaningful work, even if that progress is small, is the number one driver of a positive inner work life. Establishing and accomplishing goals that are prioritized based on our individual or organizational needs is a great way to find meaning in the sometimes mundane or repetitive tasks you do both at home and in the workplace.
Making meaningful progress toward well-defined goals is also a key driver of employee performance. Managers who establish clear expectations that are aligned with the goals of the organization are setting the foundation for employees that are more engaged, have a better understanding of the big picture, and are generally more productive than those who approach their work with little guidance. Scientific research shows the impact of this employee engagement to be quite dramatic. Employees who are actively engaged in their work have generated 27% higher net promoter scores, lowered turnover and absenteeism, and improved profitability.
Goals motivate you to take action
There’s something about the human spirit that derives inspiration from endeavors that push the limits of what we think is possible. Whether or big or small, lining a series of goals up as a to-do list is naturally interpreted by our brain as a challenge. We are continuously asking ourselves, “Can I get all of this done with the time I have available today?” This type of conflict is what fully engages the heart and mind, activating our emotions and inspiring us to do our best work.
Achieving pre-established goals can also be a strong motivator. We’ve written before about the power of small wins and how stringing together a series of small goals can add up to big results over time. Not only that, goals can be an important source of motivation to keep us going through the rough patches. We will inevitably come across unexpected obstacles that threaten to derail us from our path toward productivity, but we can find strength and resiliency in knowing with full confidence that if we meet today’s goal, we’ll be one step closer to whatever it is we have defined as long-term success.
Goals make you more accountable.
Imagine setting out on a trip with no particular destination in mind. You have no prior coordination for transportation, lodging, food, or any of the other things that are essential to our comfort and survival. How would you pack? What path do you take? Sure, you could plan for every contingency, but that is an extremely inefficient use of your time and resources. Instead, you probably start by picking a destination. That’s what long-term goals are – the destinations that you wish to visit throughout your life.
Daily and weekly goals are just the milestones you pass on your journey, making sure that you stay on track and arrive at your destination on time. When social media notifications and unscheduled meetings lure you off the beaten path, daily goals are there to bring you back in. They also lay out your expectations in a clear and concise manner, allowing you to properly allocate your time and resources to work within the parameters established. When used properly, you know that meeting all of your daily goals will ensure that all of your deliverables are complete on-time and to standard before you walk in to your weekly one-on-one with your boss.
Goals will enable you to see and communicate your progress
Setting goals is one thing – actually achieving them is another. There are many things that can stop you from getting to the destination you’ve set for yourself, one of which is the lack of quantifiable progress. If you work hard day in and day out, but aren’t able to see the fruits of your labor, you are more likely to give up. It can sometimes feel like you are working yourself to death, but not really going anywhere. This is where having goals can help.
Documented goals are like mile-markers on a highway. They enable you to see how far you have come and how far you still need to go. They also provide a cause for celebration when you get to that next big milestone. At the end of a week or month, you can look back through your notebook or goal tracking app and see just how much you’ve accomplished. This can be a huge boost of confidence, especially when you’ve been struggling to get through a busy season or a demanding project.
Have you ever tried explaining what you do to someone outside of your industry? How did that go? While it might be easy to give a one or two sentence overview, if you try to explain your day-to-day activities to someone, you might look up mid-sentence to find them lost in outer space. Daily goals are great for converting some of your daily tasks into simple, bite-sized chunks that are easy for anyone to quickly understand. By tracking your daily tasks, you give yourself a head start on the weekly status update email or stand-up meeting with your team or supervisor.
Goals reduce the cognitive load on your brain and make room for creativity
There is plenty of reseadrch to show that our brains are extraordinarily susceptible to decision fatigue. That is to say, we have the capacity to tackle a certain number of decisions each day before we begin to lose focus or stop caring. This is the reason you have seen driven, successful people like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg wear the same thing every single day. This removes the need to decide what to wear to work each morning, a decision that doesn’t directly contribute to the success of their business. By establishing goals in batches, we can capitalize on a similar principle, reducing the cognitive load we place on ourselves by pausing throughout the day to figure out, “What do I have to do next?”
So, what do we do with all of this extra time? Well, we’ve just opened up space for reflection and creativity. Suddenly, our mind is free to approach problems with deep, critical thought. We don’t have to decide what project to tackle next, so we can focus more on how we should approach it and what might be the most effective way to get it done. We can also use this time to reflect on our past experiences and draw from those to form our perspective of the task at hand. By focusing more on the why and the how instead of the what, we’ve given ourselves the ability to devote all of our energy into arriving at the most desirable outcome as quickly as possible.
Start setting goals today using iDoneThis
Late last year we rolled out a new feature called Goals for iDoneThis. We’re a small team, but we knew through our own experiences that having clearly defined goals is critically important to making sure that we’re constantly moving forward in the right direction. There is a lot of research out there that sho setting goals can have a huge impact on productivity and crossing them off of your to-do list can pay big dividends in the area of workplace satisfaction. When we took all of this into account, the logical next step was to build this functionality into iDoneThis so that you and your team can get the most out of tracking your daily and weekly accomplishments.
To set a new goal, all you do is begin typing a task with open and closed brackets – [ ] Finish User Profile Mockups – and iDoneThis will automatically turn that task into a goal. Once you’re finished with your work, simply click the checkbox we’ve created for you to transform that goal into a completed task. Pretty neat, huh? Start by setting up your first goal today.
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