Table of contents
- 1. Start with the end in mind
- 2. Set key milestones
- 3. Ensure you can relate to the goal
- 4. Make new habits
- Example Goal One - Learning new features in a programming language (super simplified example)
- Example Goal Two - Learning to play piano
- 5. Take the first step
With new year rapidly becoming a thing of the past, most of us will already be focussing on new year resolutions that include cutting out alcohol, going to the gym more or deciding to take up an entirely new hobby.
However, what things can we do to give our goals the best possible chance of succeeding? Let us cover 5 things you can do to bolster your chances of success!
1. Start with the end in mind
Before I get on to point 2 (setting objectives), I think it is super important to ensure you have a clear picture of what the end result will be.
When you clarify exactly what you set out to achieve, the path needed to get there can be a lot less murky and the route through the (metaphorical) overgrown forest suddenly becomes less dangerous.
Don’t get me wrong, as soon as we set ourselves a goal our minds work in overtime to think of evert perceivable obstacle that could hinder our progress. This often results in procrastination out of fear of tackling those obstacles, and ultimately leads to the downfall of our goals (at least for me anyway!).
Using the S.M.A.R.T. framework, we can create an end goal which has clarity in mind:
This is the key one in terms of clarity of your goal. Let’s look at the difference between the following two examples:
“I want to learn a new programming language to get into machine learning”
“I want to learn Python so that I can understand and contribute to the pytorch-CycleGAN-and-pix2pix repo on GitHub”
As you can probably see, the first one is very vague in what it sets out to do. Yes, we understand that the person wants to learn a new programming language in order to do some machine learning but it lacks specifics.
The second one is much clearer, which defines the fact they need to learn Python so that they can specifically contribute to their chosen/favourite image machine learning project on GitHub.
In order to determine whether a goal has been met, or at least progress towards the goal has been achieved, we must consider what things we can measure.
For our goals, we should seek to find some quantifiable metric that allows us to track this progress. For example, if we were assessing our progress on learning the piano towards a particular graded examination, we could use one or many of the following as metrics:
- Number of major scales learned
- Number of minor scales learned
- Number of broken chords learned
- Number of hours practice
The metrics can be determined by yourself, be be careful to ensure they're meaningful. In the above example, the top three are far more meaningful than the last one which focuses purely on time. It is goal-dependent and will vary depending on the task in hand
This one is more around the realism of the goal.
As an extreme example, if I said “this time next year I want to go to the moon” then I am likely set to fail - unless I strike it lucky on my investments and become a multi-billionaire overnight...anyway, daydream over.
Use a drop of common sense when planning goals to ascertain if it’s actually realistic, but still provides a challenge!💡 TIP: You may want to make a goal which is much more achievable, but set a stretch goal to give you something else to reach for should you hit your main goal early.
This is somewhat covered in point #3 (ensure you can relate to the goal), however, we can touch on it here.
If the goal is something you can relate to, you are much more likely to succeed in hitting it. Relevance can be defined as things such as :
- Something you do in your day to day job
- Something you’re passionate about
- Something you want to get passionate about and learn
Setting yourself a timescale of when you should achieve your goal by provides a set of goal posts to aim for. Without this, you are more likely to be left meandering amongst the brambles in that metaphorical overgrown forest we mentioned previously.
If I said I wanted to run a marathon by this time next year, it immediately helps determine the level of effort I need to output in order to achieve that goal. If I gave myself two years from now, I would have a significantly different training schedule and pace to follow.
With a timeframe in mind, one can create a plan (it can be a rough roadmap) of when certain things should be achieved to help monitor progress (see #2 - set key milestones / objectives)
2. Set key milestones
As previously mentioned when discussing SMART goals, it is good to be able to measure your success. Usually we just measure the end result in order to determine that we have accomplished what we set out to do, however, there is more we can do - set key milestones.
If we go back to the example of training for a marathon within 12 months, it isn’t simply a case of start running on day one and then being able to run the 26.2 miles by day 365 - there’s a lot in between. We could start by walking, followed by walking and jogging, then jogging at a light pace, then jogging at a fast pace, intervals and so the list goes on...
The same can apply to pretty much any goal. In order to work out what key milestones we can set for ourselves, we first need to benchmark. This can be done by asking some pretty straightforward questions up-front:
What is that you are looking to achieve at the end of your goal?
Why are you striving to achieve it?
When are you going to achieve it by?
Who do you need to speak to for support or to help unblock things for you?
Where do you need to look for the information/opportunities/experience to succeed in your goal?
Answering the above questions will hopefully help identify any key areas that need your focus as you work towards your main goal. Potential obstacles can be used as good milestone markers, as overcoming these unlocks the next phase of your journey.💡 TIP: Milestones help us make smaller steps towards the end goal. Sometimes the end result can feel too far in the distance or unachievable, so milestones keep us in check and maintain the cadence of regular success.
In the example of training for a marathon (assuming couch-to-marathon), some good milestones might be being able to run 1km, 5km, 10km, 20km.
3. Ensure you can relate to the goal
If you are invested in the end goal and understand the purpose, you are much more likely to succeed in hitting the goal than those who aren’t. (See here for a study on this)
If the goal is related to work (e.g. as a software engineer), hopefully it is something to which you can relate to in your day job. For example, you might set yourself a personal goal of improving your knowledge of AWS service offerings. By relating it to your day job, you would be looking for opportunities where you might be able to explore some new services in AWS and put them to use within your own systems (or as part of a tech spike).
Laddering-up to company objectives & strategy
It is also useful to see if your goals can ladder-up to the larger company objectives. This means that you will be working in the same direction as the company you work for, making the journey contain less friction points to slow you down or halt you altogether. Continuing with the AWS example, it would be bad practise to set yourself a goal of learning AWS (at least in a work context) if the company’s direction is to use Microsoft Azure.
Personal Objectives (not work related)
In instances where you’re simply setting yourself a goal which isn’t related to work (e.g. training to run your first 10k run), relatability is also very important.
For this you need to understand what you want to get out of it at the end. What does each training session provide you with? Are you a stats person who would work out better with a smart watch tracking all of your metrics (heart rate, cadence, oxygen levels etc.) or are you more of a “run with the wind” kind of person who just wants to run in the local countryside and soak in the surroundings to feel at one with nature.
4. Make new habits
Generally speaking, when we set goals we are either:
- looking to learn an entirely new skill/knowledge
- looking to improve on an existing skill/knowledge
Regardless of which one you are looking to do, the journey will pretty much be carved in the same way - it’s just the starting point which changes. In other words, learning an entirely new skill will require more steps than building on something you already have a foundation in.
One effective way of working towards your goal is to create new habits. This is particularly useful when you’re looking to learn a new skill, or seeking to do something like get fitter by running weekly.
James Clear, an author and entrepreneur sums up habit formation in a nice simple model which illustrates four stages of habit formation:
The four stages of habit, taken from JamesClear.com/three-steps-habit-change
With this in mind, we can create new habits to help us achieve our goals. Let’s use some examples.
Example Goal One - Learning new features in a programming language (super simplified example)
In this example, we are setting ourselves the goal of learning a new programming language.
Cue - You go to create a program in the desired language
You are looking to create a simple application which parses text into Morse Code output (dots and dashes).
Craving - You want to learn more of the basics so that you can write more efficient code
You realise that your current implementation is a bit slow and far from efficient, so you want to learn how to improve the performance.
Response - You follow some tutorials on YouTube
You watch videos on YouTube showing you how to use the most efficient functions in the language of your choice.
Reward - You learn something new and update your application
You put into practise what you have learnt and see the gains in your application’s performance
Example Goal Two - Learning to play piano
If we set ourselves a goal of learning to play the piano and achieving grade 3 qualification, we could create some simple habits to help us get there:
Cue - You don’t know the scales / aren’t fluid with them
In order to achieve a graded qualification on piano you are required to be able to, amongst other things, demonstrate your ability to perform certain scales.
The cue here is to learn those scales needed for the qualification.
Craving - You want to become more fluid on the keys to achieve exam readiness
The craving or urge here is to get better at the scales so that you can be ready for the exam, as well as have the satisfaction of being more fluid on the keys.
Response - You set aside 30 minutes to practice each evening
The response to the craving should be to set aside 30 minutes to practice in order to help you achieve that goal.
Reward - You achieve greater fluency in the chosen scales
The reward from each session will be greater fluency. Sometimes the progress may feel slow, but the accumulation of the efforts will be seen.
5. Take the first step
Although you would probably expect me to write this one first, I wanted to lay some foundations to help make goal setting easier. Now you’ve managed to hopefully set a goal, identified some habits you can introduce, can relate to what you’re looking to do, let’s take the first step.
Often the hardest part of working towards a goal is starting. The overwhelming thought of the journey you’re about to take can sometimes feel daunting, so much that you don’t even want to begin. However, trust me when I say that as soon as you make that first step you’re already making progress!
Don’t hesitate, get out there and accomplish your goals!
This post was just a summary of some things I’ve used in the past to help me achieve my goals. There are may other methods, frameworks and tools that you can use to help set and work towards your goals. If you found this post useful then let me know, I’d love to get your feedback! Similarly, if you have found something which has really helped then please share it as I’d love to explore different ways.