Goals are great. Don’t just take my word for it, take Edwin Locke’s. When talking about goals, Locke is the most cited researcher. Some people have said he is likely the most cited researcher of all time.
Locke’s epic meta-study on goals, where he and his team reviewed 110 other peer-reviewed studies, found that goals matter. Simply setting goals correlated to higher performance in 90% of the studies they reviewed. Many of the studies did not even track what people did after they set their goals. It appears that simply writing a goal down has an immediate positive impact on performance.
But how ambitious should we be in setting goals?
Should we go for BHAG: Big, Hairy, and Audacious? Or SMART: Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, and Time-related? Some people even promote SMARTER goals, adding more criteria like Ethical and Rewarding to the mix.
Dr. Brian Redmond at Penn State University wrote “Goals should be set high enough to encourage high performance, but low enough to be attainable.”
Someone setting a goal for themselves should set it at the level where they think there is a chance to reach the goal – but it will be difficult. Setting the goal too low does not provide motivation. It is too easy, so there is no challenge to drive you to increase performance. Setting the goal too high causes a person not to try at all. People will lose their motivation and quit before they even start.
Life is full of assumptions – assumptions for how many hours a project will take, how much budget you will need, and how much X it will take to get Y. When you are setting a goal, add just a hair of buffer to your estimate of what it will take to achieve your goal, to give yourself margin. Having that extra bit of wiggle room reduces stress and lets you do your best work.
Here are some examples of using margin in attaining goals:
- If you are using a training plan to run a 3-hour marathon, maybe you shoot to run your training intervals listed in the 2:50 plan.
- If you usually need 500 hours of business development work a year to reach your goals, maybe you shoot for 550 hours.
- If you need $X in your pipeline to reach your goals, add 10 or 20% to that just to be sure.
Planning for average means you will be short of your goal half the time. That is where adding just a small amount of extra margin in your goal setting comes in. Just adding 10% more effort, dollars, and activities could increase your chance of success to 80% or 90%.
So set SMARTER goals that are high enough to challenge you, but low enough to be realistic. Make sure to write them down to have an immediate positive impact on you realistically attaining them. Then try to find ways to add some margin to your goals.
And go for