We work in a fast-moving era where we’re overloaded with information and must prioritize and focus in order to succeed. That’s certainly the case for today’s corporations. But it’s also true for us as individuals. In order to accomplish our most meaningful goals, we need to fight back against two dangerous impulses: hewing too closely to a fixed plan and attempting to do too much at once.
It may seem that the antidote to the noise and distractions of the work world would be to set long-range goals, and then keep our heads down and work systematically toward achieving them over time. But according to the research of Columbia Business School professor Rita McGrath, that’s the wrong move. As she describes in her book The End of Competitive Advantage, the most successful companies she profiled “make considerable investments in flexibility.”
Rather than engaging in the typical annual ritual of strategic planning, the best companies instead did their planning on a quarterly basis. “The accelerated pace of their operations allows them to be extremely responsive to changes in their environment, catching the need to make changes and adapt earlier than companies with a more rigid, annual process,” she writes. In other words, speed and flexibility are the winning ingredients in today’s dynamic business environment.
Similarly, many professionals have their own annual planning ritual; i.e., New Year’s Resolutions. Planning your professional development for the year isn’t a bad thing; in fact, it puts you ahead of many colleagues who don’t bother to think deeply about their own professional growth, or assume their company will “take care of it” for them by sponsoring a few trainings.
But as McGrath’s research in the corporate sphere indicates, it’s even better if you make your planning cycle more frequent, so you can adapt to changed circumstances. You may discover that a goal that once seemed desirable — such as getting in shape by playing racquetball regularly with a friend — may be a terrible idea, as I learned firsthand when I became sleep-deprived and unproductive thanks to our early morning games. Conversely, it’s worth shelving your planned priorities when a plum, unplanned Don’t Set Too Many Goals for Yourself by Amy Jen Su opportunity presents itself, such as when a major publisher reached out to my friend Brian recently, asking him to develop a book proposal.
Just as many professionals torpedo their chances of success by clinging to outmoded goals, others fail to generate meaningful accomplishments because they spread their energy too thin and attempt to accomplish too much at once.
Indeed, one indication of this is the pervasive use of to-do lists, which attempt to keep a handle on one’s responsibilities and are, according to one LinkedIn study, used by 63% of professionals. That would be great if we reliably accomplished what we set out to do. But the startup iDoneThis analyzed their users’ data and discovered that 41% of the to-do list tasks users inputted were never accomplished — little wonder in a world where the average professional has 150 tasks to be done at any given time, according to research by psychologist Ray Baumeister and John Tierney.
With so many competing priorities, it’s easy to see why something meaningful (writing a book, let’s say) perennially falls to the back of the line, compared with the more immediate gratification of “emailing Amy” or “editing the presentation deck.”
Understanding these two challenges has shaped how I personally handle my own goal setting. Instead of creating annual New Year’s Resolutions, I set six-month goals. In 2015, for instance, my professional goals for the first half of the year were “Double the size of my email list by the end of the year” and “Successfully launch my new book, Stand Out.” For the latter half of the year, I retained the email list-building goal, and updated the latter to “Sell the proposal for my next book.”
The other key is that I only set two main goals per cycle. To-Do lists have been pilloried for many reasons, the most important of which is that clustering large numbers of tasks together masks what’s really important. I certainly do more than two things at a time in my professional life; during 2015 alone, I did more than 160 podcast interviews in support of my book, which was never one of my overt goals. But — as with all my activities — I viewed these interviews through the lens of whether they supported my goals. Because exposure on podcasts would be helpful both in promoting my book and building my email list, I doubled down on them because it enabled me to make progress on two fronts simultaneously.
The point of goals, of course, isn’t to successfully complete tasks we blindly set ourselves to years ago. Nor is it to maximize our accomplishment of small bore trivialities. Instead, what counts is our ability to master the right kind of big goals — the ones that can change your life, like positioning yourself for a promotion to the C-suite or writing a book or launching an entrepreneurial venture.
You can only accomplish those kinds of goals when you’re willing to question assumptions regularly and re-evaluate as necessary, and when you give up the temporary dopamine hit of crossing easy tasks off your to-do list, in favor of making a dent in the handful of major projects that really matter.
Originally appeared in Harvard Business Review