Setting HARD Goals

ceo culture leadership Feb 09, 2021

Most of us set plenty of goals, but very few of them get achieved. For example, 85% of New Year’s Resolutions fail within 3 months.

To truly achieve our goals we need to radically change how we set them, says Mark Murphy in Hard Goals : The Secret to Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be (McGraw-Hill).

To understand what keeps your brain engaged with a goal, Murphy examined studies from neuroscience, psychology and behavioral economics as well as a research study of thousands of businesses conducted by his own firm, Leadership IQ.

Mark says goals will only be reliably achieved when you tap into your mind’s emotional, visual, survival and learning systems, that enable you to visualize the goal and viscerally need to achieve it. Just writing down a goal doesn’t guarantee success. Mark says the way to achieve any goal (health, financial, career, business, etc.) is to seek HARD goals — targets that are Heartfelt, Animated, Required and Difficult.

The goals that people are most proud of — their greatest professional achievements — almost always have these common elements:

  • Scary – I was outside my comfort zone
  • New – I had to learn new things
  • Worthy – it meant a lot to me

A lot of studies of workplace engagement have mistakenly looked at happiness first. I believe that’s backward. It’s not that happy workers become productive — it’s that productive people become happy.  (Too many people confuse “happiness” with “pleasure” — I believe happiness comes from the progressive realization of worthy goals, and pleasure comes from fulfilling our animal appetites.)

Here’s some proof.  When different generations of Americans are surveyed about their life fulfillment, it’s the generations who made the greatest sacrifices and who struggled towards the toughest goals are now the ones that feel best about their lives and accomplishments.

Not all goals are created equal – when a goal is “pro forma” or in the form of “I should…” it tends to be set, not hit. A goal is doomed to go unfilled when you fundamentally don’t care that much about it. The positive opposite of that is, to have an emotional attachment to the goal.

It’s not that we first create higher employee engagement, and then our people will hit the goals — rather, the right goals will create the sense of engagement.

It won’t be powerful for your doctor to tell you to lose weight, and then you walk around thinking “my doctor wants…”  It will be powerful to visualize yourself playing with your grandchildren, and then knowing that it will only happen through weight loss and health improvement.

Companies like Apple, Google and 800-Got-Junk are famous for creating vision boards and collages and other visual representations of the outcomes of the goals.  Great performers can visualize the result in detail.  It’s as if they’ve already been there.

When people are losing weight, if they also put up photos of themselves when they were skinny, or drawn pictures of themselves being skinny, they have triple the success of those who do not.

It’s death to a goal to put it off.  When we say “I’ll start it right after the holidays” we’re all but doomed.  Successful goal achievers are those who create a sense of urgency around the goal, and even “trick our brains” into pulling some of the benefit into the present and pushing some of the work into the future.

When people set goals that are harder, they are twice as likely to achieve them as when they set easy goals.  One example comes from a study of a Weyerhauser operation in the Canadian forests.  When the loggers were told to fill the trucks “as well as you can” they filled the trucks about 60%.  When the loggers were challenged to fill the trucks to 94%, they far exceeded it, saving the firm $250,000 in just the first year of this small study.

When Jaime Escalante challenged poor Hispanic kids in the barrios of Los Angeles to learn advanced math, he was told it was impossible — yet 80% of his students went on to get 4s and 5s on the AP Calculus test.

When you hand someone a big challenge, you are sending two messages, Mark says:  first, that you must be capable, and two, I must value you — because if I thought you were an idiot I would give you easy goals.

Top athletes report the same thing.  When goals are hard, we cannot sleepwalk through, and our performance gets better.

(Listen to the complete interview here.)

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