Who Moved My Doorstep?
In my last post I looked at goal setting and the important distinction between ‘outcome goals’ and ‘means goals’. In other words, the key difference between big overall goals which describe your intended destination, and the many smaller action-oriented goals which pave the way.
A consistent theme in many of the responses to the post – and thank you to those who took the trouble, I really do appreciate it – can be summarised as; “How do I know if I am setting my goals at an achievable level?” It’s a great question and one that I am going to attempt to answer here.
I doubt there are many people in the commercial world who want to be accused of being under-ambitious. If you’re running your own business, it’s likely that you have a strong desire to succeed – and if you manage a process or team in a larger organisation, it would be unusual if setting your sights high hadn’t played a part in getting you where you are today. It might therefore not come as a surprise when I tell you that many highly successful people I work with are over-ambitious, especially when it comes to goal setting.
You could view this under the category of ‘it’s a nice problem to have’. Or, put another way, if you aim for the stars and land on the moon, then you’ve still achieved more than most. But the cumulative effect of continually missing goals can have a catastrophic, negative impact, not only on you but on those around you. Repeated failure is extremely demotivating. Psychologists have calculated that the emotional impact of failure is around 2.5 times greater than the emotional benefit of winning. When we achieve a goal, our brain releases dopamine, a chemical transmitter which makes us feel good about ourselves. This is the basis of the ‘reward pathway’ which is designed to motivate beneficial behaviours. However, it’s not just the achievement of goals that stimulates this pathway. Neuroscientists have demonstrated that the anticipation of achieving a goal can also result in dopamine release and associated feelings of motivation and reward. The act of setting goals is just as important in managing our motivation as the eventual achievement of those goals. Taken together, this illustrates why it is so crucial that goals are set at the right level.
In my experience, people tend to set ‘means goals’ at an unrealistically high level, yet simultaneously set their ‘outcome goals’ too cautiously. This is because people typically overestimate the amount they can achieve in any one day but underestimate the cumulative effect of the many days when they achieve something modest. Even Albert Einstein had to concede that the human brain is not good at understanding the power of compounding over time.
So, what is the benchmark when setting goals at the right level? How do you find the precise point at which a goal is sufficiently challenging but not overwhelming? Because if a goal is too easy, it will just feel boringly routine; your motivation will rapidly become diminished, and you’ll become disengaged. Conversely, if a goal is too challenging then the chances are that you will find ways to avoid tackling it, knowing deep down that despite your best efforts, the outcome is inevitable. Putting it simply, if you don’t get your goal setting spot on, you’ll either switch off or give up. Whichever way it is, the likelihood is that you won’t feel particularly great about yourself, your motivation levels will fall, and you could well end up finding yourself in a tailspin of disappointment.
The key to setting goals at an optimal level is to always remember that the reference point is not the activity itself, but your own comfort zone. The ideal goals will be those that take you to the very edge of your comfort zone, but not wholly outside it. If your home represents your comfort zone, then I call this ‘standing on your front doorstep’.
Let me share an example. Imagine someone who wanted to get to their desk earlier each day to catch up with emails, get ahead of their daily plan or read up on industry news and trends. If they already struggle to start at 9am then a goal of starting an hour earlier each day may be unsustainable. On the other hand, getting up 30 minutes earlier every day or an hour earlier twice a week may lie just beyond their comfort zone and could, in time, become normal. It’s not just our routines that make up our comfort zones, it’s also our capabilities. If we find something intellectually demanding, but not impossible when we concentrate, then the neuroplasticity of the human brain will allow us to build new connections and learn to master unfamiliar tasks. If we stay in our comfort zone we won’t learn anything new, and if we stray too far beyond it, we will struggle to understand any new information. If we are honest with ourselves about our own capabilities, and we really do want to get somewhere, it is critical to always bear in mind that every time we hit a new goal, our comfort zone expands, and as a result, our doorstep moves.
- Goals set at an optimum level are most effective
- ‘Stretch’ goals are counterproductive to motivation
- The reference point for your goals is your comfort zone
- Take half a step beyond your comfort zone
- Adjust your goals as your comfort zone grows
- Beware of unrealistic ‘means goals’ and over-cautious ‘outcome goals’
The importance of knowing that the fruits of our labours are paying off and that we are sensing progress cannot for one moment be underestimated. The key to this happening is by continuously setting fresh ‘doorstep goals’ that take, and keep us, outside. That’s where the magic happens.