Make Your Work Resolutions Stick
Many people have resolutions on the brain during this time of year. But it’s one thing to set goals — network more, learn to meditate, or get better at writing — and quite another to actually accomplish them. What are the right kinds of resolutions to make? How do you stay motivated? How do you turn your intentions into reality?
What the Experts Say
A lot of people set personal and professional goals this time of year but very few succeed. That’s because we often “set goals that go against our nature,” according to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor of Business Psychology at University College London (UCL) and the author of Confidence. “We all have predispositions, character traits, and habits that we have built over many years,” he says. “Most of our New Year’s resolutions and goals involve breaking these patterns, which is very difficult to do and requires a lot of work.” So you have to be deliberate and strategic about setting goals and staying on track. “It’s important to have focus,” says Joseph Weintraub, the founder and faculty director of the Babson Coaching for Leadership and Teamwork Program. “You need to set the right goals within the right timeframe.” Here are some pointers on how to make your resolutions stick.
This is the time to “think small”— both in terms of the number of objectives and the timeframe in which you plan to accomplish them, according to Weintraub. He recommends setting no more than three goals — more than that is “too overwhelming” — with a deadline of a year or less. “For most companies and individuals, it’s hard to think five years ahead,” he says. Be ambitious — but not overly so, adds Chamorro-Premuzic. Choose things that challenge and stretch you but aren’t impossible. Also, make sure you’re setting “a goal that matters and is relevant” to you. “It’s so much work to create change, you have to really want it,” he says.
Focus on the positive
While at least one of your goals ought to involve developing an area of weakness, Weintraub cautions against getting hung up on self-improvement. “Too often we focus on what we need to do better,” he says. Instead: “Consider things you’re good at and set goals that leverage those strengths.” Say, for instance, you’re a strong writer or an effective public speaker; you should create goals that involve helping colleagues sharpen their presentations skills or using your writing abilities to earn a promotion. Your ultimate aim is to “move your organization forward and propel your career,” he says.
Once you’ve decided on your goals, write them down and share them with others, including your manager, peers, direct reports, and friends and family. “When you make your goals public, you’re committing to them,” says Chamorro-Premuzic. Openness also enables others “to hold you accountable.” Weintraub explains that candor is especially important when your goal has an immediate impact on the people you work with. If, for instance, your goal is to reduce your micro-managerial tendencies, explain to your team that you will be delegating more often. “Tell people: ‘This is what I’m working on and here’s how I am trying to do it,’” he says. “Be explicit and overt about your intentions.”
Create a plan of action
To accomplish any goal — personal or professional — you need a step-by-step strategy. After all, says Weintraub, you wouldn’t expect to succeed at losing weight without systematically changing your eating and exercise habits. So “you need to think about tactics. Ask yourself: What actions do I need to demonstrate to accomplish this?” If your goal is nebulous — say, for example, to develop a more trusting relationship with your direct reports — you’ll need to think about specific behaviors that will help you, such as taking each of them to lunch individually and engaging with them on a more personal level. “And if you’re not seeing results,” says Chamorro-Premuzic, “you should also have a Plan B.”
An encouraging and supportive network is critical to reaching your goals, says Chamorro-Premuzic. Your support system could include colleagues, mentors, your significant other, a professional coach, or even peers outside your organization. They can be both your cheering squad and sounding board. “They will motivate you and encourage you, and when your morale is low, they will boost it.” Your support system will also help “reinforce that your goals are important to you and your career,” adds Weintraub. “The more you engage others in the process, the more likely you are to accomplish the goals you set for yourself.”
When you launch into working toward a new goal, you feel inspired and energized. But as the weeks and months trudge on, that initial excitement wanes, and it can be a struggle to find the time or motivation for it. To ease this problem, work toward short-term targets that bring you closer to your end goal. The success you achieve along the way should help you feel good about “the incremental progress” you’re making, says Chamorro-Premuzic. “You want to see change in a positive direction and small improvements,” he says. “The point is not to get better than others, it’s to get better than the old version of yourself.” To stay on track, “you need regular signals” that reinforce what you’re working toward, says Weintraub. It could be a reminder on your smartphone or a recurring “meeting” on your calendar where you “take the time out of your day to think about what your goals mean to you and your career.” At a practical level,” says Weintraub, you need “simple things to keep you going.”
Nothing elevates cortisol levels like an approaching deadline. In some ways, the stress works in your favor, according to Wientraub. “It helps you focus on the goal,” he says. “It’s like when you know your doctor is going to put you on the scale at your next checkup, or when you know your boss is going to ask you about the status of a project at your next team meeting.” But while stress can drive performance, it’s important that you “don’t lose perspective” when unforeseen circumstances arise. “Don’t be too harsh on yourself,” says Chamorro-Premuzic. “You don’t want an unhealthy level of obsession about reaching your goals.” If a colleague needs you on a project or your personal life becomes unexpectedly complicated and completing your goal within the given timeframe becomes too difficult, cut yourself some slack. And don’t forget Weintraub’s golden rule of goal setting: “Strive for excellence, but sometimes good enough is good enough.”
Principles to Remember
- Create goals that leverage your existing skills to move your organization and career forward
- Share your goals with others and ask for support and encouragement when you need it
- Create milestones along the way that help you appreciate the incremental progress you’re making
- Become overwhelmed by a long list of goals; focus on no more than three at a time
- Set yourself up to fail; create goals you can reasonably achieve
- Beat yourself up if you don’t meet every deadline; recognize when what you’ve done is good enough
Case study #1: Create a detailed strategy and enlist support
Mindy Hall, a management consultant based outside of Philadelphia, knew she had a book in her. In fact, she wrote a manuscript for a leadership book back in 2007, but lost it because of a computer malfunction. “After that happened, I thought it wasn’t meant to be,” she recalls. “But over time it just kept gnawing at me.”
At the beginning of 2013, she decided it was finally time. “I psyched myself up to do it,” she says. She started with her calendar. She created an 18-monthlong timeline with deadlines for the research she needed to complete for finishing each chapter. She also included a plan to start a publishing company.
Seeing it in black and white helped her focus. “I wrote it all down so these [tasks and targets] weren’t just running around in my head,” she explains. While she felt confident she could hold herself accountable to specific deadlines, she also shared her timeline with “a close colleague and ally” who kept her on track. He reviewed and edited drafts and offered feedback. “He was in it with me,” she says.
There were also a number of other colleagues who regularly checked in on her progress during the writing process. “It was very helpful to have the support team. They keep you going and tell you ‘you can do it.’”
Some days were stressful. Some days Mindy didn’t have time to work on the book. “My timeline would have been realistic if I wasn’t also running a business full time, but it was aggressive considering I didn’t take time off to do it,” she says. “In hindsight it might’ve been better if I had forced myself to write every day but life didn’t work out that way.”
Still, she published Leading with Intention in October. Her friends and colleagues threw her a book launch party the following month. “No one writes a book on his own,” she says. “If you have the passion and the will do it, you just have to do it… or stop talking about it.”
Case study #2: Break big goals up into small action items
When Susan Hertzberg arrived as president and CEO of Boston Heart Diagnostics in 2010, it was losing money and had fewer than 40 employees. She had several big goals. One, make the heart disease diagnostic company profitable. Two, recruit a topnotch management team. And three, create “an authentic and real” corporate culture.
Susan knew the last one was an elusive goal; but she says she was determined to: “build a company where people show up and focus on what really matters.” Before she even started the job, she shared this goal in a presentation to Boston Heart’s board. It was in the spirit of: “this is what you can expect from me,” she recalls.
Then Susan formulated a plan. Some actions on her to-do list were small — for instance, to role-model the kind of behavior she wanted to see from colleagues. “I treated front-line employees just the same as executives,” she says.
Other items were large. To improve communication and transparency, she instituted monthly employee-wide meetings where she provided status updates on the business. She saved the last 30 minutes of each session for an open Q&A. “I said, ‘I am going to be as real and authentic with you as I hope you will be with me.’”
She also created a set of “ground rules” for all employees. These rules, known as the “compass,” comprise Boston Heart’s mission, values, goals, and top priorities. Every employee signs a copy of the compass once a year. “It’s our contract with one another so that we are aligned.”
Today Boston Heart, which was recently acquired by Eurofins Scientific, is profitable. Susan has grown revenue over 100% CAGR since she took over, and the company has nearly 400 employees. But Susan is perhaps most proud of the strong and positive culture she’s created. Boston Heart has made the Boston Globe’s “Top Places to Work” in Massachusetts list twice: In 2014 in the large companies category, and in 2012 in the medium companies category.
“There’s a lot hugging and high-fives that take place here,” she says. “And the most frequent feedback I get from [outsiders] is about the culture of the company. You can feel it.”
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