Laser-focused Business Goals!

There are a lot of ways for business owners to formulate, define and drive to their business goals. A mentor I had while I worked at Microsoft had three goals he printed on a 3 x 5 note card and taped that to his monitor. He told me that if what he was doing didn’t directly impact any of those three things, he would not do it (where he was in the pecking order allowed him that kind of choice…). He was relentless and laser-focused on those goals every day. They were something of a mantra for him.

Seriously interested in being as successful in my career as he was in his, I gave this a try. While my place in the pecking order didn’t allow me the kind of flexibility to say “No.” to some activities that didn’t map to my goals, I gave it my best shot. What I began to find was that, while my goals may have been well-written and clear, the day-to-day required to get there became more difficult and a lot less fun. Needless to say, this was frustrating….

Fast forward to the present: I ran across an article recently that has helped me re-frame my approach to my business goals. In true “Internet-rabbit-hole” fashion, one article led to another and I ended up re-familiarizing myself with a way of being I already knew. The article refers to research that suggests setting goals and then laser-focusing on them can actually be detrimental to motivation and perseverance. That is, if you’re fixated on the goal, you’re less likely to enjoy the day-to-day of getting there, and so your chance of failure increases. If you revel in the process, you are much more likely to actually get to the finish line. In other words, mindfulness and flow as ways of being in your business make it more likely that you will succeed.

James Clear discusses the difference between goals and systems, suggesting that focusing on systems (another way of thinking of mindfulness….) rather than goals makes more sense.  He provides three reasons why:

  • Goals reduce your current happiness.  Choosing a goal puts enormous pressure on you.  We do this all the time and it sucks the life out of our days. If I set a goal of writing a book, for example, by the end of 2015, I’m telling myself that I will be happy and complete only when the book is done (and a best-seller!). So any time I sit down to write, there is the proverbial “elephant in the room” and the additional pressure. However, if I commit to a process of regular writing like several of my author friends have done (daily, Mondays and Thursdays, or whatever…), it keeps things simple, reduces stress by focusing on the daily process and sticking to my schedule. No big, intimidating goals looming over my shoulder. Now I can enjoy the present moment, write and improve all at the same time.
  • Goals are strangely at odds with long-term progress. Goals are supposed to keep you motivated over the long-term, right?  Isn’t that the point? An example that James Clear uses is of someone training for a half-marathon:
Many people will work hard for months, but as soon as they finish the race, they stop training. Their goal was to finish the half-marathon and now that they have completed it, that goal is no longer there to motivate them. When all of your hard work is focused on a particular goal, what is left to push you forward after you achieve it? This can create a type of “yo-yo effect” where people go back and forth from working on a goal to not working on one. This type of cycle makes it difficult to build upon your progress for the long-term.

Consider letting go of the need for immediate results. A good friend of mine calls this “taking the farmer’s view“. Coming from Iowa, I get this. A farmer gets up every morning at some inhuman hour, every day, no matter what. The chores of pulling weeds, fertilizing the soil, planting, etc. go on Every.Single.Day. This farmer does not expect to reap a harvest in a single day. Yet, they experience a closeness with nature and their land that is difficult to explain. Even the milestone of the year’s harvest in in the greater context of the rhythm of the land, crop rotation, the seasons, and so on. Immediate results are not in the picture.

  • Goals suggest that you can control things that you have no control over.  You CANNOT predict the future….and you have little to no control over almost anything. Yet, when you set a goal, that’s just what you’re trying to do. You try to predict what success looks like, how you’ll get there, how long it will take, how much it will cost, and so on (I just finished re-reading The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman, and am reminded that all parties fully believed that the War begun in 1914 could scarcely last longer than 3 or 4 months, tops…so our history for predicting the future, regardless of “how good the data look” is really bad…).
Building feedback loops can help you keep track of the many different pieces of your business without feeling like you have to predict what’s happening with everything. Clear wrote, “Forget about predicting the future and build a system that can signal when you need to make adjustments.”

What I truly appreciate about this approach is the admission that enjoying the journey is important and more likely to result in the success of my business than hyper-ventilating about my business goals. Goals aren’t useless. I like to think of goals as a vision of “the city on the hill“. I get the direction from this vision, but the road there is what I travel today.

Some resources:

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