September 20th, 2007

What do you really want to accomplish in the next month, the next year, the next decade? Is your career on track? Are your relationships developing correctly? Do you really even know?

The Yardstick

We cannot measure our success without knowing what success will look like. Our goals should be the yardsticks for our lives. If we are meeting our goals, then we are successful. If we are not, then we need to adjust either our goals or our efforts. Do you know what your goals are?

You might want a million dollars, but that’s not good enough. That’s not a goal. It’s a dream. You can’t act on a dream. Do you want to save a million dollars for retirement? If so, then maybe your goal should be to “invest $250 in a mutual fund every month for the next 40 years.” That’s a goal you can act on. You are much more likely to invest $250 than you are to just “save a million dollars.”

Let’s look at another common example. If you want to get in shape, then “eating better” and “going to the gym regularly” should not be your goals. Even “lose ten pounds” shouldn’t be your goal. Those are all just too intangible to reliably act upon. Your goals should be to “eat no more than 1500 calories per day,” and to “go the gym from 6:00 to 7:00 on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.” Anything less than that isn’t a real goal. It’s just a dream.

Toward a Goal

Once you’ve made your goals into something tangible, something measurable, you can monitor your progress. Did you save $250 last month? If not, you need to adjust your budget and compensate. Did you go to the gym last Tuesday? No? Then you need to make the time.

By setting a measurable goal, you can constantly evaluate whether you’re going to reach that goal. If your dream is to spend more time with your kids, you can’t really track that. How much is enough more? If you want to spend 2 hours every weeknight helping your children with their homework and then going for a walk as a family, that’s something you can track. You can try to track your success in your head, or you can actually keep a personal log. Either way, the first step is to make the goal measurable.

I want to finish all of my degree, except for my dissertation, by the end of next spring. That’s not very tangible, though. So instead, my goals are to take my comprehensive exams and finish 12 hours of class this fall, and to take 6 hours of class and propose my dissertation in the spring. These are by no means easy goals (I have a full-time, off-campus job), but they are measurable goals. I know exactly what I need to do, and I know exactly when I need to do it. I can and do track how my school goals are progressing.

Once your goals are measurable, you can make progress. Until then, you’re just frustrating yourself with dreams that won’t come true.

Big Goals

Sometimes a goal might just be too big to really be tangible. If that’s the case, you need to break it into smaller goals. For example, starting your own company is a huge goal. It’s definitely possible, because others have done it. But “start a company” just doesn’t seam tangible, or very measurable, for that matter. You’ve got to somehow break it up into achievable pieces.

If you want to start a software company, you should probably have a goal of spending several hours a day putting together a prototype product. After that, maybe you need to find a partner or an investor. So you should have a goal of spending some amount of time finding a partner. Or a goal of hitting up everyone you know with more than $5 for investment money. At every step of the way, there should be tangible goals. Even if they aren’t all obvious from the beginning, you should be nailing them down as you go along.

Meeting goals can be hard. It can be very hard work. But the first step is to really know what the goals are. Setting goals is not an extremely difficult thing to do. It takes some time, a little personal honesty, and probably a pen and paper. Whatever time and effort you put into setting your goals will pay itself back many times over, when you actually meet your goals. Once you’ve actually set real goals, you’ll know what you want, you’ll know what you need to do to get it, and you’ll know how to track your progress.

People waste their entire lives dreaming and never doing. All the hoping in the world won’t turn a single dream into reality. But hard work can turn goals into reality. Don’t sell yourself short.

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