As the end of summer approaches, my attention has naturally turned to the beginning of a new school year. There are supplies to be purchased, new teachers to meet, and schedules to coordinate. My thoughts, however, have been focused less on the tangible activities related to a new school year and more on the growth of my children.
This growth becomes particularly evident in light of the milestones they are reaching. The first day of kindergarten, new classes and subjects, rapidly increasing grade numbers. The progress is much easier to see when there are clear markers that can be observed, as opposed to the progress during the school year that often goes unnoticed.
This principle is apparent in many other aspects of life as well. It is much easier to see progress if we have a way to observe it. We need something that can call our attention to gradual changes and improvement. This can be through the achievement of milestones or through measurements that quantify progress.
Unfortunately, milestones and measures alone do not provide any benefit to us as individuals or organizations. They are lagging indicators of progress. By the time we have achieved them, the work is already done. Goals are what really provide the motivation we need to pursue progress.
Achievement is Part of Human DNA
Humans have a natural desire to achieve and make progress. We are inspired by great accomplishments and performances.
This is why goals are so powerful. Inside all of us is a desire to experience the thrill of success, the positive feeling of fulfilling dreams.
Imagine that you are pursuing a significant goal, like climbing a high summit or running a long race. When is your motivation at its highest? Typically, when the end is in sight.
How would you feel if you gave up at that point? What if you turned around and went home just before reaching the peak or called it quits 100 yards from the finish line?
It would eat you up inside. There would be a feeling of disappointment in not finishing the goal you set out to achieve. Which, if you really think about it, is kind of silly.
In these examples, the majority of the tangible benefits of the activity have already been achieved prior to reaching your goal. The benefits of a mountain climb include significant exercise, stunning views, and enjoying the activity of hiking. Odds are, you have already experienced all of these prior to reaching the peak. The view from the summit is not likely all that different from the view 100 feet below it. But it feels different.
Pursuit of the positive feelings and emotions from completing something is what keeps us going. We want to finish what we have started. We want to reach the top of the mountain, finish the race, cross the bridge, finish our degree, whatever that goal is that you have set for yourself.
This is why the concept of gamification has gained so much traction recently. Gamification is the application of concepts from behavioral economics, loyalty programs, and game design to other activities with the goal of motivating certain behaviors in individuals. It can be used to engage customers and employees and improve organizational performance.
In essence, gamification is used to create small goals for individuals and provide immediate feedback on progress. The creates an environment in which users are motivated to take actions and make progress in areas that they would otherwise not be interested in.
If you have ever used a fitness app that tracks your progress with achievements or tried to increase your credit score, you have likely benefited from gamification.
But setting goals doesn’t always work. Have you ever set a New Year’s Resolution that you didn’t achieve? Or achieved a goal that didn’t result in feelings of accomplishment?
What type of goals actually provide the right amount of motivation?
How to Set Inspiring Goals
Much has already been written about how to set goals. One of the most common pieces of advice is to set SMART goals. While most of this advice is very useful, following all of it can lead to uninspiring goals.
The Achievable part of SMART goals is the most problematic. Many people have a tendency to set goals that are too easy. They opt for can’t-miss goals that will require no extra effort to achieve.
How motivated would you feel if you set a goal for yourself to climb to the summit of your staircase? Or walk across the street? Or write an email? How many of your employees will be motivated if they can achieve your team goals just by showing up to work?
If we want motivational benefits from our goals, it requires setting our sights higher. Pick goals that stretch us out of our comfort zone or will require extraordinary effort to achieve.
We may even need to rely on luck to some extent. Most of us would not be comfortable with this. We want our goals to be entirely in our control so that we can ensure that we meet them. What we need to remember is that meeting goals is not the actual goal.
Progress is the Ultimate Goal
It is easy to get caught up in the desire to meet goals and check boxes. When this happens, we tend to forget that goals are just a tool that can help provide focus and motivation.
What we are ultimately after is progress in a certain direction. We want to achieve an ongoing mission for our organization or personal lives. We want to improve ourselves and our teams.
These objectives can be too vague and abstract to be useful on a daily basis, so we turn to goals. They provide a more tangible target for us to focus on. They are a motivational tool to help us make progress, not the ultimate goal
Having this proper understanding of goals frees us up to be more aggressive and inspirational with our goal setting. Missing a goal is not as bad when you put it in the proper perspective. The focus should be on the progress and benefits that you did achieve, rather than on the small amount you didn’t. You just reset your goals and try again, continuing to make progress.
If you want to inspire your team or yourself, think about what your mission is. What type of progress would move you forward in your journey? Once your direction is clear, you can turn to goals to make your objective more concrete, but don’t be afraid to aim high.
What goals will you set today to move yourself forward?