Goal Setting: How to Increase Productivity and Make Real Progress With Useful Goals

Most of us are familiar with the idea of a to-do list, vision boards, and using visual reminders of our goals to keep us on task. However, did you know that setting clear and attainable goals for yourself can make you significantly more productive?

Have you ever made a list of what you’d like to accomplish and set it down only to remember it weeks or months later? You think to yourself, “What happened?” 

If you want to make meaningful change in your productivity, there’s a smart way to use goal setting. Goal setting should be a methodical, frequently referenced tool to keep you on track, and prevent you from losing sight of what you want to accomplish.

Let’s explore different types of goals as well as methods to help your goal setting actually work for you, moving you toward your goals and transforming you into a high performer.

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Why is Goal Setting Important for Productivity?

Although goal setting is undeniably important, methodical goal setting yields increased productivity. One study found that goal setting led to improvement in at least one concrete measure of productivity.

It’s important to note that the types of goals utilized by high performers are specific, rather than vaguely inspirational. 

Many kids say that their goal is to become a professional athlete. Maybe you want to become a chief executive at a company or start your own business. 

These goals sound nice, and it’s fun to fantasize and talk about how great your life would be when you attain those goals. Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean much in such a simple form.

Your goals should foster a sense of purpose during the process and once you accomplish them. Not only that, they should guide you each step of the way so that you know exactly what to do.

Long-Term vs. Short-Term

There’s no standard for what qualifies as a short-term or a long-term goal. Think of them relative to one another. The obvious is that short-term goals possess deadlines that approach quicker than those of long-term goals. Short-term goals use less time. 

There is an order you can employ to create something useful for your productivity system. Using the right system, you can break down your goals into long-term and short-term.

Long-Term Goals

Long-term goals are fun and exciting. These are the big dreams that get your heart racing. These are the goals that keep driving you when things become monotonous or difficult.

Maybe you’d like to work towards owning your own home or launching your own business. 

Your long-term goals are like the travel destinations you’ve circled on a map. You probably won’t be able to hit all of those destinations immediately. Instead, you might have to wait for a while before you travel to the next location, but you’re planning for each trip.

Short-Term Goals

Short-term goals can help you break down your long-term goals. When you build a house, it makes sense to build certain things before others. You can’t add the roof without walls, and the walls require the completion of the foundation. 

Short-term goals may not be as big and grand as the more-exciting long term goals. They live in the everyday and are the ‘meat and potatoes’ of the goal-setting exercise. 

Unlike long-term goals they may not set your heart on fire. They may not cause you to dream of tomorrow but they are no less important. 

Short-term goals are steps that take you towards your long-term goals.

Don’t Just Set Goals, Create SMART Goals

While ‘pie in the sky’ goals, like “I want to be a millionaire at 30”, may be fun, these aren’t particularly helpful. That’s why the SMART framework is great for your productivity system.

The SMART acronym was first published in the November 1981 issue of Management Review by George T. Doran. By using the SMART framework, you create better goals, with little room for ambiguity and guess work. 

Nowadays, there are a couple of definitions but a common one is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant or realistic, and time-bound. This will guide your goal-setting process:

The SMART Framework

Specific: What exactly needs to be done? You can use the five W’s–who, what, when, where, why.

Measurable: How will you know when the task has been completed to satisfaction? Use a metric or a definitive answer to a question that allows you to determine the status of your goal.

Achievable: Is this task attainable given the resources available to you? It should neither be impossible nor below your standard performance.

Relevant: How much does it matter to you or anyone that might be affected? How will it impact your life or those involved?

Time-bound: When does it need to be done by? Give yourself a target date so that you have some sense of urgency.

Think of it as defining requirements for a project. Whether it be a remodeling project for the house or a research project for a course you’re taking, you have guidelines. This is what helps you determine whether you’ve met the objective. 

SMART goals force you to look at goals objectively and realistically. There shouldn’t be an element of subjectivity when evaluating whether you’ve accomplished your goals. There’s no, “Well…I kind of completed my goals.”

The SMART framework allows you to definitively determine whether or not you’ve achieved what you set out to do. 

By setting these parameters at the beginning, the goal is no longer an abstract concept but instead a concrete, tangible task within reach.

Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)

Another method you can use for your productivity system is the objectives and key results (OKRs) framework. Andy Grove, one of Intel’s first employees who later became the company’s CEO, first introduced OKRs at Intel in the 1970s. 

One of Grove’s students was John Doerr, an early investor in Google who introduced OKRs to Google’s leadership. It’s been widely used at big tech companies as a method to set ambitious goals and track progress. 

OKRs also use the specific, measurable, relevant, and time-bound aspects of the SMART framework while pushing the limits of the achievable and realistic facets. With OKRs, the idea is to aim high and create stretch goals. At Google, for example, OKR success means reaching 70% of the objectives. 

The objective is clearly defined and supported by initiatives designed to achieve that objective. Objectives should describe a specific result or condition instead of something vague and general.

  • Keep exercising.
  • Find new customers.

  • Exercise twice a week.
  • Increase revenue by 15% this month.

Anyone should be able to determine whether or not the objective has been achieved. This way the goal is not free-floating, preventing misinterpretation of the method of achievement. Instead the goal is paired with a plan to accomplish it. 

Key results refer to the outcome and the criteria used to track progress. Key results must be both measurable and quantifiable. Achieving key results moves you towards accomplishing your objectives.

  • Lose weight.
  • Research 20 prospective customers.

  • Lose five pounds by the end of the month.
  • Land eight new customers this month by researching and talking to 20 prospects.

Even if the objective has not yet been achieved, you can identify your progress in terms of a percentage.

It doesn’t have to be exact but you can say, for example, you are 60% of your way to completing the task. Key results can be any metric from revenue, to items produced, or in some cases a binary–a yes or no–answer to a question set by the objective. 

Even when you fail to reach the lofty goals, you might notice that you’ve still made substantial progress.

Leveraging a Team for Productivity

You can introduce these goal-setting methods to your team as well. Your team may be a department at work or simply a group of friends. 

When you or your team work towards a clear objective, not only does it bring a sense of unity, but it can increase focus and keep you on track. Team alignment that involves working on a common objective reduces distractions and may inspire friendly competition or quell rivalries.

It can be difficult to keep yourself accountable to your goals when failing to meet them is inconsequential. Sharing your goals with a group of people is one way to get around this because your pride doesn’t want you to fail in front of others. 

You can discuss progress with your friends or ‘teammates’ and encourage each other. This provides accountability to your productivity system and keeps everyone on track.

Proper Goal Setting Produces Results

Proper goal-setting techniques avoid many obstacles that you’ve previously encountered. Maybe your goals were too general. Maybe they were unrealistic. Maybe you didn’t really have a reason to commit. 

SMART goals and OKRs will help you guide you along the path. These are methods that we can all adopt. The key is to take a systematic approach to find the productivity you’re looking for and achieve more.

With these tools in your productivity system, you’ll know exactly what your goals are and how to achieve them. You’ll be on your way to becoming a high performer.

Have you used these frameworks before? What kind of results have you seen? What are some other methods you’ve incorporated in your productivity system?

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