What We Learned About Setting Goals & How To Actually Reach Them

You set a goal. You write it down and share it with people around you. You’re committed. You can feel it – this is the year you’re going to reach it! Your eye is on the target. Nothing is going to stop you. Then the end of the year comes…

You look at your goal and where you are now. You feel a balloon in the pit of your stomach quickly deflate as you realize you didn’t reach it. You wonder what’s the point? Why bother setting goals anyway if you can’t reach them? You sit back and visualize the peak of that mountain, slipping further and further away. You have a mountain to climb but feel like you’re just walking on a Stair Master.

We’ve been there. It sucks.

But we’ve also felt that amazing charge of energy and excitement you get from reaching a goal. The feeling that you can accomplish anything because you’ve proven you can set a goal and kill it!

So, what’s the difference between setting goals and feeling let down, and setting goals you reach?

Here is a look at what we’ve learned and how we’ve gotten better at setting and achieving our goals.

What we learned the hard way

We’ve struggled to achieve goals by some of the classic mistakes. We didn’t set realistic goals – we set them too high within a short time frame. We’ve set goals that weren’t specific enough or ones we couldn’t measure accurately. We’ve set goals that didn’t have a detailed enough action plan. We’ve set goals and failed to adjust when things didn’t go according to plan. We’ve set too many goals and struggled to accomplish all or even some of them. We’ve let ourselves become distracted by shiny new things instead of remaining focused on a specific goal.

Have we struggled? Yes. Failed? Yes, more than once. Did we let that stop us from setting and reaching new goals? Not a chance.

By paying attention to where we failed and why, we’ve been able to get better at both setting goals and achieving them.

“A goal properly set is halfway reached.”

—Zig Ziglar

What we’re doing differently to get better

Review where we went wrong

Every quarter we do a retrospect about the previous quarter. We examine whether or not we met our goal(s), what went well, what didn’t go well, and what we can improve for next time.

We dig into distractions that came up, where we struggled, challenges we didn’t plan for, and talk about what we should have done differently, and what we’ll do differently moving forward. Progress involves change. If you don’t change, you can’t expect different results.

Set more specific & measurable goals

Setting vague or conceptual goals makes it difficult to track and reach them, which means you’re setting yourself up for failure. Concepts and ideas are helpful for vision, but goals need to be measurable and specific.

To properly set goals and track our progress, we’ve had to learn that we can’t just rely on our gut. We’ve had to change our thinking and become more data centric.

For example, we wanted to make the customer support experience a better one. To do this, we had to start tracking our customer satisfaction (CSAT) score. This meant sending out surveys so we could measure and compare “happy”, merely “satisfied”, and “unsatisfied” customers. And when setting a target, we had to make that goal measurable. In this case, maintaining a 90% CSAT.

Create specific action plans  

If there is no plan to achieve the goal, it is just a wish, and businesses don’t succeed on wishes. We’ve gradually become better at creating and executing action plans through more practice.

Creating an action plan usually involves breaking down the goal into small chunks and setting checkpoints for when we’ll achieve each portion.

For example, revamping our website was a priority for one quarter. So we mapped out how many weeks we had in the quarter and worked backward to figure out how much time we could allocate for planning, content writing, design, editing, and coding. We set weekly checkpoints so we knew whether or not we were on track and when we needed to adjust to stay on track.

Be flexible and learn to adapt

Anyone who’s run a business knows plans don’t always go, well, according to plan. We’ve had to learn how to adapt and be flexible to reach our goals as unexpected problems arise – which happens all the time. This meant being disciplined to revisiting our plan at each check point and adjusting as needed.

Our priority for one quarter was to build our Customer Personas. We had planned to do at least 20 customer phone interviews, analyze that data, and then summarize it to create our Customer Personas.

But after the first few weeks of the quarter, we hadn’t heard back from any customers about scheduling interview calls. We knew we had to change something or we wouldn’t be able to make our first checkpoint. So we made a focused effort to experiment with multiple different email messages multiple times a day and increased the number of customers we reached out to. It worked, and we started getting a 50% response rate from our emails.

Set a DRI for each goal

Another thing we learned the hard way is that for each goal we set, we need to have a Directly Responsible Individual (DRI). If everyone is responsible for a goal, no one is responsible for it.

This doesn’t mean that one person is solely responsible for reaching that goal, as all our goals are group efforts. What it does mean, is that one person is responsible for leading and driving the results. This means they’re the leader when coming up with an action plan, tracking, and making decisions.

Are they the only one involved in planning or making decisions? No. But they’re the one driving those decisions and accountable when we’re behind on that specific goal.

Be more diligent in tracking success 

Without tracking success regularly, it’s easy to forget about a goal or just see it as something you’ll achieve later. We learned that we had to be very disciplined in tracking our success. We had to force ourselves to get into the habit of tracking our progress each week as it coincides with our action plan.

We use a weekly tracking sheet and colour-code the progress of each goal. Every week, the person directly responsible for the goal is responsible for setting the colour of the goal. Green for on track, yellow for slightly off track, and red for way off.

This has forced us each week to consider where we are in our progress. We’ve also had to train ourselves to change from “we’re behind because of XYZ” to “here’s what we’re doing to get back on track.”

Plan more time for building up momentum

When setting goals, it’s easy to say “okay, we want to double sales by the end of the year, so we have to do XYZ in dollars each month to get there”. But that’s not usually how it works. We learned that we needed to allot more time in the initial phase to build up momentum.

Let’s say you want to increase sales $100,000 in the next three months. Instead of planning to increase sales $33,000 each month for three months, it’s more effective to plan to increase sales $10,000 the first month, then $30,000 the second month, and then $60,000 in the third month.

Why? Because progress happens incrementally.

We learned that when setting goals, the first few weeks or even first month is spent experimenting and preparing the work that won’t drive results until the second month, so now when setting goals, we plan some buffer time for experimenting to build up momentum, and break down our goal accordingly.

Set less, more focused goals

It’s tempting to write out a whole list of goals you want to achieve. But usually what happens is that you end up spreading yourself too thin. The result is that you make some progress in some or all areas, but don’t really drive solid results in any of them.

We’ve learned through trial and error that it’s better to set a smaller, more focused list of goals. This way we’re more focused on just a few things and can really drive results. Where we used to set 8 or 10 goals, we’re now setting around 3-5 goals with one top level goal.

Say “no” to distractions

Being focused is important to reach your goals. The way we originally thought about focus was that it meant being really focused on the goal. What we learned was that while that’s true, focus is really more about saying “no” to everything else.

We’ve become much better at saying “no” to distractions, as well as identifying distractions as they creep up. We’ve also learned that when planning ahead for each quarter, it’s really important to identify the most important things that need to be accomplished. We’ve gotten better at figuring out those things that will have the greatest impact on our overall success and using those very important things to drive focus during planning so we keep our priority list tight.

The results

We’re still not perfect at setting goals, but we’ve been getting better at both setting and hitting our goals; even exceeding some! What used to be sometimes demotivating, is now exciting because we’ve put a lot of effort into getting better at what we know we weren’t great at.

For us, we’ve learned that achieving goals happens through practice and a commitment to continually improve, no matter how incremental.