(Beware: AHA moment ahead!)
At the beginning of every month, I jot down a list of goals that I would like to accomplish during the month. And, at the end of every month, there are usually at least one or two (honestly, more like four or five) things that aren’t checked off. This makes me feel like crap. I am so disappointed in myself as I write the same goals in for the next month until I wonder why they’re on there. I mean, how important can they be if they keep getting bumped off my daily to-do list? Until finally, I said, “Enough! And I learned to fix the problem.”
Instead of rolling my tasks over, this month I spent time examining the tasks that were checked off and researching goal setting in the hopes of fixing the problem.
First, I looked at my personal goals and the goals for the business and asked these questions:
Was it easy to complete these tasks?
Did I enjoy working on these?
What type of pressure was on me for these and was it the same type of pressure I felt for the incomplete tasks?
What drove me on these tasks?
Here’s an example.
- Task One: Complete the Abask “How to write a copy deck” ebook
- Task Two: Run 35 miles
- Task Three: Complete client copy deck.
And here are the results of my incredibly academic study (ha!).
The first task was overwhelming. It was a risk because I didn’t have an audience set up for it, and I was accountable to no one other than myself. For this reason, it felt indulgent to me. So, every time something else came up, it got bumped.
The second task was also somewhat indulgent because it was for me alone. But it was quick being that it was broken into daily steps. It was also tracked and there was a competitive element because I was trying to beat friends. So, in a way, I was accountable to someone else.
The third task was not quick, but I worked on a schedule with strict deadlines and rules. If I didn’t complete it, I wouldn’t get paid. I also would disappoint a client (I hate disappointing people) and would probably not get any future work from them or a referral for more business.
Looking at my own character – I’m a short-term planner rather than a long-term planner, and a very competitive person – having accountability or competition and bite-sized processes are the most important factors in the success of this task.
So, what were the results?
Results of Goal One: Ebook. FAIL.
I barely scratched the surface of goal one. I wrote for a few hours, but I didn’t complete it. Without seeing it through, not only did I not finish the ebook, but I also wasted several hours working on it, and several more hours feeling bad about it. This goal didn’t move me forward, it actually moved me backward.
Results of Goal Two: Run 25 miles. Success.
I completed this goal. Did I run every day? No, and this made the goal harder. On the days I ran, I woke up, put on running clothes and ran as soon as I dropped the kids off at school. It was no big deal. There were days when I would procrastinate after dropping the kids off. If I had to pick something up on the way back from school for example, or I had a meeting on my mind for later in the day. These days were SO hard. My brain has time to fight the urge to run. And on the days I skipped a run, I felt sluggish and not as productive at work that day.
By running first thing in the morning, I have no time to think, I just put one foot in front of the other and I disappear into my mind. And slowly, throughout the month I found I was running further and faster. I am getting better at it!
Results of Goal Three: Write a client’s copy deck. Success.
Easy peasy. This was a busy month at Abask and I find when I’m busy, I am much more productive. I pay more attention to my self-imposed daily schedule. I assigned a couple hours every day to work on the copy deck and finished the first draft in less than 2 weeks. By the end of the month, we had blasted through three rounds of edits and the website content was approved and ready to go live.
Was the success dependent on being accountable to others?
No. My running competitors bailed after the first week, but I kept going. Since the goal is now finished, I am still running without any competition at all.
The success depended on routine and not giving the brain a chance to rebel.
The true takeaway is that goals don’t work. Systems do.
The goal is simply a bi-product of the system.
When running, my system is to get up and go. Don’t think, just do.
Here’s a different example: When I was in Costa Rica, I went ziplining. I flew on a wire above the rain forest at 165 feet up. I had to stand on a platform and wait my turn. I came very close to not doing it. I thought I was going to throw up in front of everyone and all over the top of the beautiful rain forest trees. The next day, I went rappelling down the side of a 150-foot waterfall. I wasn’t scared at all. I didn’t look down before I went. I didn’t wait, I volunteered to go first. My brain didn’t have time to rebel. Sometimes, it’s better to not think too much.
Set up a system by first allocating a set time every single day. Lay out bite-sized steps into a checklist that you will work on every day. Schedule it on the calendar and do it as early in the day as possible. Don’t give your brain time to rebel and schedule it early enough that it won’t interfere with potential meetings.
Don’t think. Just do.
If you have a system and you follow it daily, the goal will be a natural result of the system. You can’t fail. It becomes a natural habit that nothing will bump from your schedule.
The copy deck ebook didn’t have a system. I had no assigned time. I would sit down whenever I had a moment and lose ten minutes trying to remember where I stood with the project and another 20 minutes trying to find the right “voice.” The only benefit I got from attempting the ebook was an understanding of systems!
Now matter how you frame it, a system is better than a goal.
Can you assign SMART to a system?
And what of the S.M.A.R.T. criteria that should be assigned to every goal? I was always taught that a goal should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Can you assign the same criteria to a system? Well, systems should be specific, measurable, attainable, and relevant. In my opinion, rather than time bound by a deadline (like a goal for the month), make it time bound by a schedule (as in, “This goal will happen every day while I eat breakfast.”) In this way, a system will be improved. After all, the more specific a system can be, the simpler it becomes, the less your brain has to engage and the more productive you can be AND the more profitable your business will be.
Isn’t that every entrepreneur’s dream: easier work that makes more money?
How do you add another system once you have the first established?
Once a goal is met, do you just dump it and find another one? No! You just built a system that will eventually turn into a habit. And it’s a good habit, so you have to nurture it.
More recently, a study of 96 people published in The European Journal of Social Psychology found it took on average 66 days to form a habit, such as eating fruit at lunch or running for 15 minutes a day. But in the study, the actual number of days ranged from 18 to 254 days – indicating that it can take a very short or a very long time!
After taking a vacation of five days, I haven’t got back to my running yet. Obviously, breaking a healthy habit is much easier than creating one. So, you should never try to add another system to your schedule until you have fully accepted the first one. Each system you add to your schedule will be harder to maintain than the last. The key for me is scheduling.
The scheduling test
First, I tried to fix my accounting day to Thursday. The idea is that every Thursday after lunch, I check in on my accounts receivables and update all billing. But there have been a few times that a client or employee has asked for a meeting on Thursday afternoon and I forget my billing time. Next time I check in, there’s a backlog and I spend several hours organizing. Fail!
Next, I tried adding writing as another daily system. After running, I wrote for 30 minutes. This didn’t work well because I was sweaty and my brain was fixed on a shower and then my subconscious kept thinking of the time I was taking away from work – the shower, dressing, etc. I got very little quality writing done when I forced myself to sit and write. Fail!
Finally, I tried spending 15 minutes BEFORE my run on planning my day. I sat at 8:15 (my original running time) and planned my day, then went for a run at around 8:30. SUCCESS! It works especially well because the running habit is already set. I already believe in its value, so I will run, even if it’s 15 minutes later. I also found myself thinking through my daily plans while running, which was very helpful and got me through the shower in lightning speed because I was excited to get my day started.
The conclusion: to add a new system, wait until the first is fully adopted and add the new one right before it.
Here’s your challenge, should you choose to accept it:
- Pick a goal. Make sure it is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
- Lay it out into a system. What will you do EVERY day to complete this goal?
Make sure it’s something that you will continue even when this goal is met.
Make sure it’s a time allotment that is realistic. Don’t schedule two hours a day if you can’t afford to spend that time for the long term.
For myself, I will be spending this month getting both my morning systems and evening systems back on track after my vacation. Unfortunately, every break throws off the system, but already knowing what works for me, makes getting it back on track pretty simple. Once I feel like I’m back, I will be adding my SEO process, laid out into bite sizes to work on each day. Stay tuned for updates on that!
BUT IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE…