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9 Tips for Pursuing Your Goals in the New Year

To realize your goals in the New Year, focus on goal pursuit, not goal setting.

Researchers have conducted tens of thousands of experiments on goal setting, illustrating that things like difficulty and specificity are associated with better outcomes. Goal setting, however, is only half the battle. And arguably, it’s the easy half. Without proper “goal pursuit,” the well-set goal will never actually be achieved.

It’s that time of year to set the agenda for the upcoming year. To ensure your goals are actually achieved, consider self-reflecting on each of the goal pursuit dimensions described below.

But first, consider taking my free, validated, and theoretically grounded assessment, “The Right Way To Pursue Your Goals.” This 12-question assessment will automatically generate your scores and a comparison to your peers.

Before discussing goal pursuit, it’s important to clarify the first step—goal setting—of which there are two primary frameworks.

First is SMART goals, which stand for specific (S), measurable (M), actionable (A), realistic (R), and time-bound (T). The focus of the SMART framework is making goals clear, objective, and reasonable. The premise is that clarity is associated with action.

Second is FAST goals, which stands for frequently discussed (F), ambitious (A), specific (S), and transparent (T). The FAST framework is relatively new and builds upon the weakness of the SMART framework. Namely, that individuals are embedded within collective systems such as teams or organizations.

If goal setting is the beginning, goal pursuit is everything in-between the beginning and the end. Once a goal has been set, there are four behavioral approaches that should be pursued that increase the likelihood of goal achievement.

Recognize that Goal Pursuit Involve Dynamic Iteration

Frequent Reevaluation. Organizational change is inevitable. Sometimes it’s drastic and sudden (e.g., the pandemic) and sometimes it’s subtle and incremental (e.g., small mistakes over time). It’s also possible that personal circumstances or interests change over time. While it’s important to stick with your goals, it’s also important to update them based upon your circumstances. It’s pointless to accomplish a goal if it’s no longer relevant or fulfilling.

Pinpoint Successes and Failures. Consider what challenges you’ve overcome and what obstacles remain. Such reflection will ensure that you are efficiently refocusing your efforts and coming up with new strategies for goal attainment.

Create Systems. Create systems that make dynamic interaction part of your routine. For example, schedule time on your calendar for yourself or meeting with others, or add the goal reevaluation process to part of your daily or weekly task list. This reevaluation schedule should be commensurate with the timing of the goals (e.g., daily for short-term goals, monthly for annual goals, etc.).

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Allow for Goal Pursuit Transparency

Tell Somebody. You’re much more likely to stick with your goals when you verbalize them to friends, family, or colleagues. But go beyond the one-and-done goal reveal. When working with others, don’t “bury the lead.” Begin conversations by clearly explaining your goals and how the initiative at hand plays into those goals.

Network Accountability. Use guilt to your advantage. Nobody enjoys letting others down. To increase your odds of sticking with something, figure out how to create some degree of interdependence between your goals and the goals of others. This forced accountability will inevitably lead to ongoing conversations about how to properly pursue the goals together.

Know Your Why.  It’s not enough to simply have a goal. You need to be able to clearly explain why the goal is important to you. Along the way, there will be many people out there that chip away at your ability to stick with your goal. It is in those moments where you need to be able to clearly articulate your why.

Embrace a Multi-Goal Mentality

Reconcile Competing Goals. A glaring flaw of goal-setting frameworks is that they only consider one goal at a time. This is unrealistic. We typically have a list of several goals, some short-term and some long-term, some straightforward and some complex, and some work-related and some personal. It is therefore important to evaluate when and where conflicts manifest. In some cases, it will be necessary to choose one over another. In other cases, it’ll be necessary to make compromises.

Goal Prioritization. Once we recognize the reality of having multiple, competing goals, it is necessary to continually reprioritize goals. Perhaps certain goals should get priority because they are more urgent or because they are tied to other important factors like our well-being or security. Additionally, these goal reprioritization decisions shouldn’t be tied to how we’re feeling in that moment. Instead, these decisions should be based on values and/or higher-order goals.

Time Allocation. We get done what we spend time on. The same rules we follow with respect to time management can be integrated with goal pursuit. The tendency is to spend time focusing on easier, short-term goals. What we should be doing, however, is constantly evaluating our time expenditure on all of our goals, and regularly recalibrating to ensure we first satisfy our highest priority goals.

Make Goal Pursuit Learning-Focused, Not Performance-Focused

Learning First, Performance Second. Focusing on objective outcomes is great. But sometimes we focus on the end-goal without considering how we get there. If the goal is relatively difficult, by definition, we don’t yet have all of the ingredients for achieving the goal. Thus, the focus should be on learning, not performing.

New Knowledge or Skills. It’s important to uncover what exactly we need to learn in order to obtain our goal. The first common category is knowledge, which entails the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject. The second is skills, which entails proficiencies obtained through training or experience. Obtaining knowledge comes from asking the right questions from the right sources. Obtaining skills comes from seeking out opportunities to practice the behaviors of interest.

Breaking Down the Process. Efficient goal pursuit entails breaking down goals into sub-goals, steps, or components. Sub-goals are smaller goals that accumulate as a larger end-goal. Step-based goals work like a Gantt chart, showing you what you need to do first, second, third, etc. to progress towards the end-goal. Component-based goals have an interactive effect such that the end-goal will only be achieved if several components are simultaneously achieved.

Keep in mind that goal setting is important, but it will only take you so far. To achieve your goals in the New Year, it’s important to focus on the process of goal pursuit.

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Dr. Scott Dust

Scott Dust, Ph.D. is the Chief Research Officer at Cloverleaf, an HR-tech platform that facilitates coaching for everyone. Dr. Dust is also a Raymond E. Glos Associate Professor at the Farmer School of Business, Miami University. His research focuses on leadership and teams and has been published in over 30 peer-reviewed academic journals. Dr. Dust is also on the editorial review board of three journals, including the Journal of Organizational Behavior, Group and Organization Management, and the Journal of Social Psychology. He is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has a blog column at Psychology Today.