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How to stick to goals

Insight

Psychology shows us why goal setting is important, and Olympian Mark Richardson has explained how to set ambitious goals, but once we set a goal, how do we stick to it? Less than 10% of New Year’s resolutions will have been kept by next January, suggesting that the hardest part of goal setting is actually following through on our ambitions.

To find out what it takes to turn a goal into an achievement, we spoke to Adrian Moorhouse, Lane4’s Managing Director and Olympic Gold Medallist.

What process do you follow in sticking to goals?

The key for me is to break down big goals into little parts that you can measure and track more easily. If your goal is to get a promotion this year, you need to understand what actions will add up to make that happen: speaking to your manager, upskilling yourself, taking on bigger projects, etc.

It also helps to share your goals with others. This means that people can help you review your progress, as well as support you through the tougher times. We also feel more reluctant to give up if other people know our goals.

What makes a goal achievable?

The quality of the goal you set is really important – there’s no point setting yourself a woolly or ambiguous goal. That being said, the hardest part of reaching goals isn’t having the vision, it’s sticking it out to make that vision a reality. Sometimes that requires being able to adapt your approach on the way to reaching your goal.

Small goals should be flexible because there are many ways to reach an outcome goal. I’m not a fan of changing those big goals though – if your driving vision is to win an Olympic medal, you can’t really change that without it being some kind of step back.

How much flexibility do you allow yourself in achieving your goals?

When I was swimming, it was all time-based, which makes it easy to set numerical, measurable goals – how quick are my turns, how many strokes per minute etc. Even my diet could be quite scientifically tracked.

In business, goals are often much more fluid, but the danger is they become too ambiguous. That being said, although you need to have a framework for meeting targets, you don’t want to make yourself a slave to it. If your ambition is to increase your market share, you should decide on the numbers and metrics to aim for, but you don’t necessarily want to pursue those numbers at all costs. This is flexibility is common among disruptive start-ups.

Are your goals interconnected?

A holistic approach is human – we’re not very good at totally separating different aspects of our lives – and there are some goals that fit a lot of areas. For me, staying fit is a health goal as well as a business goal.

However, you shouldn’t goal-orient everything in life, otherwise you’ll put too much pressure on yourself. We all need some things in life we just enjoy rather than optimise.

What traps do people fall into when they’re trying to stick to a goal?

The first step is always the hardest, and so people often try and find a reason to avoid it. If you want to start running, for example, you might put off buying running shoes so that you can never have that first run.

I know lots of people who have lots of things they’d like to do, and very few people do them. And I think that’s because they’re not sticking true to delivering and executing against a goal. But that’s the hardest thing, because people like to wriggle away from things.

Ultimately, a goal is a nice thing to say or write down, it’s not always a nice thing to actually pursue.

The other difficulty people run into is “getting back on the horse”. Sticking to goals when you’re on track requires dedication but sticking to them when you’ve failed in some way takes resilience. It’s about learning how to build confidence after a setback in order to try to reach the goal again (or adapt the goal itself).

There’s a lot in the news at the moment about multi-generational workforces. Do you think there are any challenges that are unique to younger generations when it comes to sticking to goals?

One of the big challenges for those who are new to the business world is that they are suddenly very important. At school or university, an individual’s goals don’t really have an impact on the institution. It’s not a situation where Tom missed out on his A* in geography and now the teacher won’t get paid.

A business, however, is an entity made up of the need to hit goals; if it doesn’t hit financial goals then it will collapse. One realisation a lot of young people have, therefore, is that their performance matters, not just to them and their grades, but to the institution they find themselves in.

This can feel like a burden, but it is also incredibly exciting – being part of a business means being part of a success story, and one that your own performance can improve.

How to stick to goals

  • Break down your goals into measurable components
  • Tell other people about your goals
  • The first step is always the hardest – push yourself to overcome it
  • Be ready for failure in preparation for potential challenges
  • Keep reminding yourself of the purpose aligned to your goals - your personal "why"
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