- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Now that we’re into 2009, it’s a good time to assess how we’re doing on all those New Year’s resolutions. So, how are they coming?

That bad, eh? Just like last year — and the year before? According to a 2002 study, 75 percent of resolutions are maintained past the first week, but the stick-to-it rate drops to 46 percent after six months. Why do so many of us struggle with this?

Most people assume the problem is willpower. What most people miss is the process of setting effective goals.

Setting goals can be a powerful exercise that provides a road map for the future. Properly set goals can align our priorities and fuel our motivation. In our book “Life Entrepreneurs,” we make the case that effective goals are purposeful and prioritized, clear and measurable, challenging but achievable.

For starters, we must be clear about the “why” behind our goals: Why do we want to achieve them? What benefits can we expect when we succeed? Too often, aspiring leaders say they want to “run something,” politicians to “run for something” and entrepreneurs to achieve wealth and independence. Columbia University business professor Amar Bhide points out that these goals need a “why.”

What entrepreneurs really want, he has discovered, is to develop a cool new technology, express their artistic talents or create something lasting that embodies their values. This requires digging deeper — asking the “why” question until it can no longer be asked. In the end, we must develop goals that are aligned with our purpose, values and vision for our future.

Goals also must be prioritized. As we set goals, we must continually ask: Is this the right priority now? What is the “opportunity cost” — the cost of the time and energy that could be spent in other pursuits? Occasionally our goals may conflict. By setting priorities, we choose where to focus our energies.

Next, our goals must be clear and measurable. Without a clear target and deadline, goals have no “teeth.” It’s one thing to set a goal of starting an independent consulting practice, but until we add “within six months,” the adrenaline doesn´t kick in. In 2007, the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), a leading network of high-performing urban schools, announced a goal of serving 21,000 students in Houston through a cluster of 42 schools within 10 years. There is no mistaking the parameters of this audacious goal.

Next, our goals must be challenging but achievable. Good goals lift our sights and summon our ambition. We generally should set goals that we have a reasonable chance of achieving, though it’s also helpful to set BHAGs — “big, hairy, audacious goals” — that really stretch us.

So far so good, but avoiding the common stumbling blocks in setting goals is as important as following the steps above. Where do most people trip? Here’s our list:

• Setting the wrong goals, adopting the goals we think we should have or goals others will admire.

• Having too many goals. Having three to five well-constructed goals is much better than a litany of 20 goals that risks diluting our efforts.

• Lowering the bar after hitting the first obstacle instead of redoubling our efforts. Ratcheting goals down should not be the knee-jerk response to roadblocks.

• Not letting our goals see the light of day. Keeping goals to ourselves means we won’t get support from others - and they won’t hold us accountable.

• Letting our goals master us. Sometimes all the time and energy we pour into accomplishing something devolves into an unhealthy fixation. We must maintain perspective and flexibility, celebrating progress along the way.

• Viewing goals as a “sprint.” Properly conceived, goal-setting becomes a habit, with goals pursued through consistent and sustained effort leading to mastery.

• Setting one-dimensional goals. Many people leap right into goals about a promotion, new job or diet plan but get tongue-tied when it comes to articulating goals concerning their life, family, community or the like.

• Take another look at those resolutions from Jan. 1 and punch them up with these best practices. Otherwise, you may be back to the same game next year with little to show for 2009.

• Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek are founding partners of New Mountain Ventures, an entrepreneurial leadership development company. They can be reached at au [email protected]

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