Setting effective goals

By 3rd November 2014 General

Setting goals is a crucial ‘soft skill’ that is useful in every workplace. It’s also very easy to learn!

Unfortunately, many people struggle with setting goals effectively and find themselves frustrated time and again by pressing deadlines and projects piling up on their to-do list. I believe that the problem with learning how to set goals effectively is that most people see the process just as a series of steps and overlook the underlying mindset that is needed to stick to the plan.

In this article discussion I’ll mention certain steps which you’ve certainly come across in similar articles. However, I won’t restrict myself to the practical aspect only; I’ll also take a look at the psychological aspect of each step.

#1 Define your outcome

If you look closely at the word ‘define’ you’ll find that it’s made up of two words of Latin origin which literally mean ‘describing the boundaries’. Being able to describe clearly the outcome of your action is a crucial step when setting goals.

As airy-fairy as it may sound, visualising your goal in detail and writing it down is of great practical help. This exercise will make you aware not only of what needs to be done, but also what can be avoided and hence preventing a situation where you either do less than is actually required of you (thus creating delays) or else do more (and hence expend more time, energy and money resources on one project).

Like in judo, the art of setting goals revolves around achieving your outcomes by making no more than just the right amount of effort needed.

#2 Set a deadline

We’re all familiar with Parkinson’s Law which states that work tends to expand to fill up all the time available. Our human tendency to procrastinate is the biggest challenge we face when setting goals; by defining and visualising the outcome we have already taken a concrete step towards priming the individual to consider the goal, however the urgency of a deadline is what ultimately sets him or her in motion.

Not all deadlines are equal. Too short and a person goes into panic-mode, too long and they’re too relaxed. A balance has to be struck between creating a sense of urgency without undermining an individual’s confidence in his or her ability to reach their goal.

Naturally, deadlines will also have to take into consideration other needs besides the individuals. How soon the client wants the finished product and the company’s cash flow are obvious factors that determine how tight or otherwise the deadline is.

Deadlines aren’t always in your control. If they are don’t be indulgent nor too strict with yourself. If not, read the next point.

#3 Maximise laziness!

Yes, you read that right. Laziness is a virtue that only few professionals truly master in their career.

This point is consistent with what we discussed in #1, once you have a clear idea of the nature and timeframe of your goal then you can find similarities with previous projects you worked upon and adapt these to your current task.

Shortcuts come in many shapes and sizes. Templates are a very common way to save time and effort. Programs like ReQtest allow testers to painlessly create, reuse and adapt templates for requirements, test management and bug tracking.

There’s nothing new under the sun. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll come across a project that has never been done before. Save yourself some time and take advantage of the work you – or somebody else – have done before.

#4 Measure your progress

Testers, developers and other people involved in IT roles tend avowed data crunchers. You can quantify the progress towards your goal by listing important milestones in the project and setting yourself mini-deadlines for these sub-goals.

This has the dual benefit of breaking down the goal into more manageable components, as well as making it possible to chart your progress. Using metrics such as: time elapsed, sub-goals completed and percentage of project completed help you track and judge the quality of your progress.

Use data. Collecting so-called ‘meta-information’ about your goal helps you keep it in focus at all times and be accountable every step of the way.

#5 Be accountable

Unless you’re a very disciplined and conscientious person you’re bound to slack a bit once you reach about 25% to 50% of your projected timeframe. It happens to the best of us.

Sharing your goals with others and reporting regularly the data mentioned in the previous points helps you stay accountable and hopefully push you through the inevitable ‘dip’ in performance that happens in every project.

Embrace peer pressure. As drastic as it may sound, raising the stakes by risking social embarrassment among other is a very effective way to push people to perform at their best. Turn it into a competition between colleagues and there’s no stopping you!

Conclusion

All in all, goal setting can be viewed as a process of short-circuiting our natural tendency to procrastinate and conserve energy.

There are several practical steps that can be done to do this and the more often you practice them, the more likely you are to master the process. However, an insight into the psychological side of it all can dramatically improve your chances of success in setting goals effectively and, ultimately, reach them.

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