How to set goals

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Graphic showing path from current to vision

One of the areas that seems to be most challenging to people, groups, and organizations is finding and using an effective goal setting process. The graphic above is the process used by in-the-know businesses and interestingly enough, by educators and professional athletes.

It’s a journey

The best way to think of the entire goals setting and achieving process is that it’s like a road trip. Before we get into that, there is one critical step that is not on the map. Values have to come first. After the initial set of values is determined – I say initial as they can change or evolve, especially in groups – road trip planning can begin in earnest.

Step 1 – Where are you heading?

That would be your vision. In a real road trip the vision is usually a real place. In any other kind of goal setting process it is most likely an ideal future state. That’s ok, moving toward it – the journey – is the important part. Having a compelling, vivid, if not realistically achievable vision will keep you moving forward. You should have one overarching vision for your life or your group or organization and then sub-visions that describe and keep your vision alive in specific areas.

Example – A company called YourBestFriend has an overall vision of a world where everyone had at least one good friend. To borrow from Meredith on Grey’s Anatomy – Everyone needs a person. They also had a vision specific to customer service and another vision around company culture and how they treated each other. The big vision and all the sub-visions were based on their values and all the visions aligned driving them in one direction. In addition, everyone in the company knew what the visions were, so everyone kept moving in the same direction.

Step 2 – Figure out where you are now.

On a road trip, you probably know where you are starting from. Uhm.. I’m at home. If you are setting goals for an organization, knowing where you are, in relation to your vision, may be a bit more difficult. Regardless of the challenge it’s a critical step.

Step 3 – Choose a destination.

Not the final destination. Set your goals as if they were towns, cities or stops of interest along the way. If I’m driving across the continent I’m going to plan the trip with specific stops in mind. Set your goals as specific, measurable, achievable (and acceptable), realistic and time-framed plans for your trip. (Yes, that’s a SMART goal.)

If I want to go to Toronto – lets pretend that’s the vision – I might set a goal of driving to Calgary on the first day. That’s specific, measurable, achievable/acceptable, realistic (in summer) and I have time framed it.

In an organization I might set a goal of increasing inside sales by 20% by the next quarter or of ensuring 50% of employees take one new training session within the next two months.

Step 4 – Chunk it up!

Objectives are the smaller steps you take to reach your goal. Get gas – that’s an objective. Buy a map – that’s an objective. Some would say these are also tasks and they would be right. Objective are the small, behavioural things that you have to do to reach your goal.

In an organization objectives might include – have a meeting with all staff to share the goals to gain buy-in or send sales staff on training.

The last step is documenting your travels. One thing I notice, a lot, is that organization fail to document in a way that makes sense. A lot of the time they become their own worst enemy simply by failing to report out based on the above process. Here’s an outline to follow for reporting progress.

Progress reporting

Report on each area that you set goals in and start with the vision is each area.

Area 1 ___________________.

Our vision in this area is ________________.

Current situation in this area _______________________.

Our goals in this area – list each separately.

Goal 1  _________________________________.

Objective 1 for goal 1   _____________________. (You don’t have to get too granular when reporting but getting really granular in planning is a good idea.)

Progress on objective 1  __________________________.

Progress on objective 2  __________________________.

Progress on objective 3 __________________________.

Progress on goal overall __________________________.

New current situation ___________________________.


Given that it’s homelessness action week we can use as an example, a common goal for non-profits and government organizations concerned with poverty and homelessness.

Area – Affordable housing

Our vision in this area is that every person and family in BC has access to affordable and safe housing.

Current situation in this area is that 40% of persons and families pay more than they can afford for housing, leaving them at risk of homelessness.

Our goals in this area.

Goal 1 – Raise awareness through educating the public.

Objective 1 for goal 1 –  Create a set of infographics that explain housing affordability issues in a way that is really easy to understand.

Progress on objective 1 – Three infographics were produced and distributed through social and regular media.

Progress on goal and new current situation for this area as demonstrated by an online survey is that we increased the public’s awareness and understanding of the challenges in this area by 25%. Whoo-hoo! You might want to leave that last bit out.

What about strategy?

Strategy is the how. It’s the vehicle and route you are going to take. It’s the way you are going to drive the car – slow and careful enjoying the ride or are you just going to get there. Strategy is big enough and important enough to warrant its own post. More on strategy later.


You have it now, right?

  • Values then vision,
  • Where you are now,
  • Set SMART goals,
  • Chunk up goals into objectives,
  • Report out in logical manner based on process

Now get out there and set some goals!


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Changing habits

Reading Time: 5 minutes

 “Humans. Making air. That’ll be fun to watch.”

Ok, I admit it. I just got back from my local Safeway with a plastic grocery bag full of bread – on sale for $1.30 a loaf – who could buy only one! – and a disposable starbucks cup full of dark roast goodness. I did this despite all my good intentions and having literally dozens of reusable grocery bags kicking around and a half dozen reusable coffee cups. You probably do too… so what gives?

It gets worse. I had just watched the whole Nature is Speaking series – Kevin Spacey’s is above, in case you missed it ↑  and still I forgot to be responsible, to be environmentally conscious, to make purposeful choices… I was in fact, the opposite of responsible. I was functionally unconscious, pre-occupied, and mindless and in that state, habit became the driver. I let habits – or lack of good habits – derail me… and I probably pissed off nature and Mr. Spacey to boot.

Replace a habit with a habit

I know this stuff.. the habit stuff. I’ve taught it for years. Beliefs, thoughts, behaviours, change and habits were and still are the foundation of almost everything I teach or design curriculum around. This is all deep learning stuff and I know about that stuff… right? Clearly I don’t grok it as much as I think I do. Time to hit the mental reset button and form some better, purpose driven, and responsible habits.

By the way – we say replace a habit with a habit because many habits form to fill a need or want. I have the habit of drinking coffee in the morning because I want to be be more awake and alert than I am naturally. The “want” probably won’t go away, but I could replace the habit of drinking coffee with a healthier habit, that helped me feel awake and alert.

Three steps to changing a habit

Step 1 – Identify the habit or habits that need replacing

Easy – I am in the habit of leaving the house without cloth bags and reusable coffee cups.

Step 2 – Choose replacement habits

Also easy – Take the bags and cup with me.

Step 3 – Replace the unwanted habit(s) with the desired habit(s)

Easy? Not so much. It sounds easy. It looks easy enough. Sure is easy to talk and write about. It’s the doing it; the actual making-the-change-stick part, that seems to be the problem.

How change works

To understand how to replace habits, or to change any behaviour, it helps to have a a basic understanding of how change works. I default to the transtheoretical model of behaviour change because it’s well researched and makes sense to me. Although this model is used mostly in behavioural health – diet, exercise, substance abuse and recovery – its really a model of how most of us experience change in all areas of our lives. One of the critical parts of this model is the big X between precontemplation and contemplation. For most of us, most of the time, something has to happen for us to begin to think about changing a behaviour, especially a behaviour that has become a habit. That thing is a motivator.

Graphic showing model of change
The Model of Change

A little thing called motivation

Motivation is driven by two things  – carrots and sticks. A good thing or a not so good thing. The avoidance of pain or the desire for pleasure. Fear and love. The red X in the model above could be a good thing happening or a not so good thing and yes, sometimes its just a slow and gradual realization and the X is a thought.

Pain and pleasure, real or imagined, that’s what gets us humans moving. Actually it’s what gets all species moving. The ability to experience pain and pleasure is not uniquely human however delaying gratification and enduring pain due to reason, is a human thing. Humans can rationalize and make choices based on our beliefs and thoughts. Well, most of us can anyways. To put it another way, animals don’t train themselves, humans can.

Diagram of the human brain showing reward centers
The pleasure or reward bundle.

Motivation is a bit more complicated than just carrots and sticks. There is a host of biology, psychology and chemistry that affects motivation but in most cases and for most people, it comes down to avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. What each person perceives as painful or pleasurable can vary immensely. For example, the very thought of having to sing in public is excruciatingly painful for me. I would rather have a root canal. That feeling motivates me to avoid all Karaoke night invitations. In fact if you invite me to sing I will not have to think about responding, I will habitually and reflexively say “NO, thanks”. I’m Canadian, so saying “thanks” is a habit too.

Motivation is what makes or breaks step 3 for most people. There needs to be initial motivation and then that motivation has to be sustained until the habit sticks. The timeframe varies but most simple habits can be made to stick in about three weeks. Using extreme pain can make a habit stick in one go but the trauma is usually not worth it. Sadly extreme pleasure doesn’t seem to work as well. We are wired to avoid pain more than we are wired to seek pleasure. Pity…

Bootcamp for the brain

Ok, so what do we do about habits we want to replace? How do we translate what we know about change and motivation into a plan that will work? Here’s a couple of things that work.

1. Repetition. Remember that old adage about practice making perfect. Well, thats not quite right. Practice – repeating something over and over, makes it permanent, not necessarily perfect. Repetition makes things permanent and makes things easier. Just like running stairs at bootcamp. At first you think you are going to die and three weeks later you realize you won’t die, you’ll just… ok, never mind. You get the point.

2. Reminders. Placing something in the environment that cues or reminds you that you have decided to do something differently. In my case this could include putting the cloth bags and coffee cups on the front seat of the car or right beside my wallet. That way I’d see them before I left the house.

2. Making it easier to do it than not do it. This works really well for some things. For example if you want to replace the habit of eating chips in the evening and have decided to eat carrots instead, you could make sure there were no chips in the house and keep fresh carrots, ready to eat, at the front of the fridge.

3. Build in rewards for doing the new thing. Starbucks gives me 10 cents off my coffee if I use my own cup but that hasn’t been enough of a reward to keep me motivated. That’s the challenge with rewards – they have to be perceived as valuable by the receiver. Oddly, rewards don’t have to be overly consistent. Game theory has proved that inconsistent rewards are more effective in getting people to repeat behaviours. That’s why gambling is such big business and why it’s such a problem.

Happy idea bulbHere’s an idea. Safeway and Starbucks share a location (in some areas). Why not help motivate people to use their eco-friendly bags and mugs by adding a game element. Give me Karma Points or Enviro-Points each time I use a re-usable coffee cup at Starbucks or a cloth bag at Safeway. Better yet, extend it to multiple stores and include some kind of chance at a tangible reward.  For example, if I collected over X number of Points I could trade them in for a chance to win an ecotour. Even cooler, assign them a value and let me give them to store staff that are especially helpful, or to a local charity. Giving lights up the pleasure centers in our brain… weird, eh.

4. Make not doing the new thing, painful. Ok, this is harder but there are some ways to do this without devolving into behaviours like snapping your own wrist with a rubber band – who comes up with this stuff? One thing that some of us could and would do – you know who you are – would be to use a Tweet of Shame. This is something that is uncomfortable enough to motivate but not so uncomfortable that folks would lie about it to avoid genuine embarrassment.


I’m going to commit to this, out loud, right here and on social media, in a few minutes. That’s #5 btw. Committing out loud keeps you accountable, as long as the commitment and consequence are both realistic.

I commit to admitting, on Twitter, when I relapse and don’t use cloth bags and/or a reusable coffee mug.


What are you going to do to not piss off nature? ‘Cos, seriously, I can’t make air and I bet you can’t either.



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