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How to set goals (and stick to them in style)

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They’ve invaded social media, attached themselves to everything from food and fitness to life itself, and even the nation’s footballers seem to have rediscovered them (sometimes). Yes, goals are definitely in, but how do you set them and more importantly, stick to them?

Tackling the question is our guest blogger, freelance writer and HR specialist Nicola Greenbrook, who's here with some helpful advice...

Goals, goals everywhere. There are #relationshipgoals, #lifegoals, #couplegoals, #entrepreneurgoals. Even #deskgoals and #beardgoals. At the time of writing this article, 80 million Instagram posts are tagged with #goals and 733,000 with #careergoals. That's a lot of goals.

Many of us should be familiar with goal-setting in our working lives; from early objectives set during probation to the agreement of individual and development targets at appraisal. Outside of work, smartphones and activity trackers such as the Fitbit help us to stay motivated and improve our health.

Yet with the pressure to set, commit to and smash our life and career goals, it's no wonder goal setting can feel a little overwhelming at times, and why even the SMARTest and well-intended targets often fall by the wayside. 

In this month’s article, I’m considering why goals are important, how to avoid getting too tangled up in the pursuit of them and recommending ways to set and stick to your objectives with a little artistic support.

First, the theory

Social media may encourage us to live our best lives, practice self-improvement and aspire to other people’s intentions, but goal setting is not new.

In 1968, American psychologist Dr Edwin A. Locke pioneered goal-setting theory in his groundbreaking article 'Toward a theory of task motivation and incentives’, and together with Dr Gary Latham, jointly established the positive relationship between clearly identified goals and performance.

According to the 2016 CIPD technical report ‘Rapid evidence assessment of the research literature on the effect of goal setting on workplace performance’, goals affect performance through four causal mechanisms (Latham 2004) that are relevant at work; which include:

Serving a direction function, so our attention and effort is drawn to goal-relevant activities, rather than irrelevant ones (Twitter etc).

 An energising purpose; harder goals require more effort and hard graft than easy ones that, although satisfying to cross off the list or feel pleased about in your appraisal, only come with a short-term satisfaction.

If we have goals in place, they allow us to discover and/or use task-relevant knowledge and strategies; which makes us not only a clever clogs, but increases the odds for success (Locke and Latham 2002).

In summary, goals serve an important purpose. But what happens when goals go rogue?

The downside of goal pursuit

Are you an overachiever? Do you get a buzz from setting numerous goals and a rush of satisfaction when you achieve them?

Or do you feel unfulfilled rather than accomplished? Have you become a bit obsessed by your targets? Always on the hunt for something bigger and better to strive for, focusing less on intrinsic value and more on external rewards and internal or social comparison?

You’re not alone. A fixation on goals can be counterproductive and lead to poor decision making if we become too emotionally attached to ambitious goals at work. A single-minded pursuit can prevent us from learning from problems along the way and considering alternatives or lead us to make terrible decisions - all in the relentless quest of reaching our target and 'ticking it off'. 

In Destructive Goal Pursuit - The Mt Everest Disaster’, business professor D. Christopher Kayes draws upon real-life stories, including the 1996 Mount Everest climbing disaster where eight people died near the summit. He argues that the climbers were so focused on the attainment of their goal that it caused them to overlook serious problems along the way - such as decreased oxygen and bottlenecks. He coined the term ‘goalodicy’; the obsessive pursuit of goals to the point of self-destruction.

Whether planning an extreme expedition or preparing an annual report, it's easy to get a bit caught up in our own form of goalodicy.

A useful strategy is to approach your goals meaningfully, examine the process more closely and ask yourself why you’re doing it - rather than ruthlessly conquering a target and immediately focusing on the next one. Goal setting can be daunting, so breaking your main target up into smaller ones can be an effective way of making the process seems less terrifying. 

Put pen to paper

If you find yourself (and your goals) a little out of control, there are ways to regain the drive and motivation. 

Sometimes, simply writing them down can be a fast track to achievement. Speaking to Stylist magazine, Debbie Wosskow, entrepreneur and co-founder of The Allbright, a London networking club for women in business, says that she clearly writes down her personal and business goals in a notebook every New Year’s Eve. This allows her to check progress, review whether the goal is important and still relevant and stay on track.  

Meanwhile a recent study from Dominican University found that people who scribbled down their goals and kept track of their progress at least once a week accomplished significantly more than those who didn’t.

Or go one further: bujo!

Bullet journalling - or 'bujo' - is a great way to get your goals down on paper, release your creative side and build in some self-care too. It's essentially a notebook-organisation system and artfully annotated to-do list which promises to help you achieve your goals and declutter your mind.

Devotees of the practice have also added a creative and performative aspect to bullet journalling by adding hand-drawn illustrations and decorative spreads. Bullet journalling not only helps create a structure and a plan and stick to it, it can be calming and meditative too - a bit like using an adult colouring book. 

Helen Colebrook is an HR consultant from Devon and creator of the popular @JournalWithPurpose. She started using journals around four years ago and believes it can be inspiring and motivating to see how others manage their time. 

Whilst Helen admits that it can take a little more time than a usual to-do list, and it is of course important to carefully balance planning with the actual delivery at work, she also believes it encourages better time management and reflection.

A bullet journal has been proven to be more than just a pretty list; according to Forbes, vividly describing your goals in written form is strongly associated with goal success, and people who very vividly describe or picture their goals are anywhere from 1.2 to 1.4 times more likely to successfully accomplish their goals than people who don’t.

I recently attended a business network event and observed many of the participants already successfully ‘bujo-ing’ and reaping the benefits when it came to goal attainment. (I felt rather pedestrian with a plain notebook full of unruly Post-Its and enthusiastic scribbles).

'Bujo': less rude than it sounds, and not just for people with too much time on their hands

And finally…

Career and business coach, Nathalina Harrison has some great takeaway tips on goal setting:

 The practice of goal setting is not a waste of time, or a distraction from your 'real work’. If you don't know what you are trying to achieve in detail, how can you expect to get there? Schedule in time to do it too or it might never get done. 

 Annual and quarterly goals are a good place to start to make the process feel more manageable

 If you find you’re not achieving your goals, don’t beat yourself up about it. It could be time to revisit, reflect and review at the end of the month/quarter and have a good think about why. Did you over-schedule? Are you up to your eyes in it with other stuff? Could it be that, deep down, you may not care about the goal or believe in it? Discuss it with your manager and consider letting it go...

 Set yourself a dream goal; one that gets you really excited and motivated. Then let your other goals service this one.


With a meaningful, flexible and creative approach to goal setting - written down of course - you’ll be smashing your #careergoals in no time at all. 

Nicola Greenbrook - HR Specialist & Freelance Writer

Contact Nicola, check out her brand new website, or follow her on Twitter. 

More from Nicola Greenbrook:

 Charity Careers 4: meet James Harris of Rethink Mental Illness

 How to keep things fresh at work

 How to negotiate a pay rise in the charity sector

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