5 Research-Based Tips for Meeting Your 2017 Goals

By now most of you will have set some goals that you want to achieve in 2017. The problem for most of us is not setting goals, but maintaining the inertia we need to keep moving toward reaching them. The idea for this blog actually comes from a goal I set in December that I did NOT achieve. Reflecting on that disappointment, I wondered what research shows about failing versus reaching the goals we set.

Here is my story and the top 5 tips I came up with. I would love to hear from you if you have any experience using any of these or have any more to share.

My Story

Many of you who know me, or have followed these musings for any amount of time, know that I believe the leader's spiritual and physical health is vital to overall leadership success. As a part of my own physical health plan I try to exercise every day during the week, and if I am in training for a race (usually a half-marathon) I will do a longer run on the weekend. One of my exercise outlets is a gym called Orange Theory. I really like this gym because it is a one-hour intense workout that combines cardiovascular and strength workout in a cross-training and muscle-confusion format. The other thing I really like about this company is that they provide me with my personal data for every workout.

I am a research and data junky. I always want to see things from a scientific and rational perspective. In the attached photo, you can see the kind of email report I get from every workout I do at Orange Theory. This particular workout was my last of the year and was a little unusual in that it was 90 minutes instead of my normal 60-minute sweat fest.

After getting an email like this one towards the end of November, I noticed that I had burned 12,000 calories that month. Pretty cool! I decided I would love to burn 15,000 calories in the month of December. I thought, "I don’t have a lot of travel in December, so I can get to the gym more often, so let's see if I can do it." As you can see in this graphic, I fell 320 calories short of my goal.

Needless to say I was disappointed. I really like winning, and I like hitting goals. I was actually kind of disappointed. I know several of you would say things like, “look on the bright side you worked out X number of times in December and burned 22% more calories than November. Scott, reframe this as a win!" I know that if I were coaching YOU, this is what I would do.

However, that wasn't helping me. I didn’t hit the goal! So, I decided to do some reflecting and look into the literature for some guidance. Here is what I came up with.

5 Tips

1.Beware of Over-Certainty. Make Your Goal Doable. When I set my goal of 15,000 calories I was sure I could do it. My workout on November 30th was about 895 calories and I thought I could workout about 17 days in December based on my schedule, giving me a total burn of 15,215 calories. That seemed like no problem because I thought I might even be able to get 18 or 19 workouts in.

I am finishing a fantastic book right now called UnDoing Project by Michael Lewis (Moneyball, The Blind Side, The Big Short, Liars Poker.) In it, Lewis recounts the relationship between Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) and Amos Tversky who wrote some remarkable studies on the human decision-making process. Lewis reminded me that one of my mind's best tricks is to make me feel too certain about things that are actually uncertain. The key to making a good goal is understanding all the variables that go into the goal and what your past history has been. Because according to Kahneman and Tversky data will tend to regress toward the mean. In this instance, the average number of workouts I usually do a month, 12, and the average number of calories I burn, around 825. My certainty was off about both how often I could workout, and how many calories I could burn. A more realistic goal for me would have been around 11,000 calories, which would have been roughly a 10% increase in calorie burn.

The lesson I learned from this is that when setting a goal, I must make sure I am using data that is a true representation of what I usually do and then project a reasonable increase from this. If I start with extreme that I may only have reached one time, then I will be setting unrealistic and unattainable goals...no matter how badly I want to reach them.

2. Coaching Matters. In his book Social, Matthew Lieberman makes a convincing argument that the human brain is much bigger than it needs to be to sustain the body it drives. Most animals have brains that are equipped just enough to drive the body to which they are attached. Lieberman calls this study of brain size encephalization. The claim is that the human brain is for much more than just sustaining its body. The research is showing that this extra capacity is for things like intellect and socialization. You were built for relationship, so doing things like pooling resources (cooperation,) and spurring one another along (encouragement) are all functions of our advanced neuro-anatomy.

Now my gym, Orange Theory, does this well by having a coach at every workout class. They are motivating, instructional, and inspirational. The problem I see in the way I set my calorie-burning goal is that I did not sit down and articulate my goal out loud to a coach who could have worked with me, tracked my performance, given me encouragement along the way. I tried to go it alone.

Have you ever tried to keep a goal a secret while trying to reach it? I find this very difficult. Next time I will say my goals out loud and have my coach hold me accountable.

3. Perseverance. Most goals are exciting to go after at the beginning, and when you get toward the end and can see the finish line we can find our way to the end even if we are exhausted. But it is in the middle where most goals are won or lost.

In her book Grit, psychologist Angela Duckworth makes an absolutely brilliant observation about this.

Effort counts twice. It seems like we are all gifted with some talents and when we apply some effort to this we obtain skills. It makes sense but that is only half of the equation. It is the skill we obtain applied with more effort that equals achievement.We all know people with a lot of talent who just don’t work hard enough, for whatever reason, at hitting their goals. It is this perseverance that seems to matter twice as much as the talent we are born with. Duckworth uses the same quote from Fredrich Nietzsche that I use with my doctoral students.

Do not talk about giftedness or inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness, became ‘geniuses’…they all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it, because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole.

I needed to a better job in the middle of December. When I go back and look at my workouts, I see that there are a few of them where I didn’t give enough effort. I fell about 50 to 75 calories short. As I reflect on the lackadaisical performances I recall what I said to myself, “No worries, I will make it up next time.” Well, if I string together 3 or 4 of those it becomes an entire workout that I'm short, and then I am seriously behind

Stay strong in the middle. Persevere (This is a great place for a coach to help hold you accountable.)

4. Create a Fresh Start Effect-The fancy name for this in the psychology world is "temporal landmark." The basic idea is that the human brain has a hard time keeping a lot of detail straight over a long period of time. Temporal landmarks take complex relationships and associate what must happen and when in order to achieve the outcome.

In the world of goal setting, temporal landmarks become mini-goals or check-in points. You set your big goal, and then break it down into smaller steps you will take along the way. You document what to do and when for each small step. Then you use each of these way-points as a fresh start toward your new goal. Perhaps you have a small celebration for what you have accomplished. You assess where you are, and strive as hard as you can to the next waypoint.

When I set my very aggressive calorie goal I needed to set weekly calorie burn check-ins. Rather than just get my data report and then not think much more about it, I needed to use this data, celebrate my success and then set my eyes on my waypoint for the next week. Each week then becomes a Fresh Start as I work toward completing a long goal that can get overwhelming, especially in the middle.

5. Hope As a Strategy. I know many of you will disagree with this point. You see hope as some whimsical illusion. A fantasy that is devoid of structure and process. If this is your definition of hope then I understand why you disagree.

Let me offer another definition, though. The leadership literature defines hope as “a cognitive set that is based on a reciprocally derived sense of successful goal-directed determination and pathways [planning]" (Adams et al, Applied Theory In Workplace Spirituality, p. 367). So in this definition hope, hope is the way that we think about goals and how to reach them.

The research by Schulmann and others has found that a person's ability and motivation are not always enough to achieve desired performance. Positive expectations, especially in situations where persistence is required to overcome adversity, are a requisite.

It seems that a positive mental stat is a vital component of hope, one in which motivation provides the energy for persistence toward goal achievement.

So, while hope may not be a good strategy by itself, it seems it is vital to have in order to engage in the strategy set before them. I think it is fair to say that even if you have the best strategy in the world, but no hope, lack of performance is predictable.

One of my favorite quotes from the bible is found in Proverbs the 29th chapter in verse 18; “Without a vision, people perish." Any vision crafted by a leader or organization must include a sense of purpose and hope. Without hope being a part of your strategy the people will fade away. Oh, they may collect their paycheck, but the likelihood they will hit their goals is greatly diminished.

As I reflect on missing my goal of 15,000 calories in the month of December, I wish I had included more positive thinking about my goal. I know I had a lot of determination, but I was not as focused on the positive benefit of the goal, only grinding it out for the sake of reaching it. I think I could have used a dose of hope to support my journey.


Why not examine a goal or two you have set this year. Can you learn anything from the mistakes that I made in the past and give yourself a better chance for a positive outcome?