According to psychologists, there is an alternate path, one that is more concrete and specific: setting S.M.A.R.T. goals.
SMART is an acronym commonly attributed to Peter Drucker. It is one of the longest-lasting, popular goal-setting frameworks. To make sure your goals are clear and reachable, they should be:
S – Specific – The more specificity in a goal, the clearer it is. “WH” questions are a good place to start.
M – Measurable – Can your goal be measured? What gets measured gets done.
A – Achievable – Is the goal achievable or a pipe dream?
R – Relevant – Is each task connected to the end goal you have in mind?
T – Time Bound – Set a deadline for yourself to achieve the goal.
Let’s consider, for instance, that you want to earn more money in the next few years. For this goal, the S.M.A.R.T. technique could look like this:
Specific: How much money do you want to earn? How many years do you want to earn it in?
Measurable: How will you measure progress? And, if you deviate, what specific steps will you take to course correct?
Achievable: Which steps will you follow to achieve this goal?
Relevant: Will the steps you follow contribute to achieving your final goal of earning more money?
Time bound: Set a deadline for yourself to complete each step.
To-do lists and concrete action plans are examples of SMART goals. They’re great when optimized.
Unfortunately, S.M.A.R.T. goals can also pull us away from the bigger picture. The gratification felt when we finish more tasks can make us place more emphasis on quantity. Because it makes us feel good, we jot down easy items on to-do lists, and then cross them out quickly. We add more tasks which can be completed in five minutes. In the process, we sideline the genuinely important ones which demand time and attention. We would prefer answering thirteen short emails than carefully drafting an effective template to reach out to people we want to connect with.
But that’s the wrong way to create to-do lists, according to Carleton University psychologist Timothy Pychyl. These lists are used for mood repair instead of becoming productive.
What is Productivity?
In modern mythos, productivity is believed to be “working more or sweating harder”. Overtime, multi-tasking, doing more each day, being available 24/7 – these are yardsticks of productivity. Batman, the ever-present superhero cum businessman, always fighting crime and saving cats stuck on trees, is the epitome of productivity.
But Batman exists in just one place – imagination. Okay, comics and movies too. But we don’t live in imagination and comics. We live in the real world, where resources are limited. It sucks, but it’s true.
Productivity is not about spending longer hours at your desk or making bigger sacrifices. That’s just being busy. According to New York Times journalist and author Charles Duhigg, productivity is “the name we give our attempts to figure out the best uses of our energy, intellect and time as we try to seize the most meaningful rewards with the least wasted effort…… It’s about getting things done without sacrificing everything we care about along the way.”
“The way we choose to see ourselves and frame daily decisions; the stories we tell ourselves and the easy goals we ignore; the creative cultures we establish as leaders: These things separate the merely busy from the genuinely productive.” – Charles Duhigg
How You Can Set Goals and Achieve Them
An effective way to improve your productivity and quality of accomplishments is to combine stretch goals and S.M.A.R.T. goals. People who master the ability to break goals down into concrete plans are better equipped to achieve stretch goals.
Begin practicing S.M.A.R.T. goals. You might lose sight of the bigger picture for some time. That's okay. Trust me, you have time if you know how to use it.
Once you feel comfortable with setting concrete action plans – could take 6 months, a year, or even two – step back. Set a stretch goal. It doesn’t have to make others think you are crazy. But it must be audacious enough to make you go beyond existing means.
Stretch goals make you smarter. They force you to expand your perspective, and contextually apply what you know. They force you to innovate, to combine seemingly unconnected concepts and develop something novel. The SMART technique helps you steady yourself and start walking before you run. Your ability to achieve stretch goals is larger when you implement the SMART technique. This has a positive cascading effect on every aspect of your life - professional and personal.