The Power of a Personal Goal

As you settle into the new year, and look back at the one gone past, what is the feeling you get ? Is it one of satisfaction, time well spent, things achieved, both in and outside of work, or is it of a year that was frenetic, a blur of activity, with an overwhelming feeling of being stretched in all directions, and in the final analysis, being busy, but not having achieved anything of substance.

If your reflection is closer to the second situation I describe above, then this blog post is for you. As I work with people in my work, I see the power of a clearly enunciated personal goal moving them from scattered to focused, from stretched to energised. This post is about having a clearly enunciated personal goal, and the power it has in making us productive and satisfied. But I do have a personal goal, you might say. Yes, most of us have a personal goal, in the sense that we know broadly where we want to go in life and what we want to achieve, but its not usually sharply enunciated, the way, say, a corporations goals might be. And therein lies the issue.

To illustrate the power of having a clearly enunciated goal, or the impact of not having one,  I’m going to replay a workplace situation familiar to all of us. There are days when we begin with one or more clear objectives for the day, we know what steps we need to take to achieve the objective, we do those steps, and at the end of the day we dust our hands off and congratulate ourselves on a job well done ! And there are days (and there are many like this !) that begin with a vague idea of what to do, of multiple priorities. During the day we get pulled in various directions, doing various things, and we end the day having been incredibly busy, but not having achieved anything. We feel worn out, frayed, and dissatisfied. The experience of going through life with or without a clearly enunciated goal is a bit like these two days- having a clear goal that you can work towards is satisfying and fulfilling and productive, while drifting towards a vague goal can be just that- a drift that is unsatisfying, chaotic, and unfulfilling.

At work, a clearly enunciated personal goal helps you understand the context of your work in your life. Enunciating your personal goal, and finding the overlap between your personal and work goals, give your work a deeper meaning. This brings more energy to your work, allows you to overcome adversity and obstacles such as politics or power games in a better frame of mind, keeps you focused on what's important, and allows you to clearly separate things that add value from those that don’t. The diagram below illustrates  how a clearly enunciated personal goal can help to  bring out a ‘zone of focused energy’ at work.

Outside of work, a clearly enunciated goal puts all the various roles you need to play, and the actions you need to take, in a context. It also acts as a compass for your behavior, clearly telling you what’s right and what’s wrong, and laying out sharply the consequence of your actions for you. Again, it’s not that we don’t know this- most of us have our values sorted out, but a clear goal, and a clear enunciation of a few things around it, brings in a different degree of sharpness and clarity.

So what’s the best way to go about enunciating your personal goal ? Just like an organizational goal is built and stated in the context of its environment (around measures of sales, profitability, innovativeness etc ) your goal should be rooted in your environment, around measures that matter to you (such as integrity, honesty, truthfulness etc)

The first question to ask yourself is : What’s the kind of person I want to be ? Look around at people you’re inspired by, and take the qualities you admire in them to build an outline of the person you want to be. The qualities you pick are of course determined by what’s important to you, and this is what makes your goal truly yours. And don’t worry if you don’t immediately have a sharply defined picture  of who you want to be- even a degree of clarity is good enough for the present. As you think more about this over time, the picture will sharpen itself.

Question two is : What will you achieve by being the person you want to be ? What is the impact you will have on those around you ? What will you build, what will you leave behind ? What traits of character will people associate with you ? What will they say about you after you’re gone ( and not just when you depart this world, but more immediately maybe even from your job or the apartment complex you live in !) Again, don’t aim for 100% clarity upfront- the important thing is to have some sort of an idea, that will crystallise over time. Also, what you build and leave behind may not be physical- for instance, it could be a strong sense of integrity in your children, or a mindset of giving and service amongst your friends.

The next question is : To become who you want to be, what’s the journey you need to make ? Here you’re going to need to do a critical assessment of yourself- your strengths, your weaknesses, your impact on others. Feedback from someone who knows you well- and is willing and able to tell you the truth!- is invaluable here. The answer to this question will tell you the journey to your goal from where you are today.

Question four is: To get from here to there, what must you continue doing, what must you start doing, and what must you stop doing. In short- what’s your action plan.

At this point, you might be reading this and thinking this looks like an enterprise of a lifetime; is it too large to impact my everyday life ? Yes and No. This is an enterprise of a lifetime, but it can be used for shorter timespans too. Just like an organization has long term, medium term, and short term goals, so can you. And your short term goals, when put through this process, will yield you actions for today.

Finally, question five is: How will you measure your success, what are your milestones, and who will you be accountable to ? A word of caution here- don’t say you’ll be accountable to yourself. Make yourself accountable to someone else- your partner, a friend; it makes for a more serious accountability. The tendency to slip on promises is much more than if you’re accountable to yourself.

When you do this exercise, you’ll come up with a goal and a set of actions. Revisit these often- the more you think about these, the clearer they will become. Also, as your actions bear fruit, go back to your goal, and factor them in- you may want to expand the scope of the goal, be more audacious about what you want to achieve ! Good luck as you go about this ! And if you need help along the way, let me know.

Some parts of this blog post are inspired by my work with iDiscoveri Leadership (

) and some from ideas from ‘How Will You Measure Your Life’, by Clayton Christensen, James Allworth and Karen Dillon.