5 Ways to Make Goal-Setting Less Painful

Clients tell us that the single biggest challenge they have is that goal-setting takes too much time and effort. Follow these tips to reduce the time spent on crafting goals by 50-70%.

1. Don’t start with a blank slate.

Unless you’re setting goals for the very first time, you will have some documents to lean on—such as your previous year’s goals, the organizational level goals/priorities, or your job description. Use last year’s goals as your starting point—you will likely find one to two goals that you can keep as-is, and update the numbers.

For example, let’s say your goal for Talent was “Fill all open positions by December 31, where all new hires come from a pool in which at least one finalist candidate identifies as a person of color.” If you achieved the goal this year, you could update it with “Complete all new staff onboarding by March 31, with no gaps across race/ethnicity or level of hire.” If you had a goal such as “Get at least 10 media mentions in Tier 1 publications,” and this is an effort you want to continue in the coming year, keep it as-is or update it to “Increase number of Tier 1 media mentions to XX.”

2. Use your words.

Many clients we work with get stuck trying to craft exact goals. Don’t worry about the exact numbers just yet; describe them qualitatively at first. Then update them as you get more visibility into organizational level goals or end-of-year numbers become available. Think, “what would be a great result to achieve next year in this area, and WHY?”

For example, you might think of a qualitative outcome such as “I’d like to have more small-dollar donations to complement our big donor fundraising. It will be a nice buffer in case some big donor funding falls through and will help us build more community engagement.” You could write a draft goal of “Increase the number of small-dollar donations, to build more community engagement and to manage risk with big donor funding.” You may later fill in the “increase the number of” with specifics, such as “Double the number of small-donor donations” or “Raise $XX from small donors.”

3. Make the goals SMARTIE from the get-go.

SMARTIE is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely, Inclusive, and Equitable—all characteristics of a well-crafted goal. Use our handy guide and goals bank to help you write SMARTIE goals.

For example, you could write a Talent goal as “Fill all open positions by December 31.” But, you can bake inclusion into the process by writing the goal as “Fill all open positions by December 31, where all new hires come from a pool in which at least one finalist candidate identifies as a person of color.”

4. Create work blocks for writing goals.

We recommend the following schedule to ensure that crafting goals doesn’t become an unending task.

  1. Set aside 30 minutes to collect all necessary input documents.
  2. Set aside an hour to create a first draft (using qualitative statements). At this point, don’t worry about the number of goals you’ve written.
  3. Use 30 minutes at your next check-in to review the draft with your manager and seek their input (and email it to anyone else you might need input from).
  4. Set aside another hour to update the draft based on their feedback. This is an excellent time to cut the number of goals down to three to five. Here are some questions you should ask yourself to decide which goals to cut and why:
    • Can I connect each goal back to an organizational level goal or priority? (either directly or indirectly)
    • If we achieved these goals, would this be a successful year? Do they capture what we most care about?
    • What (potential negative outcomes) could happen if we don’t have this goal/focus on this area?
    • If I only had 80% of the time I currently have, which goals would I take out, and why?
  5. As other (connected) goals become clear or you have a better sense of the numbers, go back and update the document with specifics.

5. Use litmus test questions to test the quality of your goals.

One common struggle during the goals-writing process is finding the right balance between being “ambitious” yet “realistic.” Ask yourself the following questions before you finalize the goals for the coming year.

  • Are the goals ambitious enough? Do they represent significant progress?
  • Looking at how we did last year, are we aiming too high or too low?
  • What is preventing us from doubling or tripling (or otherwise increasing the intensity of) this goal?
  • How realistic are these goals? Do we have real plans and the capacity to achieve them? Will the tactics listed be sufficient to drive the growth we’d need?

Goal-setting is pretty useless if you don’t use it as a North Star to guide your actions and make course corrections. We urge you to do a mid-year goals stepback with your manager to see how you are doing and what, if anything, needs to change. If you’re still looking for more guidance, check out our goal-setting FAQ.

Happy goal-setting!