What’s Makes a Good Goal? A New Model for Consciously Choosing Goals

It’s mid-January, and we’re just beyond the new year when poorly-set resolutions start to crumble. And so, I’ve been reflecting on the nature of goals and, as is often the case, looking beyond myself for wisdom on the topic.

In searching out the answer to “what makes a good goal,” I keep on running into the SMART model. Taught in business schools and applied widely in companies, the SMART model uses an acronym to propose that goals should be:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-Bound

Every time I read through this list, it makes me cringe. These criteria feel far from the way I want my goals to look and feel. I don’t want a goal that feels narrow, limiting, or boring. Instead, I want a goal that articulates the desires of my heart. I want a goal that I am fiercely devoted to achieving even though the road may be long and hard. I want a goal that inspires me to do better. Whether goal-setting in my personal or professional life, I want a goal that acts as a compelling North Star, not something beaten into flat corporate-speak.

This isn’t to say that the SMART model isn’t useful; indeed, it seems perfectly helpful in directing what the line items of my plan to achieve my goal should look like. But, at the goal level, it leaves something to be desired.

And so, I propose a new model for goals, one which connects far more to meaning and motivation. In the Callahan “C-Star” model for consciously choosing goals, I propose five aspects that matter:

c star model trimmed

First and most importantly, is your goal CONGRUENT with who you are as a person? Any exercise in goal-setting needs to start with a period of introspection. What is important to you? What are your values? And, above all, what do you want? Your goal cannot be something given to you by another or dictated by your circumstances. Instead, your goal must begin with congruence to who you truly are.

Second, is your goal CONSISTENT with what you actually want? To be most effective, a goal needs to be set at the level at which you fundamentally hold it. For example, if your desire is to spread your organization’s message far and wide, you should not set your goal as talking about your organization on Oprah. Even if you failed to get on Oprah, you could achieve your real goal in many ways – by going on a road show to related organizations, by writing a book on the topic, or by being featured on a morning show. Resist migrating away from what you truly want because an alternative feels more specific, more attainable, more socially acceptable, or more aligned with your current reality. Shifting the focus from what you really want always misdirects your efforts and often limits what you can achieve. When it comes to goal setting, articulate what you actually want – even if you don’t quite know what that will look like yet. To be fair, this is a hard concept to get right and the dimension on which I most frequently see experienced professionals stumble.

Third, is your goal CHALLENGING? Your goals should not be limited by what you currently believe to be possible – for yourself or in the world. As Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, writes in his book Principles, “Once you start your pursuit you will learn a lot, especially if you triangulate with others; paths you never saw before will emerge.” By setting ambitious goals, you are pushing yourself to the edge of growth and accelerating your evolution as a person.

Next, is your goal CLEAR? In the previous three dimensions you have dug deep to specify a goal which is appropriately-sized and particular to you. That said, when you dug deep, did you bring up a bunch of muck along with your insights? If so, work through this – the fears, beliefs, patterns, feelings, and whatever else – to get clear about what you want. This clarity will allow you to navigate more effectively in the direction of your goal when life gets muddy and unclear again. To do this best, write your goals down. Iterate the wording to get to precisely what you mean.

Finally, ask yourself: to what extent are you COMMITTED to your goal? Your commitment is the source of your motivation. Why is your goal important to you? What’s at stake if you don’t achieve it? And, what is it worth to you to achieve it? Your goals should have a sense if you don’t achieve them, you fail yourself.

And that, collectively, is a good goal: one that is congruent to who you are, consistent with what you actually want, challenging to achieve, clear in articulation, and to which you are committed with the full force of your being. This January, that is the type of goal I want to sign up for – along with a SMART plan to achieve it.

I would love to hear what you think. Test my model out and send me your feedback.

  • What is your goal for 2020?
  • How does it stack up against the C-Star model?  Versus the SMART model?
  • What does each model help you see more clearly? What does each leave out?
  • What else would you want to consider in setting goals?

Wishing you a year full of achieving your goals,
Meredith

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