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posted: 1/13/2013 7:00 AM

Set goals, not resolutions, for the new year

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By Robert M. Sheehan Jr., Special to The Washington Post

If it's time for you to set those once-a-year resolutions that you know will fade by March, then this article is not for you.

But if you are ready to make a long-term commitment to achieving higher levels of performance and having more satisfaction in life, then consider getting serious about goal-setting.

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The first lesson is that you are probably not setting goals nearly enough. To maximize performance you should consider setting long-term, five- to 10-year goals that you then break down into annual goals, quarterly goals, weekly goals and even daily goals. To truly maximize performance, you should do this for every important domain of your personal and work life.

That can sound like a lot. Many people might prefer to "go with the flow."

Indeed, every now and then I like to go with the flow, too. Just remember that every time we do that, we let the "flow" take us where it wants, versus where we have intentionally chosen to go. And sometimes we can drift far away from where we would have intentionally chosen to be. This leads us to the primary finding from goal-setting research (specifically, "A Theory of Goal Setting & Task Performance," by Edwin Locke and Gary Latham): Goals direct attention and action toward relevant activities and away from nonrelevant activities.

Isn't life too short to spend on actions that are irrelevant?

If you buy this and think that maybe you can be more effective if you use goal setting more seriously, here are some guidelines:

Set goals as outcomes -- on what you really want, not the activities that may lead toward them.

Make sure that all your goals are SMRT: Specific, measurable, relevant and time-bound.

Use the right "A" in your SMART goal formula. All goals need to be SMRT. But to be SMART you need to pick an "A" that is right for your situation.

Here are your options:

-- Attainable goals, which you have an 80 percent or more chance of accomplishing, are good if failing will have many negative consequences. Attainable goals are good to build some momentum with easy wins, or to learn more about new environments, or if you are concerned about getting discouraged.

-- Aggressive goals, which you have a 35 percent chance of accomplishing, will improve your performance. Research shows that the more difficult the goal, the higher the level of performance. If you feel like you have a good system and you want to maximize performance of it, then this method will help you do it.

-- Almost impossible stretch goals, which you have a 1 percent chance of accomplishing, will require you to design innovative ways of going about accomplishing your goal. "Working harder" on the same process won't do it. You have an opportunity for breakthrough performance with such goals.

Celebrate noble failure. If you are inspired to pursue a goal and you go for it, but you don't make it all the way, then appreciate the progress you have made and appreciate that you worked hard at something you really cared about. This mind-set will bring you more long-term success than letting the fear of failure keep you from doing what truly inspires you.

I provide more extensive detail on goal-setting in this short e-book, "The Power of Goals," available free online here: www.rhsmith.umd.edu/PowerofGoals. If you use these principles and apply them to your personal and work life, then I promise you much higher levels of performance, fulfillment and satisfaction. But it only works if you take it on as a true, committed discipline -- not a once-a-year fad. Good luck with all of your goals.

• Robert M. Sheehan Jr. is the academic director of the executive MBA program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. He provides consulting services in strategic planning, board development, and leadership and teamwork development for nonprofits. He has more than 30 years of executive management experience, including 18 years at the CEO of two different national nonprofits.

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