December 12, 2020

How to make SMART goals smarter? Focus on the VNA

It’s the time of year that many people are taking stock and looking ahead. And for some of us, part of looking ahead is setting lofty goals for the year to come.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but one reason so many New Year’s resolutions fail is they are a little lofty. More precisely, they lack clarity, specificity and structure.

SMART goals are the smart goal setter’s answer to the New Year’s resolution.

You’ve probably heard of them, and it’s probably because for many people, they work. This is largely because SMART goals inherently have clarity, specificity and structure. SMART goals are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

The process of writing SMART goals forces you to get clear on what you want or need, and to set parameters around your goals that foster a sense of accountability. But this isn’t another post about writing SMART goals. This is about zeroing in on the right goals for you and your priorities. It starts with taking a step back and taking stock of where you are today.

Start with a project inventory

It’s been a challenging year (hello, understatement of the century!) But even amid a pandemic, reckoning with our country’s racist legacy, a bumpy economy and a bruising political season, you have likely started and made progress on many projects.

Start with a clear-eyed inventory of that work. David Allen writes that anything that has two more tasks is a project. You can apply that definition as is (you could land with quite a list!) or relax it a bit, but however you define “project,” do it consistently, and look at everything.

How big is your list? How much have you committed to? Which need your attention most urgently? Which align most closely to what matters most to you?

When I do an inventory like this, my goal is to set a direction for goals. I start with my list, organize it, and – where I can – prune it. I am ultimately aiming for a manageable list of things I can reasonably complete, and so this process requires me to be painfully realistic about how much I can do – and what I can’t.

How does this feed into goals? My goals – no more than 10 for the year – come from the projects that need my attention most.

Zero in on the VNA

As you think about how to move your projects ahead, it helps to focus on the most immediate needs – even if they are incremental. What is the Very Next Action (VNA) required to move your most pressing projects forward? Once you know this, you are really getting somewhere. If you understand the projects that will need your time in the coming year, and the VNA for each, you are ready to start writing SMART goals.

The other consideration before you write? Realize that your list of goals is a living document. You will come back and rework it from time to time, and every time you achieve a VNA, you should circle back and look at what is next. This is the work of delivering on goals that is hard for so many people. They need a system for developing the goal, breaking it into pieces and delivering.

VNAs in action

Let’s think of a fun example that will be something to look forward to in (we hope) the coming year.

Say your project is planning a vacation. Maybe you have a list of two or three possible destinations, but that’s all the planning you’ve done. Your VNA? Determine when and where you’re going, then block off the time on your calendar. If you don’t do this, your vacation plans will grind to a halt. Once it’s done? Your VNA is exploring your possible destinations and choosing from among them. After that, it’s time to start booking, planning details, buying plane tickets. The list can get long and muddy, but if you focus on the VNA, your next step is always crystal clear.

The magic of SMART goals

What’s great about the process of writing SMART goals, linking them to projects that matter to you and focusing on the VNA to bring them to life? It will be very clear to you when you have arrived, if you’ve written a goal that was specific and measurable. And when you arrive? It feels good. Every time you check something off your task list, you benefit from a release of dopamine and the satisfaction that follows.

This is critical to building the habit. Done wrong, goal setting can land you in an endless loop of anxiety and uncertainty. Done right, you land in a positive feedback loop. The satisfaction of success is self-reinforcing, and before long, the behavior of continually getting things done (achieving the VNA, checking things off a list, celebrating SMART goal success, getting where you want to go) is hardwired in your brain and your life.

Your goals

Have you used SMART goals? How have they worked for you? I’d like to hear!

Last updated December 15, 2020

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