How to Set Goals That'll Inspire You to Do Your Best Work

February 4, 2019

Learn how to set goals that'll inspire you to do your best work.

The goal of goals, if you will, is to inspire you to do your best work. But, all too often, goals have the opposite effect: they inspire you to do what’s safe, what’s predictable, what’s worked before; just slightly better.

Take a sales goal, for example. To hit a quota, an experienced sales person will know they need make x amount of calls to x amount of people. They’ll work to sharpen their pitch, but many sales goals are set so it’s about further optimizing what the sales person has already been doing.

That’s great – to a degree. It might lead to a 5 percent increase in sales quarter-over-quarter. But it’s not going to lead to a 50 percent increase in sales, quarter-over-quarter.

And, if that mindset goes on too long, its prone to disruption. Too many quarters of slight sales growth can lead to a quarter with a massive sales drop.

Here’s the point – in an age where creativity is the most important skill in the world, you need to challenge yourself and take chances. Often, goals can have the opposite effect.

When S.M.A.R.T. is Stupid – A Better Way to Think About Setting Goals at Work

LinkedIn Learning Instructor Lisa McLeod explains why it's so important to set strategic goals.

One of the most common ways to set goals today is to use the S.M.A.R.T. method, which stands for specific, measurable, realistic and time-bound. And while these are great for setting your garden-variety goals, setting only S.M.A.R.T. goals can be, well, not so smart.

“(S.M.A.R.T. goals) limit your thinking… they often result in you playing small and that doesn’t serve anyone,” Instructor Elizabeth McLeod said in her LinkedIn Learning course, Leading Yourself. “I doubt Steve Jobs put the iPhone in motion with a S.M.A.R.T. goal.”

Well said.

McLeod instead encourages you to set what she describes as “strategic goals.” Unlike a S.M.A.R.T. goal, you might not know how to solve a strategic goal right away. There might not be a clear step forward.

Which is why they are such great goals to set. They force you to be creative and try new things.

McLeod gave some examples of strategic goals in her course. They included “increase organizational innovation” and “accelerate our competitive differentiation in the market.”

You can see that those goals aren’t nearly as tangible as a S.M.A.R.T. goal. That’s the point.

They force you to get outside your comfort zone and think creatively to solve them in new ways. 

The Best Approach for Setting Goals: A Mixture of S.M.A.R.T. and Strategic, Where 70% is an A

That said, your list of goals shouldn’t all be of the strategic variety. Often, you still need to optimize what’s already working, while also forcing yourself to think of the new, too.

Say you are in sales. You’ll likely set traditional S.M.A.R.T. goals around your closing rate, call volume, etc. But add in one or two strategic goals as well – can you be a better coach to your team? Can you drive innovation by aligning closer with marketing and product?

At LinkedIn, we set goals every quarter. And yet, management doesn’t want to see us hit 100 percent of them – that means we played it too safe; which is often the result of too many S.M.A.R.T. goals.

Instead, a great quarter for a LinkedIn employee is to reach 70 percent of our goals. That means we set ambitious goals, yet we pushed ourselves to accomplish the majority of them.

Here’s the bigger point. Ironically, you don’t want to hit all of your goals every quarter. And you don’t want all your goals to be S.M.A.R.T. goals, either.

Challenge yourself more than that. Focus on optimizing what you are already doing – but also on taking on the entirely new, too.

That'll empower you to do your best work.

Elizabeth and Lisa Earle McLeod’s LinkedIn Learning course Leading Yourself will make you rethink how your approach your career. Topics within it include how to: