Over-Worked And Under-Challenged? It’s Time To Set Some Goals

Reengaging with your work may be as simple as laying out the right kind of goals.
August 01, 2011

“It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” –Henry David Thoreau

Ever feel like you’re on autopilot, but are stressed nonetheless?

If you took a driver’s education course as a teenager, you probably heard the term “highway hypnosis.” After driving on the highway for a long period of time, you become acclimated to the speed such that even when you leave the highway for city streets you continue to drive extremely fast—too fast.

These days we’re all speeding along the information highway. Juggling requests, responding to e-mail, tweeting our every move—all the while, adding to and subtracting from our to-do lists as we strive to cross everything off in a constant frenzy of “What’s next?”

The result is often a lot of activity (and seeming productivity) but with little satisfying reward. We get hypnotized by the small stuff and fail to slow down and reflect on the big picture. You’re “getting things done” but you don’t feel like you’re accomplishing anything worthwhile. You may even feel stagnant or disengaged.

The root of the problem, I think, is counter-intuitive: It’s not that we are overburdened, but that we are under-challenged. Whenever I feel myself becoming unmoored, falling out of engagement with my work, I realize that it’s typically because I’ve set large goals, achieved them, and then failed to immediately set new challenges. And that’s when the gap starts to open up for autopilot—and ultimately disengagement—to start making inroads.

As business owners and employees, we are all working much more autonomously than ever before. This is a wonderful and empowering development, but it also comes with a serious responsibility. The more we work independently, the more incumbent it is upon us, as individuals, to set the long-term goals—the challenges!—that keep us engaged and motivated. Without those challenges, autonomy can quickly turn into autopilot, where everything goes by in a blur of joyless busy-ness.

The fact of the matter is: If you don’t regularly dictate your own goals, someone else will. There are a million clamoring voices in your inbox that would be happy to tell you what to do with your day. Which is precisely why we must be vigilant about setting the “big hairy audacious goals” that help us guard our daily focus and give our work larger meaning.

Here are a few thoughts on building a routine for goal-setting for yourself and your team:

Sit down—with yourself and/or each member of your team—at least every 3-6 months to set new goals

Rather than looking backward, as performance reviews do, goal-setting meetings are all about looking forward and aiming high. Meetings should occur no less than twice a year to make sure that there is no “downtime” between goals being achieved and new goals being set.

Set goals that push you a little bit outside your comfort zone and encourage the mastery of new skills

The best goals are those that encourage us to take new risks and build skills without being so daunting that we’re paralyzed by anxiety. Strive to set goals that throw down the gauntlet and really require you to stretch.

Build in a system for measuring performance.

Ideally, you want to bake some measure of performance into each goal—whether it’s a stat related to Web traffic generated, new sponsor dollars earned, conversion rate reached, etc. Establishing metrics makes it easy to say, “I nailed that!” and celebrate when celebration is due.

Schedule the next goal-setting meeting.

Once your goals are laid out, go ahead and set the next meeting and treat it like a milestone for completion. Regular checkins create a mechanism for accountability that’s incredibly powerful. So fix a date and stick to it.

This post by J.K. Glei is based on research by the Behance team. Behance runs the Behance Creative Network, the 99% productivity think tank, the Action Method project management application, and the Creative Jobs List.