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How To Create Goals That Lead To Success

About ten years ago I began working with a serious list maker. She would sit down with a legal pad and make a comprehensive list of all the things that needed to be done, big and small. Her list would sometimes stretch several pages. I have to admit, the sheer size of her list sometimes caused me anxiety. But, having a big list and then crossing items off of it seemed to give her a lot of satisfaction so it clearly worked for her.

I too like to make “to do” lists although mine have never made it past a page. But, how effective is a “to do” list? Does having a list really make your more likely to achieve your goals? According to Charles Duhigg’s book Faster, Smarter, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business, the answer is no.

In his chapter on better goal setting, Duhigg explores the psychological problem of “the need for cognitive closure.” (Duhigg at 107). Some people get pleasure from making a decision and feeling like there is progress, from checking an item off the list. That doesn’t sound so bad. However, the pleasure of feeling like they have made progress sometimes causes them to abandon common sense in favor of fake productivity. You may have heard this concept described as the difference between being busy and being productive.

So, some people add item after item to the to do list just so they can get the pleasure of checking the items off the list. They pick the easy at the expense of the important or difficult. Think of this as the idea of not working on a legal brief due at the end of the week because it will be challenging and may take all day, while doing ten small projects on other files will allow you check ten things off your list.

You have probably heard of the need to have SMART goals. In general SMART goals are a good concept. But, Duhigg notes that even the birthplace of SMART goals, General Electric, struggled with a period where workers spent more time making sure they had created SMART goals than they spent evaluating whether the goal itself was even worthwhile. And, sometimes the most important goals are a stretch. They may not seem SMART when they are created.

So what does Duhigg recommend for improving your goal setting? He offers a process for the best possible goal setting:

1. What is your stretch goal?
2. What is a specific subgoal?
3. How will you measure success?
4. Is this achievable?
5. Is this realistic?
6. What is your timeline?
(Duhigg at 130)

So, here is an example of what that might look like for a lawyer:

1. My stretch goal is to generate a 30% increase in the revenue I bring in for our law firm.
2. My specific subgoal is secure one new client to send me additional work.
3. I will measure success this week by contacting five prospective clients.
4. This is achievable if I spend an hour working on marketing activities by phone or in person three days each week.
5. This is realistic if three days a week I spend my lunch hour on marketing activities rather than reading a book.
6. My timeline is to spend this week making calls to prospective clients to arrange lunch meetings. In three weeks I will spend the time having lunch face to face with prospective clients. I will then spend time building and cultivating those relationships as well as identifying additional prospects. Etc.

You can then take this goal setting approach and apply it to your daily “to do” list. Create “to do lists that combine the best parts of stretch goals and SMART goals. At the top of the to do list identify the big picture, stretch goal your are hoping to achieve. Then, in the to do list itself, list out the SMART goals you need to reach your stretch goal. In other words break the stretch goal down into more manageable pieces.

Why does this work? Duhigg argues that having the stretch goal reminder at the top of your daily list trains your mind to focus on what matters, not simply what will be easy to check off. (Duhigg at 131).

With so many things to juggle, lawyers need to be efficient about setting the right goals and using the best methods to meet those goals. Duhigg’s suggestions for improving our goal setting, both long term and in daily life, offer you a chance to revise the way you set goals and get things done.


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