My last two articles discussed when you want your goals to be Specific and ways to ensure that goals are Measurable. In this article I am going to discuss the third concept in using the acronym SMART, making your goals Actionable. An alternate version of SMART uses the term achievable instead of actionable, but for reasons I will talk about next, I personally find actionable to be more useful.
I would be remiss to say that it is not good to at least consider the extent to which a goal is achievable. Research has shown that when it comes to goal setting, the most successful individuals are those more capable of accurately making self-assessments of their capabilities and resources available. Those individuals that fail to accurately gauge their abilities or resources are more likely to fail. This may make it seem then, that success is dependent upon setting goals that are achievable.
However, there is also research on motivation that supports what Henry Ford was known to have said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t—you’re right.” As it turns out, your individual beliefs regarding if you can or cannot achieve a goal has a significant impact on success, including if you are motivated to even begin working towards a goal in the first place. Individuals with beliefs that support high levels of success set stretch goals, goals that are challenging without the guarantee of achievement.
Consider the laundry list of ludicrous, unachievable goals people at one point in time dared attempt. There was circumnavigating the earth in a wooden ship, running a mile in under 4 minutes, landing a man on the moon, me being chosen male model of the year, transplanting a human heart, cloning a sheep and the list continues. With recent advancements in technology it seems like the pace at which the once unachievable is being achieved is accelerating at an unprecedented rate. Maybe I am just watching too many YouTube videos.
I admit my personal bias here. It is because of my firm belief in mankind’s ability to achieve the unachievable that I prefer using the term Actionable when structuring my SMART goals. It is within the context of what is actionable that I endeavor to use my decision making skills to accurately assess my abilities and the resources I have available.
“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.”
- Norman Vincent Peale
Instead of achievable, focus on what is actionable, what is your plan for success? For simple or short-term goals it may not take much effort to quickly write down the exact actions required. On the other hand, for complex or long-term goals the plan for success will most likely be more dynamic. Larger goals most often will require breaking them down into smaller sub-goals or establishing milestones.
Personally, for my action plans I use Microsoft OneNote, but there are plenty of comparable options on the market you can choose from. The reason I prefer OneNote is because of the flexibility to create a custom format that works for you. In my case, being able to insert links and set up tasks as deep as I like are important features.
The degree of detail you want in your action plan will vary. While creating a comprehensive action plan might seem ideal, regardless of the type of goal, when it comes to dynamic or long-term goals, you want to focus most of your effort on near term actions and leave the rest for later. The main reason for this approach is because by definition, dynamic goals ebb and flow, so you are better off not wasting time getting too specific with milestones that are distant.
For instance, in my goal to conquer the world my energy is spent developing detail for my first two milestones, leaving the last two as general concepts. Until I have the hidden island, it is only important to know the island needs to be big enough to accommodate a laser. If then something goes wrong with my island plan and I have to switch to a luxury submarine, I benefit from having maintained efficiency and flexibility in the face of a dynamic environment.
The Bottom Line
Without action a goal is just a dream, therefore when structuring your SMART goals make sure the goal is actionable. To accomplish this, take the end goal and then set intermediate steps or milestones you need to accomplish along the way. After you have determined your milestones, focus on establishing next actions, those actions that will get you to the first milestone. As you progress, the actions you take will provide feedback that you can then use to adjust your plan.
If you missed my articles on Specific and Measurable, follow the links. If you want to be notified next week, be sure to sign up for my free newsletter.
About the Author
Richard Feenstra is an educational psychologist and world renowned thumb wrestler. His focus is on judgment and decision making, including topics like cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias. He admires the work of Daniel Kahneman and highly recommends the book "Thinking Fast and Slow". Now that he has talked about himself in the third person and added some nice keywords for search engines, he hopes you enjoyed this blog and sends his best to friends, family, and his readers in their efforts to conquer the world.
In my last article I discussed the SMART format for setting goals and the research behind Specific goals. In this article I want to discuss the next step, how you can ensure Measurable goals to achieve better results. This is arguably my favorite part of goal setting and an area where I think it is easy to get off track by establishing measurements that are less than helpful. In fact, I think in our digital world getting off track is easier than any other time in history.
The most common error I see is establishing measurements that track results, but not performance. I think in order to obtain the best results you should try to use both. The second most common error is allowing the way you decide to measure to drive your goal instead of the goal driving the way you measure. Last, I want to cover the concept of triangulation, discussing when and why you might want to use multiple measurements.
Outcomes vs. Performance
A simple example is the common goal to lose a specific amount of weight as part of a resolution to live a healthy life. For purposes of the example let's say you determine that you could stand to lose 10 pounds. This provides you a result or outcome that you want to achieve and you can easily monitor how your goal is progressing by using a scale to weigh yourself periodically. Still, establishing this measurement does nothing to help you as it relates to actual performance.
A performance measure on the other hand is a particular action you can take that is measurable, and that you have reason to believe will help you achieve results. In trying to lose weight common methods include diet, exercise or taking a supplement. For diet you can track the number of calories you eat each day and for exercise you can track the number of calories burned or the total distance you walk or run. The supplement is a matter of tracking the frequency. These are all actions you can take that are based on some task you need to perform. From these measures or variables you can begin to tie your performance to results. As the general wisdom goes, performance drives results.
Measuring What You Manage
Speaking of general wisdom, management expert Edward Deming is known for his statement, "What gets measured gets managed." If you set a performance measure to eat less than 2,000 calories a day then it is this aspect of the goal to lose weight that will get managed. And management requires resources, including time and energy. Given we all have a finite amount of resources available, a sneaky trap you want to avoid is allowing a method of measurement to dictate what you will manage.
Sticking with the fitness theme, a growing trend is wearable technology that helps measure all sorts of neat statistics. Fitbit is a popular brand of wearable tech, providing a wireless wristband to help track things like heart rate and even the number of flights of stairs you walk up each day. Because of these measurements, it is tempting to fall into the trap of searching for stairs you can climb or trying to develop a fitness routine to use the heart rate monitor. If you are not careful the measurement tool begins to drive what you are managing instead of the other way around.
An example that is also a growing trend is the use of analytics in business. I love analytics. I think it is fun to check my websites and see people from all over the world visiting. I can see how long they have stayed on the site, what type of the device they used to connect and sometimes I even get data on age and gender. There are hundreds of analytics available from which I can choose and a mountain of data at my fingertips.
It is this mountain of data that becomes the double-edged sword. You want data to help make informed decisions, but you also need to avoid letting analytics be the measure that drives your goals. Instead, you first want to use the data to inform and help establish your goals and only then select the analytics that are the correct measurement tools for the job. It is a subtle, but important difference between measuring what you manage verses managing what you measure.
Another key to measuring a goal is knowing when and why you should use more than one measurement to gauge success. We have already discussed the need to use both performance and outcome measures, but there is another concept called triangulation. The idea behind triangulation is that like the three sides of a triangle, to use three measurements to help verify and validate outcomes.
Eating less than 2,000 calories a day is performance based, the expected outcome is a loss of weight. What happens then, if after two weeks no weight has been lost? Having the single measurement weight, it would appear no progress is being made. However, if you also were measuring inches around your waist and body fat percentage, the three measurements taken together may tell a different story.
For goals that are short term, simple or low impact the added effort to manage multiple measurements is probably not worth the resources. But, for goals that are long term, complex or of high consequence, using triangulation is something to consider. For the best results, I recommend using three types of data that include both quantitative and qualitative forms of measurement.
The Bottom Line
A critical part of establishing a goal is to know how you plan to measure success. For better results consider:
-1- Make sure to use both performance and outcome measures.
-2- Measure what you manage, not the other way around. First establish your goals, then select the correct measurement for the job.
-3- For goals that are complex or high consequence and long term, consider using triangulation. Select multiple measurements to validate results and keep you on the right track.
To view the initial blog post on "When Setting Specific Goals is a Bad Thing", click here.
About the author:
Richard Feenstra is a decision researcher, studying and sharing how we make better decisions. He holds a Ph.D. in educational psychology and an M.S. in workforce development. His work experience includes military service, law enforcement, fire prevention and workplace safety. Richard is an international speaker and a recognized expert witness regarding issues of safety and security.
Richard teaches a number of online courses, check out his instructor profile.
A little over a year ago I put up a 5 minute video on my YouTube channel that provided a brief overview on how to use a version of SMART goals to better structure your goals for success. The positive response has been terrific, so after receiving multiple requests to expand on the topic, I decided to write a five part series, starting with discussing the research behind when and why goals need to be specific, including when setting specific goals is a bad idea.
If you are not familiar with SMART, it is an acronym you can use to help structure your goals to make sure they are Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, and Time Bound. There are other variations of the SMART format with the 'A' standing for achievable or the 'R' for realistic, but for reasons I will explain later, I find actionable and relevant more useful. (original video)
Like most people I enjoy a tasty scoop of ice cream, especially Oreo blizzards, but what few people realize is how dangerous a treat ice cream has become. First there is the issue of obesity, second there are higher crime rates, third there is the loss of life due to a rise in the number of drowning deaths, and finally, as more ice cream is sold there is an increase in forest fires. Given these indisputable facts, I need you to support my vision of an ice cream free world.
While banning ice cream trucks from entering your neighborhood may sound far-fetched, when it comes to problem solving, the above paragraph describes a common issue of misunderstanding the difference between correlation and causation. This misunderstanding can influence our decisions, sometimes with serious consequences that ripple throughout a community.
When two things are related, but one does not cause the other then it is correlation, not causation. Usually this means the two are in some way related to a third factor, but not always. If you have a big enough pile of data, you will even find relationships that are purely coincidence, like the strong relationship between the sale of margarine and divorce in the state of Maine.
With the sale of ice cream a third factor is weather. When it is hot outside people buy more ice cream, they are more likely to go for a swim, and there is a general increase in people out and about enjoying the weather, helping improve conditions for crime to take place as well as the dry conditions associated with forest fires. When everyone is snowed in, the trees and grass are wet and it is time for a marathon session of Netflix. To my knowledge no one has yet drowned while watching Netflix, but I guess technically it could happen.
A note of caution, there is a growing trend in the digital world called “data dredging”. This is using analytics to sift through mountains of data hoping to find useful relationships. Instead of a problem in search of a solution, dredging data is a solution looking to identify a problem. This does not mean correlations are without value. In fact, correlation is a vital part of helping us move to the next step, the discovery of causation.
Unlike correlation, to claim one thing actually causes another thing to happen means you need to be able to demonstrate an actual cause and effect relationship, preferably a strong relationship. Arguably the gold standard of cause and effect is physics, but for an example I will use the pharmaceutical industry.
To make the claim that a particular drug causes a certain effect, such as lowering your cholesterol or growing hair, the FDA requires that pharmaceutical companies support those claims, putting the drug through a rigorous, four phase, twelve step process that takes roughly 12 years. The process is strictly regulated using control groups and clinical trials to test the drug, making sure that X causes Y and that the drug is safe (relatively speaking). The acceptable error rate can go as high as 5% for some drugs. This means that the clinical trials prove that there is a 95% chance the drug does actually cause hair to grow. Other drugs are held to an even stricter standard, requiring proof up to 99% effectiveness.
Back to ice cream. What about ice cream and obesity? While it may seem like common sense that eating ice cream causes weight gain, the fact is that we don’t yet know the true strength of the relationship. If we look at the sale of ice cream, there is actually an inverse relationship with weight. People gain weight in the winter when sales are low and lose weight in the warm summer months when more ice cream is being consumed. While this suggests ice cream might be the new diet food, knowing about correlation you can avoid drawing a causal conclusion.
Instead, recent research on the subject has been looking at different types of sugars used in making a wide range of sweet foods we tend to enjoy. What scientists have discovered is that the hypothalamus, which is an area of the brain that regulates appetite, reacts differently when we consume foods with fructose instead of glucose. This has researchers speculating that eating high fructose foods, such as ice cream, may result in people not feeling full, so they continue to eat. This theory proves difficult however when we start considering apples and other natural fruits also contain fructose, not just ice cream and chocolate cake.
As you can see, causation is difficult to prove, especially the more variables that are involved. No wonder it takes 12 years just to prove a pill causes hair to grow.
The Bottom Line
Personally, I do suspect that researchers are onto something with this whole fructose thing, but this article is not really about discussing the relationship between ice cream and forest fires or obesity. Instead, I want to reinforce the major difference between correlation and causation. When it comes to your ability to be a better problem solver, understanding this difference is critical.
In the real world, away from laboratories and clinical trials, on the news, in boardrooms and coffee shops, everywhere you go, you will hear claims that X causes Y. From politics to the weather, from the stock market to personal relationships it is human nature to try and explain things, to create stories that make sense. As you hear these stories or as you create the story, try to keep in mind one thing, that correlation is not causation.
Huff, D. (1993). How to Lie with Statistics (Reissue ed.). W. W. Norton & Company.
Silver, N. (2015). The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail--but Some Don’t. Penguin Books.
Stanovich, K. E. (2012). How to Think Straight About Psychology (10th Edition) (10 ed.). Pearson.
Vigen, T. (2015). Spurious Correlations. Hachette Books.
About the author:
Richard Feenstra is an educational psychologist with a focus on innovation, problem solving and productivity. His work experience includes military service, law enforcement, fire prevention and workplace safety. Richard is also a recognized expert witness regarding issues of safety and security. Richard holds an M.S. in workforce development and a Ph.D. in learning and technology.
Richard Feenstra is an educational psychologist, with a focus on judgment and decision making.
Bobby Hoffman is the author of "Hack Your Motivation" and a professor of educational psychology at the University of Central Florida.