“Keep your eyes on the prize,” says the old adage. But, as it turns out, setting your sights on a lofty goal—on a swing-for-fences sales target, or on “big bet” social impact objective—can be detrimental to your quest to win a coveted prize. Identifying a single grand goal, and leaving it at that, will set you up for disappointment. Instead, truly effective leaders set and manage goals in a more deliberate and measured way. They focus their eyes, and their efforts, on carefully defined milestones that mark a plausible path to their ultimate objective.
World-class athletes—like those who are competing in the Summer Games in Tokyo—embody that wisdom as well. Even as they “go for the gold,” they know better than to dwell on visions of gold medals that loom over a distant horizon.
Earlier this year, I wrote about the art of setting attainable goals. In the piece, I recounted the story of how the late Sir Fazle Hasan Abed had built his organization, BRAC—now one of the largest nonprofits in the world—from humble beginnings. “Abed and his colleagues always broke down the large goal of liberating people from poverty into specific, measurable chunks,” I noted.
Today, the Olympics provide an occasion to revisit this topic—and to consider how goal setting is not just an art, but also a science. Successful athletes understand that goal setting requires discipline and precision. Indeed, disciplined goal setting is a core element of adopting an Olympic Frame of Mind. That term captures a set of techniques and practices that enable star athletes to achieve peak performance.
Setting goals well and clearly is essential to peak performance in virtually all professions. In Silicon Valley, where I live, goal setting is not just an art or a science; it’s almost a religion. The venture capitalist John Doerr wrote a book on the topic called Measure What Matters. Doerr started his career at Intel in the 1970s and had the privilege of working with Andy Grove, the legendary CEO of Intel. Grove created a goal-setting system called OKR, which stands for Objectives and Key Results. Many other technology companies, includingGoogle, later adopted OKR. Doerr applied the system to his own goals, personally shared it with about a hundred organizations, and founded a company (Betterworks) that helps companies implement OKR.
At King Philanthropies, the organization that I run, we incorporated insights from Doerr’s book into our strategic planning process. Applying OKR to that process proved to be immensely helpful: Ultimately, our board agreed upon our big objective of making a meaningful difference in the lives of 100 million of the world’s poorest people over the next 15 years.
Grove, as quoted by Doerr in his book, offered this description of a well-crafted goal: “At the end, you can look, and without any argument say, ‘Did I do that or did I not do it? Yes? No? Simple.’” While simplicity is one hallmark of a well-set goal, the work of defining suitable goals isn’t always so simple. Taking that work seriously is part of what distinguishes Olympic-level achievement from also-ran performance.
What Makes Goal Setting Effective
Research on the impact of goal setting is considerable, and the upshot of that research is overwhelming: Goal setting—if done with care and intentionality—can improve performance in a wide variety of activities. Such findings align closely with what my colleague Maya DiRado Andrews (Olympic gold medalist and former portfolio manager at King Philanthropies) and I discovered in interviews that we conducted as part of our research on what defines an Olympic Frame of Mind. From all of this research, two themes emerge that clarify how star performers approach goal setting. First, they focus intently on pursuing incremental goals. Second, they maintain reasonable expectations for what they can achieve in any given moment.
Take It One Step at a Time
Athletes and others who demonstrate an Olympic Frame of Mind set long-term, directional goals—winning a gold medal, writing a novel, launching a new venture. Big goals of this kind are important, but they’re the easy part. The harder part, and a more important predictor of success, is the effort to translate a large-scale, career-defining goal into yearly and even daily goals.
So performers who embody an Olympic mindset also recognize the power of incremental goals. They do the hard work of translating a grand ambition into step-by-step goals. Athletes, for instance, go into each practice session with a clear, achievable objective that connects meaningfully and realistically to their big, long-term goal. Social science research validates this approach. One study, from 1994, found that short-to medium-term goals have greater motivational effectiveness than long-term goals. Another study, from 2000, found that pursuing shorter-term goals improves the chances of achievement in dynamic situations.
Aim for “Personal Best,” Not for Perfection
It’s natural to assume that elite athletes are driven by borderline-insane levels of perfectionism: What else could keep them out on the field (or in the water, or on the court) for hours at a time, and for many years, until they develop world-class skill? In fact, though, aiming for a “perfect” level of performance carries serious risks. In a 2007 study of “burnout in elite athletes,” a team of researchers offered this summary of their findings: Although “perfectionism may have considerable energizing effects, which promote heightened effort and persistence, it also carries the potential to be psychologically debilitating because individuals are rarely satisfied with performance standards and constant self-criticism may become psychologically corrosive.”
Instead of pushing for perfection, Olympic-level athletes tend to set expectations for achievement that focus on making reasonable improvement in their current level of performance. They benchmark their goals against their “personal best,” not against the performance levels of other people or against some other external standard.
A study of academic achievement published in 2015 found that pursuing “personal best goals” correlated with greater improvements in student achievement than pursuing mastery- or performance-based goals. “Personal best goals,” according to the study’s authors, are ones that aim for “specific, challenging, competitively self-referenced targets” They focus not on beating others, but on surpassing one’s past achievements.
How Peak Performers Set Goals
Well-formulated goals tend to have these characteristics:
The more specific the goal, the more effective it will be as a mechanism to improve performance. A good goal ought to be binary in outcome: Either you achieved it, or you didn’t. Identifying a highly specific performance metric makes it possible to address that binary proposition.
One reason why sports exemplify the power of effective goal setting is that, in comparison with many other kinds of endeavors, they provide a wealth of immediate and unambiguous feedback on both the processes and the outcomes of performance. In establishing goals, a performer should consider whether the goals align with the best available feedback tools. A goal that is theoretically measurable is better than a goal that’s impossible to measure; an easily measurable goal is even better.
The best goals are self-referential. In other words, they focus on beating one’s own previous performance. A goal is not self-referential if it depends on the action of others—placing first in a race, for example, or ranking first in an annual sales competition. Setting goals that have this quality enables a performer to follow a classic piece of coaching wisdom: “Control the controllables!”
Even the most specific, feedback-driven, self-referential goal can set up an athlete for failure if it lacks a manageable scale. Athletes know that they must break big goals into smaller, attainable chunks. This principle is all the more applicable in fields marked by a high degree of complexity. According to a 2002 study, as a task becomes more complex, the effort to divide it into series of intermediate goals becomes more crucial to sustaining the motivation to finish the task.
When Goal Setting Succeeds
An organization that truly shines at goal setting is One Acre Fund, a nonprofit that provides farmers in East Africa and Southern Africa with credit, training, and physical delivery of productive assets. The farmers in this region make up a large portion of the world’s poorest people, and One Acre Fund gives them the means to escape poverty.
A decade ago, One Acre Fund annually served farm families that numbered in the tens of thousands. Then its team decided to set a bold goal: By 2020, it would serve one million farm families. “We were like high school athletes, and reaching a million farmers was our gold medal,” said Andrew Youn, co-founder and executive director of One Acre Fund.
But Youn and his colleagues knew that setting a “big, hairy, ambitious goal” wasn’t enough. They took care to break down their grand objective into goals that were specific, feedback-driven, self-referential, and chunkable. “We laid out a clear path to get to one million,” Youn said. “Each year, we chunked the big goal into an achievable target for each country of operation. Each business unit understood the drivers required to get there and strategized multiple paths for doing it.”
The result: By 2020, One Acre Fund was directly serving 1.2 million farm families per year—20% above its initial goal—along with 1.5 million families through partnerships.
One Acre Fund continues to hone its goal-setting efforts and uses an annual OKR process for that purpose. “As the organization grows more complex, we’re working to get better at proactively communicating how each individual contributes to team goals, country-level goals, and organizational goals,” Youn explained. “We try to ensure that all of those goals are concretely reflected in everything from daily conversations to performance reviews. Every day, we aim to make our goals as clear as possible to everyone on our team.”
Originally published in Forbes