Why Is it Important that Goals Be Measurable?

Have you ever made a cake? How would your recipe turn out if none of the measurements were listed? You might have an understanding of what you wanted to create, but the result might be a little sloppy. Plus, you’d have to go through a great deal of trial and error to have a decent outcome.

Similarly, you need to be able to measure your goals so that you can better predict the outcome, recreate the steps and recognize when you’ve accomplished your objective.

What Happens When You Set Unconscious Goals?

You’re probably setting unconscious goals every day. You might have a mental to-do list or wake up with the idea that you want to feel productive.

But how will you know if you’ve tackled your to-do list or been fruitful? You’d probably want to write down your obligations so that you could cross them off when you achieved them.

When you don’t set measurable goals, you tend to spend your life wandering. This isn’t necessarily detrimental. If you’re making choices that resonate with your values and living with integrity, you may be quite happy with your ability to be spontaneous.

But neglecting to set measurable goals can also leave you feeling like it’s hard to get anything done. We’ve all had those days. You have so much to do, but nothing seems to get accomplished.

You can’t organize your mind. You might start lots of projects without finishing them. Even if you do complete your tasks, you don’t feel like you’ve really achieved anything.

This can happen because you’re tired, stressed or overworked. But it can also occur because you’re not setting clear, measurable goals.

Even if you don’t set conscious objectives, your subconscious mind is always at work. In fact, research shows that people often pursue goals that they never stated outwardly.

Goal Contagion May Be Driving Your Behavior

Have you ever heard of goal contagion? It’s the principle that other people’s behavior influences your unconscious goal-setting prowess.

When you see what other people are doing, your mind tries to figure out why they’re doing it. In other words, you attempt to discover what those individuals’ intentions are and what they’re trying to accomplish. You involuntarily infer certain goals from peoples’ actions.

This is how cultures are created. Because we can logically interpret other people’s goals from their actions, we may adopt those same objectives ourselves.

This Psychology Today article explains this phenomenon from the perspective of a neighborhood. If you see that the house across the street has political yard signs up, you deduce that those people have set an intention to announce their political preferences. You might be more likely to want to broadcast your own favorites.

In this way, goal contagion can be favorable. It can help you take action even when you haven’t consciously set out to act a certain way or do a certain thing.

In a business environment, goal contagion can enhance productivity. Most leaders are adept at setting goals. When they model positive goal-setting behavior, defining objectives becomes contagious.

The human brain is wired to create patterns out of chaos. When you notice that the people around you behave a certain way, you develop a mental model of the way that they act, the objectives that they’re striving to reach and their productivity and performance.

At the same time, your brain develops a similar model for you. Based on what other people are doing, you determine when and how you should take specific forms of action. This often happens before you have a chance to use your conscious mind to reason it out.

What Does Research Say About Unconscious Goal-Setting?

Your unconscious goals can get in the way of your productivity. Unconscious goals are often not measurable. They’re usually strong desires that drive your behavior without you knowing it.

Researchers have conducted several studies to learn more about the way that unconscious goals drive us.

In one, participants were asked to perform memory tests. First, they were shown a series of letters and asked to identify whether the series had any capital letters.

While the letter sequences were presented, some of the displays flashed a word that was related to a social goal. Other displays flashed a word that was not related to any goals. These words were shown too quickly for the conscious mind to recognize them.

When performing the memory tests after this initial primer, the participants who saw words that were related to social goals took longer to answer the questions.

Something similar happens every time your phone buzzes or your computer alerts you that you have an email. You unconsciously set a goal to check your texts or inbox, which distracts you from the task at hand.

How is that possible? Your thoughts move faster than the speed of light. You can’t consciously process every idea that comes into your head. However, your body responds, and you take action even when you haven’t reasoned out a particular thought.

For example, can you count the number of colors that your eyes see at this very moment? They can detect millions of hues at once, but you probably can’t list a million colors if you try to.

How many goals are you detecting and following without even noticing? And why should you care?

Measurable Goals Let You Gauge Your Productivity

When you’re living on autopilot, you’re still setting and achieving goals every day. But you have no idea what you’re actually accomplishing.

Sure, you can reasonably answer the question, “What did you do today?” But if you haven’t set measurable goals, your answer might be along the lines of, “A little bit of this, and a little bit of that.”

If you’re working towards specific goals, you’ll probably be able to spout out a list. Think about the difference between the way that you act at work when you have a project to finish compared with the day after you complete the project.

When you’re working on a project, you can probably list your accomplishments that day based on the actions that you took toward that assignment. When the project is over, you might sit at your desk, check some emails, and read through some important documents. But you may say something such as, “I had a lazy day at work today.”

Your goals tell you how productive you are. Imagine that you wake up one morning with the following three goals:

  • Eat six servings of vegetables.
  • Exercise for 30 minutes.
  • Write 1,000 words in my journal.

You will clearly know when you have achieved these things. And if you do, you’ll probably say that you were productive.

On the other hand, have you ever woken up with no plans for your day? You might have an incredible time. You may do the following:

  • Eat six servings of vegetables.
  • Exercise for 30 minutes.
  • Write 1,000 words in your journal.
  • Read ten chapters in a book.
  • Watch two television programs.
  • Shuttle your kids to and from school.

But would you say that you were productive? You might not because you have no measure of what productivity means to you that day.

Can’t You Just Do Your Best?

Measurable goals also make you more productive.

In one study, researchers found that setting goals improves performance by up to 15 percent compared with working without goals. Moreover, studies show that setting specific, challenging goals drives performance better than simply stating that you’re going to try your hardest.

That’s because “try your best” isn’t measurable. You can interpret this statement in millions of different ways. It allows for a huge range of satisfactory performance levels.

One person’s best may be different than another person’s, producing different outcomes and delivering distinct productivity levels. Plus, your best may not be the same when you’re juggling many tasks on little sleep compared with a day that you feel rested, nourished and clear-headed.

Setting measurable goals reduces variance in performance because it diminishes ambiguity about what actions you need to take and what outcomes you should expect.

Measurable Goals Provide Feedback

We mentioned earlier that your goals help you recognize when you’re productive. Setting measurable goals provides other types of feedback too.

Latham and Locke are two of the primary goal researchers. In a paper that summarizes 35 years of studies on the subject, the authors state:

“For goals to be effective, people need summary feedback that reveals progress in relation to their goals. If they do not know how they are doing, it is difficult or impossible for them to adjust the level or direction of their effort or to adjust their performance strategies to match what the goal requires.”

In order to track your progress, you need to be able to measure it. Locke and Latham go on to give an example of loggers who are asked to cut down 30 trees a day. The goal is clear; there is no question about the number of trees that they need to chop.

To measure their progress, all they have to do is count the number of trees that they’ve cut. They can’t tell if they’ve reached their target unless they can count the number of trees. This is an easy task to understand.

What if they were told to cut down as many trees as possible in one day? How can the loggers track their progress?

First, they would have to be able to answer the question, “How many trees is it possible to cut down in one day?” But it’s hard to find a clear answer to that question.

Why is Feedback Important for Goal Setting?

Combining goals with feedback is more effective than just setting goals without measuring them. Feedback drives motivation. When people find that their progress isn’t meeting the target, they’re more likely to increase their effort.

If you’re told to cut down as many trees as possible, will you be motivated to cut down 30? You might come up with excuses. On a day that you’re tired, you might say that it just wasn’t possible to cut down 30 trees.

In this scenario, nothing urges you to put in the extra effort because you can reason why it was only possible to cut down 10 trees. On the other hand, if you are told that it’s possible to cut down 30 trees, and that’s your goal, you can work diligently until you have achieved your target.

Let’s say that you’re given the goal to cut down 30 trees, but you are exhausted one day. You feel like you’re not going to be able to hit your numbers. Researchers say that if you can’t put in the extra effort, you’re more likely to try a different strategy when you have a specific, measurable goal.

Measurable Goals Give You Satisfaction

Goals are a standard for determining satisfaction. If you say that you’re striving for a certain goal, you’re implying that you won’t be satisfied until you achieve that goal. Studies consistently show that when people reach or exceed their goals, they’re more satisfied than when they don’t.

Setting measurable, specific and challenging goals can make you more interested in an activity, according to research. What’s more, being rewarded for reaching challenging goals also enhances interest and satisfaction.

Goal setting can keep you satisfied even when life becomes overwhelming. A 2016 article in the Journal of Graduate Medical Education outlines a method that physicians can take to set goals that lead to a more satisfying career.

The authors note that many clinicians are discontent and feel burned out. They go on to note that these doctors are going from one task to the next without reflecting or thinking about each one.

They go on to suggest that setting measurable goals that align with personal objectives is one of the keys to being happy in your career. The authors say that the process for setting these goals are as follows:

  1. Define work requirements and personal career objectives
  2. Evaluate how well personal career goals align with work requirements
  3. Create a plan to align personal career goals with work requirements

In this case, the emphasis is on merging personal and career goals as well as defining those goals and coming up with a plan to reorganize the current situation as necessary. The authors of this paper state that creating actionable elements when planning your goals can help you decide whether other projects or tasks are needed.

Setting measurable goals can help you make better decisions about the way that you use your time. When you’re more efficient, you’ll tend to get more done in less time and ultimately be more satisfied with your work.

Measurable Goals Make You Self-Motivated

It doesn’t always matter whether you set goals for yourself or someone sets them for you. Once those objectives are in place, they help you dredge up intrinsic motivation. One reason for this is that setting goals allows you to work through potential obstacles and take control of your behavior.

Let’s say that you want to improve employee attendance. You could set up a self-management training program similar to the one that researchers Frayne and Latham describe.

Crucial elements of the training include:

  • Setting specific high goals for attendance
  • Evaluating how the environment affects the ability to reach the goals
  • Administering rewards for hitting targets

In Frayne and Latham’s research, employees who set attendance goals were better able to cope with obstacles that might otherwise have hindered their ability to show up to work. Moreover, it increased their self-motivation because it allowed them to take control of their behavior.

If you can’t measure your goals, you can’t guide your behavior. You can try to act a certain way or attempt to behave consistently with your objectives. However, you have no way of knowing if you’re succeeding.

Measurable Goals Are More than Your Mission

As you read this article, you may be reflecting on your goals. Are you thinking that many of your goals are quite general? Are you worried that you’re not setting measurable objectives?

You’re not necessarily doing anything wrong. Your general goals are akin to your mission statement.

Most organizations have a mission statement. For example, Amazon’s mission statement is as follows:

Our vision is to be earth’s most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.

That’s a great start. But it’s not a measurable goal.

Do you have goals that sound like this? Some examples include:

  • I want to give back to my community.
  • I want to lose weight.
  • I want to leave a legacy for my children.
  • I want to travel the world.
  • I want to follow my passions.
  • I want to live with purpose.

Those are great missions for your life. However, they’re not measurable goals.

They can help you dream and feel purposeful. But these statements won’t necessarily help you take action. Because some of them are relatively vague, you may not know when you’ve achieved them.

How do you know if you’re following your passion? How do you live with purpose? Answering those questions lets you transform your mission statements into measurable goals.

How to Measure Your Goals

If you want to measure your goals, you have to create them using a specific unit of measurement, such as:

  • Time
  • Money
  • Number of tasks completed
  • Frequency

But you can’t come up with measurable units until you have defined your goal. For example, if you want to spend more time with your family, what does that look like? Use measurable units and specific tasks and actions to come up with your definition.

Your definition of spending more time with your family might look like this:

  • Go on one date night a month with my partner
  • Spend 20 minutes every weekday helping my kids with their homework
  • Go on one outdoor excursion every month with my spouse and children

If you have trouble using time, money, volume or frequency as measurable units, consider using a satisfaction or feedback scale. You can ask yourself, “On a scale of 1-10, how satisfied am I with my efforts to achieve this goal?”

This would work well if you wanted to spend more quality time with your kids but didn’t want to quantify the time spent together. It’s a useful measure of feedback to review whether you are happy with your behavior.

The Difference Between Measurable and Unmeasurable Goals

Measurable goals should be able to be placed on a calendar. After all, how else are you going to achieve them if you don’t set aside time to accomplish them?

Can you put the mission statements above on a calendar?

Some ways to transform unmeasurable goals into measurable ones is to break them down. Here are some examples, using a few of the mission statements above.

I Want to Give Back to My Community

To make this goal measurable, you must define what giving back means to you. Is it a financial contribution? Is it a matter of spending time helping others? Does it involve interacting with or teaching members of the community?

Let’s keep this simple and assume that you identify this mission as a financial one. Once you know that, you need to:

  • Decide how much money to donate to local charities per month, quarter or year
  • Research the organizations to which you want to donate
  • Schedule the donations on a calendar

Once this is taken care of, you may need to break down the goal list further to make sure that you save enough money to donate.

At the end of the year, refer to these bullet points. If you can check each one off, then you have accomplished your goal.

I Want to Lose Weight

Does this goal sound familiar to you? Many people have set unmeasurable weight-loss goals. Setting vague goals is one of the reasons that dieters find it so hard to shed pounds and keep them off.

A better way to make this a measurable goal would be to determine how much weight you want to lose in a certain timeframe. When you do this, you also have to ensure that your outcomes are realistic.

Experts say that healthy weight loss is equivalent to one or two pounds a week. If you want to set yourself up to achieve your goal, you might want to shoot for those numbers.

However, you’re more likely to have a good outcome when you set a measurable goal that’s also controllable. You can’t completely control how much weight you lose each week. You could follow a diet perfectly but only lose 0.5 pounds.

Therefore, you might want to consider setting weight-loss goals that look more like this:

  • I will eat only vegetables and lean protein this week.
  • I will eat 1,500 calories per day.
  • I will work out for 30 minutes, five days this week.

You can measure those outcomes because they include a unit of time and a number. Those goals are completely within your power. It’s your responsibility to eat the healthy foods that you intended to consume, limit your calories and exercise.

I Want to Leave a Legacy for My Children

In this case, you have to define “leaving a legacy.” Perhaps this is a certain dollar amount. Maybe it’s some tangible assets, like heirloom jewelry. It could just be a collection of your journals.

Once you understand what you want to leave behind, you can work toward gathering the materials. If you want to leave money behind, you might set goals such as:

  • Put 10 percent of my income in a trust by next year.
  • Purchase a life insurance policy by next month.

If you want to give your children your writings, you have to make sure that you’re keeping up with your journals. A measurable goal for this would be:

  • Write for 10 minutes every night.
  • Write a letter to each child on their birthday.

I Want to Travel the World

Once again, you need to come up with some definitions before you can pursue this mission. You might make a list of the countries or cities that you want to visit. Then, you can break them up into timeframes.

A measurable goal might be to take one vacation a year to a place on your list. You could also save up enough money to travel to several locations in a year or two after you retire. In each case, you should have a deadline for the money that you have to save to go on each trip as well as the research that you must do before the trip.

When you reach the end of your life, you might look back and ask yourself, “Did I accomplish everything that I wanted to?” If you haven’t set measurable goals, this question will be difficult to answer because you won’t know what you wanted to achieve.

However, if you frame your desires as measurable objectives, you can schedule them and make plans for checking each one off of your list.

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