Goal setting is critical no matter what role you are in, personally as well as professionally. This is especially true for human resources and leadership teams, as the spotlight has shifted over the past decade to focus more on HR as a change agent within organizations. We’re not only setting goals for ourselves, but we’re also helping and teaching others to do the same.
Emily Balcetis, a social psychologist and New York University Associate Professor of Psychology, has a fantastic TedX talk on visual frames and how setting a narrow focus can scientifically help you achieve your goals. Problem solving and goal setting are essential workplace leadership tools that everyone needs, but especially HR leaders who need these tools to solve problems, drive business growth and support the organization.
When it comes to setting and meeting goals, the way we perceive our plans, progress, and potential could be what’s impeding our success. We literally see ourselves as being closer to or farther away from a goal than we really are, which distracts from the original plan so that we either focus too heavily on a broad plan or, alternately, spend too much time working out the little details.
In her new book, Clearer, Closer, Better: How Successful People See the World, Balcetis focuses on perception and offers research-based evidence that there is power in these misperceptions and we can learn to use them to our advantage.
Balcetis outlines a four-step process to help you focus on the right goals and set yourself up to achieve them. At a high level, they are:
In her TedX talk, “Why Some People Find Exercise Harder Than Others” (video), Balcetis applies the first step to how we think about our health goals. Fascinated by the way different people can look at the same thing yet perceive it quite differently, she asks, “What is it about what one person is thinking and feeling that leads them to see the world in an entirely different way?”
Relying on her background in behavioral science, Balcetis looked at how people perceive health and fitness. In initial studies, she noticed that people who were unfit perceived the distance to a designated finish line as significantly further away compared with those who were more physically fit. However, with additional research, she discovered that a person’s motivational level made a difference. The research indicated that people who were highly motivated to exercise perceived the distance as shorter – even the most unfit individuals. Her further studies showed that people who were asked to keenly focus their eyes on the finish line while exercising both found the exercise less daunting and more enjoyable.
“So our bodies can change how far away that finish line looks, but people who had committed to a manageable goal that they could accomplish in the near future and who believed that they were capable of meeting that goal actually saw the exercise as easier,” says Balcetis.
Applied to our own goals, the idiom “keep your eyes on the prize” that Balcetis refers to in her talk is literal. What makes us lose this focus? Having too many goals, having goals that are not well-defined, making goals and putting them away so that they’re not accessible, allowing the functions of our job (putting out fires, day-to-day tasks) to override our goals, not making achievable goals. There are more things that make us lose focus than there are methods of focusing, hence the busy-ness and multitasking we get caught up in until a month, a quarter, even a year goes by before we realize we haven’t been keeping our eyes on the prize.
Science has the secret to setting successful goals, and we already have some of the tools we need to do it. Back to something we all learned in Leadership 101: In order to get results, we have to set SMART goals. Meaning: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Based. We’re all wired to do this, but how many of us apply it in practice? When setting SMART goals, we also have to consider how we literally see them – the perception of how easy or difficult they are to achieve. When setting the scope of your goals, rather than thinking about the entire scope of your job, narrowing your focus helps you focus on the end result instead of the task.
Widening the bracket to encompass the pieces that make up individual goals ensures each is relevant to expected results, as defined by your SMART goal. Materialize your plan and measure your progress, which means if you can’t measure it, it isn’t a goal. Controlling your frame of reference means that you identify your focus for each goal and how difficult or easy you perceive the goal to be. Changing the perception of your goals, according to Balcetis’ research, is the key to achieving them.
In her TedX talk, Balcetis talks about maintaining focus in the group she studied for exercise goals. “When we had them estimate the distance, was this strategy successful for changing their perceptual experience? Yes. People who kept their eyes on the prize saw the finish line as 30 percent closer than people who looked around as they naturally would.”
Balcetis ends her talk with the following: “We all see the world through our own mind’s eye, and on some days, it might look like the world is a dangerous and challenging and insurmountable place, but it doesn’t have to look that way all the time. We can teach ourselves to see it differently, and when we find a way to make the world look nicer and easier, it might actually become so.”
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