What goals should you have at work?

Why goals are important

In your personal live or in your job: goals are a natural source of motivation. If done right, they pull us forward and propel us to new heights. Goals give us a direction in life and help us manage our time, actions and structure the decisions we make.
Working towards goals gives us a sense of purpose and when we get there a sense of accomplishment.
Ready, set, go?
It might not be that easy. After all, how many goals have you set in your lifetime which you didn’t achieve? I know that all too well, especially when it comes to exercising on a regular basis.
But, let’s say at work, you may have achieved your goal but in hindsight thought you could have done even better.
Let’s unpack what a good goal needs to create that pull effect and to drive performance.

Tiny but mighty goal hacks

Let’s look at a few small hacks you can make to any goal you set. These tweaks are also important checkpoints.
There are five things you can look out for.

1. Where to

In technical terms we call a “where to goal” an approach goal. It’s the opposite of an  avoidance goal and the difference is in the language.
Let’s stick with my exercise example. Instead of saying “I want to stop being such a lazy  couch potato” I should say “I want to exercise on a regular basis”.
This way of positive formulation is an important hack you can make. After all, our brain looks  into the direction we tell it to. And when we tell it not to think about that pink elephant with  purple dots all over, guess what it does?
This tweak not only helps us to achieve our goals better, but research found that it even fosters our well-being.

2. Want to

This is all about motivation. You can think about it like this: we’re always motivated. Either  to do one thing (pursuing our goal to exercise) or to do something else (binging a series).
There are various types of motivation, you may have heard of extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic  motivation comes from extrinsic rewards and recognition or sometimes punishment. But  intrinsic motivation comes when we do things for the sake of it. Just because. It’s fun.
When we pursue intrinsic goals, we don’t care whether we’re paid for them or not. And again,  researchers found that intrinsic goals contribute to our well-being as well.
So when setting a goal, check if it is a “want to goal”, not a “have to” or “should to goal”.
Now, at work you might not be able to choose your goals. At least not all the time. So how  ca you hack the goals that have been set for you?
The answer is finding meaning in this goal.

3. Avoid conflict

Goals often are connected to our values. And like the underlying values might be in conflict,  the goals are too.
You know if your goals are in conflict when you feel ambiguous about them. As if you’re  stuck. A study found that conflicting goals can actually lead to sleepless nights, headaches  and stress. Not so good for your well-being!
How can you solve that? Unfortunately not by thinking about it. You have to take action!  Start experimenting to gain more clarity.

4. Specific

This is not a new thing for you, I’m sure. The more specific you make a challenging goal, the better your performance will be.
Venturing out promising to try your best usually doesn’t get you very far. You have no reference point and no idea if you achieved your goal or whether you’re on the right track.
Back to my exercise example. “Exercise on a regular basis” is far from being specific. What does “on a regular basis” mean? Once a month? Once a year, as long as I do it every year? I’d have no idea if I’m living up to my goal! So let’s try this instead: “Exercise twice a week for each 30 minutes.”
One small caveat to this though. The farther off your goal, say in one year or five years’ time, the less specific you can be. A year is a long time, many things might change until then. So if you have a goal that’s this far in the future, think of step goals you need to achieve on your way there. Now these can be very specific.

5. Aim higher

Yep, you should. Research shows that the more challenging the goals we set, the better our  performance. Be careful though, this holds true for learning goals. You’ll see soon what that  means.
Feeling a bit anxious increasing the challenge? Don’t worry, it’s completely normal. And can  be actually very healthy to get the jitters a bit, especially when the goal is important to us.
Don’t set yourself up for failure though (see next section). If the surroundings aren’t right  and the goal is too massive, you might end up very frustrated.
You can use trick of splitting your huge goal into more achievable step goals. But I’d still  encourage you to challenge yourself.

Get this in place to get there

Skills and capabilities

That’s an easy question: Do you have what it takes? Yes, I know you have the motivation, determination and drive. But do you have all the skills and capabilities? Is there any knowledge you yet have to get? Or a new strategy or approach you need to figure out?
If not, your performance will go down. You may even become demotivated, if it’s too hard to deliver. And if you chose a learning goal, but don’t give yourself enough time to actually do the learning, you’ll be frustrated.
And since I don’t want to you to fall into disbelief of your own abilities, please go on and check if you “got what it takes”.


Now that you checked your internal resources, i.e. what you bring to the party, let’s look at external resources.
Do you need a certain amount of money? Is your project budgeted for?
What about technology? Look at the systems you need to use or it is material. Material can range from that book or research paper to actual laboratory equipment or raw materials.
How about support from others? Do you have the buy in from senior management and enough people on your team to get things done?


Ok, this is a short note. If you have done all the steps before, you should be fired up by now. But to be on the safe side: Are you committed? As long as you’re not saying “Damn right, I am!” you might as well not start.
So if you’re still unsure about this thing, it might be worthwhile starting from the top.

Sense of progress

Are you working in a job that involves doing things on a computer or sitting and debating in  meetings? Then you may have had this craving: Doing something with your hands. I find it  very satisfying to do something manual that doesn’t involve a screen or a key board. Like  cleaning the windows or mowing the lawn.
Why is that? For one, it provides a balance to a job that only uses cognitive resources. Unless  you’re walking to another meeting room or make yourself a coffee you don’t use your motor  skills in an office job. There’s no balance – and we know it’s all about balance. Too much  work isn’t good and might get you burnt out. Too little for too long and you get bored out.  Both are dangerous. So it’s all about finding the sweet spot.
But that’s not all. Another aspect of this manual type of work (painting the walls, tidying up  your apartment) is that you can see what you have accomplished. All along the way you  know exactly how much you have achieved, how much you still have to do and if you’re on  the right track. And guess what – the fact that you don’t see the progress you make in your  office job might be the very thing that robs you of your motivation!
There are actually studies to back this up. The researchers said
“Of all the things that can  boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is  making progress in meaningful work.”
Managers tend to get that wrong a lot.
Whenever someone discusses the issue of motivating people, people think of rewards  (money). Or, when the company is on a saving spree, they propose more recognition. Being  awarded, presenting to senior management or receiving a pat on the back. That might  already be a bit better and longer lasting than increasing the pay check. But it still doesn’t  hit the sweet spot.
So what can you do? Well, make your progress visible! Next to the need of doing something  useful, this can help you stay motivated to keep on and finish the task. And you get that  satisfying, rewarding feeling like when cleaning the dishes (or doing some other manual  task).
This could look like
  • Keep a log of the scientific articles you have to read and summarised. Put a progress  bar behind every entry. Keep filling the progress bar twice a day.
  • Check the number of unread emails after you return from your vacation. Watch that  number decrease as go through delete, archive or respond to the messages.
  • Create a “ta-dah” list of all the things you have done that day. Think about how they  are meaningful in the context of you team or your organisation.

Three types of goals

There are three types of goals: performance goals, behaviour goals and learning goals. Performance goals are well known, especially in companies where it’s all about performance: the WHAT. Like delivering products on time, achieving a certain quality rating or publishing a defined number of articles.
Then there are goals that can’t be measured easily, for example “great teamwork”. That’s why it makes sense to also set behaviour goals: the HOW. Instead of measuring “great teamwork” you can now look at how often you help others or seek help yourself and how you treat your colleagues.
Behaviour goals make sense any time, especially if you want to make positive changes to your team and company culture. Performance goals are easily measurable which makes them perfect in organisations. However, they don’t work so great for every goal. If you are looking at routine tasks, performance goals are great.
But for complex and new tasks performance goals can actually undermine performance. If you lack knowledge or skills to achieve a challenging goal, worry distracts you from the task at hand. The need to “look good”, not fail and deliver results quickly lead to acts of desperation and block the learning process.

Learning goals

For new, challenging tasks or goals, the ones that are complex and when it’s not clear yet how to get there, learning goals are much better. Instead of solely focussing on the outcome, look at what knowledge and skills you need to build in order to achieve the goal.
Brainstorm, master and implement effective strategies, processes and procedures. For complex and challenging tasks mere effort is less effective than a smart approach.