6 Research-Backed Ways to Achieve Your Professional Goals

By Emily Roner | Updated: 06 Dec, 2018

70% of people fail to reach their goals. A small portion of this is due to uncontrollable issues such as illness, family circumstances, etc. However, the majority of people don’t succeed because their approach to creating and pursuing goals sets them up for failure.

Sustaining the time, motivation, and energy to pursue projects on top of your day-to-day responsibilities is challenging. To do it consistently without burning out, you have to strategically prioritize what ambitions you work toward and how.

Here are six research-backed ways to reach your goals.

1) Limit Yourself to Two to Three Goals

When you’re a high-achieving person, it’s tempting to set lots of goals to address each of your passions. However, the more goals you set, the less likely you are to accomplish any of them.

According to a survey of 1,800 global executives, 44% of companies with one to three guiding priorities achieved as opposed to 35% with seven to ten priorities. The reason for this is that when you (or your organization) have multiple goals, it’s challenging to allocate enough time, money, and other resources to complete each one successfully.

In the same survey, 64% of executives said they have too many conflicting priorities. As a result, they’re stuck investing a bit in each one while taking a very long time to make significant progress on all of them.

Focusing on two to three goals gives you the bandwidth to immerse yourself in them and achieve quick results. Once you accomplish a goal, then you can move onto one of the others on your list.

Read More: How to Inspire Goal Commitment from Your Team

2) Set Goals that You’re Passionate About

According to Stanford psychologist, Dr. Kelly McGonigal, we are much more likely to be successful at goals that we are passionate about. Intuitively this makes sense; however, we tend to focus on improvements that we think we should make as opposed to ones that we want.

For example, many people set the professional goal of getting promoted because that’s the logical next step in their careers. Yet, what they want may be work-life balance so they can spend more time with their loved ones or they’d like to get more involved in their local communities or participate in an old hobby.

Before setting goals, carefully consider what truly matters to you and use that to guide your ambitions.

A study from the University of Toronto found that there is a fine line between setting ambitious goals and setting yourself up for failure. If you set a goal that is extremely challenging, especially in the beginning, you’re likely to experience a lot of emotional distress that pushes you away from focusing on goals.

Instead, opt for realistic goals that keep your morale high and continuously strive to build upon them.

3) Make Your Goals Highly Specific

According to Dr. John Norcross, an expert in behavior change, we are significantly more likely to achieve our goals if they are highly specific. Specific ambitions are easier to accomplish because we know exactly what we need to do to be successful and that motivates us to make progress. 

For example, say your goal is to increase sales by 20% this year. It sounds specific but, how are you going to do it? Are you going to purchase new sales software? Invest more in marketing? Train your salespeople better? Specific goals must include these details that you know what you have to do to complete them.

Here are some examples:

  • Increase sales by 20% by leveraging a new sales analytics software.
  • Improve customer retention by 15% by giving our reps more robust training and lowering email response time to twenty minutes.
  • Lower employee turnover by 10% by increasing the number of benefits we offer and giving employees access to on-going professional development opportunities.

Developing these types of goals requires some strategic thinking time, however, it speeds up your progress and ensures you’re working on the right tasks.

4) Focus on the Milestones, Not the Outcome

Researchers from the American Psychological Association discovered, in numerous studies, that people are significantly more likely to accomplish their goals if they have a system in place to monitor their progress. 

Dividing your goals into weekly milestones is one of the best systems because it forces you to make progress every week. If Friday comes and your task is not complete, you know you’ve fallen off track and need to take action to fix it.

Another benefit of using them is that it gives you an abundance of small wins that boost your morale and encourage to keep striving for your goal. 

Read More: 5 Time Management Strategies that Will Unlock Your Productivity

5) Form Habits to Trigger Consistent Progress

One of the main reasons why pursuing goals is difficult is trying to find time in your busy schedule to work on additional projects. Forming habits of working on your goals is an effective way to ensure that you consistently make progress.

According to behavior expert, Charles Duhigg, habits consist of three steps:

  • Cue - the trigger that makes you think of the habit.
  • Routine - what you do to act on the habit.
  • Reward - the satisfying feeling you get for completing the habit.

To establish a habit, you need to create those three things. Your cue is an activity that you always do right before working on your project. Choose something that, ideally, you do at the same time on the same day(s) every week to create greater consistency.

Since the tasks for your goal will likely evolve as you make progress, your routine will vary from most rigid habits. Instead, be repetitive in where/how you work toward your goals. For example, work on your projects in the same location, at the same time, while drinking the same type of coffee/tea, etc. The more similarity you create, the more ingrained working on your goals will become.

The satisfaction of making progress may be a reward enough but, if it’s not, give yourself something enjoyable after you’ve reached milestones so that you associate progress with positive feelings.

Keep in mind that it takes an average of two months to form a new habit so you should develop a routine that works for many goals. Luckily, though, research shows that occasionally missing a day does not impact your ability to form habits as long as you resume the next day.

Read More: 5 Actionable Ways to be Laser-Focused on Your Goals

6) Identify and Resolve Obstacles Ahead of Time

Often, all it takes is one big setback to derail your progress toward a goal. To prevent this from happening, you need to proactively prepare so that when challenges come, you’re ready. 

Dr. Kelly McGonigal also found that when people develop plans to cope with inevitable failures, they’re more likely to successfully rebound from them. This is because you immediately respond to failures, you prevent yourself from dwelling on your negativity and giving up.

Before pursuing your goals, think of issues that are likely to arise and brainstorm ways to resolve them. You should also keep in mind what people, tools, and other resources you can access to cope with large, unexpected problems.