Set goals you can *do*

It’s New Year’s Resolution time, but this applies to Quarterly Objectives and other professional development goals, too. Set your goals around behaviors that are under your control. Sounds trivial, but it isn’t how most people write goals.

“Lose weight” isn’t something you can do. Not to say it isn’t something that can happen, but it’s an outcome, not a behavior you can modify. “Cook at home five days a week,” on the other hand, or “play outside with the kids three times a week,” those are things you can do—behaviors within your locus of control—that will propel you towards that desired outcome.

I remember one project where, during go-live, we deployed a quick fix that had to be quick un-fixed. The dev who’d written the problem code resolved to “be more careful in the future.” That makes it sound like carefulness is just a dial you could turn up. Just… think more. That doesn’t work. Carefulness, like health, is an outcome, not a behavior unto itself. We collaborated to come up with some behaviors he’d try that should result in carefulness, such as diff-ing files before committing them and having a quick assumption-vetting chat with a teammate before developing an on-the-fly fix.

One barometer I use to judge whether I’m targeting behaviors I can control is: Can someone else tell when I’m doing it? Can I tell when I’m done? Will I be able to check off that goal as accomplished? For example, with a goal like “learn Python,” it’s hard to say when you’re done learning it. There’s always more learning to do. But “build a Twitter-enabled temperature monitor for my barbecue smoker in Python on a Raspberry Pi”? That is a goal worth doing. And you get to learn Python.

All this hints at the M in SMART goals, but I find that mnemonic rather encumbered. When I’m writing goals with my mentees—or for myself—we get a lot of mileage from these two simple tests:

  • Is it within your control?
  • Can you tell when you’re done?

About Sharon Cichelli

I am a Principal Technical Lead at Headspring, developing enterprise-changing software and coaching teams to deliver value without death marches. I am a .NET developer, open-source contributor, user group organizer, technical blogger, pinball fan, and Arduino enthusiast.
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  • youzer

    We have a goal of “zero defects” when delivering our products to our customers.

  • Phillip Marden

    I always believe that goals should be set as absolutely quantifiable, such that the answer to whether they have been achieved can only be answered with Yes/No. “Cook at home five days a week”, well you might not do that one week because you was ill or something out of your control and then you can only say that you did do it when you was able to do it, at which point it is a bit messy and not absolutely quantifiable, whereas saying “Get X certification this year” is something that when you look back is achieved or not achieved there is no middle ground.

  • Murad Dervish

    Hey Sharon its Murad, how are you?! I couldn’t find an email for you on any of your sites so I hope you get this. Mine is so write back.