Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.
If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.
We may call them goals, objectives, or desired outcomes. Whatever we call them, people often seek out a life coach because there is something that they want to “do”.
Perhaps they want to start a business, write a novel, or lose weight. Or maybe they want to shift their perspective, identify an obstacle, or generate new ideas. Individuals have different goals, different ways of approaching goal realization, and different challenges to face. However, there are some common themes that can provide us with the context to support them as coaches.
As part of my the research for a book called 10 Hungry Tigers, I conducted an online survey related to goal setting and realization. My intention was to get a better understanding of the types of goals people set, why they set them, what keeps them motivated, and what key challenges they encounter. This research paper provides an overview of what I learned from the survey responses and offers suggestions on how to apply this information as a coach.
The demographics of the 127 self-selected respondents can be summarized as:
- 70% female; 30% male
- Ages teen to 60+ (no predominant age demographic)
- Diverse educational background and income levels (no predominant demographic)
Does Writing Down Goals Really Make a Difference?
There are rumors that both Yale and Harvard conducted studies proving that graduates who had clearly written goals earned were more likely to be successful and earn significantly more than their peers. Online research reveals that those studies were never conducted. However, a recent study by Gail Mathews at Dominican University did show that those who wrote down their goals did accomplish significantly more than those who did not.
So what did my survey show?
Based on the survey results, it’s more likely that individuals have written professional goals (46%) than written personal goals (24%). Written goals combined with a little pressure from the boss appear to create a higher likelihood for success – 85% of those who responded accomplish at least half of their professional goals each year.
Personal goals are a different story. Only 48% of respondents state that they accomplish at least half of the personal goals that they set for themselves annually. However, there is a strong correlation between the percent of personal goals accomplished and writing them down – 73% of those who wrote down their goals accomplished at least half of them; only 35% of those who did NOT write down their goals managed to reach the same level of goal realization.
So why does writing down goals make a difference? Writing down goals “forces you to clarify what you want”. (Hyatt, 2011) Written goals provide focus and enhance sense of commitment. They also give an individual something to measure their progress against, and provide a milestone to let them know when they’ve reached the desired outcome.
Coaching to Goals Tip #1: Encourage your clients to write it down! Whether part of your intake process or an invitation extended during a session, asking your client to write down their goal(s) can be an important step in making them a reality. Written goals give them a destination so that they can choose a direction to move in.
Types of Goals
The specific goals that people set vary based on many factors, but some of the key goal areas that people focus on include health (57% of respondents regularly set health goals), financial (53% of respondents regularly set financial goals), and family (40% of respondents regularly set family goals). Other focus areas included education, career, creative, athletic, and spiritual goals. Based on the survey, here are some interesting facts related to the types of goals people commonly set:
- Health goals appear to be more important in the over 40 age demographic and those with higher income; this is also the same demographic that included respondents who have used a Life Coach for support in reaching goals.
- Financial goals are more prevalent among women and individuals with income between $50-$100K/year.
- Women are more apt to set educational or spiritual goals than men are; men appear to be more apt to set travel or relationship goals.
There were also some interesting correlations between the types of goals set and the percentage of goals that respondents usually accomplish each year. Of those who indicated that they typically set health or financial goals, less than 50% of them reported accomplishing at least half of their goals each year. Compare this to the 60-65% of respondents who accomplish at least half of their career, education, and creative goals. Some of the most popular goals to set are also the most challenging to realize. Why is this?
One common trap that people fall into when it comes to health (e.g. weight loss, exercise) or financial goals is what Laura Shin refers to as “slippery slope” thinking (Shin, 2011). This is a way of thinking that someone falls into when they experience setbacks such as overeating or overspending. Feeling discouraged, people often revert to negative self-talk. Someone in this situation thinks or says things like “I haven’t exercised all week, so I may as well start again after I get back from my vacation.” Or “I’m already so in debt, it won’t make much difference at this point if I spend just a little more.” It really takes a shift in perspective to begin thinking positively, taking small steps toward these challenging goals, and celebrating victories along the way.
According to Jennifer Robinson, PhD, almost everyone has had a health goal that they tried for a while but didn’t stick with it. Rather than asking themselves what they did wrong, Dr. Robinson encourages people to ask themselves if it was the right goal from the beginning. Sometimes it is easy to get caught up in the “achievement” goals, versus the “maintenance” goals that help us sustain health. (Ryan, 2012) Additionally, health goals are often more attainable when we realize that other aspects of our life affect our health and well-being.
Coaching to Goals Tip#2: As coaches, we can help our clients to explore the reason they are pursuing a goal, clarify the desired outcome (both short-term and long-term), and develop the self-awareness to understand all of the aspects of their life that may affect the outcome. We also have the opportunity to help them develop a realistic plan, hold them accountable for progress, and acknowledge and celebrate milestones.
Motivation & Support
What motivates people to reach their goals? While some respondents indicated that they were motivated by: others who held them accountable, negative consequences of not reaching a goal, or sheer willpower; most people who took the survey (66%) indicated that they are motivated by the goal itself. This means that choosing a goal that is meaningful is likely to keep them engaged and moving forward.
The survey also asked respondents how they prioritized their goals – which ones they choose to work on first. The majority of answers were split between working on those that are quickest/easiest (36%) or selecting goals that are aligned with personal values (36%). Although there was not significant correlation between the method used to prioritize goals and the percent accomplished, it can be much more fulfilling to reach one goal that is aligned with values, than to accomplish a number of goals that just happened to be less challenging.
Coaching to Goals Tip #3: Challenge your clients to select goals that are meaningful and aligned with their personal values. This may mean helping them to identify their personal values. Besides keeping them motivated, these values-aligned goals will contribute to a higher sense of satisfaction and enhance the value you provide as a coach.
It can also be motivating to have others who hold us accountable or who provide support. 74% of those surveyed, stated that they seek support from family and friends. Others seek support from coworkers, holistic health providers, personal trainers and spiritual teachers. Only 6% of those that participated in the survey have sought the support of a life coach in reaching their goals, all of which were in the age 30 to 50 demographic. What a tremendous opportunity for coaches to continue to expand awareness of the value of coaching, and to reach out to new markets!
Coaching to Goals Tip #4: There are still a lot of people who have goals, need support, but aren’t aware of life coaching. Get the word out! Figure out who your market is, what types of outcomes they need support with, and how you can clearly define the value that you offer as a coach!
Another response that is interesting to note is that 45% use technology in some way to support their goal realization efforts. On average, this percentage did not vary much by gender, age, education, or income level. As people are becoming more technology savvy, there is a proliferation of applications and tools that help them track progress against their goals. Below are just a few of the gadgets or applications that people can use to support their aspirations. Some are more generic and can be used for any type of goal; others are developed to support a specific outcome.
- Digital calendars and alarm clocks provide great tools for scheduling goal-oriented activities and reminders.
- There are a number of goal setting applications that make it easy to track progress against goals from anywhere with an internet connection. Free applications like Goalmigo, Joe’s Goals, LifeTango, GoalBot, and Achievr provide tools for setting goals, developing action plans, creating reminders, and tracking progress. These apps vary from basic/simple tools to more detailed/complex. Most include the option to use social networking for additional support.
- Myfitnesspal.com offers smartphone or online applications to quickly log and track eating habits and progress toward weight loss goals.
- fitbit is a gadget that tracks personal fitness statistics including steps taken, distance walked/run, calories burned, and sleep quality. It also provides social interaction for those who want to interact with others for additional support and accountability.
- Billguard is an application to help track spending and save money.
Coaching to Goals Tip #5: Don’t be afraid of technology! It cannot replace the value you provide to your clients, but can provide them with additional support between sessions. Try some of these tools yourself so that you know which ones to recommend to your clients.
Based on my work with clients, it didn’t come as a surprise to me that 74% of respondents indicated that time is one of the biggest challenges to them in terms of realizing goals. This question allowed for multiple responses, and the next biggest challenge was money with 41% marking this as a major obstacle.
There are hundreds of books and articles written on time and money management, but there is no prescribed “right method”. Help your clients find the tools and processes that work best for them and give them a sense of control over time or money. One of the things that I’ve observed as a coach is the tendency for people (even myself) to overestimate the amount of time that they have to commit to the things that they say they want to do – even those most important to them. One of my favorite self-assessment tools is a technique that I call “168 Hours”. Here’s how it works:
- First, write down all of the things you want to do each week (not have to do, that’s next, but don’t look ahead) and how many hours each week you would like to spend doing them. Don’t limit yourself! If there is something that you wish you had time to do each week, put it on the list. My list includes things like reading books, writing fiction, journaling, quality time with my daughters, yoga, salsa dancing, cardio exercise, and social time with friends.
- Next write down all of the things you have to do each week with the hours required for each. Try to make the list as comprehensive as possible, including things like work, commute time, personal hygiene (showers, getting ready for work), housework/cooking, errands, eating, and of course - sleeping.
- Then total both lists and you may notice a basic dilemma. You only have 168 hours each week, and if you’re like me, your list would take far longer than that to get to. In my case, I have 222 hours of things I have to or want to do each week, which leaves me with a deficit of 54 hours! I need more than two additional days each week to do it all!
So do you have to give up the things that you want to do because there just isn’t enough time? You may have to give up a few (at least for now), so it’s worth reviewing both lists to see if you are spending time on anything that’s not really important to you. But here are some other questions to ask yourself:
- Are there things on my list that I still want to do, but may just need to commit a little less time to in order to have balance in my life? For example, although I want to do yoga for 4 hours/week, it is more realistic for me to commit to a 1 hour practice on Saturdays, and a couple 20-minute practices mid-week.
- Is everything on your “have to” list, actually something you have to do? Can you stop doing it or assign it to someone else? Or are there ways to spend less time doing it?
- Who says you can’t do two things at once? Can you combine any of your activities? Can you read during your commute time (e.g. audio book in the car, or paperback on the train)? Can you have dinner with friends (which allows you to get social time in while you do that necessary thing known as eating)?
- Is there anything on your list that would be easier to commit to one day each month instead of weekly? This may mean shifting some priorities around that week (e.g. a few hours less sleep, skipping some of the housework); but would it be worth it?
- Finally, does your list include “downtime”? I’m not talking about sleep; I’m talking about time to just do nothing or at least to do things that require no effort on your part to plan or participate in. Perhaps some of the items on your “want to” list feel like “downtime” to you, e.g. reading books, social time with friends.
Whatever works for you, just make sure that you don’t cram every one of your 168 hours with “things to do”. Besides being exhausting, it’s probably not realistic. And if this technique was helpful to you, consider using it with your clients to help them explore how they would like to spend their time each week. Then they may want to track how they actually spend it, revisit the exercise, and “tweak” it until it is realistic and supports them in living their values and reaching their goals.
Coaching Tip #6: Collect time and money management ideas. These are the biggest challenges faced by many of our clients, so we can support our clients by suggesting tools or resources for them to explore. We may not know the “right” tool for them, but we can open up a toolbox and let them select the ones that will work for the dreams they are building.
Other “biggest” challenges selected by between 20-25% of respondents included: loss of interest, unsure how to accomplish a goal, and too much effort required. Less frequently selected were health challenges, fear of failure, and interference from others. Participants could also select “Other” and provide a free text response; 8% of them chose this option and shared their biggest challenges as: bad habits, fear of success, laziness, lack of motivation, and other priorities.
So with all of these obstacles facing them, how do our clients achieve anything? This is where you bring significant value as a coach! By asking powerful questions, being present, and actively listening to your clients, you can help them identify the obstacles that are keeping them from their destination, and work with them to find ways to remove those obstacles, move around them, or work through them.
Coaching Tip #7: Reframing perspectives is a key part of being a coach. Simply changing the tint of the eyeglasses through which your client sees the world, changes the way they see everything. ICA offers Power Tools to help shift clients from Delay to Action, from Doubt to Trust, and from Trying to Commitment. Review these (or other similar) resources and apply them in your own life. The more you work with reframing your own perspectives, the more you will be comfortable applying them in your coaching work with clients.
Conclusion & Reflection
Supporting my clients in reaching their goals is a focus of my book and my coaching model. So it was important to me that I verify my assumptions about how my clients perceive and experience the process of setting and realizing goals. Regardless of your coaching model or style, it’s my sincere hope that a couple of the tips mentioned above will support you in your coaching practice.
Finally, it is worth reflecting on how you can get to know your target clients better in terms of their needs. Ask yourself:
- What is your focus or niche as a coach?
- What assumptions are you making about your clients?
- How can you verify those assumptions and refine them so that you can develop your own customized tips for coaching to your model?
Crowder, C.D. “The Top 10 Online Goal Setting and Tracking Tools”. August 30, 2011. Yahoo Voices. http://voices.yahoo.com/the-top-10-online-goal-setting-tracking-tools-9037665.html
Hyatt, Michael. “5 Reasons Why You Should Commit Your Goals to Writing”. michaelhyatt.com. May 31, 2011. http://michaelhyatt.com/5-reasons-why-you-should-commit-your-goals-to-writing.html
International Coach Academy. “Reframing Perspectives.” International Coach Academy Learnsite. (login required to access)
Ryan, Dorothy. “Achieving your SMART health goal.” Bewell@stanford.edu. May 2012. http://bewell.stanford.edu/smart-goals
Shin, Laura. “Getting Back on Budget: How to Escape a Downward Spiral.” Learnvest.com. October 12, 2011.