The Problem with Annual Goals: They’re Too Long (and Too Short)

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As we begin a new year, you might be thinking about annual goals. This could be personally or professionally. It could take the form of the dreaded New Year’s resolution. Or it could be part of an annual plan that you’ve developed at work. Regardless, a year is too long.

I’ve made annual goals before. My problem was two-fold. One was that life happens. Other things would pop up that demanded my time and attention. The other was a lack of urgency. A year seemed like a long time. It was easy to rationalize putting off getting started or making progress because there was plenty of time.

This past summer, I heard of the concept of the 12-week year. The book, by Brian Moran and Michael Lennington, is subtitled, “Get more done in 12 weeks than others do in 12 months.” Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book or bought any of their resources. But I learned enough about the concept listening to a podcast that it changed the way I think about planning. I don’t make annual goals anymore, but I do make quarterly goals.

At about the same time, I read the book, The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth behind Extraordinary Results, by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan. This book changed the way I think about time management. My main takeaway was to focus on the few things that matter most and make regular incremental progress toward achieving my goals.

So between the two, I developed my own quarterly goal system. Here’s how it works.

Begin with the End in Mind

The One Thing reminded me of something Stephen Covey taught in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Begin with the end in mind. I started writing down where I wanted to be in seven to ten years. With the ministry I serve, with my personal and spiritual life, and with, at the time, a budding idea to share what I’ve learned about leadership. Then I worked backward and set milestones that might be one, two, three or more years out and would indicate that I was moving in the right direction.

This is why annual goals are too short. They aren’t as meaningful if they don’t fit into a larger vision for your life. Without context, they are easier to put off. Set in the context of an inspiring personal vision, annual goals can make sense, but they still are not energizing.

Set Quarterly Goals

This is where I got energized. Annual goals are too long. They are easily put off. Three months is a long enough time that you can achieve something significant. But it’s short enough to create a sense of urgency.

I limited the goals to three areas. Two ministry-related and one related to sharing about leadership, which was to launch this blog by the end of September. Three is probably the max that I can handle and may be too many. The problem with setting too many goals is that it’s hard to stay focused. That’s the premise of The One Thing. Or, as Covey wrote, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

Focus on Effort, Not Outcomes

This was where things really changed for me. Rather than making lists of things that kept getting put off, I focused on blocking out time for my three priorities. This was most important in launching this blog. I have a day job, so if I was going to make any progress, it meant putting in 30-60 minutes in the morning before I got ready for work. I didn’t do it every day, but I knew if I was going to achieve it in three months, there was no time to waste. Finding a domain name, choosing a blog platform, learning how to set it up and learning how to set up an automated subscription list were just some of the things that had to happen for me to reach my quarterly goal.

Some people might find it helpful to set weekly goals to achieve their quarterly goal. This is great, but it’s not my style. I’m a “perceiver” in the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI), which means I don’t like to get boxed into a prescriptive set of plans. So instead, I kept a list of all the things that needed to happen and every day that I could, I did something to make progress.

The important part of this for me was that it kept me focused on putting in the time and the effort. I believed that if I did that, I would achieve the goal. I launched the blog on September 3rd, about a month ahead of schedule.

If you’re the type of person who likes lists and plans, a “judger” in MBTI, then you can break down your quarterly goals into smaller goals and check them off. This will make you happy. Either way, by focusing on effort, you’ll make progress.


Finally, I started journaling a few weeks before I started working on my quarterly goals. I don’t journal every day. I’ve journaled 80 times since the end of May. What it did was help me to reflect on what was working and to stay focused on what matters most. I wish I could remember where I got the questions that I used as a framework. In any event, I adapted them to fit my own situation. Here are the questions:

What did I learn today?
What did I do today that was really important/energizing?
What didn’t I do today that I should have?
What could I do without?
For what am I grateful?
Where did I experience God today?
Three things I will accomplish tomorrow are?

The last question is the one that’s most relevant to this topic. The three things weren’t always from my three priorities. A lot happens in life and sometimes you just have to get things done that aren’t a part of your main thing. But, in general, focusing on three important things each day moved me toward my quarterly goals. I found that if I spent just a few hours each day, no more than one before work, and a couple at work on my ministry-related priorities, then I would make progress. It wasn’t that I didn’t put in a full day’s work, it’s that there are thousands of other things that are part of the job, but aren’t the main thing. For the most part, all these other things got accomplished, as well. More importantly, I spent quality time on my most important tasks. Time that could easily have been gobbled up by less important priorities.

Questions for Reflection:

What is your vision? For your life? For the ministry you serve?

If things went well, where would you be a year from now?

What can you do in the next three months to make significant progress?


Looking for Bright Spots: How Small Things Lead to Big Change

Photo by Ben White courtesy of StockSnap

31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches

Matthew 13:31-32

Thinking about big change is overwhelming. Especially if it involves other people and organizations. We may know where we need to get, but getting there is a monumental task. Planning the steps, convincing people to change and then executing the tasks can seem impossible.

And, if it seems big to you, it’s almost unthinkable to others. They haven’t put near the amount of thought into it that you have. A wise pastor once told me that we need to allow others three hours of process time for every hour we’ve put into developing a plan. So if you’ve spent 20 hours obsessing over the big change you want to see, as well as developing the rationale and action plan, you need to allow 60 hours for others to get it. That’s a lot of discussions, Q&A and receiving feedback.

There is a different approach.

In 1990, Jerry and Monique Sternin went to Vietnam to try to fight severe child malnutrition for the Non-Governmental Organization, Save the Children. Analysts had determined the causes were many: poverty, poor sanitation, lack of education, etc. Sternin called this information “TBU,” true but useless. Instead, he went looking for what might already be working. He asked the question, “Are there children from poor families who are much healthier than the norm?”

Once identified, Sternin discovered that the mothers of these children were doing little things that made a big difference. They were feeding their children four times a day instead of two, using the same amount of food in smaller portions. They used brine shrimp from the rice paddies and sweet potato greens in their children’s diet, even though they were considered “low-class” foods. Sternin described these situations as “positive deviance,” an idea first posited by Marian Seitlin. These are situations that deviated from the norm in a positive way.

The Sternins were then able to replicate these bright spots to teach other mothers these simple changes in food preparation. In six months, 65% of the children in the villages Sternin served were better nourished. The method ultimately reached 2.2 million children across Vietnam.

Out of this came the Positive Deviance Initiative, that has improved childhood nutrition in 41 countries around the world. That’s BIG change.

But it started with a small bright spot.

When we are following God, the entire path is seldom, if ever, revealed to us. If it were, it wouldn’t really be faith. It starts with small steps. Like a mustard seed. As Stephen Covey says, you can begin with the end in mind. But the path from here to there is not always clear. That’s OK.

Dan and Chip Heath put this in perspective in their book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. I found this book helpful because it shows how change is possible without power or resources. Like Jerry Sternin in Vietnam. It deconstructs the change process into understandable components that can be replicated in a variety of situations.

They help us to understand that our rational side has a weakness. It loves to solve problems and it tends to focus more on the problem than the solution. We love to analyze and go deeper down the rabbit hole of why a problem is a problem. It is the wheel-spinning of the paralysis of analysis. Bright spots get our rational side thinking positively instead of negatively. Plus, they motivate our emotional side.

The book is predicated on a metaphor originally developed by psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. The model argues that humans have two sides:

  • An emotional/irrational side called the elephant.
  • An analytical/rational side called the rider.

According to Haidt, the rider is rational and can plan ahead, while the elephant is irrational and driven by emotion and instinct.  The Heath brothers put it this way:

“Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader.  But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant.  Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to loseHe’s completely overmatched. 

If you convince the rider, you’ll have direction but no motivation. If you convince the elephant you’ll have motivation with no direction. That’s why bright spots are so critical. They motivate the elephant and focus the rider on what’s possible.

Bright spots give us hope. And hope gives us the faith and energy to take a step. And then another. Then another. To start with the small change that leads to the big change.

Like a mustard seed.

Questions for Reflection?

What is the big change you are seeking as a leader?

What are the bright spots, the positive deviance, that show that the change is possible?

How can you communicate those bright spots to others?

How to Develop Your Most Important Asset as a Leader: Trust

You can’t lead without trust.

Stephen M. R. Covey put it this way in his book, The Speed of Trust:

“Trust is the one thing that changes everything. The lack of it can bring down governments, cripple businesses (and churches) and destroy relationships. Conversely, when cultivated it has the potential to bring unparalleled effectiveness…the ability to establish, grow, extend, and restore trust with all stakeholders is the key leadership competency of the new global economy.”

Dr. Paul Zak, the preeminent researcher on the neuroscience of trust, demonstrated two decades ago that trust is the one thing high performing cultures have in common. Whether they’re companies, cities or countries, there is a direct correlation between trust and economic well-being.

Zak goes even further to say that even in the corporate world, employees are volunteers. Just because somebody is on the payroll, doesn’t mean they’re going to bring passion and energy to what they do. That requires trust.

This is even more true in the church.

You can’t lead without trust.

Learning how to build trust is not rocket science. But understanding a bit of biology is helpful. That’s where oxytocin comes in.

Oxytocin is both a neurotransmitter that’s released in the brain and a hormone that’s released in the bloodstream. It is the molecule that enables us to bond with others. It facilitates both trust and trustworthiness.

Zak has shown in studies that people with higher levels of oxytocin are more likely to trust strangers. He’s also shown that showing trust to others increases levels of oxytocin, making them more likely to trust you.

Without oxytocin, most of our decisions would be fear-based. Sounds like the church.

So how can understanding oxytocin help us to build trust?

Let’s take the log out of our own eye first.

It’s no accident that certain practices cause the release of oxytocin:

  • Gratitude-write down something for which you are thankful every day. This is, in large part, the power of journaling.
  • Pray and meditate-give thanks to God. Pray for others. Just thinking about others, especially those you care about, increases oxytocin levels.

Oxytocin does not last long. It has a half-life of three minutes. In other words, in three minutes after its release, there’s only half as much oxytocin in our system. The important part of these practices is that the more we do them, the more the release of oxytocin becomes natural for us.

So how do we build trust?

In a word: empathy.

Zak, in his book, The Moral Molecule: How Trust Works, says, “Oxytocin generates the empathy that drives moral behavior, which inspires trust, which causes the release of more oxytocin, which creates more empathy.”

There is a virtuous cycle to building trust. When we connect with others in meaningful ways, oxytocin levels increase in both parties. Here are four things we can do as Christian leaders to build trust:

  • Listen-as Zak says, “Conversation creates a sense of community, which builds trust, which leads to oxytocin release.” When we listen more than speak, when we show that we understand what the other is saying, we are showing empathy.
  • Be generous-with your time and with yourself. When someone receives a gift their oxytocin levels rise. Giving your time and effort to help another is the best gift we can give. Every time we do something to help someone else, without asking for anything in return, we gift them a gift.
  • Choose to trust-this is hard, especially when we’ve been burned. But when we trust others, their oxytocin levels rise, making them more likely to trust us.
  • Be trustworthy-this is obvious (or maybe not). When we do what we say we’re going to do, people trust us. This causes our own oxytocin levels to rise, making it easier to trust them. The virtuous cycle.

The most important takeaway from this:

Building trust requires time.

And it’s not just the passing of time. It takes an investment of our time to really build relationships with others.

In a world of email, texting and social media*, the human touch still matters. Visits, phone calls and handwritten notes are not just niceties. They are essential elements of Christian leadership. Without them, it’s harder to lead.

That’s how God made us.

Questions for reflection:

With whom do you need to connect today?

What daily practices can you develop to build your own oxytocin levels?

What daily practices can you develop to do the same for others?

*Zak found that social media can increase oxytocin release when it makes us think of people we care about.