Happy New Year! If you’re anything like many of the founders we’ve spoken with over the years, you’re probably gearing up for the year by assessing and planning.

Everyone has their own preferences – some like to plan big goals from the beginning of the year while others feel more comfortable with planning on an “as needed” basis. Almost everyone we talk to agrees that the “New Year’s resolution” in the classic sense is prone to failure.

While planning is super-important for ensuring you get where you want to be, what makes that planning a success? We’ve all got stories of “best-laid” plans going awry; what strategies actually work for ensuring that you end the year where you aimed to be?

Get our worksheet and reflect on the last year here

Begin with reflection

It’s always important to begin with a period of reflection. You’ve got to have a clear picture of where you’ve been and where you’re at now in order to set goals that will truly be the best strategy moving forward.

Look back and consider these questions:

  • What were the high points?
  • What do you feel were your strengths?
  • What would you like to see more of this year?
  • What were the hard parts that you’d like to minimize or prevent?
  • What do you consider to be the biggest “limiting factor” in your business?

This isn’t necessarily just about your business – as we well know, all parts of your life come together to make an impact on how you’re able to perform and your overall success. For example, consider questions about your own health and wellness, such as whether you’ve been getting enough sleep, exercise, relaxation time, and healthy eating. What about family and relationships? Consider whether you feel you’ve been able to prioritize them as you’d like to.

What are other founders doing?

In terms of “best” strategies, goal-setting happens a bit differently for different people and according to their own preferences. A little while back, we did a whole series on our podcast, “Founders on goals.” We interviewed Tracy Osborn, Justin McGill, Dave Rodenbaugh, Adrian Rosebrook, and Brennan Dunn. With such a range of different people and business types represented, we expected to get a wide variation in how they prefer to approach goal-setting, but we found four common threads that came up consistently:

1. All founders we talked to set big, usually annual goals, then were intentional about breaking them into smaller steps. There was a sense that they ensure their goals are very actionable and that they can take a pathway of smaller steps over a period of time.

One theme that came up was the idea of working backwards. For example, let’s say you have a goal of launching a new product, what does that look like each month moving backwards from the launch date?

The founders we spoke to tended to use SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) methodology or similar to ensure that the goals they set could easily be monitored and that their actions were clear.

2. All monitored their progress toward goals regularly in some way, although the method of monitoring varied. For example, Brennan journals on Fridays, Justin has a weekly checkbox list, Dave regularly checks in with other people, and Tracy has a Google Doc she opens every day with big picture goals at the top, flowing down to the smaller steps.

It’s hard to know if you’re going to hit a 12-month goal if you’re not looking at it frequently to review progress. There’s a danger that it seems too far away, until it’s suddenly right on top of you.

Another thing to consider is a “move up the timeline” strategy. This means that you get intentional about what a goal looks like if you were to achieve it in a very intensified timeline. It helps to focus those key actions that you need to take.

3. Masterminds or having some kind of accountability to another person or group of people. Most founders in some way held themselves accountable to others.

This might be in the form of group or mastermind (like our ZenTribes for personal and professional connections), or for some, it was even something like being accountable to their audience or co-host for a podcast.

A point that came up was that it can complicate relationships if you’re trying to get accountability through your partner. Your spouse or partner is directly affected by your end-results, so this can add some tension and stress around it. It can be better to have a third-party accountability partner instead, so that they don’t have a stake in your outcomes.

4. Goals need to be driven by a deeper purpose, or a “Why.” For example, to Justin, leaving a legacy is an important underlying “Why” for anything that he does. You could think of this as a “meta goal,” meaning that it has side-effects apart from just succeeding or failing.

Meta goals might include things like health, wealth, happiness and wisdom. For example, when you buy a gym membership, besides getting fit or losing weight, you’ve probably got an overall goal of good health, right?

If something is out of whack with the goals you’re pursuing, one explanation is that they don’t line up with your “Why” or meta goals. Ask yourself, what’s really driving me? Is it aspirational, or truly reflective of where I’m at?

Entrepreneurs tend to have characteristics such as being impatient, ambitious and just wanting to get things done, but you’ve also got to think about what you might be sacrificing. Will it be your physical or mental health? Will it be time with your family?

A question we often ask is, what am I willing to experience pain over in order to accomplish this? You will have some things that you don’t want to compromise, and those things (as well as your meta goals) can change for different phases of your life. While I may have been willing to sacrifice a lot of sleep in my twenties to power through a project, as a parent now, I want to be at my best for my children and to be present as they grow up.

Find a 3rd party accountability partner - someone unaffected by the outcomes of your goals Click To Tweet

What does science say?

So we know what a lot of successful founders are doing, but what does science say in terms of “best” strategies for planning to achieve goals? Let’s take a look:

Backward planning can improve goal expectancy

Some of our founders were doing this, working backwards from the achievement of the big goal to identifying the smaller steps along the way. This strategy is backed up in a study published in Psychological Science, “Relative Effects of Forward and Backward Planning on Goal Pursuits.”

The researchers looked at both forward and backward planning; “when thinking about a future event, people can adopt either a prospective perspective—considering an event that has not yet occurred and predicting the possibilities related to it—or a retrospective perspective—considering the event as if it has already occurred and explaining the ingredients required to make it happen.”

Their overall conclusion was that; “compared with forward planning, backward planning not only led to greater motivation, higher goal expectancy, and less time pressure but also resulted in better goal-relevant performance.”

The way you plan matters, not just the fact that you do plan. Backward planning was found to induce a motivational effect because it allowed people to think of the tasks required to complete complex goals more clearly.

Build a ritual into your life

The founders we spoke with all had developed some kind of habit which helped them to stay on track, whether that was monitoring their progress regularly or being held accountable by peers. This speaks to the importance of having a ritual for keeping you on track to achieve goals.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

Did you know that habits and goals are stored differently in your brain? A study published in Neuron revealed that a region of your brain known as the orbitofrontal cortex is responsible for converting those aspirational goals you have into grounded habits via neural messengers called endocannabinoids.

The best way to help these endocannabinoids is to be consistent. When a goal behavior is more regular, your brain converts it more easily into a habit.

Work through reflecting on last year – get our sheet here

Plan for a successful 2018

What really matters to you this year? What are your meta goals or “Why’s?” As you reflect back over the past year, think about whether anything has significantly changed about those goals and perhaps shift them for this year.

Everyone tends to have different ways of setting and pursuing goals, but among successful founders there always tends to be that breaking down into smaller steps. Perhaps try a backward planning technique this year and see how it works for you.

Lastly, keep yourself held accountable! Incorporate this as part of a ritual in your goal pursuit and we hope you’ll see great success this year.