Why BIG goals get BIG results

What’s going to yield better results – smaller goals that are within reach but might leave a little in the tank, or really big stretch goals that put you at risk of falling short? Marketing expert DAVE WESTMAN takes a look at why going large on goal-setting can produce outstanding results.

When I was a young bloke out in the bush, I had occasion to do some work on a set of sheep yards. It was a two-hour job, I had estimated, so I allowed four hours to be on the safe side.

By the time I switched up the final strand of wire, it had taken just four hours – slightly longer. In the failing light that afternoon, I formulated a theory I think still holds true and that is: “The time taken to do a job expands to fill the time allocated to do it”. Is the inverse true? Does the time take to do a job contract fit the time allocated to do it? Absolutely. Nearly 20 years chasing newspaper deadlines provides fairly solid proof.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but that theory would follow me into the city (well, regional towns, at least) and go on to influence goal-setting in business. If I were to write it down (and I’m about to), the theory now reads something like: “Business results expand/contact in line with business goals”.

Some of the best advice I ever heard was to not worry about biting off more than you can chew. Just take the biggest bite you possibly can and then chew like crazy. Grant Cardone, in his book, The 10X Rule, is a little more specific and a lot more audacious. He says to multiply your goals by 10 and then put 10 times the effort into chewing. As Cardone said: “Wouldn’t coming up short on a 10X target accomplish more than coming up short on one-tenth of that goal?”

The neuroscience of goal setting and the motivation to achieve goals is complex and there are dozens of linkages we could explore. But things like dopamine, visualisation, habits, the endowment effect, and the Reticular Activating System will have to wait for another day while we look at just two points that relate specifically to setting super-sized stretch goals.

The two points cover the two essential components for goal attainment – motivation (the will) and cognitive (the way). Discussions in both those areas focus on change because if nothing changes, outcomes don’t change and that would be a pretty pointless goal. You can increase motivation to change behaviour by increasing the value of achieving the goal and decreasing the value of not achieving the goal (focusing on intrinsic value, rather than extrinsic value). Just by setting a bigger goal, you can increase the value of achieving it – assuming greater results translate to greater rewards. Greater rewards mean greater motivation.

If you believe increased motivation leads to increased results, then going large on the goal automatically boosts end results.

However, we should note a couple of things. You can’t just set a massive goal and hand it down to the person who has to execute it. The person responsible for achieving the goal needs to be the one setting the goal or at least play a large role in the process and must agree with the target. We know that autonomy not only provides the intrinsic motivation to drive behaviour but also guards against the impact of negative feedback.
On that issue of negative feedback, it’s also important to “chunk down” the big goals so it looks attainable and gives more opportunities for the positive feedback that comes from achieving “stepping stone” goals.

A final caution around setting big goals is the potential for encouraging risky or unethical behaviour.

On the cognitive side, or “the way”, we know brains are lazy and won’t waste energy coming up with innovations or creative pathways if they don’t have to. By setting goals that require a quantum leap, we are forcing the brain to come up with a way to meet the goal. The resulting “way” simply wouldn’t exist without the big question being asked in the first place.

Even the most far-fetched of goals can inspire pathways if come at them as a “must” or as if your life depended on it. You can use a Cascade of Conditions approach to soften the blue and make yourself feel better by pointing out the ridiculousness of the request. The cascade starts by saying “for that goal to be achieved, you would have to have x, y, and z”. You then look at what conditions would have to exist for each of those conditions to be true. Follow the chain and eventually it comes down to something as simple as “I just need to make these three phone calls and send this email today”. When you match the Cascade of Conditions to a timeline, you have not only a great goal and a plausible pathway but a schedule of actions.

For the record, work on the sheep yards could have been completed in under two hours. But for that to be possible, it would have been necessary to have:

  • A coil of tie-wire pre-cut to length (to save searching for scraps tied to posts and second-hand baling twine;
  • A cigarette and 10 minutes planning at the start;
  • A kangaroo-chasing dog left at home; and
  • A sense of urgency.

In hindsight, a bundle of pre-cut lengths of wire kept in every ute, shed, tractor, motorbike, house, henhouse and outhouse on the place would have been a great investment.

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