Are Your Goals Tough Enough? Or Too Tough?

How to find the sweet spot of difficulty
December 3, 2014

Aim high. It’s not as cliché as it sounds, says leadership expert Mark Murphy, author of Hard Goals: The Secret to Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. When you’re aiming to achieve extraordinary things, hitting the farthest target—and missing—can be more valuable than hitting the closest target and succeeding.

Undersetting goals—say, your target is to reach $5 million in sales over the next 12 months when you’re already at $4.9 million—allows you to slack off and still hit your objective. Oversetting goals—for instance, you want to surpass Facebook in users by 2016—can leave you feeling so defeated that you’ll abandon your efforts.

When you set a goal, you should ask yourself two things:

• What new skills will I acquire by pursuing this goal?
• How will I grow as a person as a result of this goal?

“An appropriately difficult goal is going to require you to learn,” Murphy says. “It’s going to stretch your brain, excite some neurons, amp you up and awaken your senses.”

Murphy suggests reflecting on what you consider your greatest accomplishments (developing an innovative product, competing in a triathlon, earning your master’s degree in business administration, nursing a parent through a difficult illness) and assessing how much you needed to learn and change for those achievements. Or think about it this way: If a goal is sufficiently demanding, you’re going to have two to four significant new learning experiences along the way to reaching it.

Murphy offers another test to assess whether a goal is tough enough but not too tough. Ask yourself, To what extent is this goal within my comfort zone? Possible answers:

1. Totally within my comfort zone. (“I could do it with my eyes closed.”)

2. Pretty much within my comfort zone. (“My eyes are open, but I’m not excited.”)

3. A little outside my comfort zone. (“I’m feeling a twinge of nervousness.”)

4. Outside my comfort zone. (“I’m on pins and needles.”)

5. Way outside my comfort zone. (“I’m so anxiety-ridden that I can’t even respond.” )

You should aim for No. 4, a goal that takes you into uncharted territory but doesn’t leave you feeling hopelessly lost.

Are you stretching toward your goals or just coasting? John C. Maxwell shares suggestions to help you keep pushing—and pushing hard—to the finish line.

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