Setting Goals: The Importance of Focus and How to Choose
Executive coach Maris Goodstein on why one Goal at a time is better than two, and how to choose which Competency to focus on.
August 10, 2019

When setting professional development goals, it can be tempting to pick a lot of things to work on in an effort to be ambitious and driven. “It’s impressive,” you might think, “to be aware of all growth areas and to be committed to working on them. I can grow in all of these areas simultaneously and immediately.”

A lot of people fall into this trap. It is great to have a sense of what you need to work on, and to have a list of the three to five focus areas for the year - but it is a mistake to try to tackle all of these areas at once.

Focus on a single development area at a time and, in Nodabl, keep only one active Goal. Continue to set Goals with that specific Competency until you have reached your desired level of confidence, knowledge, and ability in that Competency. Then move on to a new one.

When you are learning new things, your brain is working harder and in a different way. This work can cause mental fatigue, which can make everything seem more difficult and can decrease your motivation. As you improve and a new skill becomes second nature, however,the load on your brain lightens. (You can read more about the science of learning in this article and this article, both of which effectively synthesize the research.)

If you are working on a lot of new things at the same time, you will become fatigued and worn out more quickly. This may lead you to abandon your goals, or to get frustrated with how long it takes you to learn something new. You may find it unmotivating to make small gains in a lot of different areas, rather than to make significant strides in one focus area. If you home in on one goal at a time, you are giving your brain a chance to flex and grow.

How should I choose what to focus on?

You should focus on the Competency where improvement and/or experience is the most important to reach your career objective. If you have several Competencies that seem equally important to reach your career objective, then consider a few things to help you isolate one:

  1. What do you know about yourself that can help guide you? When you are taking on a project or tackling a to-do list, do you like to start with the biggest, hardest task first, or do you like to knock off the easy ones? If you relate to the former, then pick a more challenging or involved Competency. If you identify with the latter, then select one that will be easier for you to develop.

  2. What’s your confidence level and how much mental energy do you have? Are you energized and feeling amazing about yourself and your work? If so, tackle a big, scary Competency. Are you on the lower end of the confidence or energy spectrum? Pick a Competency, that, while still challenging, offers some quicker, easier wins for you to build momentum and gain assurance.

Learning new things takes work, and your own personal style and energy levels are critical considerations. You should always push yourself, but you should also take care to set yourself up for success.

If your career objective is to learn new skills, then pick the Competency you’re most interested in learning. If your goal is to position yourself for a promotion, be more effective at your current role, or prepare for a change in roles or job functions, then you may need some outside input to better understand what to focus on.

Here are some ways to collect information to inform which Competency you should focus on:

Reviews: Reviews often contain development needs. Look at your most recent one, if it’s not outdated, and see what your manager identified for you.

Exemplars: Are you looking for a promotion? Have a conversation with someone at the next level about their experiences and priorities. Are you trying to excel in your current role? Seek out the aces around you and learn about their successes and strategies. Are you looking to change roles? Talk to people who are in the role you want, especially if they made the same switch you’re aiming to make. Speak honestly with these people about their success factors, adjustment challenges, and the most trying shortcomings they’ve worked through - and be upfront with them about your own experiences, strengths, and weaknesses.

Your Manager: It is your manager’s job to help you manage your growth. Ask them directly what you should be focusing on. Show them a list of Competencies to pick from to make it easier for them to choose. Have a conversation about what inspired their choice. Then ask them to give you opportunities to work on that Competency.

Other Leaders: Talk to people who make hiring and promotion decisions for the roles that are relevant to you. Ask them what they look for. Be upfront with them about yourself, your history, your expertise and talents, as well as your deficiencies.

I’m being told I should work on twenty things!

As you assess your review, feedback from your manager, or the list of recommended Competencies in Nodabl, you’re likely seeing a substantial list of things to improve on.

As you do your regular day-to-day job, you’re getting passive exposure to many different Competencies. As a result of this passive exposure, you’re learning and improving, albeit at a slower rate and in a more erratic pattern than when you explicitly and consciously focus on that Competency. When you choose to focus on one Competency at a time, you make a pledge to yourself to actively and deliberately work hard on that Competency.

What does it mean to “actively and deliberately work hard”? It means you will commit to doing relevant Activities. If you’re not organically finding those Activities, you’re going to invest energy in creating opportunities for them. You’re going to take the time to reflect on your experience as you enter those Activities into Nodabl so you can internalize the relevant learnings. You’re going to proactively seek out feedback on those Activities so you can get external input on your performance.

Then, whether it’s after one month, three months, or six months of deliberate practice, you’ll look back and realize you’ve dramatically improved, and it’s time for you to move on to your next active area of focus.

Written by
Maris Goodstein
Based in Los Angeles, Maris is a coach, facilitator and trainer with impressive experience as an executive in large, national, high-growth organizations. Her direct experience includes growing organizations, growing people, building and managing boards, growing high-value relationships, navigating complex relationships and succeeding in resource-restricted environments. She has managed multi-million dollar budgets and staff across the country. Her training and facilitation experience includes work with for profit, nonprofit and government clients in the areas of presentation, negotiating, networking skills, building mentoring programs, change management, leadership, people, and team development, effective delegation and more. Her program design experience includes creating customized workshops and retreats to better support teams and leaders in achieving their desired outcomes (both as a team and as it relates to their bottom line). Maris holds a B.A. from Barnard College where she consistently received Leadership awards. She is certified in the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument and has completed the rigorous certification in coaching from the Hudson Institute of Coaching.
Maris Goodstein headshot

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