Setting goals for yourself is one of the best ways to give your life and career both direction and motivation — but to really tip the scales in your favor of actually achieving those goals, research says you should commit to tracking your progress. In fact, small to medium-sized businesses that track their progress with metrics are two times more likely to hit their targets. And, there’s no reason to think that this wouldn’t apply to both business-related goals as well as personal ones. Whichever you’re choosing to work on, here are some steps to follow to track it well.
Choose Your Goal
Your objective could be to get more done at work, lose a few pounds, drink more water, hit a certain business quota, read more books, find a couple of new friends, or any number of things. Don’t worry about what other people are working on. Instead, pick a goal that makes sense for your big picture and how you personally want or need to grow.
Analyze the Metrics
For example, my team and I recently decided we wanted a better response rate for our email reaches. We analyzed what time of day we got the most replies, which job titles tended to reply the most, how many auto-responders we received, and so on, in order to identify patterns. For a personal goal, such as weight loss, the obvious metric is how many pounds or kilograms you weigh. But related metrics, such as your calorie intake or the number of times you eat out per week, could also be valuable for revealing which behaviors are hurdles for you. Another common metric is whether you did or did not finish a specific activity. Find the ones that relate to your goal and start analyzing them.
Determine the Tracking Intervals
Depending on the goal, you might need to record data every day. But some metrics might make more sense to evaluate each week or month. And it’s possible to have different intervals within the same goal. For instance, you might weigh yourself every day but take your measurements only once per week.
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Select Your Tracking Method
Spreadsheets and graph paper work well for goal tracking, since it’s easy to label your individual metrics and neatly notate a number, mood level, “yes” or “no” for completing a task, or other data. But you also can create and print a unique template, use plain old paper in a journal, or go the tech route with a dedicated app.
Elements like color coding or the ability to filter by certain criteria later on might influence your choice of method. The most important thing is that the tracking method allows you to organize and view all of your metrics in a way that’s logical and efficient for you.
Plan Your Tracking Time
Simply put, you can’t track data you don’t have. So you need to ensure that you have the opportunity to actually get the information that’s relevant to the goal.
For each metric, pinpoint exactly when you’ll grab your information. For instance, your plan could be to weigh yourself each morning before your shower or to look at your personal budget each Saturday evening at 6:00 p.m.
Commit to those times in your routine and calendar. Setting reminders or alarms for yourself is a handy way to get used to following your new tracking patterns.
Come Up With Penalties and Rewards
Penalties, such as needing to sell something you like or skipping your favorite Netflix show, are a form of negative reinforcement. They answer what happens if you don’t track your data or meet a specific standard (e.g., eating out only X times a week). The risk from penalties can be motivating in that most people don’t enjoy experiencing loss.
But rewards, which are a form of positive reinforcement, should be part of tracking your goals, too. They answer what happens when you do track your data or meet a standard. When you anticipate a reward, your brain releases dopamine, a chemical that both keeps you motivated and boosts your mood. Since the rewards help you feel good, they up the odds you’ll continue the desired behavior.
Consistent rewards are great for helping you establish new habits. Once you’re in the swing of things, though, intermittent or unexpected rewards can be more motivating.
Importantly, while tangible rewards like buying shoes or a new gadget might be easiest to grab, rewards don’t always have to be stuff. They can be social (e.g., setting up time with friends), based on self-care (e.g., a nice bubble bath), or health-based (e.g., signing up for an exercise class), too. You know yourself best — determine what will work best to keep you motivated and then stick to it.
Find Some Accountability Partners
Your personal rewards and penalties are a good foundation for holding yourself accountable. But, for many, sharing progress with a partner increases the likelihood of staying on track.
Knowing someone is going to see what you’re doing offers both negative reinforcement (penalty) and positive reinforcement (reward). You probably don’t want to disappoint others or be embarrassed that you didn’t do what you said. But accountability partners can also be a fantastic source of encouragement when the going gets tough.
Your partners don’t have to be tracking with you or experienced with the goal. But some friendly competition can be motivating, too, and people who have worked for the same purpose can be highly empathetic and give good advice.
Follow Your Tracking Schedule
Whether you’re tracking your metric once a month or multiple times a day, follow the routine you set up as closely as you can and record your information. Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a few data points — life happens. Just hop back on as soon as you can.
Once you have the data gathered, it’s time to analyze again. It’s okay to see some slips or backtracking, so long as the overall progress is forward. If you do notice a slip or backtrack, try to figure out what might have related to or coincided with it, such as extra stress or a vacation. This practice can help you notice trends, habits, or other areas where you need to take action. Based on the results of your analysis, adjust the goals or set new ones and/or implement your penalties and rewards.
It may seem simple, but it works. Whether you use these steps to achieve professional or personal goals, tracking your targets has a positive influence on whether you learn, change, and develop. Clear metrics and methods, accountability options, rewards and penalties, and a commitment to a schedule are all part of the process. If you’re consistent through these points, you truly have no limits to what you can achieve.