Emotional Well-being//

How to Create and Meet Goals that Align With Your Values

A Q&A with Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD, associate director of the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia University and author of Nine Things Successful People Do Differently.

Thrive Global: What are the qualities of a well-crafted goal or vision?

Heidi Grant Halvorson: Goals exist in hierarchy. At the top are the goals at the level of purpose. Usually, for an organization, when you’re talking about vision, you’re trying to tap into the big picture why of what you’re going to do. It’s abstract, but that’s necessary because that abstract level is the level of meaning. That’s where you get to “why is it worth doing this?”—tapping into your motivation. There’s a lot of research showing that the abstract, “why” level is what motivates people to actually start taking action.

When you start moving toward a goal, you have to start unpacking that big abstract “why” goal into multiple layers. There are the goals that sit immediately under that why goal, then there are the goals that sit under that. Those are relatively concrete, with the level of specificity that allows you to do something that’s really important—to know at any time where you stand relative to the goals you’re trying to reach.

TG: Can you give an example?

HGH: In personal terms, if I have an overall goal that I want to be healthier and more centered and have greater well-being, that’s very abstract, but it’s also very motivating. It’s the reason behind a whole bunch of subgoals you might set.

Under the big umbrella of “having greater well being” I can have mid-level goals, like “eat healthier” and “live a healthier lifestyle.” Another might be “begin a mindfulness practice.” Another might be “have more compassionate relationships.” These things are still mid-level. You have to get to the place of, “I have the goal of meditating three times a day.” It’s about having specific actions to take.

TG: How can we make sure our vision and goals reflect our values?

HGH: That’s the distinction—does the goal have an autonomous origin? The thing that I’m doing, the goal that I’m setting, is an authentic reflection of my own values, preferences and personality. That’s intrinsic motivation in a nutshell. I’m doing this thing because for me, it feels right and good and it’s rewarding because it’s the kind of thing I like.

TG: How do we stay connected to those higher-level vision goals at work?

HGH: You can really just ask yourself. Take a second in a team meeting to say, “Why are we doing this? How are we going to be better off because we did this? What is this about for us?” Asking yourself those questions makes everybody stop for a second and say, “Oh yeah, let’s think about that.”

TG: How does that work at the individual level, and how can you help your coworkers keep their vision and values in mind?

HGH: If you’re having a conversation with someone and they’re struggling with this, take a second to talk about it. Think about the things that have to happen to have that big picture be achieved.

I get asked all the time, how specific does a goal have to be? And the clearest answer to that is, specific enough that you know where you stand in respect to it.

Make a practice of revisiting what your goals are. A quarterly goal is better than an annual goal. If you’re not thinking about your goals regularly there’s a danger of not making sufficient progress toward them. If you can’t tell where you are in respect to your goals there’s a danger of not making enough progress. If you don’t lift it up to the why and understand the purpose and vision of the goal there’s a real danger that you’re not making sufficient progress when it comes to reaching it. You’ve got to go up and down. 

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