Increase the Odds of Achieving Your Goals by Setting Them with Your Family

by Jackie Coleman and John Coleman

Quick Takes

  • Establish an annual meeting to set goals
  • Identify family, couple, and individual goals (even for kids)
  • Use a set of questions to structure the conversation
  • Hold each other accountable and share constructive feedback
  • Check in on each other’s progress

“Work” and “life” come up in our thoughts and conversation as separate and, all too often, in tension. We make annual resolutions, detailed daily plans, and to-do lists, but we do so as individuals, generally not sharing those plans or planning jointly with those closest to us. And we often think of our personal and professional goals as occupying distinct and separate spheres. But what if the work and home spheres could merge and actually improve the odds that we’ll meet our goals?

Research shows that it’s easier to achieve our goals when we’re not trying to go it alone. One study found a positive correlation between participation in digital communities and reaching fitness goals.1 Similarly, a study of rowers found that training together heightened their threshold for pain.2

For many of us, our closest and most trusted companion is a spouse. Couples in committed, long-term relationships often make plans to manage busy days or take fun trips, but rarely set resolutions or actively create longterm plans together. By not doing so, couples may actually be making it harder to achieve their goals. We decided to experiment with fully integrating our personal planning for the year. We’ve always informally mentioned our goals to each other, but this time around, we talked with intentionality about why we were chasing those goals, and how we planned to get there. By including each other in the process, we invited the other not only to be aware of what we plan to accomplish, but also to hold us accountable as we strive to reach these goals.

If you don’t have a spouse or partner, you can still try these techniques with a family member, trusted colleague, close friend, or other ally. And parents might even think about including kids in some or all of these meetings to take advantage of their creativity and to help them focus and build life skills.

Our experience, combined with research we’ve evaluated and other couples we’ve consulted with, led to the following tips for effective planning within the context of a family.

Hold an Annual Board Meeting

Several years ago, we attended a seminar where speakers Rick and Jill Woolworth introduced the idea of an “annual meeting” for families—taking time at the end of each year to evaluate that year and plan for the next. Establishing this as a norm assures that goal setting happens on a set schedule rather than haphazardly or in isolation. For us, this happened over the holidays between Christmas and the new year, and included a discussion of the past year, how we performed against our goals, and how we felt about life as a couple, as individuals, and as a family as a whole. We wrote out our specific goals for the year and the habits we hoped to develop. Then we discussed them and how each of us could help the other achieve our goals. These annual meetings provide accountability, but more important, establish a vision for the year ahead. Then, as so many have advised, break these annual goals down into habits, monthly and weekly goals, and daily to-dos.3

By talking about your goals with your spouse or other allies and writing them down, you’ve already improved your odds of success. In Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, authors Noah Goldstein, Steve Martin, and Robert Cialdini explain how making an active commitment directly affects action.4 In one of the studies they reference, researchers found that out of a group of individuals who passively agreed to participate in a volunteer project, only 17% showed up to participate. Contrast that with those who agreed to volunteer through active means (writing it down, signing a contract, and so forth), 49% appeared as promised. Writing down specific goals and sharing them with your family is like signing a contract. It not only increases social accountability but also allows your spouse and others to think about specific ways in which they can support you in achieving your goals.

Set Joint Goals

The second essential component of annual planning is setting joint goals. What do you hope to achieve as a family? As a couple? As individuals (including your children)? What habits do you hope to develop together? Work-life balance is often cited as a key factor in job satisfaction, yet many of us struggle to achieve it. The people with whom you share your life are likely the best people to help you plan for balancing it. And joint goals can assure that your personal and professional pursuits are more fully aligned.

Hold Each Other Accountable

Once you’ve made your plans, help hold each other accountable. When you invite someone to join you in setting and striving for goals, you’re not only asking them to cheer you on when you reach certain landmarks, you’re also empowering them to point out when you’re unfocused or offtrack. This requires recognizing that constructive feedback can be hard to hear and letting go of some ego and pride. To make the process easier and give your partner permission to hold you accountable, use a structured set of questions:

  • What are 2–3 areas in which I’m falling short of my goals?
  • What are 2–3 areas in which I’m succeeding?
  • What’s 1 thing I can do to improve this month?

Specifically working through questions like these helps focus the conversation and keep a balance between negative and positive feedback.

Check Your Progress

At the end of each month, check in on your progress using structured questions that work for your family. While making plans as a family is a good start, it’s not enough to make things happen. Allow yourself regular checkpoints throughout the year to see where you are in developing habits and reaching your goals. Make it fun and something to look forward to. Order takeout or have a special meal. Keep the focus of the conversation on celebrating progress and identifying the setbacks of the month. Consider how you might build on things that are going well and brainstorm ways to get back on track when a goal or habit is off course. Some couples might be tempted to do this weekly, but monthly feedback seems to be the most realistic time frame. Once a month is enough time for you to have made meaningful progress but also frequent enough to allow you to course correct throughout the year.

•   •   •

Planning for both professional and personal goals with your spouse or other trusted ally can help you better care for one another, ensure that you’re focused on the issues that matter most in the context of your family, enlist your biggest supporters in helping you achieve your goals and get things done, and teach your children about communication and partnership.

Adapted from “Increase the Odds of Achieving Your Goals by Setting Them with Your Spouse,” on hbr.org, February 3, 2015 (product #H01UL0).

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