It's April, so there's probably a pretty good chance you've given up on your new year's resolutions. But, there's no law that says January 1 is the only day to set life changing goals. Personally, I think spring is a great time to make new goals--it's starting to get warm, and stay light later, and it makes for a more pleasant environment. (At least, it does for me.) So, I was thrilled when this week's Freakonomics podcast, Big Returns from Thinking Small, focused on a seven-step plan for making and achieving goals.

Owain Service and Rory Gallagher, from the UK's Behavioural Insights Team, developed these seven small steps. They can be used for everything (Service used them to cut back on his drinking, Gallagher used them to increase his gym attendance). I'm going to teach you how to use them to improve your career. Or solve any problem, really. 

1. Set a goal

This may seem obvious, but many of us never get around to making that official step. Sure, we say, "I want to be successful," but we never define what success looks like. If you don't actually set the goal, you are very unlikely to get to a point your recognize as "successful." Success for everyone looks different. For you, it's starting your own company. For someone else, it's getting promoted to a management position.

2. Make a plan with a bright line

Your goal is a promotion, but how are you going to get that? Are you going to work "harder" or work "smarter"? What does that mean? There's no "bright line" that will tell you when you're on the path or when you're not.

Service, for instance, had a goal of reducing his drinking, so he set his bright line as not drinking at home during the work week. It's really easy to see whether or not he was meeting that.

If you want a promotion, speak with your boss about the skills you'll need to move to the next level. Then make your plan with that in mind. Do you need an MBA for the next move? Then your bright line may be studying for GMAT for three hours per week. Do you need to master build relationships? Then your bright line might be taking a colleague to lunch each week. Whatever it is, you need to be able to absolutely know whether or not you've achieved that.

3. Make a commitment with a commitment referee

You need someone that will follow up with you. Service and Gallagher recommend that this person is not your significant other. That person tends to be too nice and will help you slack off. A friend or a co-worker is fine though. This person helps keep you on track. Honestly, this is how Weight Watchers work. You're more likely to stay on your diet when you know you have to stand on a scale in front of a nice lady each week. She's your commitment referee.

4. Create a reward

The temptation is to make achieving the goal the reward, but that's not the best idea. You need a reward--or a punishment. Gallagher used a punishment of having to wear the sports team of his rival team to work if he didn't keep his commitments. Katie Milkman, from the University of Pennsylvania, suggests using "temptation bundling." She says,


So what if you only let yourself get a pedicure while catching up on overdue emails for work. Or you only let yourself go to your very favorite restaurant whose hamburgers you crave while spending time with a difficult relative who you should see more of. Those would all be examples of temptation bundling.

If you study for your GMAT for an hour, you can have a bowl of ice cream. If your email box is at zero, you can watch Netflix. Whatever you need to motivate you.

5. Share your goals with others

Let people know what you are up to. Lots of people want to skip this step because then it's not embarrassing if you fail, but that's the whole point-- it creates leverage if people know about it. People will help you out if they know about it.

6. Feedback

You can get this feedback from yourself. If your goals and plans are clear then you can sit down and evaluate. "I've been studying for the GMAT for three hours every week for the past two months. Are my practice test scores rising?" If not, reevaluate what you are doing. If so, consider if you're ready to take the test.

Sometimes feedback can come from the outside. If your manager told you that building relationships was something you lacked, and you've been actively trying to do it, check in with her. "Have you seen improvement?"

7. Stick

If your goal is to lose weight, it doesn't do any good to lose 50 pounds, mark it off on your to-do list and then gain the weight back. You have to make it stick. If you get those GMAT scores up, you need to take the test and apply to the MBA program. If you're working on developing relationships, you can't just go back to sitting in the corner by yourself.

Of course, achieving a goal never means you're done. It means it's time to move on to the next goal. Keep the on with the thing you've accomplished and move forward.

Published on: Apr 5, 2017