Have you set personal and professional goals for the year? If so, I bet you’ve made sure they are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Bound). But do you have the right attitude to achieve them?

SMART goals are great when the strategies and tasks required are well-defined. Many times, however, the situation is volatile and strategies for success are vague. When this is the case, having the right attitude may be more important than SMART goals. Read on to find out more…

Crossing the Rubicon

Alea iacta est (the die is cast)” is what Julius Caesar is claimed to have said as he led his army across the River Rubicon in northern Italy in 49 B.C., effectively declaring war against the forces of General Pompey. There was literally no turning back.

In a similar, if less dramatic way, we cross a point of no return each time we decide to take action towards achieving a goal. The Rubicon Model describes the phases we go through as we turn our wishes into concrete actions. Until we “cross the Rubicon” we are not committed to action, making it unlikely that we will achieve our goals.

Activate Your Resources

Solution-oriented psychologists believe that people carry within themselves the resources they need to achieve their goals. Many of these resources exist at the unconscious level. The aim of solution-oriented consultants, psychologists and educators is to help people discover and activate their resources appropriately.

What kind of resources are we talking about? Internal resources could be skills, strengths, or beliefs. External resources could be social networks, supportive friends, and family.

One of the best ways to activate your resources is to have the right attitude towards goals.

The Right Attitude

Life can be pulled by goals just as surely as it can be pushed by drives. ―Viktor Frankl
Goals that really fire us up and lead to action share three characteristics:

Approach. The goal is phrased in terms of what we want to do more of (approach) rather than what we want to stop doing (avoid). For example, “I will take a short break every hour” is more motivational than “I will stop pushing myself so hard.”

Control. The goal is within our realm of control. This doesn’t mean that it won’t be a challenge; rather we believe with hard work it is possible to achieve the goal. A goal can only “stretch” so far before it breaks. Our attitude plays an important role here. A growth mindset, according to Carol Dweck, will encourage us to try new approaches.

Positive reaction. The goal is associated with positive feelings. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio claims that we use our gut reactions (which he calls somatic markers) to evaluate decision options. A goal that triggers a positive reaction makes you “light up” when you think about it.

According to Psychologist Maja Storch, when a goal satisfies the three factors of approachcontrol, and positive feelings, we are intrinsically motivated to achieve it.

What’s a Leader to Do?

Gather your resources. It has been said that a leader is only as strong as her network. Seek feedback early and often from colleagues, friends, and family. Learn to put your signature strengths to work for you. More on this here.

Trust your feelings. Pay attention to your feelings and bodily reactions when considering goals. Learn to trust your “gut” in areas of expertise. Your experience has provided you will a rich emotional memory that will help you make quick and accurate decisions. Gary Klein, a psychologist who studies decision making, found that expert firefighters use their gut reaction when deciding whether or not it is safe to enter a burning building.

Set bright lines. SMART goals are smart for a reason—they contain specific and measurable criteria—bright lineswhich make it easy to tell if you are on course or not. If you are a team leader, setting the goal, “I will meet with each of my team members once a week” is more effective than “I will spend more time with my team.”

Tell them about it. Once you have defined your goals, tell others what you plan to do! Dan Ariely notes that commitment contracts are especially effective when you make them public. More on this here.

Prime the pump. Research shows that just thinking about a positive outcome increases one’s chances of making it happen. Spend time visualizing yourself achieving your goal. Even better, write yourself a letter from the future (in private) describing how you will feel when you succeed. A recent study by Fitzgerald and Schutte showed that leaders can increase their effectiveness through expressive writing.


Fitzgerald, S. and Schutte, N. S. (2010). Increasing transformational leadership through enhancing self-efficacy. Journal of Management Development, 29 (5), pp.495- 505.

Gollwitzer, P. M. (1990). Action phases and mind-sets. In E. T. Higgins & R. M. Sorrentino (Eds.), The handbook of motivation and cognition: Foundations of social behavior (Vol. 2, pp. 53-92). New York: Guilford Press.

Greif, S. (under review). Goal and Implementation Intentions and their Complex Transfer into Practice. In D. Megginson & D. Clutterbuck (Eds.), Goal-break: The Coach’s or Mentor’s Antidote to the Tyranny of Goal-Setting.

Storch, M. (2004). Crossing Your Personal Rubicon. Scientific American 14(5), 94-95.

Image courtesy of popofatticus / CC BY-SA 2.0