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Why Setting Professional Goals Is the Key to Staying Focused at Work

Why Setting Professional Goals Is the Key to Staying Focused at Work

By Andrew McDermott

A 29-year-old employee has just died at work.

He pulled brutal back-to-back shifts in the shipping department of Japan’s largest newspaper company.

His cause of death?


Stroke isn’t supposed to be a common cause of death in young people. Yet deaths like these are on the rise in Japan and around the world as many struggle to perform at work. The term is Karoshi.

People are overworked.

50 percent of employees are overworked. They’re not engaged. In fact, the vast majority of workers in our country are disengaged at work. There’s a very good chance you’ve been one of them.

But why?

Why do so many people struggle so much? Why is it so hard for employees to focus and excel at work?

Failure at work comes from a lack of focus.


It seems as if we spend our time at work chasing rabbits – running from one problem to the next. Then, at the end of our day, it feels like we have nothing to show for our work.

We’ve finished everything – except the important tasks we were supposed to do. We leave work defeated only to repeat the pattern the next day – over and over, day after day after day. It’s as if we’re losing ground, as if it’s impossible to focus on the things we’re supposed to do.

And the root cause behind our lack of focus?

Goal setting.

Really? Yes, really.

As professionals, we’re familiar with setting goals. Most of us know how to set and achieve professional goals. BHAGs, smart goals, clear goals – you’ve probably heard them all. Here’s the problem with each of these methodologies.

They’re incomplete.

This incompleteness creates what I like to call goal gaps. These gaps leave you vulnerable and exposed, making failure inevitable.

Goal setting makes failure inevitable?

That sounds ridiculous. It’s completely untrue.


Conventional wisdom tells us goal setting makes everything better. It gives us “long term vision and short term motivation.” It gives us the focus we need to get what we want. It keeps projects and teams on the same page.

All-star employees, successful entrepreneurs – high achievers all set goals. Goal setting gives us clarity and the ability to achieve what we want. None of this is new.

It’s actually all true. Professional goal setting is indispensable to staying focused. If you actually want to accomplish a task, complete a project or achieve greatness you need goals.

All entirely true.

But here’s the bad news.

Incomplete goal setting makes failure inevitable.

What does that mean?

When we set goals we think about the details – the results, outcomes and benefits we want.

Here’s the mistake.

We ignore the details, the negative results and outcomes, the things we want to avoid.

We don’t set goals to protect us from the downsides we don’t want. You and I, we both know it’s true. How can I say that confidently?

New Years.

Most New Year’s resolutions are doomed to fail.


At the beginning of every year, millions of people resolve to change, to make a few positive changes in their lives. They set ambitious goals e.g. I’m going to work out, I’m going lose 10 lbs, etc.

You know the rest of the story. Most of them fail.

Some lose interest, many are distracted and most eventually give up. But this isn’t the real reason most people fail.

They fail because they lose focus.

Professional goals are the key to staying focused. Most people make the mistake of setting goals that focus on what they want. Then they completely ignore goals that deal with the details they don’t want.

Our loss of focus comes from interruptions.

  • We’re distracted by our fears
  • We lose the tools we needed to meet are goals
  • A massive amount of work is dropped in our lap
  • We’re blindsided by the unexpected

We want to be better, so we set ambitious goals that outline what we want. But we’re completely unprepared for the disaster that inevitably follows.

What does that look like?

  • Working to change your diet? You’re “suddenly” hit with a barrage of invites to dinner parties, get togethers, and meetups.
  • Wanting to read and focus on learning and personal growth? How will you handle repeated invites from friends, co-workers and contacts to hit the town, schmooze and socialize?
  • Using a new hashtag for your branding campaign? How will you handle the group of trolls who hijack your hashtag, using it to say disgusting things?
  • Launching a content marketing campaign? Can your goals handle a campaign that falls flat or creates a significant amount of negative PR?

Our professional goals are incomplete. This is why we fail.

Life is messy, it has a habit of ruining our plans and dismantling our goals. Which is where most of us struggle. We aren’t trained to plan for the unexpected, for disaster. So the optimists and idealists among us set goals.

Then they fail.

Eventually, many become jaded, bitter and cynical about setting goals. They tell us “goal setting doesn’t work” or that “life doesn’t work that way, you’ll see” planting seeds of discouragement in those around them.

It’s not their fault.

They don’t have negative goals so they’re emotionally and psychologically unprepared for the disaster that follows.

Setting professional goals always come with trouble.

Committing to a new workout? You’re going to deal with soreness, pain and fatigue. Launching new marketing campaigns? Expect the vast majority of them to fail or fall flat as you tweak and analyze things. Tackling something new? Expect confusion, roadblocks and struggle as you work hard to figure things out.

Achievement always has a cost.

Staying focused, being successful at work requires that you set complete goals. That you plan for the things you want and know how you’ll avoid the things you don’t want.

Set complete goals to stay focused.

Complete goals, as we’ve seen, cover the good and the bad. They give you the tools you need to deal with both sides of goal setting.

Your Daily To-Do List is Failing. Here Are 3 Strategies To Make It Better & Improve Productivity.

But how do you set complete professional goals?

Take an inventory of your situation. Where you are, where you’d like to be and what will keep you from getting there.

First, choose a model.

  • S.M.A.R.T. goals work best for teams that are new to goal setting or struggle with discipline.
  • C.L.E.A.R. goals works best for teams with individuals who are already disciplined and experienced goal setters.
  • GROW goals are a naturally intuitive way for people to set complete goals, focusing on both the internal and external details of goal setting.
  • BHAGs are high level goals that seem incredibly daunting or challenging but function as a clear, compelling and unifying focal point for the entire organization. An organization can have one BHAG or multiple goals and this depends on a team’s ability and discipline with individual goal setting and accountability.

Have a different model that works for you? Stick with the goal setting model you already use.

Next, set your goals.

Use your goal setting model of choice to outline results you want. Do what you can to avoid making common mistakes that derail goals from the start.

  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Over or under estimating time frames
  • Setting too many goals
  • Creating goals that are vague or difficult to understand
  • Failing to map out next steps for your goals
  • Limited/narrow thinking

(That’s not intended to be a comprehensive list)

Third, list your roadblocks.

Make a list of all the internal and external factors that, left ignored, would keep you from accomplishing your goals.

Let’s say your goal is to eat a healthy, balanced diet. You’d want to identify all of the internal and external factors that would keep you from accomplishing that goal. Those factors could be…

  • A complete lack of interest changing your diet
  • Not knowing what to eat or how to cook it
  • A lack of time
  • An inability to cook
  • Finding healthy meal plans disgusting
  • Friends and family offering unhealthy food

Can you see what’s happening?

You know what failure looks like. Naturally this makes it easier for you to set your goals accordingly. This crucial step gives your goals completeness.

Finally, work backwards.

You take your goals and the list of objections you’ve created and you break them down. You break your goals into a list of tasks.

  1. If they’re recurring tasks, you turn them into tiny habits keeping them off your calendar and out of your head.
  2. If they’re one time tasks, you add them to your calendar, along with appropriate accountability hooks.
  3. If they’re very short term to-dos, you do them immediately or set short-term reminders, getting them done quickly.

These simple goal setting strategies are the keys to staying focused at work.

There’s just one problem.

Some people think losing focus at work is inevitable.

But it doesn’t have to be.

We’re all human. We all lose focus from time to time. But complete goal setting reduces that dramatically. As people, our struggle to stay focused is centered around two distinct events.

Internal and external factors.

With internal factors, we lose focus due to a particular roadblock or barrier. We’re afraid, tired, stuck, confused, etc. These roadblocks aren’t always easy to identify.

If we’re inexperienced we mis-categorize these roadblocks.

We struggle with feelings of laziness when we’re actually physically exhausted and short on sleep. We believe we’re procrastinating when we’re stuck on a particular task or to-do. When we mis-categorize roadblocks it often becomes a dysfunctional cycle that actually makes it harder for us to focus.

When this happens, it’s an indication for us to dig deeper, to get to the heart of the problem.

That starts with questions.

What is going on? How am I feeling right now? Why am I dealing with this? Where did this come from?

It’s important that we ask ourselves these questions, even when we don’t know the answer. Because, it focuses our attention on searching for the answer.

And almost inevitably we do.

What about external factors? Your boss comes in and drops the hammer.

“I need you to drop what you’re doing and focus on…”

An emergency appears, a problem crops up. Suddenly you’re forced to focus on something completely different. You’re not allowed to focus on the things you want to focus on anymore.

You’re cornered into something different.

This still depends on goal setting. You change your goals. You suspend, abandon or modify your goals to accommodate your new headache. It’s not your fault but it is your problem to deal with.

What if you’re accountable for your previous to-dos?

You say yes to the impossible demand, then you rope your manager or boss in on it like this…

  • I can get it done if I have A, B and C. Would you help me get that?
  • I’m supposed to be doing A; Would you like me to drop that completely and focus on Z?
  • A will prevent this horrible thing from happening, will you take care of that for me so I can get Y done for you?

Did you catch the secret behind dealing with external demands and the unexpected?

It’s flow.

What is flow? It’s an acceptance of what is. Instead of fighting, complaining or venting about reality, you embrace it. You accept it. You process your feelings and accept (or tolerate) the changes foisted on you.

Flow buys you time. It gives you the ability to focus on the details that matter and, once mastered, gives you the freedom you need to stay focused at work and go with the flow.

People aren’t in a constant state of focus. We have ups and downs, twists and bends. Sometimes we’re focused on our goals and other times our priorities are elsewhere.

You’re smart enough to tell the difference.

Your conscience tells you when it’s time to focus and time to relax. Change tends to be the only constant in our lives, but with it comes clarity about how we should perform. So, you focus your attention on your goals and the tasks that matter most.

We can’t focus when we’re overworked.

Karoshi is on the rise. The vast majority of us are overworked and underappreciated. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Complete goal setting, as we’ve seen, is the key to staying focused at work. Because our failure comes from a lack of focus.

When it’s done right, we won’t need spend our time at work chasing rabbits – running from one problem to the next. We’ll end our days, feeling accomplished and satisfied.

Imagine staying focused on the tasks that matter.

Not only is it possible, it’s inevitable – if you make your goals complete. When you have that focus, you’ll begin gaining ground. When you’re focused on the details you’ll see the difference you’ve made. You’ll realize your success is all but inevitable.

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