Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Directions from the past and e-mails to the future

I was listening to an interview with Sarah Susanka on NPR the other day. Sarah is the author of the best-selling series "The Not So Big House" and was promoting her newest book: "The Not So Big Life: Making Room for What Really Matters".

In the interview, she mentioned a ritual repeated every year between the weeks of Christmas and New Year's Eve: writing down the things she expected to accomplish in life. She continued on to describe how after a few months a large part of those goals were met without her conscious action.

Years ago, Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, shared a similar experience in "The Dilbert Principle" - a book more serious than one would assume. His approach followed the same principle, but was far more intense, consisting of writing down his goals on little cards everyday. According to Scott, he used that technique to realize his most notable achievement: becoming the world's most famous cartoonist.

Scott went further, cautioning the reader about setting goals that depended on individual effort, rather than wishing for divine providence on something like winning the lottery.

Written goals

Granted, both Sarah Susanka and Scott Adams were already renowned authors when they shared their recipes for success; one could argue that these are focused individuals that would have reached their goals whether they put their thoughts on paper or not. However, there are several merits to their advice.

A vision: Firstly, writing down your goals implies that you know what they are, which is obviously very important if you want to achieve them.

A clear vision: Secondly, anyone who has ever sat in front of blank page, pen or keyboard in hands, knows the pressure of organizing thought in a form that can be understood in a clear manner. It follows that written goals tend to be clearer than unstated ones.

Even for people with an innate sense of purpose, there is always a point in life where that general sense of purpose is fulfilled and clearer direction is required to sustain progress. Just imagine the stories of children who always wanted to be doctors. It is unusual to hear stories about children who wanted to be the best doctor in the world.

A vision reminder: A third positive aspect of written goals is that they become constant reminders of the decisions to be made in the future. It is like having your past self constantly looking over your shoulder and advising you to make decisions consistent with those goals on each crossroad. That past self of yours lack your new experiences, but he has clearer view of what is important in your life.

Written...where?

The sense of purpose built while writing goals will weaken after awhile. Your past self needs you to keep those goals close at hand to guide your decisions and actions. Scott Adams' method of writing down your major goal in life everyday is certainly labor intensive; as a computer geek, I like using a desktop background and the default page on the web browser.

The other day I came across a web site called FutureMe.org, which allows one to send an e-mail to the future. If their infrastructure doesn't disappear in the meantime, my future self will be receiving some reminder notes.

Collective goals

In a large company, writing down organizational goals seems equally necessary, but not so much of a common practice. Of course, you don't want them to look like something coming out of Dilbert's Mission Statement Generator; goals should be a clear target against a metric.

For the leaders ultimately responsible for the attainment of collective goals...

...be active... Once you get those goals written down, there is the question of how to make them present on people's routines. Forcing people to write them down everyday is a reminiscent from classrooms best left in the past. Slapping them to screens on a system or to walls on facilities that people use everyday is a sure way of suppressing people's awareness and involvement.

...but be subtle... a more subtle way of bringing it up now and then seems in order. Some examples would be the addition of goals to e-mail signatures or periodically adding them to a slide or two during presentations. Subtlety being the operative word, as the Baby-Boomers and GenX'ers comprising the bulk of the workforce today do not react well to any kind of intensive pestering.

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