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Set Goals You Know You Can Achieve

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If you’re too ambitious, resolutions become more difficult to keep.

The vast majority of New Year’s resolutions fail to survive the first week or two — whether it is to lose weight, eat more healthily, exercise or make a change in your business. Despite that, people continue to make resolutions for the same reason that some people get married three, four or five times — a triumph of optimism over experience and a view that “this time it will be different.”

If you are serious about using this year as a catalyst to make positive changes in your business, here are five steps you need to consider to translate good intentions into lasting action.

Step 1: Set Short-Term, Achievable Goals:

One of the reasons resolutions fail is that we underestimate how hard it is to effect lasting change. It’s not easy to overcome existing habits, routines and inertia; they pull us back to the way we’re doing business currently.

A common trap is to try to do too much on too many fronts. You’re far better off to focus on making realistic progress in one area that will have a major impact than to try for three or four lesser-impact goals.

That one goal for 2008 might be getting to know the accountants and lawyers of your top 20 clients. It might be capturing the e-mail addresses of your top 100 clients, and then initiating monthly e-mails to them (and any other clients for whom you have e-mail addresses). It might be ensuring that you have financial plans in place for your top 50 clients.

Whether it is one of these or another high-impact initiative, it is critical to select one or two changes that you believe will make a big difference in your business and to which you’re really committed.

Once you’ve picked those one or two ideas, you need to set short-term (weekly and monthly) and mid-term (quarterly) goals and timelines. If you want to get to know the professional advisors of your top 20 clients by the end of 2008, start by choosing two or three that you will connect with by the end of January, for example.

One key to achieving ambitious goals is to break them down into manageable, short-term objectives with clear and realistic timelines.

Step 2: Simplify:

Once you’ve selected your objective, the next step is to figure out what you have to do to make it happen on a consistent basis. Almost always, that means taking that new habit and establishing a routine around it. To make this or any other changes happen, you need to make the change simple to implement and easy to repeat.

Suppose your goal is to increase credibility in prospect meetings by sending an information package containing some background on you and your supporting team, information on your firm, a sample newsletter and a newspaper article in which there is reference to you or your firm. Once you’ve put that package together, you need to draft a short covering letter and have a supply of these packages in your assistant’s desk. That way, all you have to do is send your assistant an e-mail with the prospect’s address, and the cover letter and package will go out automatically.

Or perhaps your objective is to spend five minutes after each client meeting to identify next steps and summarize what will happen coming out of this meeting. At the same time, you want to put a note in the client file outlining what you discussed and things you want to raise the next time you talk. To make that happen, you need to put together a simple form to capture all the key information coming out of your meetings, so there’s no scratching your head wondering what to include. Your meetings aren’t really over until this form is completed.

By establishing a consistent format for doing a meeting summary, you’ve made it much more likely that this will happen.

Step 3: Maintain Priority:

Once you’ve embarked on introducing a new initiative to your business, you need to focus on keeping it a priority until the new habit takes hold. This is especially important in the first 90 days. Typically, if your resolution makes it through the first 90 days intact, its chances of survival increase dramatically.

Incorporate a review of the progress of your new initiatives as part of your weekly planning process. And if you don’t already set aside 20 minutes to plan your week ahead, perhaps that should be your resolution; few things will give you a bigger payoff.

One of the most powerful strategies to bring focus and priority to any new activity is via time-blocking — carving out time in your calendar for key initiatives.

Let’s say you’ve resolved to have two “thank you” lunches a month with your best clients. One way to set this up is to call these clients and say something along the lines of: “You’re one of the clients I enjoy working with the very most. Next month marks six years since we began working together. To say thank you, I’d like to buy you lunch.”

How to make that happen? First, identify the clients you want to host. Second, block out every second Friday for one of those lunches. Finally, schedule an hour on the first Monday of every month to call clients and extend those invitations. By blocking out the time for those lunches, you’ve given them the priority they deserve.

Step 4: Reinforce New Behaviour:

Once you have picked the activities you’re going to focus on, set goals and timelines, made the process of executing them as simple as possible and ensured that they get priority, the next step is to find ways to reinforce the new behaviour.

One way to do this is to borrow an idea from a highly successful advisor who attributes much of his success to spending the last five minutes on Fridays reviewing the week just passed. He asks himself three simple questions: first, what worked well in the past week; second, what didn’t work so well; and, finally, what lessons can I learn from this and what am I going to do differently next week as a result?

Another method is to focus on successes from new initiatives, whether they are large or small. If you’ve decided to introduce “report cards” at the beginning of meetings as a way to get feedback, consider setting up a file on your computer to record each occasion in which you used that report card and how clients responded.

A final strategy to reinforce new behaviour is to establish a learning group with one to four advisors in your office. Make a commitment that for the next 90 days, you are going to spend an hour each Friday afternoon — 12 hours in all — to support each other as you introduce new habits to your practice.

The format for these learning groups is the same each week; you go around the group and ask five key questions:

  • What did I say I was going to do this week?
  • What did I actually implement?
  • What results did I see?
  • What did I learn from this?
  • What am I going to do next week?

By creating some accountability and focusing on successes, your chances of sticking to your resolutions go way up.

And if you want to increase the chances that these one-hour reviews will happen, make time-blocking work for you by holding the reviews at the same time each week and by putting them in your calendar.

Step 5: Reward Yourself:

One advisor describes having the goal when he entered the business of having 10 conversations with prospects each morning. (That was before the days of voice mail, when people actually answered their phones.) At the start of each day, he put 10 pennies to the left of his phone. Each time he had a conversation, no matter how brief, he moved one penny from the left to the right of the phone. Come lunchtime, if he hadn’t moved all those pennies over, he refused to allow himself to leave his desk until that last penny had made the trip from one side of the phone to the other.

Your rewards can be large or small. Your goal might be to have three client conversations each week about referrals — perhaps using the target client profile or prospect meeting process I described in the January issue to trigger that conversation. (See www.investmentexecutive.com. ) Your reward, if you hit that goal, is that Friday night you and your spouse go out for dinner. Miss that goal and it’s pizza and beer.

Or, perhaps, you have a more ambitious goal and want to spend two weeks this fall in Tuscany or on a bike trip in France. Figure out what you need to achieve in order to justify the time and money to reward yourself with that trip and then keep that reward top of mind. A poster of the French countryside in your office is just one way to do that.

One final note: no matter how committed we are to our goals, we all fall off the wagon occasionally. If, despite your best intentions, you find that you’ve slipped one week, accept that as part of the inevitable process of change and commit to the change once again for the week that follows. By doing this — and by observing the five-step process — your odds of translating intention to action will go way up.