It's okay to miss goals—if you learn from it

Hannah Herman
Hannah Herman / Published December 16, 2019

A quick Google search yields 306,000,000 results for "setting work goals."

I haven't read all of those results (yet), but the ones I have read are chock full of tips for how to set better goals—but they won't tell you anything about what to do if, like me, you've failed to meet the goals you set three months ago.

At Zapier, all new hires set 30-, 60-, and 90-day goals. These goals are generally related to your specific job and don't include onboarding tasks, which are managed separately.

I'll be honest: my goals didn't help me as much as I thought they would. I actually wound up missing a couple significant ones. After a bit of reflection, here are a few reasons why I failed—and some things I would have done differently.

Set goals early, set goals often

If you want to achieve your goals, you need to give yourself enough time. If you set goals at regular intervals (such as every quarter), don't wait until two weeks into the period to finalize them. Instead, try to write them down a couple of weeks before the quarter starts, so you can hit the ground running.

I didn't do this, and it definitely haunted my entire first three months. I started at Zapier on Monday, 17 June 2019, but my manager and I didn't set my 30/60/90 day goals until Wednesday, 14 August. This delay was mostly because the structure of my team changed soon after I joined.

The result: I worked for two months without formal goals. When we finally got around to working through them, it was less aspirational goal-setting and more reviewing my completed projects.

This approach clearly wasn't ideal. For starters, I spent a lot of time during the first sixty days trying to figure out what exactly I ought to be working on. I also wound up feeling rushed when it came to achieving my 90-day goals, because they were pretty hefty, but I had only about 30 days to accomplish them. That month was also the month of our all-hands company retreat, a week during which I can always count on getting no actual writing done.

If I could do it all over again, I'd be more proactive in setting my goals earlier. I'd probably also try to have a better plan for tackling each individual goal.

Take a step back

When you realize you might not meet a goal, it's easy to spiral into disappointment, frustration, and anxiety. As someone who frequently spirals, I wouldn't recommend it. Try to take a step back and breathe. Remember that your work is about more than just your ability to cross items off a list.

Then, think critically about why you might not hit your objective. Has anything changed since you set your goals? Are they still relevant to your (and your team's) work?

Often, there are organizational sea changes that affect your role—and your goals. Sometimes, these changes are obvious, like new objectives or big shifts in the overall strategy. Sometimes, they're more subtle, like how the division of labor changes when a new colleague joins the team.

In my case, not only did we reorganize the team, but we also hired a new editor whom, halfway through my first 90 days, I would start reporting to. These changes meant a lot of broader team objectives were up-in-the-air, and it made it difficult to set goals that were both meaningful and achievable.

Times of transition can make realistic goal-setting feel impossible. But the truth is that teams are almost always in flux. Long-term objectives change; teammates come and go. So how is anyone supposed to set reasonable goals?

Personally, I think the key is to set some goals that aren't totally dependent on specific projects or initiatives—and then reassess them often.

For example, one of my 90-day goals was to write six new app roundups, like "The Best Employee Scheduling Software in 2019". But team priorities quickly shifted, so I spent much more time on other projects than I did on writing new articles. To be honest, it was a little nerve-wracking to realize that I wouldn't hit that particular goal. As a new hire, I felt like I had to prove myself by writing as many new pieces as possible, and I definitely felt like I'd failed—even though I was accomplishing a lot.

If I could magically rewind, I'd probably adopt a goal that's a little more general—and taught me more about my role here. I could, for example, have aimed to write six different kinds of pieces, instead of six roundups. A broader goal like this would have helped me set realistic expectations for myself during this transition period.

I should probably note that you shouldn't choose "easy" goals just because you know you can achieve them. But you should try to set goals that are reasonable and take into account any unknowns facing your team. Otherwise, you'll wind up feeling frustrated when it becomes clear that you might not accomplish them.

Be transparent

A lot of the shame and anxiety associated with missing a goal is because you can't help but wonder: what will other people think?

As an anxiety-prone person, I'm constantly worried that my colleagues (especially my manager) will think I'm doing a bad job—despite having the most supportive, encouraging teammates on the planet. Part of this tendency is a result of having previously worked in less-supportive environments, but some of it is just me.

A good manager will routinely check in with you about your progress of key initiatives—and revisit goals that are tripping you up. But it's also true that managers have a lot on their plates and might not notice you've gotten stuck on a goal until it's too late. So be transparent: let your manager and team know as soon as you've slid off-track. They're there to help.

In my case, I definitely should have said something sooner, especially since I got a brand-new manager halfway through my first three months at Zapier. If I'd actively spoken up, I probably would have revisited my goals with the help of my manager sooner.

Be kind to yourself

All of this isn't to say that goals aren't worth setting. They absolutely are. You just need to be picky and strategic about what goals you set for yourself—especially if they're more like guidelines and less of a hard-and-fast way to measure your performance.

But if you do wind up failing to meet a goal, give yourself some grace. Realize that if you've missed the mark, it probably means you set some difficult goals for yourself. Goals should be aspirational. They should inspire you to stretch yourself. If you hit all of your goals every time, they might not be ambitious enough.

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