A 3-Step Framework for Setting and Achieving Big Hairy Audacious Goals

A 3-Step Framework for Setting and Achieving Big Hairy Audacious Goals

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I’m a unicorn hunter—no, no—not in the evil Lord Voldemort sort of way, but more in the “I like to find mythically awesome creatures and dissect and explain their magic” sort of way.


One of my favorite types of unicorns is the kind who just seems to effortlessly breeze through the universe–achieving goal after Big Hairy Audacious Goal (B.H.A.G.s). These people are B.H.A.G. masters, and to the onlooker, they can seem almost superhuman.


What’s interesting about this type, though, is that their “magic” is surprisingly accessible to the rest of us. Beyond sheer grit and perseverance (which are obvious…), there’s a basic 3-step framework that they use to achieve their goals as efficiently and effectively as possible:


1.They choose goals that are meaningful to them.


In other words: they set goals that reflect their interests and passions as well as their personal values. In this way, by working toward their goals, they are living their authentic “purpose” in life. This is key because it makes the journey to the goal as motivating as achieving the actual goal, itself.


For example, while I was eating the greatest lunch of my life the other day (no lie!)—made by a chef friend of mine, who clearly loves what she does—she commented that so many people in our neck of the woods (Silicon Valley) simply want to “get rich quick.” They think that they want a life of ease and little work, as well as social validation and admiration and respect from their peers, but most of these people struggle to make it happen (or they wonder why they’re still miserable when they do) because they’re basing their goals on superficial aims that don’t actually reflect what they’re passionate about and what they truly value.


And here’s the thing: if you pick a goal without deep personal meaning (i.e., that doesn’t feel like it at least relates to your purpose in life), it’s not necessarily going to be impossible to achieve, but your motivation along the way is going to be much lower, so it’s worth being honest with yourself about goals that really make you feel alive and excited versus goals that you’re just shooting for because of social pressure or a desire to look good to others.


For most people, this is the trickiest part of the process, so if you need help, check out this post for ideas.

2. They have SMART goals (and sub-goals)


In essence, SMART goals are: specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and time-specific.


For example: a non-SMART goal would be “exercise more,” but a SMART goal would be “Starting today, I will run around my neighborhood for at least 10 minutes every other day.” The latter is:


  • Specific: Where? How long? How often? Who is involved?
  • Measurable: “Did I run every other day this week for at least 10 minutes?”
  • Actionable: I have the physical ability to actually do this.
  • Relevant: Running is a form of exercise, which makes it relevant to the general (but Non-SMART) goal of “exercising more.” (Note that “relevance” may also refer to how it’s perceived by the person who needs to do it—e.g., “Is this something that I care about?”); and
  • Time-specific: “at least 10 minutes every other day” and “starting today.”


SMART goals (and SMART sub-goals along the way) are how you turn a “vision” into your “reality.” They force you to get down-and-dirty and spell out the details about what you actually need to do in order to get from A to B.


Just remember: if you’re overall goal is a big one, then you can absolutely chunk it out into smaller sub-goals, which you can aim to do all at once, or build upon gradually. As long as you’re seeing progress, you’re in good shape, which brings me to Step #3:


3. They track their progress and use the data to make changes in their approach.


Tracking progress is critical because it allows you to actually see progression toward your goal and note patterns of behavior or outside influences that support or interfere with your ability to achieve your goal.


My general rule of thumb is to track my progress toward goals daily. This should take less than 30 seconds if you write your goal at the top of a sheet of blank paper (e.g., “Run today for at least 10 minutes”) and then create two columns: “Date” and “Achieved Goal?” Then fill out yes/no or use a check mark to indicate whether you completed the goal each day.


Hang your tracker on your bathroom mirror, in your car, or somewhere else where you’ll see it regularly. (This will serve the dual purpose of reminding you of your goal and reminding you to track progress—efficiency is the name of the game!)


Be sure to note conditions that help you reach your goal (e.g. “working on my movie script in the morning”) versus those that seem to hinder your goal (e.g., “writing HTML after 8pm”). For instance, by testing the time of day that I exercise, I learned that if I don’t exercise by 4pm, it’s not going to happen; my mom, on the other hand, can only exercise between 9pm and 11pm; we have totally different energy rhythms around exercise, but we’ve both tracked our progress, found what works, and we adjust our schedules accordingly.


It’s also worth noting that research shows that most people’s willpower depletes over the course of the day, so if your goal is something that requires daily activity and strong willpower, try to accomplish it earlier in the day, when you actually have the willpower reserves to support you.


If you find yourself struggling or in need of additional support, try these organizational and psychological trips and tricks that will help you to minimize your energy input and push through when willpower is low.


Now, carpe diem and go get yourself that B.H.A.G.!


TL;DR Pick a goal that you have some internal motivation around; make goals SMART (specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and time-specific); track progress and pay attention to what encourages/hinders your progress so that you can adjust course as necessary in order to improve your outcomes.


Keywords: goals, motivation, quantified self, continuous improvement, personal development

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Danielle Harlan is the Founder and CEO of the Center for Advancing Leadership and Human Potential (www.leadershipandhumanpotential.com) and author of the leadership book, The New Alpha (amzn.to/29C0V6j). She earned her doctorate in political science and M.A. in education from Stanford University, where she was a Jacob K. Javits National Fellow and received a Centennial Teaching Award for excellence in instruction. Prior to launching the Center, she was the Chief of Operations for the Carnegie Foundation, where she worked to harness the power of networks and quality improvement strategies in order to solve important educational problems. Named one of Silicon Valley's "40 Under 40," Danielle has also been a speaker for TEDx and worked as an instructor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and U.C. Berkeley Extension's Corporate and Professional Development Program. In addition, she has given guest lectures at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (the “d.school”) and the Career Development Center at Stanford, and has been featured in leading publications such as Fast Company, Forbes, and Women's Health. Danielle started her career as a Teach For America corps member and later served as a mentor and advisor for Global Leadership Adventures, an international leadership development and service program. In addition to teaching in the U.S., she has taught in Brazil, China, Costa Rica, and South Africa. She is a member of the International Leadership Association, the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, and the National Association for Female Executives.