As an adult with children running around the house, I find myself thinking at least once a day how I wish I could go back to being a kid again. Life was a lot easier. There was little to no stress or pressure; I could spend my day imagining a game to play and playing it without ever having to worry about the results. I didn’t have a career to think about, and I didn’t have to document how I did that year through a performance review – and my children now don’t have to think about goal setting.

But I’m an adult. We adults often do have to document our work results through an annual review. Sometimes we also have to set goals – a promise about what we will do that later gets reviewed. This article describes how to get the most out of a tried-and-true approach to goal setting and review.

The goal-setting and review process is a daunting task for most of us. We’re asked to document and discuss our past year and then switch hats and think about future goals. Sometimes it feels like a guessing game, but not a fun one.

Goals are typically within one of two categories. We set goals to better ourselves personally and goals to better ourselves professionally. Employees will naturally worry about one of the following goal setting “gotchas”:

  • They worry if their goals are too easy to accomplish, they will be reviewed negatively.
  • They worry if they create a goal that is a stretch goal, they will be “penalized” for not being successful.
  • They create goals simply to check off a task in the annual review process without thinking about where they can truly excel or need assistance.
  • They’re so completely overwhelmed by the entire goal process that they struggle to get one clear and concise goal documented.

In many organizations, goal setting courses are offered to help employees be successful in the goal-setting process. Employees learn how to create a S.M.A.R.T goal – one that is Smart, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. They may even attend workshops to help make and receive critiques on their goal setting. Managers receive training on coaching their employees on creating S.M.A.R.T goals and how to have conversations around goal feedback – both positive and negative. This training is essential to laying the foundation for an organization embarking on developing a goal management culture.

As I sit back and think about goal setting, I realize that the critical part isn’t how to create a goal or what structure to use. My internal struggle is about my mindset when creating a goal or challenging myself to think outside the box to ensure I continue to grow professionally and personally.

Observing how my children attack life and interact with one another, I think there are several things I can learn from them about goal setting. Here are the top five things I learned from my children about how to create a better goal:

1) Be creative in setting goals

Your goal should not be to achieve something you have completely mastered today or even understand 100% what the path is that lies ahead. Many of us get scared to be creative or think outside the box when we get older as we have been engrained to take “less risk” to be successful. Watch the young people around you – they can make a castle out of a paper box and have imaginary play for hours. They can draw a few lines on paper and develop that into a mural full of details. Don’t be afraid to put down the traditional business books and goal setting templates and draw a few pictures of where you want to go – only you can stop your mind from exploring the possibilities.

2) Be determined to set goals

Many of us are not entrepreneurial by nature. When we hit a roadblock, we divert and move on to the next thing that might give us the easy win. What would have happened if we did that as children? Many of us would not be able to sing the ABC song. We surely would not be able to ride a bike. All of those things take practice and determination to conquer.

We are told from a very young age that when you fall from your bike, get up and try, try again. We are told the most important thing is never to give up, and we believed we would eventually be successful. Bring back that mentality in your goal setting and try setting a goal for something that you haven’t been successful with in the past and see if this time you get a different result.

3) Work in goal-setting teams

Goal setting is often an individual process. You have to think about what you personally want to achieve and how you will get there. You may reach out to a mentor or a manager to help you craft a challenging concept, but the majority of the goal-setting process is done within your own little box.

Think about how children accomplish the goal of building a fort. They bring in all of their friends, naturally figure out what it will take them to solve their problem, and they will work together to get it done. They understand the team’s power, and they haven’t been jaded by bad teamwork experiences that make them think they can also do it better themselves. Next time you have to set a goal, think about how different your end goal could be if you sat around a table with a couple of people who know you well and can provide different perspectives. I bet you end up with a completely different list of goals and priorities for the upcoming year, and the results of accomplishing those will be a better YOU.

4) Ask the hard questions

In a work setting, questions can make us look “stupid.” If I have to ask a question about something I should already know, people will judge me. You may have even had an experience where asking a question completely backfired on you, and the individual you were working with reprimanded you for asking. We learn very early on when working with our manager or within a project team what is and is not allowable behavior. The timing and frequency of asking questions is a tough lesson to learn.

Our children come with a much different perspective on asking questions. They are not ashamed or embarrassed to ask questions. In fact, the more questions, the better. They ask what is on their mind, and they are generally brutally honest questions. I can still remember the time my son asked me, “Mommy, my friend’s mommy said you are not a good mommy because you didn’t come to our book reading today. Why would someone think you are not a good mommy? I told her, you are the best mommy in the world and that you were not here because you work to provide for our family. Was that a good response, mommy?” To which I reply, “It was perfect.”

He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, and he wasn’t afraid to ask me the hard question to be sure he understood what was happening and seek clarification and feedback. Utilize this philosophy in your own goal setting. Ask the questions you need to understand where your organization is heading and how you can be a part of it. Continue to ask for honest feedback on how you are doing and be open to receiving that feedback.

5) Make the sky the limit for your goals

As adults, we impose mental limits on ourselves and what we believe we should or shouldn’t do at our age or in our position at work. We stop believing in our self or what we are capable of.  We lose our strategic focus because we are always putting out the fires. Take a step back and watch children for a few minutes. They believe they can do anything! They have no fear of jumping off that wall or swinging from a tree. They are a superhero solving everyone’s problems. They can do anything their older sibling can do. You don’t hear a child saying they shouldn’t try it because it’s too hard for me or I won’t be successful. Take that attitude into goal setting. Believe in yourself and what you can do, set goals that are your “limits,” and actively start taking steps to achieve them.

Ask “What Would My Child Do?” for Goal Setting

There are many things children do that we thankfully grow out of as adults.  However, we all need to remember a few of the points above to relearn what it is like to enjoy life and be a little more free-spirited in our personal and professional lives. The goal-setting process is just one place we can learn a few “life” lessons from our children, but the possibilities are endless if we are willing to open up our minds and explore different ways of thinking. Next time you start your annual goal setting, ask yourself, “What would my child do?”

One more thing that can help you with goal-setting is a good goal management tool like Synchrony People Performance and Goals.