It’s that time of year when I get round to reviewing this year and planning ahead, and with just one day of paid work to do before Christmas, I found myself doing just that this morning.  I have three things I measure myself on as a consultant:  revenue, number of days worked, and revenue per day.

I was pleased to see my results on two of these, and truly staggered at the result of the third.  I turns out I have beaten my revenue target by 5%, underachieved my delivery day target by 10% (good news, it means I earnt more from less work) and, would you believe, hit my 12 month average revenue per day target BANG ON THE NUMBER, WITHIN £1!!  Clearly a fluke, but it does make you wonder, doesn’t it?

I’m such a fan of written objectives.  The case for them is incontrovertible, if you believe everything you read.  I’ve forgotten the detail (feel free to help me out) of the Harvard Business School research in which they followed up with alumni some 20 years after graduating.  Only 5% of them had left with objectives in mind, and only 2% had them written down.  It turned out the net worth of those few individuals was more than the combined net worth of ALL of their peers.  So there. QED.

We have a little tradition in the Brown household which some of you may find admirable (gosh, he actually walks the talk) or sad (I’m often told by my children “Don’t do that training s**t in this kitchen, Dad!”).  Every New Year’s day we write down our objectives for the year, and review the previous year’s.  Then they get pinned onto the side of the fridge (the objectives, that is), so they can be updated as we go through the year.  We hold each other accountable on them, and they’re a source of fun and healthy competition.

The fact is that well formed objectives lift performance, and if you don’t set them for yourself, chances are you are underperforming.  Businesses that don’t use them are missing a trick, as are those that don’t know what constitutes a meaningful objective in the first place.  So my first early Christmas present to you is to nudge you on the arm and suggest you set yourself some for next year.

And the second gift is to share my top 5 tips for creating objectives that will work.  Here goes:

1.  Make them SMART, because unless you know what they mean and know when you have achieved them, they won’t work.  They’ll sound good, but won’t change anything.

2.  Only set 5, because after that you get Cognitive Overload, and you can’t focus on them.  18 objectives do not deliver more results than 5 really good ones!

3. Keep them visible.  Share them, tell your partner/boss/staff, and review them regularly (not just at an Appraisal if they’re business objectives).

4.  Don’t confuse targets with objectives.  Targets are measures of activity.  Objectives are initiatives which will contribute to moving things forward.

5.  Let the owner of the objective propose it.  Particularly relevant at work: people typically set themselves a more stretching objective than their  manager would, so try asking them what they would propose.  This way they also get to own the objective rather than feel it may have been imposed.

I set myself objectives for all sorts of things during a working day.  This may be partly because I am competitive with myself, and I treat most things as a game (it’s an ENFP trait, as Myers Briggs fans will know).  If I’m driving home from London, I’ll aim to be at Reading by 6, Bristol for 7.30, home by 9.30.  I consequently have a reputation in the household for arriving within 5 minutes of when I say I will.  I set objectives for how quickly I can chop a pile of logs, how far I can get along the beach by 10.00, how many pages I can read before lunch. It works for me.

Let me finish by saying that I’m amazed at how many businesses I work with where regular and effective objective setting is not a core part of their performance management.  At an event last week a business owner said that the only year in which he set written objectives was the only one in which his business achieved its business plan.   The other years he had been too busy to do so!  Mmmmmm.  “And your conclusion is……?”

Other businesses know they should set them but simply do not know how to define well formed ones, so people end up with stuff like “support the customer engagement initiative” or “drive productivity improvements in the finance team”, which are the equivalent of making a garden fork out of cardboard.

So make yourself an appointment to sit down in the New Year and spend half an hour with pen and paper and the last of the mulled wine, and get something motivating, real, concrete, relevant and measurable, and see what difference it makes to your achievements next year.  Good luck!