Most of us are now back in the office after a well-deserved holiday break, and even though jumping back in after the year-end vacation can feel overwhelming, I believe the beginning of the year is the perfect time to take stock of the past, celebrate your accomplishments, and set some goals for the coming year. Unlike New Year’s resolutions—many of which are forgotten by February—effective New Year goal-setting is a very specific process, and can be one of the most important steps to motivate yourself, your team, or your company for a fantastic year.

If you’re a leader, this is your opportunity to get your team rowing in the same direction. If you’re an entrepreneur, this is your chance to make sure your company is on the right path. For individuals, this is the chance to make sure that during the coming year you’ll focus on the right things. Whatever your level or role, I have a six-step process that will help you start your New Year on the right foot.

1. Always remember: failing to plan is planning to fail. It’s great to leverage the energy of a new beginning, but most people would do better by first focusing their enthusiasm on planning. This provides a sound foundation for the work to come, and it increases your ability to be innovative and nimble in the coming months. With adequate planning, you’re better able to anticipate obstacles, construct contingency plans, and shift gears easily when the unexpected arises.

2. Start with an analysis of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT). Begin your planning process by assessing the past. Answer the following questions, and consider getting input from others—peers, managers, mentors, customers—as you construct your answers.

  • What were your five biggest strengths in the past year?
  • What were your five biggest weaknesses? Or, what were the five most significant things you wish you could have done better?
  • What new opportunities do you anticipate in the coming year?
  • What new threats or challenges might arise?

This is a quick, but effective, way to establish a goal-setting foundation. Your answers will encapsulate the things that have helped you be successful thus far (which you’ll want to continue) and the things that might be holding you back. Your opportunities and threats help you anticipate environmental changes—both positive and negative—that you need to take into account. 

3. Set SMART goals. Use the results of your SWOT analysis to set some goals. Goals should always be Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, and Trackable (SMART). A goal of “improve sales” is not SMART because it’s not specific or clear how you will track or measure the goal. A goal of “increase sales 10 percent by the third quarter by acquiring new customers and retaining all existing customers” is much SMARTer. I recommend you set no more than three to five significant goals. It’s difficult to maintain adequate focus if you’re dealing with more than five goals at a time.

4. Set commitments and metrics for each goal. Commitments represent a high-level action plan and are a good way to make sure you’ve got sufficient clarity around how goals will be accomplished. For example, in the case of a goal like “increase sales by 10 percent,” a commitment might be “engage all sales VPs to assure alignment with individual sales rep goals.” Also note that a broader goal might include commitments from others. This is a good way to make sure that all required parties are on board.

Defining clear metrics in advance is also an excellent way to make sure all parties are in agreement about what will constitute success. I’ve seen many instances of organizational disconnects because different people had different interpretations of success. For example, a CIO might believe success for a goal like “launch the new sales support system” has been achieved when the system goes live. However, a CEO might believe success has been achieved only after all sales reps are trained and effectively using the new system to drive revenue. Clarity on how success will be measured usually eliminates such disconnects. Metrics are also extremely helpful for individual development goals because articulating the specific outcome will help you be more realistic.

5. Plan annually, think quarterly, and act weekly. Like New Year’s resolutions, many annual goals are shelved and forgotten after a few weeks. Here’s a simple solution: Take an annual planning perspective and focus on what you want to accomplish by year’s end. After that’s established, think about your plan in quarterly chunks—for example, you might want to create quarterly interim metrics or checkpoints to insure your goals stay on track. Then set a weekly cadence for updates from your teams. In larger organizations, updates can sometimes be reduced to monthly, but leaders must maintain vigilance.

Personal-development goals are at the greatest risk for going off track because there’s less accountability. To chart the progress of your personal goals, reserve some time each week to review your own progress, just as you would do with a direct report.

6. Get out of the office. The most effective way to focus on goals is to take a break from day-to-day distractions. If you’re a leader or entrepreneur, I recommend you organize a goal-setting retreat outside of the office with your team. If you’re working on your personal goals, consider spending an afternoon somewhere like a coffee shop where you can have a change of scenery and get a fresh perspective.

Feel free to join the discussion, and let me know what challenges or successes you’ve encountered during your annual planning and goal-setting. I’m happy to share more of what I’ve learned over the years while facilitating groups and helping individuals create and achieve their goals.