Better Living Through Short-Term Goals

Do you find yourself setting over-optimistic yearly goals, or setting goals and then falling behind on the work you need to accomplish them? In Twelve Week Year, Brian Moran and Michael Lennington argue that twelve months is not the best timeframe for goal-setting. They propose replacing this “annualized” thinking with short term goals, in which a “year” is only twelve weeks long.

Who Is This?

Brian Moran and Michael Lennington appear to be the co-founders of 12 Week Year (the organization), with Brian as the figurehead and Michael running their coaching program. I wasn’t able to find much information on Michael; Brian has been a CEO, a corporate executive, and a consultant.

What’s the Big Idea?

Does this scenario sound familiar? In January, you write a list of goals that you’ll accomplish during the year. And the early months are great! Sure, perhaps you get a little behind, but you have the whole year ahead to catch up…right? Except you fall a little further behind schedule each month. Fast-forward to the end of the year, when all of those goals are coming due. You rush around frantically, the pressure of an imminent deadline finally forcing you to get serious. You finish the year barely accomplishing, or maybe not accomplishing after all, the goals you so airily promised to complete at the beginning of the year.

Moran and Lennington condemn this over-focus on what they call “annualized” goal-setting, which leads to short-term procrastination and ultimately lack of achievement. A critical part of achieving goals is setting a deadline that is soon enough that we feel some time pressure and are not tempted to procrastinate. We’re also better at estimating what we can accomplish in three months; we tend to over-estimate how much we can achieve in a full year.

Moran and Lennington’s “12 week year” is essentially a business quarter – 12 weeks of goal work, plus a thirteenth week to celebrate your successes and plan for the next “year”. For each period, you must select only your few most important goals and identify the right tasks that will get you there. They encourage the reader to base these goals on a long-term vision.

Tracking and monitoring progress is a CRITICAL element of their system, with weekly scorecards and even daily evaluations to determine how well you’re doing. The authors spend quite a bit of time talking about “lead indicators”, where you measure that you’re completing the right tasks that contribute to your goals, versus “lag indicators”, which are measurements of how close you are to achieving your final goal. For example, if you want to run a faster 5k, a lead indicator would be how regularly you run and a lag indicator would be your (hopefully improved) 5k time. The 12 week year system is explicitly designed to track both lead and lag indicators.

In other words, beyond the “treat a quarter like a year” conceit, this book is outlining a personal version of Management By Objective.

My Take

This book is the direct inspiration for about half of the pet peeves I’ve listed in my FAQ.

Which is a shame, because on the face of it this book seems like it was meant for me. I love lists and plans and priorities. I am a process-oriented person who strongly approves of regular check-ins and clear-eyed evaluations of how you’re doing. And I think the concept of “break your goals into short-term milestones that you will see measurable progress towards” is, while not as novel as the authors present it, a reasonable aspect of a goal management system. In fact, some of the concepts from this book ended up being reflected in my 31 Days of Goal Setting series.

But argh, those downsides.

There is a real sense of rigidity to the system. It’s explicitly stated, for example, that if you don’t follow their weekly scorecard model, you just don’t really want to achieve your goals. For one thing, way to throw your readers with ADD, executive function issue, or other challenges under the bus! For another, when you are talking to an audience whose primary challenge is execution, making detailed paperwork an integral part of your method seems…counterproductive.

This book is hyper-focused on specific roles, namely salespeople and entrepreneurs. There are a whole lot of jobs out there which do not require cold calling, setting sales appointments, or asking for referrals – but you wouldn’t know that to read 12 Week Year! Moreover, the entire system seems to be set up for people whose jobs are very predictable. To use myself as an example, what if I set work-related 12WY goals and then, a month out, I get pulled into a huge project that becomes my primary focus for the next few months (very possible)? I’d have to go back to the drawing board for my goals.

While the authors do spend some time addressing a need for a personal vision and long-term goals, there’s no clear structure for how to tie your goals from each “year” to your long-term plans. In my opinion, it’s worth spending additional time to make sure your short-term activities match what you really want to accomplish.

It also completely skips over the idea of investigating the best way to achieve a goal before you decide on your tasks for the quarter. For a system so very focused on lead indicators, you would think they’d put a bit more emphasis on making sure you are doing and measuring the right things. If you want to learn a new language, for example, wouldn’t it behoove you to do a little digging into the best methods for adult language acquisition up front?

Also, the weight loss thing. I get it, weight loss is constantly sold in our culture. It seems like an easy, relatable goal to use as an example. But sheesh! It felt like I couldn’t go two pages without being given another piece of (questionable) advice about how to use the system to get thinner.

Meant For

People who know what they want, know what they need to do to achieve those goals, but have a hard time keeping up with the daily slog. Those who respond well to repetition and tracking. Salespeople and other people in jobs where “what you need to do to be successful” is easy to predict over several months.

Bottom Line

If you find comfort in regimented processes with weekly scorecards and plenty of worksheets, it’s not the worst system I’ve seen. If you need flexibility or don’t enjoy extra paperwork, this system is probably not for you. (You might still find it a useful read, though – like I said, I took the concepts I liked and use them in my own goal setting system.)

The Twelve-Week Year: Get More Done in 12 Weeks than Others Do in 12 Months by Brian Moran and Michael Lennington – 208 pages – published 2013 by Wiley

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One thought on “Better Living Through Short-Term Goals

  1. Pingback: Happy end of Q1 and two questions | Self-Helped

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