The life-changing magic of baseline and stretch goals

Goals are a funny thing. It’s helpful having a challenge, something to reach for, to give you a direction beyond mediocrity, but it’s discouraging and motivation-killing to fail repeatedly at something you’ve committed to. A lot of the challenge of setting goals has historically been self-awareness and pedagogical wisdom: you need both to consistently set goals that will calibrate a productive struggle, so that you’re neither bored nor doomed.

Trouble is, that’s a big ask–and a separate skill all in and of itself. But it doesn’t need to be!

Different goals for different purposes, all in the same time block

The aims here are to:

  • get a rhythm of successes, and
  • to have something to strive for.

Lumping those into the same goal is obvious, but unnecessary. For a given time block or work cycle, be it a Pomodoro, a year, a sprint, or between now and your next meeting, try splitting your single aim into Baseline and Stretch goals.

Baseline: an easily-achievable goal that allows you to declare Victory.

I find aiming for something that’ll take about a quarter of the time block I’m working with is a good fit.

> Did you set aside 25 minutes to read a chapter? Set your baseline for getting through the first two or three pages. Are you trying to go from zero to $100/month of recurring revenue on a personal project this quarter? Your baseline goal might be to get five subscriptions.

The crucial element of the baseline goal is that there’s a no-to-low chance of your missing it. Even if you’re not in love with getting “merely” that much done in a given time block, knowing that you’re setting a goal and hitting it is the whole point. It builds momentum and mitigates that sense of failing.

Stretch: a goal that you’ll be excited if you hit.

Here’s where you give yourself a challenge. As best you can, pick a goal for the same work block as that baseline goal that you’d be really pleased to hit–not necessarily surprised, but enough of a stretch that you won’t be disappointed if you miss it. Over time, I’ve found I like to aim for about a 70% hit rate for my own stretch goals; you may find a different proportion is the right balance for you.

The thing is, you don’t even need to worry about your stretch goal when you get to work. If you don’t hit it, you haven’t failed. But it’s awesome if you hit it!

How big a time block should you use for all this?

I mean, really, all of them. That said, a handy thing about using baseline and stretch goal framing for unit-sized work cycles (a Pomodoro, a segment of a focus block, whatever works for you) is that you can pretty quickly calibrate your goal framing for future cycles. Setting a baseline and stretch goal for the next 25 minutes four times in two hours gives you a lot of opportunity to reflect in the middle of your workstream, and can give you the sensation of tangible progress just as often.

Oh hey, this is actually pretty enabling!

Yeah, it is! As you grow more comfortable with goal-splitting like this on an individual basis, you’ll find it maddening to do anything else. I love taking this framework to teams that work with time-boxed frames, like sprints or spikes, and helping define what we can consider sufficient and what we can consider awesome as different things.

Give it a shot!

Next time you’re getting ready to sit down for a block of focused work, take a minute first to sketch a conservative baseline goal and a fist-pumpingly awesome stretch goal. When you’re done with your time block, reflect and see if hitting that baseline helped, and if having something further to reach for kept you from puttering out after hitting that first goal.

You might just find yourself addicted–and saved from the stress of having to perfectly calibrate goals on work you haven’t even started yet.

Did that make your day a little better?

I write every day. Subscribe here and you'll get new posts straight to your inbox, just like that.

    We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time.