The Correlation Between Setting Goals And Becoming Productive

In the 1950s, Japan was recovering from the after effects of World War II. The country was focused on growing its economy. A large population resided in the cities of Osaka and Tokyo, which were separated by 320 miles of train tracks. Large amounts of raw material and labor was transported on those rail lines. However, the mountainous terrain and obsolete railway system meant each journey could take up to twenty hours.

So, in 1955, the railway ministry issued a challenge to the nation’s finest engineers: invent a faster train. A prototype was unveiled six months later. Traveling at sixty five miles an hour, it was one of the fastest passenger trains in the world.

But the railway system’s head said it was not good enough. He wanted a train which traveled one hundred twenty miles per hour.

As expected, the demand was met with opposition. If a train turned too sharply at those speeds,  the engineers explained, the centrifugal force could derail the cars. The trains had to turn because of the mountains. To build tunnels through that much territory, the labor required would equal the cost of rebuilding Tokyo after World War II. Seventy five miles per hour was more realistic.

But the railway system’s head was adamant. He believed in naukatsu – never compromise – and wanted everyone working on the project to do the same.

The engineers went back to the drawing board and made hundreds of innovations, many of which increased the speed of the train by half a mile an hour.

In 1964, the Tōkaidō Shinkansen – the world’s first bullet train – made its inaugural journey  between Tokyo and Osaka. It passed through the tunnels cut in Japan’s mountains and completed its journey in three hours fifty eight minutes, averaging 120 miles an hour. Soon, bullet trains were running to other Japanese cities, fueling a dramatic economic expansion. A 2014 study showed that the development of bullet trains was critical in spurting Japan’s economy until well into the 1980s. Within a decade of that innovation, the technologies developed in Japan had spawned high-speed rail projects in France, Germany and Australia, and revolutionized industrial design across the world. (This is probably why Narendra Modi is keen to have bullet trains in India too.)

The Tōkaidō Shinkansen is just one of the myriad examples of stretch goals. The Lexus LS 400, Titan Edge and Scotch tape are more. The Business Dictionary defines stretch goals as a goal which

“cannot be achieved by incremental or small improvements but require extending oneself to the limit to be actualized.”

A 2011 article in the Academy of Management Review business journal stated that stretch goals “serve as jolting events that disrupt complacency and promote new ways of thinking.” They can elevate aspirations in teams, organizations and individuals, and spark energy. They encourage innovation, playfulness, experimentation or broad learning.

Thus, a stretch goal can enhance creativity and innovation, and make us remarkably productive. However, it can also prove counterproductive. It can cause panic and convince people that the goal is too big to achieve. It can crush morale and push people on the back foot before the task begins.

Here is another way to set goal: S.M.A.R.T.

S.M.A.R.T. Goals

SMART is an acronym commonly attributed to management guru Peter Drucker. It is one of the longest-lasting, popular goal-setting frameworks. To make sure your goals are clear and reachable, they should be:

S – Specific – The more specificity in a goal, the clearer it is. Asking “WH” questions is a good place to start.

M – Measurable – Can your goal be measured? What gets measured gets done.

A – Achievable – Is the goal achievable or is it a pipe dream?

R – Relevant – Is the goal connected to the end goal you have in mind?

T – Time Bound – Set a deadline for yourself to achieve the goal.

Let’s consider, for instance, that you want to make some money in the next few years. If you set S.M.A.R.T. goals, here is what it could look like:

  1. Specific: How much money do you want to make? How many years do you want to make it in?
  2. Measurable: How will you measure progress you make? And if you are not on track, what specific steps will you take to course correct? (If your progress doesn’t yield results as planned.)
  3. Achievable: Which steps will you follow to achieve this goal?
  4. Relevant: Will the steps you follow contribute to achieving your final goal?
  5. Time bound: Set a deadline for yourself to complete each step.

To-do lists and concrete action plans are examples of SMART goals. They’re great when optimized.

Unfortunately, S.M.A.R.T. goals can also lead us away from the bigger picture. The gratification felt when we finish more tasks can lead to us placing more emphasis on quantity. Because it makes us feel good, we jot down easy items on to-do lists, and then cross them out quickly. We add more tasks which can be completed in five minutes. In the process, we sideline the genuinely important ones which demand time and attention. We would prefer answering thirteen short emails than carefully drafting an effective template to reach out to people we want to connect with.

But that’s the wrong way to create to-do lists, according to Carleton University psychologist Timothy Pychyl. These lists are used for mood repair instead of becoming productive.

What is Productivity?

In modern mythos, productivity is believed to be “working more or sweating harder”. Working overtime, multi-tasking, doing more, ubiquitous presence on social media, being available 24/7 on e-mail – these are yardsticks of productivity. Batman, the ever-present superhero cum playboy, always fighting crime and saving cats stuck on trees, is the epitome of productivity. Never mind that he didn’t sleep. You can sleep all you want when you are dead, right?

But Batman exists in just one place – imagination. And we don’t live in imagination. We live in the real world, where our resources are limited. It sucks, but it’s true.

Productivity is not about spending longer hours at your desk or making bigger sacrifices. That’s just being busy. According to New York Times journalist and author Charles Duhigg, productivity is “the name we give our attempts to figure out the best uses of our energy, intellect and time as we try to seize the most meaningful rewards with the least wasted effort…… It’s about getting things done without sacrificing everything we care about along the way.”

“The way we choose to see ourselves and frame daily decisions; the stories we tell ourselves and the easy goals we ignore; the creative cultures we establish as leaders: These things separate the merely busy from the genuinely productive.” – Charles Duhigg

How You Can Set Goals and Achieve Them

If you believe that life is more than paying bills, growing old and dying, optimize it by combining stretch goals and S.M.A.R.T. goals. People who have mastered the ability to break goals down into concrete plans are more equipped to achieve stretch goals than be intimidated by them.

Start by practicing S.M.A.R.T. goals. It will initially make you lose sight of the bigger picture. And that’s okay. Taking things slow is better than putting in one hundred twenty percent in the beginning and then burning out within some time. But once you are comfortable with setting concrete action plans – it could take six months, a year, or even two – step back. Set a stretch goal. It doesn’t have to make others think you are crazy. But it must be audacious enough to make you go beyond existing means. It must make you do more than merely sweat harder and work longer. It must push the boundaries of your imagination, and force you to conjure innovative ways to achieve it. It must enable you to distinguish between the important and the irrelevant.

Here is literature you can refer to for understanding and practicing Stretch Goals and SMART goals better, and becoming productive in its true sense:


SMART Goals – Making Your Goals More Achievable

SMART Goals – A Quick Overview

25 Stretch Goals for Management


Smarter Faster Better – Charles Duhigg

Good to Great – Jim Collins

The 4-Hour-Workweek – Tim Ferris


  1. Beloo Mehra October 24, 2016
    • Vishal October 24, 2016
  2. Shailaja Vishwanath October 24, 2016
    • Vishal October 25, 2016
  3. Fitoru May 7, 2020

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