How to succeed using leading vs lagging measures in your goals

written by  Ryan Seamons

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The way you think about setting goals may be setting you up for failure.

And by failure, I don’t just mean that you’ll ultimately fail to achieve your goal. I mean that each day you pursuit a long-term goal that you haven’t yet achieved (i.e. get a new job, go to the moon, become a CEO, publish a book …) you are failing.

You fail right up until the moment that you succeed. This is a lousy way to live life.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a major supporter of long-term goals. But the setting if long-term goals alone misses out on a way you can feel successful not just at the end but along the way.

Cue Lagging and Leading indicators (an economics principle that can be applied to goal setting).

A Lagging Indicator is a measure that shows after you’ve done the work. It’s longer term. For example—lose 15 pounds. You don’t see this until everything is done. You are unsuccessful until the moment of success.

Side note: Often we set intermediary goals. Lose 15 pounds is an intermediary. There is likely a real reason you want to do this (impress a potential mate, feel healthier, live longer, fit into old clothes …). Taking a few moments to consider what you really desire out of an effort can be helpful since generally there are additional ways you could accomplish the real goal.

A Leading Indicator is a measure that can predict the future. It informs what you should do today. It’s shorter term. For weight, there are lots of potential leading indicators—

  • Daily calorie intake

  • # of fruits and veggies eaten in a day

  • # of days you eat sugary treats

  • # of unprocessed foods you buy at the grocery store

  • # of days in the gym // # of hours spent exercising

  • Who you hang out with most each day (healthy vs unhealtyh friends)

These are the real steps you can take on a short term (ideally daily) basis that will get you what you want. The down-side of leading indicators is that you may not know which leading indicators will get you the results you want. If that’s the case, research + experimentation can be a good process to figure out which will work best.

The best use of leading + lagging indicators is together. An audacious long-term goal is exciting and motivating. Then you break that down into leading indicators that help you know what you’re trying to change doing on a shorter-term basis. Make them visible on a regular cadence (post-its on your wall, a weekly document you snooze to pop up each week, a weekly meeting for team review of the indicators and progress …)

If you are ever not achieving your leading indicators, you know it sooner than if you only had the lagging indicators and you can start fresh tomorrow.

Incorporating leading indicators not only helps you achieve more success but also helps you feel more successful along the way. Use the concept for your personal goals and for your team at work.

Questions to consider:

  • Have I set goals (individually and with my team at work)?

  • Have I written those down?

  • Am I using leading or lagging indicators to measure my success?

  • What could I do to introduce and/or better use leading indicators?


Exciting news to share: the first orders of Career Conversations are shipping out this week!

About the Author

Ryan Seamons
writes about more human approaches to modern management.

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