On Purpose #3: Increase the Odds of Achieving Your Goals by Setting Them with Your Spouse
Advice for couples entering the new year

Written with the inestimable Jackie Coleman with a note of gratitude to Rick Woolworth at the end.

Do a quick Google search of “work-life balance” and over 260 million results will flood your screen. But the current conversation often treats “work” and “life” as separate and, all too often, in tension. We make annual resolutions, detailed daily plans, and to-do lists, but we do so as individuals — generally not sharing those plans or planning jointly with those closest to us. And we often think of our personal and professional goals as occupying distinct and separate spheres. But what if the work and home “spheres” could merge and actually improve the odds that we’ll achieve our goals?

Research shows that it’s easier to achieve our goals when we’re not trying to go it alone. One recent research paper found a positive correlation between participation in digital communities and reaching fitness goals. Similarly, a study of rowers found that their working together in training heightened their threshold for pain.

For many of us, our closest and most trusted companion is a spouse. Couples in committed, long-term relationships often see each other every day, but rarely plan or set resolutions together. By not doing so, couples may actually be making it harder to achieve their goals. This January, we fully integrated our personal planning for the year for the first time. We’ve always informally mentioned our goals to each other, but this time around, we talked with intentionality about why we were chasing those goals, and how we planned to get there. By including each other in the process, we invited the other to not only be aware of what we plan to accomplish this year, but also to hold us accountable as we strive to reach these goals. And our experience combined with research we’ve evaluated and other couples we’ve consulted with have led us to a few tips for effective planning as a couple.

First, start with an annual board meeting. Several years ago, we attended a seminar where speakers Rick* and Jill Woolworth introduced the idea of an “annual meeting” for families — taking time at the end of each year to evaluate that year and plan for the next. Establishing this as a family norm assures that goal-setting happens on a set schedule rather than haphazardly or in isolation. For us, this happened over the holidays between Christmas and the new year, and included a discussion of the past year, how we performed against our goals, and how we felt about life as a couple and individuals. We wrote out our specific goals for the year and the habits we hoped to develop. Then we discussed them and how each of us could help the other achieve each goal. These annual meetings provide accountability, but more importantly, lay a vision for the year ahead. Then, as so many have advised, break these annual goals into habits, monthly and weekly goals, and daily to-dos.

By talking about your goals with your spouse and writing them down, you’ve already improved your odds of success. In Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive, authors Robert Cialdini, Noah Goldstein, and Steve Martin explain how making an active commitment directly affects action. In one of the studies they reference, researchers found that of a group of individuals who passively agreed to participate in a volunteer project, only 17% showed up to participate. Contrast that with those who agreed to volunteer through active means (writing it down, signing a contract, etc.), 49% appeared as promised. Writing down specific goals and sharing them with your partner is like signing a contract. This not only increases social accountability, but it also allows your partner to think about specific ways in which they can act to support you in achieving your goals.

The second essential component of annual planning as a couple is setting joint goals. What do you hope to achieve as a couple or (if relevant) for your children? What habits do you hope to develop together? According to one source, for example, only 30% of people surveyed felt they had achieved work-life balance despite it being second only to compensation among factors that lead to job satisfaction. The person with whom you share your life is likely the best person to help you plan for balancing it. And joint goals can assure that your personal and professional pursuits are more fully aligned.

Once you’ve made your plans, help hold each other accountable. When you invite someone to join you in setting and striving for goals, you are not only asking them to cheer you on when you reach certain landmarks, you are also empowering them to point out when you are unfocused or off track. This requires recognizing that constructive feedback can be hard to hear from a partner, and letting go of some ego and pride.

Finally, in addition to conducting an annual meeting, check in on progress at the end of each month. While it is admirable to set aside time to do annual planning as a couple, this isn’t enough to really make things happen. Allow yourself regular checkpoints throughout the year in order to see where you are in developing habits and reaching your goals. Make it fun. Schedule a babysitter and go out on a date night. Keep the focus of the conversation on the progress and setbacks of the month and how you might continue that progress where things are going well and intervene where a goal or habit is off course. Some couples might be tempted to do this weekly — but often monthly feedback is about the right balance for a couple to bear.

Planning for both professional and personal goals with your partner can help you better care for one another, assure that you’re both focused on the issues that matter most, and enlist your biggest supporter in helping you to achieve your goals and get things done.

Originally published in HBR.

* Many of you know our dear friend, Rick Woolworth, who tragically passed away this month. Rick and his wife Jill have been an inspiration to individuals and couples all over the country, including Jackie and me. Rick led a successful business career then turned his life towards one of deepest passions, mentorship (which he wrote about in HBR here). Rick founded an organization, Telemachus, dedicated to investing in young leaders and their families. Rick was wise, kind, generous, good-humored, humble, and inspirational. He enriched the lives of everyone he met. Jackie and I are so thankful to Rick for his investments in us and so many others, and are praying for Jill, his precious family, and all those who loved him. We, as thousands of others, are grateful for his remarkable life well-lived.