The Garrulous Jay – Off Targets

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In 2022 I have resolved to stop monitoring the amount I drink. Just over three years ago, concerned that I was drinking a little too much after watching an excellent documentary presented by Adrian Chiles, I downloaded the Drinkaware app and started tracking my daily unit intake.

Between 2019 and 2021 my total unit intake dropped by 29%, with my target being to drink less each month than I did in the corresponding month the previous year. Why stop now, you may ask, after two years of evident progress towards a healthier lifestyle based on such an effective target?

Two reasons lie behind my decision. First, constantly monitoring the amount I was drinking was taking all the fun out of it. Keeping a mental note each time my wine glass was filled up, and checking “how much further I had to go” towards the end of each month, wasn’t exactly enhancing the experience.

Secondly, related to the point above, the target had ceased to be effective. I missed my monthly goal three times last year, but I had a wonderful summer holiday with friends and an excellent festive season as a result.

This got me thinking about targets and their efficacy in a business context. In the world of commerce, and indeed financial advice, we are preoccupied with planning, and planning requires targets.

Get this right and targets provide us with something to aim for and also a yardstick by which to measure progress, and they can therefore be a great source of motivation and also confidence.

But ‘off targets’ can have the opposite effect and lead to adverse behaviours, demotivation and disillusionment.

I can think of at least three forms of off target:

1. A target that focuses on a ‘bad metric’: I think sales targets can often fall into this category. As has been demonstrated all too frequently by the financial services industry in the past, sales targets can lead to bad practices and mis-selling. I am increasingly convinced that great sales figures should be a result of businesses achieving other goals, rather than a goal in their own right.

2. An unrealistic target: having a target imposed by someone else without consultation which is self-evidently beyond reach will serve to disincentivise rather than invigorate the individual for whom it’s set. Asking Norwich City’s footballers to win the Premier League, for example, would be pretty pointless (although it would be nice if they could avoid relegation!).

3. A target that’s beyond control: setting a target that cannot be controlled seems to me to be a futile exercise. Until recently I had a target for the assets under management for my business in 2025. I now realise this is quite meaningless as I have no control over the direction of global investment markets so this can be no more than an aspiration.

But perhaps the most important conclusion I draw from my unit-monitoring experience is that there’s more to life than targets, and I’ll drink to that.