When is the best time to take on one of your stretch goals?

Langur monkey appearing scared/overwhelmed; the text reads: "Y0our BHAG: Can You Get There from Here?"There’s a heckuva lot of encouragement out there to go for it, to take on one of your stretch goals, or, as is it is often phrased, to set and achieve your BHAG: your “Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal.”

The Harvard Business Review ran an interesting article recently on how to decide when it makes sense for an organization to push for a stretch goal, versus when a stretch goal is more likely a setup for organizational failure. The authors boiled it down to this question:

Does the organization have the resources needed to reach for a BHAG?  The authors defined resources as time, money, knowledge, personnel, morale, and management support.

Their study indicated that having inadequate resources predicted likely failure for that organization in achieving their BHAG. Worse, such a failure usually saps motivation and drive from people and departments who may already be struggling to keep their heads above water.

More recently, Emma Seppala and Jul;ia Moeller, writing in the Harvard Business Review, addressed the question of stretch goals for individuals.  They found that “1 in 5 Highly Engaged Employees is at Risk of Burnout.” For individuals, they boiled the question down to a poor match between demands and resources. They said:

For some people, engagement is indeed a purely positive experience; 2 out of 5 employees in our survey reported high engagement and low burnout. These employees also reported high levels of positive outcomes (such as feeling positive emotions and acquiring new skills) and low negative outcomes (such as feeling negative emotions or looking for another job). We’ll call these the optimally engaged group.

However, the data also showed that one out of five employees reported both high engagement and high burnout. We’ll call this group the engaged-exhausted group. These engaged-exhausted workers were passionate about their work, but also had intensely mixed feelings about it — reporting high levels of interest, stress, and frustration. While they showed desirable behaviors such as high skill acquisition, these apparent model employees also reported the highest turnover intentions in our sample — even higher than the unengaged group.

That means that companies may be at risk of losing some of their most motivated and hard-working employees not for a lack of engagement, but because of their simultaneous experiences of high stress and burnout symptoms.

Seppala and Moeller pointed out that “the research on stretch goals is mixed – for a few people, chasing an ambitious goal does lead to higher performance than chasing a moderate goal. For most people, though, a stretch goal leads us to become demotivated, take foolish risks, or quit.” These researchers found that the key characteristic of those engaged-exhausted workers was dealing with  both “high resources and high demand.” More precisely, demands that outstrip available resources are pretty much guaranteed to create heavy stress and overload.

Is it a Stretch Goal or a Red Line?

In practical terms, how do we figure out if we’re pushing ourselves to outstrip our available resources?  Here’s a story that illustrates how that might look.

The fastest way to embarrass my engineer husband Chris is to call him a “genius.”  Unfortunately for his blush rate, people tend to call him a genius quite frequently.  In truth, he is a very, very smart guy. (Biased? Who? Me?)  He loves to learn, and always challenges himself to deeply understand new scientific advances, because that’s fun for him.

But Chris also struggles to read, because he has a kind of dyslexia. His most common answer, when I recommend a new science book to him? “No, thanks. It has too many words.”

So, recently, as I was editing an open letter to my clients, I commented to Chris, “It is SO hard to make it shorter. I wonder if I can get away with just omitting my PS’s from my word count?”

Chris shot back, “Nope, too many words!’

“Ugh,” I said. “Really?”

“Yes,” Chris said. “Cognitive load.”

“Cognitive load” is his engineer’s shorthand for steering away from overload and failure by managing his own scarce resources. One resource that’s scarce for him is the energy and time it takes to decode written text.

But don’t every one of us need to manage and protect our energy and time?

When they were little, our kids used to hear this statement all the time, from their dad: “Don’t cross the line. Stay away from the line.” As an engineer, Chris was all-too-aware of the failures that occur from placing too many demands on available resources. “Stay away from the line” was his way of trying to help them learn to successfully manage their own resources of time, energy, knowledge, morale, and management (or, in their case, parental) support. Red-lining it, in his view, was never the smart choice.

The lesson from those Harvard Business Review articles is that, for both organizations and individuals, the best time to successfully reach for a stretch goal or BHAG is when you have ample resources at your disposal. Or, as Chris would say it, “Don’t cross the line. Stay away from the line.”

— Beth Genly is the principal Burnout Recovery Mentor at Burnout Solutions, and co-author (with Dr. Marnie Loomis, ND) of Save Yourself from Burnout: A System to Get Your Life Back.