How to Set and Achieve Sustainable Goals

“I have plenty of time” is something I never hear funeral professionals say. Not only are funeral professionals loaded up to the maximum, but we are also looking for ways to make our lives more efficient to fit even more activities, initiatives and goals into our lives. We frenetically strive for progress on multiple projects and create the illusion that we are accomplishing a lot, but we have only succeeded in spreading ourselves thin. And then we wonder why we have not made more progress on a specific goal.

For this reason, I bought Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. From the first page, McKeown’s description of an overworked and underperforming businessman hit home for me: “It was like he was majoring in minor activities, and as a result, his work became unsatisfying for him and frustrating for the people he was trying so hard to please.” Have you ever read something that simultaneously sparked recognition and kicked you in the rear? A “wow” and “ouch” at the same time.

Identify Top Priorities and Prune out the Nonessential

So how did we get to the point where we have unrealistic expectations of what we can accomplish? It starts at the beginning of the goal-setting process. Typically, when we set our goals, we determine which three to five goals are our highest priority (and then try to fit in six to 10 subgoals). This procedure is standard for almost every family and business I know: Fit in as much as possible (e.g., soccer, dance, piano lessons, etc.). I found it fascinating when McKeown recounted the history of the word priority. From the 1400s until the early 1900s, people only used priority in the singular tense. You could only have one priority. Not until the advent of modern business practices and management theories did we expand the word to priorities – and we have attempted to have multiple “most important” goals ever since.

But what does this mean for structuring our work and personal lives? In simple terms, we must prioritize and prune out the nonessential. I describe this process as practicing smart subtraction in the Finding Resilience program. It is healthy and normal to create new goals and initiatives. But you can only do this sustainably if you remove some of your previous goals and initiatives.

Practically speaking, we cannot do it all. For the preplanning professional, for example, you cannot use every strategy for lead generation and relationship development and still provide exceptional service and meet your goals. Instead, pick the approaches that work best for you and devote yourself to those strategies. Similarly, funeral homes cannot be all things to all people. For example, some families will want the lowest price and others a hands-on experience. You will spin yourself in circles trying to satisfy everyone and likely please no one.

McKeown frames this nicely by asking the reader, “Which problem do you want?” He persuasively argues that there is never a perfect solution to the problems you face in life and work. All strategies have inherent challenges. Funeral homes that provide a hands-on or high-end experience will continually need to find families willing to pay for exceptional service and top-level merchandise. Volume-based, low-cost businesses will always need to survive on thinner margins and recruit enough business to survive. All strategies and perspectives have challenges, so pick the problem with which you are most comfortable.

A guiding philosophy of choosing the essential and discarding the nonessential represents a weak compromise. But focusing on essentialism does not mean you need to settle for low performance or mediocre goals. McKeown provides many examples of businesses that make clear choices about their priorities and become very clear and consistent about making that work. Southwest is consistently one of the most profitable and highest-rated discount airlines. Ben & Jerry’s doesn’t make the cheapest ice cream, but their customers are willing to pay more for value and an alignment with their values.

Instead of trying to become more efficient so we can do it all, we need to prune down our goals to the most essential and then double down on those goals. McKeown’s essentialism philosophy can be summed up in a quote by Dieter Rams, “Less but better.” Instead of chasing our tails and trying to do it all, we can be intentional about who we are and what we do best. By choosing what is essential to us, we can gain the time and freedom to be laser-focused on our highest priority and achieve extraordinary results.


For more insights about topics like this, I invite you to sign up for the free Finding Resilience email program. Each week, I share tips about ways to prevent funeral professional burnout, from prioritizing goals for your funeral home business to finding work-life balance and much more.

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