The Back of a Boarding Pass


I don’t often read the Guardian – but on Tuesday I saw this headline.

Rory McIlroy reveals that he writes his yearly goals on the back of a boarding pass.

If you haven’t time to read the story, let me summarise it for you. Just as he’s about to fly out to Abu Dhabi to begin his season Rory McIlroy – the best golfer in the world – writes down his goals for the year. By hand, on the back of his boarding pass. Not in a note book he’s bought especially for the job, or on his phone or in Evernote or One Note. Then he commits the goals to memory, puts the boarding pass in his wallet and doesn’t look at it again until the end of the year.

This article worked for me on several levels – not least because one of my goals for 2015 is to reduce my handicap from 18.5 to 15. Like Rory, I’ve written it down – and sadly, there the similarity in our golf ends.

The first thing that really struck me about McIlroy’s action was the habit and the symbolism. “Every year,” he said, “Just as I’m about to get on the plane.” There’s a real sense of purpose in that statement: every year, just as he’s about to ‘suit up and go to work.’ I like the fact that he writes his goals down by hand, and that it’s become a habit. I’m sure the research would prove that goals written down by hand are more likely to be achieved than goals typed into Evernote.

And then something else struck me. We all know that goals are meant to be SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. I’ve always believed they should be short as well. Goals, New Year’s resolutions, company mission statements – the shorter the better. ‘Delenda est Carthago’ as I’m sure your history teacher told you.

Writing them on the back of a boarding pass pretty much guarantees they’ll be short. OK, a boarding pass is a reasonable size, but isn’t the back covered in all sorts of terms and conditions? (I’ll look more closely next time I’m in the departure lounge…)

And then McIlroy commits the goals to memory – and doesn’t look at the boarding pass again until the end of the year. I’m fascinated by that: it certainly isn’t the conventional way to do things. Then again, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for the ‘oh, well, this happened so I had to change my goal/lower my expectations’ excuse.

You might think that McIlroy’s goals would be easy to guess. ‘Win the Masters’ for example. But in a real echo of the marginal gains I’ve written about so many times, the goals – or the ones he’s prepared to make public – are about what it takes to win the Masters, not simply slipping into the green jacket on an April Sunday evening.

There are a lot of parallels between being a successful golfer and building a successful business. Everything in top level golf is measured: average driving distance, greens in regulation, average number of putts, getting ‘up and down’ from bunkers. It’s exactly the same as your Key Performance Indicators in business.

So when McIlroy says he wants to be in the top 40 at strokes gained from putting all he’s doing is looking for a small gain in one of his KPIs. I suspect the other goals are similar: a slight increase in fairways hit, a marginal improvement in greens-in-regulation… If McIlroy can do that and add the improvements to what he already has in the locker, then he will win majors. The stats guarantee it, in exactly the same way that a small improvement in all your KPIs will make a huge difference to your bottom line over the year.

I’m sure everyone reading this has already recorded their goals for the year. But take a leaf out of Rory’s book. Write them down by hand. On the assumption that you’re not flying out to the Gulf to earn $1m, pull over as you’re driving to your first appointment next week. Take a 5×3 index card and commit your goals to paper. I’ll be fascinated to hear what effect that physical action has.

I’ve already written my goals down in a splendidly old-fashioned way, as a few of you know. But I’ll do the same on Monday morning. And maybe I’d better spend an hour at the driving range in the evening: don’t want Rory getting away from me…

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