A few months ago, Zen Habits, a blog I follow, ran an article that talked about not setting goals to have the best year ever. While I respect Leo Babauta’s advice, I disagree with this point of view entirely. Part of his reasoning behind “the best goal is no goal” is that:
In the past, I’d set a goal or three for the year, and then sub-goals for each month. Then I’d figure out what action steps to take each week and each day, and try to focus my day on those steps.
Unfortunately, it never, ever works out this neatly. You all know this. You know you need to work on an action step, and you try to keep the end goal in mind to motivate yourself. But this action step might be something you dread, and so you procrastinate. You do other work, or you check email or Facebook, or you goof off.
And so your weekly goals and monthly goals get pushed back or side-tracked, and you get discouraged because you have no discipline. -Leo Babauta, http://zenhabits.net/no-goal/
I’ve found the complete opposite – that by creating long term goals and create tangible and measurable action-steps and tasks, I find the results I’ve seen so far empowering and very encouraging. Here’s how I approach my goals – setting them, managing them, and trying to reach them:
- Define long-term goals – I start by defining my long term goals. These are generalized, ideal goals in my case. I don’t need them to be time-specific or very measurable, just something to work towards. I break these into categories such as mental, physical, spiritual, and financial. For example, some of my long term goals currently include:
- Financial: Buy a house
- Physical: Deadlift over 550 lbs
- Mental: Become an expert PHP programmer and WordPress developer
- Spiritual: Achieve a state of happiness and inner-peace
Two of these goals are measurable – buying a house and deadlifting over 550lbs, but becoming an expert programmer and achieving a state of inner-peace are difficult to measure, but it gives me a sense of where I want to head and what I would need to move in that direction. I think about goals and achieving them as finding the shortest distance between point A and point B. Point B is these long term goals…Point A is where I am now. The line that connects them are the smaller action steps that I set out to achieve each week.
I take these goals and put them in a spreadsheet on Google Documents that I review each week. I’ll occasionally add new goals or modify existing ones. What has helped immensely is keeping this list of goals with me and making sure that the things I am doing are helping me get closer to those goals.
- Create short-term (weekly/monthly) goals/action-steps – Every Sunday night, I sit down and review my long-term goals and create a list of that week’s ‘action-steps’, or short term goals. These steps are measurable, timely (done by the end of the week), and achievable. So for each long-term goal and category, I have several smaller goals for that week. Using the examples above, here are my goals this week:
- Financial: spend less than I earn this week, track spending daily on spreadsheet, reach out to 1 new business prospect
- Physical: 4 Strength Training Sessions (bench/deadlift/squat/overhead press days), 3+ conditioning workouts (usually hill sprints), 1 strongman workout
- Mental: Read 4 chapters in PHP: Object Oriented Solutions, Complete 2 WPTuts tutorials
- Spiritual: Meditate daily for 20 minutes, two 30 minute sessions per week
I put these goals into my weekly goal spreadsheet with a column containing the long-term goals. It looks something like this:
As I go through the week, I carry this list of goals with me and review it whenever I have time in order to make sure I have completed everything by the end of the week.
- Set Daily Goals – At the beginning of each day or the night before, I draft up my list of very measurable, very specific tasks for that day. Sometimes I’ll have some things leftover from the day before that I move to the next day’s list. I use this list to work towards hitting my goals for the week, and therefore my long term goals. I rarely finish everything on my daily list, but those things I don’t I move to the top of the list the next day.
I don’t obsess over these goals, but they’ve been very useful for me in structuring my time well so that I can always be working towards a bigger objective. Sometimes it’s important to ask yourself “why am I doing this?”. Certainly there are time when I just want to relax and not care about deadlifting 550 lbs, becoming an expert PHP programmer, or financial security…but when I want to get down to business and measurably move forward, I look at these lists and start crossing things off. I read a great quote recently in a business book about goal setting that says “people with a big enough ‘why’ can handle any ‘what’ or ‘how’”. If you know why you want something, you’ll figure out a way to make it happen. Don’t let anything stand in your way.
End of Day Summary
At the end of every day, for 5-10 minutes, I review the days events and note what things could have been improved. I also use this time to prepare my list of goals for the next day. I try to focus on one or two areas that could use improvement, and write them at the top of my list for the next day. My goals lately have been to ‘stay present’ – enjoy each moment fully without thinking about the next, and to stay focused – not letting distractions interfere with work. Specifically, I’ve found it useful to close all browser tabs when doing work so that I’m not tempted to click over to my email. Turning off my phone has also been beneficial while working.
The importance of the smallest possible steps
I find that when I have a large task for the week, work or otherwise, sometimes it’s difficult to figure out where to start. It’s helpful for me to break down these tasks into the smallest possible chronological steps to get the ball rolling. One of my goals this week was to write this post, so my first task was to write out a couple notes on paper as a very rough outline. Then the next step was to login to WordPress and type a few sentences. When doing WPTuts tutorials, the first step for me is to open up my localhost directory and work with a blank theme on a test site. Projects for work are no different. As a freelancer it can be easy to push off projects and make excuses. Once I started breaking down every project into small, manageable tasks, everything became much more achievable.
This has been a game changer for me. I saw a post on Reddit a few months ago by a guy who was looking to learn web design and wanted someone to Skype with and learn together with. I emailed him and said that I was looking to brush up on some old web design stuff, and that it would be helpful to be in touch with someone educating themselves in my field. I figured we could cover more ground working together and checking in a few times per week. We started out talking daily and publishing our ‘to-do’ list for that day, holding each other accountable by going through the list each day. Eventually, I proposed the idea that we branch out and make this more about tackling bigger goals outside of just web work.
That’s when I put together my long-term goal list and created the system above. I couldn’t have done it without a friend who lives halfway across the world. We continue to check in twice weekly and have upped the ante by wagering money that we will complete our goals. I’ve found that when money is on the line, it’s give me even more incentive to get everything done that I need to do. More importantly, it helps to verbalize my goals, put them down on paper, then review them with someone else. My friend and I’s goals differ wildly, but we help each other clarify them and make small action steps to work towards them.
Hopefully you’ll get something out of this – please leave some feedback and let me know how you approach your goals and any comments or questions.