How to Make Sure You’re Working on the Right Things

One critical skill that gets a lot of attention is the ability to take things from idea to reality, to make things happen. There is no silver bullet for doing this. In order to be a 10x performer at what you do, you need to get 10x more value out of the limited time you have. That is, you need to make sure you are working on the things that have the highest impact on what you want to achieve. That’s why having clear goals is so important. Otherwise, you may end as St. Augustin said centuries ago: bene curris, sed extra viam. You run well but in the wrong direction.

I want to share a simple, four-step process I use to define my goals. I’ve come to this process through the years, by trial and error—and by stealing from several great achievers.

Step 1. List

Make a list of goals. Include everything you would maybe like to accomplish. Don’t spend time thinking about how you’ll achieve these goals right now. There will be time for this later.

Our best ideas usually don’t occur to us the first time we think about something. Walk away from your list for a day or at least for some hours. Our brain needs time to connect the dots. Then come back and finish it.

Use whatever suits you best to take notes. Don’t get lost in what tool to use. Don’t limit yourself by your past experience, by what others may think, by the resources needed to accomplish something. Don’t over-analyze things.

Step 2. Classify

The next step is to classify your list of possible goals according to the following criteria:

a. Look for Balance

Looking at your goals and their balance in different areas of your life will help you see where your priorities are. If you want to focus on work-related goals only because that’s where you want to maximize your progress, just be aware that other aspects of your life will suffer as a consequence. Zig Ziglar proposes Career, Spiritual, Family, Financial, Mental, Physical, and Social. Go through your list and tag each goal accordingly.

b. Don’t settle for small

Gary Keller, in The One Thing, explains that “highly successful people choose to live at the outer limits of achievement. They not only dream of but deeply crave what is beyond their natural grasp”. Extraordinary results come from aiming high and stepping out of our comfort zone. Aim to be the best person you can be.

Not all your goals need to be big goals that stretch you to the limit. But some of them should be. If you just settle for small, this exercise isn’t worth the time and you’ll be better off just doing every day what your guts tell you.

Small goals can be steps in the way to bigger goals. Big, ambitious goals require more effort. “The real challenge is not determining if you want the result, but if you are willing to accept the sacrifices required to achieve your goal. Do you want the lifestyle that comes with your quest? Do you want the boring and ugly process that comes before the exciting and glamorous outcome?” (James Clear)

c. Be specific

Broad, open questions are great for brainstorming, but if you want specific success, you need specific goals. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a declaration of good intentions.

Two things that will help you be specific:

  1. Establish a time frame for achieving your goals. Taylor Pearson, the author of The End of Jobs, says that the number one mistake that keeps people from reaching their goals is not setting deadlines.

  2. Define how will you measure progress. What does success look like for this goal?

Go through your list and verify that your goals are specific enough. How will you know when you have reached your goal? What is your time frame? Is the goal clearly defined?

Step 3. Pick Your Goals

In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth tells us about Warren Buffett’s three-step process for prioritizing his goals:

The story goes like this: Buffett turns to his faithful pilot and says that he must have dreams greater than flying Buffett around to where he needs to go. The pilot confesses that, yes, he does. And then Buffett takes him through three steps.

First, you write down a list of twenty-five career goals.

Second, you do some soul-searching and circle the five highest-priority goals. Just five.

Third, you take a good hard look at the twenty goals you didn’t circle. These you avoid at all costs. They’re what distract you; they eat away time and energy, taking your eye from the goals that matter more.

According to James Clear, “one of the greatest barriers to achieving your goals is the other goals you have. In other words, your goals are competing with one another for your time and attention.” We can’t do everything at once. We don’t like to face it, but every choice has a cost.

Go through your list and decide which goals will you work on and, very important, which will you discard. These last group is your “not to-do” list. I usually find this step very hard to go through.

How many goals should you keep? There is no magical number. Some authors recommend four goals. Other authors recommend one goal for each aspect of your life. If you are unsure, try with four and see how it works.

Step 4. Make a Profile for Each Goal

Now that you have established your goals, make a ‘profile’ for each goal. This profile will be helpful when you periodically review your goals and the actions you have taken to achieve them. For this step, I borrow from Zig Ziglar’s The Seven Steps of Goal Setting, specifically from the adaptation done by Seth Godin in Pick Four .

For each of your goals, answer the following questions:

  1. Motivation. What are the benefits from reaching this goal? What’s in it for you? To accomplish your goals, you’ll need to be strongly motivated so that you don’t stop when the initial enthusiasm vanishes. (It usually does.)

  2. Obstacles to overcome. You can’t possibly know all the obstacle you will face while working to achieve your goals. But you can prepare yourself to overcome the ones you can anticipate. Make a list of all the things that can prevent you from being successful.

  3. Skills and knowledge required. Not only the skills or knowledge you personally may need, but the skills you can outsource, or knowledge someone else has.

  4. People and groups to work with. List people expecting the outcome of this goal. List people who will measure your results.

  5. People that you need help from to accomplish this goal. They may be people you know directly, people in your network, or people you’ll need to reach out.

  6. Plan for reaching this goal. Think through the details of completing your goal. Write it out, like a story.

As you work towards your goals, you may refine or change the answer to these questions.

Own the Process

There is no one-size fits all solution for setting your goals. I encourage you to try it and adapt it to your needs. As your skills and habits in goal-setting get better, they will become second nature to you. Without thinking, you’ll structure your day around the things that have more impact in making progress towards your goals.

goal setting prioritizing productivity

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