When you want to improve something about your life, you need to know where you’re going. So you set objectives, simple right?
Search Google for “top 100 life goals” and you come up with lists of worthy objectives that (most of the time) are sufficiently well-thought-out to inspire and motivate. If that person wants, and is able to, visit every continent and every US State while performing a skydive, building a school in Bolivia and saving $10,000 a year, then so must I be!
That’s all very inspiring, and great motivation porn, but I’m more interested in developing and sharing with you actual tools that can be put to use to bridge the gap between where you are and where you want to be.
For sure, defining where you want to be is critically important, but how you go about setting these goals, and how you pitch each objective, is going to be a determining factor in whether or not the exercise is useful, or just a colossal waste of time.
Pitching your objective
Save $10,000 is not in the same playbook as build a career that makes me happy to go to work every day.
The difference between the two is that the former is a milestone, and the latter is a life goal. Also, the former is a concrete objective and the second is abstract. The two don’t really belong on the same list.
If they are both on the same list, one will get ticked off when you pass a certain point in your career, and the other may never get ticked off because, let’s face it, most people are only truly happy when they run their own business, and the rest of us make do with a measure of compromise in our professional careers in order to achieve amazing things either elsewhere or later in our lives.
A hierarchy of objectives, goals and actions
In order to achieve anything, any getting things done manual will tell you, it is necessary to break it down into a sequence of achievable steps.
In this real world we’d like to influence to our advantage, things only get done when you get up and actually do something. Writing a target down in a notebook, no matter how pretty the notebook or how elegant the pen, is not the same as moving towards your target.
What most people think of as “goals” are actually milestones or achievements set in the middle distance of their future. We unconsciously pitch them at this level to keep them achievable and because we think they will make us happy by enriching our lives or removing obstacles to enriching our lives.
In fact, these goals can be grouped together because they combine to achieve something bigger, or to move you towards that achievement.
A practical example? Take the following “goals”. Run a 5k. Run a 10k. Run a half marathon. 25 press ups. 100 press ups. 25 chin-ups.
I’ve taken these from lists I’ve found on the internet. They make poor life goals. You could achieve 100 press-ups in a single sitting and two months later be overweight and unfit because you stopped. They’re milestones on the way to something else. The objective might be “Reach and maintain a fitness level defined as: Max 12% body fat, ability to run a half-marathon at any time and a high level of bodyweight exercise capability.”
All of these goals would be milestones on the way to reaching that objective, and once you’d reached it you’d have to sit down and set a number of additional milestones to ensure that you maintain the level you’ve reached. In addition, this is not achievable with fitness exercises alone and so you would have to include your diet in the mix as well to make sure you don’t sabotage your efforts on the one hand with bad habits on the other.
That’s the secret sauce. Coherence between goals and objectives. Making sure that all these goals you’re setting actually set you on the path towards something and aren’t just a constellation of objectives in an empty void.
This means that as you grow and learn you need to be willing to adapt the goals, even if they haven’t been reached yet, because they may not be taking you in the right direction or they could be taking attention away from more coherent goals that work better to bring you towards your goals.
So what are you supposed to do to set these goals?
A final, very important comment before I propose a concrete approach to goal setting.
Your goals need to be comprehensively exhaustive. In other words they need to cover every aspect of your life insofar as you want to transform it. You can leave nothing out.
If you decide to focus on your health and spend days setting up objectives, goals and a plan of action, all of that will be wasted effort a few weeks after it starts cutting into things that really matter that weren’t part of the original plan. Like, for example, time spent with your children or your parents, performance at school, college or university, advancement and success in your career or financial objectives such as level of savings or owning your own home.
These things all need to be inside the box so that they are not the price you inadvertently pay to achieve your successes.
An approach to goal setting
Here is how you use goal-setting to achieve great things.
First of all, don’t expect goal-setting to be quick. Set aside time every day for a few days to go through this exercise carefully and to feel comfortable with the outcome.
Start by listing out areas of life that need to be included in the exercise. This should cover everything that is important to you and the categories should not overlap. Mine are experiences, finances, family & friends, health and physical fitness, professional/career, travel and charity. In order to make these mutually exclusive, “experiences” cannot include anything that would better fit under “travel”.
Everything you choose as an objective now needs to fit into one of these categories, and not any other. If something feels like it straddles two categories, either your categories are wrong for you or you need to redefine (and perhaps split) that particular objective.
In each of these areas you need to establish a number of objectives. These do not need to be numerous, but they should be precise enough for you to know when you have achieved them without ambiguity. For example, under “professional/career”, I have a goal to earn half of my income from revenue sources that are not my salary from my day job. I don’t say how, but I’ll know when I’ve reached it because it’s a simple numerical objective.
You have to finish setting objectives before you move on to goals or you’ll get lost. Trust me, I made this mistake and had to start again.
Each goal is a target that brings you closer to an objective. For example, I have “earn £5000 from writing”, which is ambitious since I’ve never published anything for money. When I reach it, I’ll replace it with another, more ambitious goal. This obviously helps me move towards my goal of earning 50% of my income from other revenue sources. I have several others that fit under this category.
You can have a hundred goals, I would try to keep it around that number for reasons I’ll describe below.
Re-read your goals over and over again. Make sure they are sufficient to achieve your objectives, make sure they are achievable. They will poison your life if they are completely unrealistic.
So far, you have areas of development, each area is divided into a number of objectives which are mutually exclusive. These objectives will be reached by achieving a number of goals, which are defined, clear and achievable.
Great. That’s lots of words on paper, and apart from providing you with a measure of clarity about what you want out of life, it doesn’t move you an inch closer to any of it because you’re still sitting at your desk with a pen in hand, and you’re probably running out of ink.
The way all of this moves you forward is because it informs your actions. Everything else is ink on a map, an action performed is a step towards your destination. All this exercise is useful only insofar as it makes sure that step is taken in the right direction.
Actions don’t get written down on the same page as your goals. They get written down in your agenda. They exist at a specific moment in time, and you go and do them.
Putting it all together
You’ve just completed your list of objectives and goals, and they fit nicely into a manageable number of areas. It’s a big exercise, it’s taken you a few days. Congratulations.
Now take a photocopy of your goals so you can mark it up and pull out your agenda.
On this day in six months, schedule a long session in which you re-read this article, you start from the top and you review the areas of your life that you determined at the beginning so that you can measure progress in each. This will be the opportunity to review all of your objectives and ensure that they are still what you need to do in order to grow in each of the areas you care about.
On this day in one month, and every month for the next six, schedule a review of your goals. Here you will measure how well aligned they are with your objectives. You won’t worry about how well aligned they are until then. You will also measure how close to achieving them you’ve come and add, modify or delete goals as required to better support your objectives.
Now look at the week ahead, and pick the goals you’re going to work on in the coming seven days. You’re going to identify all the time that isn’t required for anything else, and you’re going to start (if this is the first time) by scheduling things in half of the free time you’ve identified, because you have a lot less of it that you probably think. When you have more experience, you can schedule as much or as little as you know you can manage.
Every time you schedule an action, highlight or put a tick next to the goal it relates to on the photocopy of your goals list.
Your calendar should now look busy. There’s a bunch of things in there that exist at a fixed moment in time, and in the evenings, and these things are clear actions that you can just do and you don’t have to think about. As you move forward, don’t hesitate to schedule more things until the end of the month, such as repeated gym sessions, writing sessions, moments to review your CV, times you’ve set up to call or write to friends, cook meals or prepare meal plans. At the end of the week, you might set aside half an hour to check the the next few days are properly scheduled.
Every month, you review the coherence between your goals and your objectives. Every six months you review the coherence between your objectives and progress in each area of life that is important to you. Every week, and on an ongoing basis, you ensure that there’s enough in your agenda to push towards each of the goals in your list.
At the end of the month, check that photocopy of your goals list again. Are there goals that haven’t been touched? They’re a priority for the next month.