Focus Your Ambitions With The Lifehacker Hierarchy Of Goals

Focus Your Ambitions With The Lifehacker Hierarchy Of Goals

Setting goals is easy, but prioritising them is hard. Humans suck at properly weighing what we need to achieve our goals. We take on too much, skip steps, and often, as a result, we give up. Once you commit to a framework to prioritise your goals and cut the junk, achieving your goals gets a lot more realistic. Here’s one way to do it.

If you’re anything like me, you have too many goals. Unfortunately, compulsive goal-setting can be a major roadblock to actually achieving goals. Applying a rigorous approach to your goal setting is not only a great way to help you along the path to meeting them, but it’s also a way to prune out all the junk you don’t really need. We’ve talked before about how writing down all your goals is a good way to prioritise and that’s essentially what we’re doing here. However, instead of listing them we’re going to categorise and compare them with a simple pyramid structure. (Think a little like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but for your goals.) By the end you’ll have weeded out unnecessary steps and ditched goals you don’t really care about.

Consider this a system of life designing that helps you question assumptions and figure out what you really want. I’ve put together a Google Doc you can copy and fill in on your own (File > Make a copy). Here’s how I divided the different goals up.

Level 1: The Primary Goals

Level 2: Long Term Goals

Level 3: Short Term Goals

Level 4: Recurring Goals

to check out post on what you can do about your stress

Level 5: Immediate Goals

How to Use Your Pyramid to Weed Out Junk and Accomplish Your Goals

Now comes the hard part: turn this pyramid into an actionable living plan where you can prioritise and use your base goals as a foundation for everything else. As author David Foster Wallace points on in his Kenyon College commencement speech, life consists of what you pay attention to and you can structure your goals the same way. When you have too many goals conflicting with each other your attention is shifted too often. Trim away junk goals to get things done and find an actionable path.

Trim the Junk Away and Focus On As Few Goals as Possible

old food guide pyramid
  1. Start at the bottom of your pyramid and draw lines up through goals that match each other. For instance, at the bottom in your primary goals you might have “Publish a novel”. In the long term goals you have “Write a novel”, and near the top you have something like, “Write the first sentence of a novel”. The line should move through each level and hit one or two different goals along the way.
  2. Do this with all your goals moving upwards through the pyramid.
  3. When you’re done you’ll probably have a few outliers scattered about. Ask yourself a couple questions about them: Why do I want this? Does this relate to anything else I want? If you don’t have a good answer, cut them from the list. If you want to keep goals then focus them to help you with another goal.
  4. Finally, go back through your levels and see what goals you can outsource to other people. You might be surprised at how many unnecessary steps you give yourself.

As an example, here’s what I did for one of my goals. The primary goal at the bottom is: make and publish a video game. Along the path I had all sorts of pipedream goals: learn how to do pixel art, improve my shotty programming skills, write design documents and more. When I saw all this in one image I realised I made it impossible for myself. I looked at each level and cut away everything I knew I wouldn’t do. Did I really need to learn programming? No, because I know plenty of people who do it. Art? Nope, I know people who do that as well. Instead of learning five new skills, I reduced it to one goal: work with people I know.

By the end of this you should have a cohesive underlying framework where all your goals and wants work together in a manageable fashion. It’s time to get started on accomplishing your goals.

Formulate a Plan and Get Started

smaller goals lead to a higher success ratehelps you achieve them

Planning out the process depends on how you like to do things. We’ve pointed out before that broadcasting your goal progress in public is a great way to keep yourself on track, highlighted some great goal tracking services, project management tools, and pointed out that sometimes you just need to suck it up and start. Find a system that works for you and get to it.

However you choose to plan your goals the point remains the same: focus only on the goals that matter, break them into smaller steps, and start work immediately. This is a one-time exercise that isn’t about constant organisation. You can tinker and tweak with each level as you go along, but stick with the basic high stakes structure if you really want to accomplish everything. Photo by Dan Zen.

Goals are ambiguous things that we as humans struggle to define and work toward. Hopefully the above method will provide the framework to create a path to where you want to end up. Be sure to share your own tips for organising goals in the comments.


  • This is a good article, and useful for lost procrastinators like myself. However, wouldn’t it make more sense to have the the primary goals on the top, and the shorter term goals on the bottom? The number of goals would be proportional to the pyramid levels it’s at (fewer long term goals up the top, more at the immediate), and ultimately, just like Maslow’s, you are essentially building your foundation of short term goals to reach fulfilment at the top.

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