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
Your primary goals are the base of all other goals — the one or two things you aspire to do before you die. Nearly everything above this bottom level should help you to one day complete these goals. Write in the goals that will truly matter to you in 20 years. It might be something like: live happily into your 90s or become the CEO of a company. You should only have two or three high stakes goals listed here that you'll design the rest of your life around.
Level 2: Long Term Goals
Your long-term goals are the major goals that are required to get to the primary goals. These might be the sustainable habits you need to form over the years or the achievements you want to reach in order to get to your primary goals. Say your primary goal is to still be healthy and mobile in your 90s. You can't get to that point without working for it, so a long-term goal would be to lose (or gain) a certain amount of weight or improve your diet by your 50s.
Level 3: Short Term Goals
Think of short term goals as weeks or months out. Consider goals like: finish a drawing, build a deck addition or cut cookies from your diet. The important part to remember is that these goals are short term, not short-sighted. So if your primary goal is to lose weight, think of what you can do now to make that happen. If it's to put on a show in an art gallery, you need to finish a picture first.
Level 4: Recurring Goals
Your recurring goals are what you want to do daily/weekly/monthly regardless of what else is going on. Consider goals like: hit up the gym, jog, write a page a day or anything similar. These aren't quite the same as short-term goals, because they're to form a habit. Say one of your primary goals is to lower your daily stress level. Ask yourself what you need to do on a daily basis to make that happen in the long run (if you need some starter tips be sure to check out post on what you can do about your stress).
Level 5: Immediate Goals
These are the goals and to-dos that you can and want to accomplish right this second. As you write your list out you probably notice a few things you could be doing instead of writing your list. This is the ever-changing but necessary part of your pyramid because it allows you to measure your daily duties to see how they have an affect on your overall life goals. This could be as simple as cleaning the bathroom or making a phone call. The purpose of including these here is to see where they affect other aspects of the pyramid both positively and negatively.
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
The goal of the pyramid is to ensure that every aspect of your goals work together. In that way it works a lot like the old food guide pyramid. The benefit of the pyramid is that you can see where your ideas fail and aren't coalescing. Let's get rid of everything that doesn't play nice together.
- 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.
- Do this with all your goals moving upwards through the pyramid.
- 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.
- 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
You've trimmed away all the fat and nonsense so it's time to formulate a plan to achieve your goals. It's thought that smaller goals lead to a higher success rate and being very specific with those goals helps you achieve them. Thankfully your pyramid should already be filled with specifics so it's just about management now.
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.