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Where are you going? Use your actions and projects to reverse engineer your goals

OK, a confession: Like almost everything I've done to create and build my productivity practice, I'm doing goals wrong unconventionally :-) Almost every time management book and blog I've read recommends having written goals, reviewed regularly. For example, Zenhabits' Top 20 Motivation Hacks - An Overview lists (among others):
  • #17: Post a picture of your goal someplace visible -- near your desk or on your refrigerator, for example.
  • #16: Get a workout partner or goal buddy.
  • #5: Visualize your goal clearly, on a daily basis, for at least 5-10 minutes.
  • #4: Keep a daily journal of your goal.
And The Ten Part Mental Fitness Program has extensive goal-setting tips. These are great ideas.

The confession? I have no written goals. They're not on my office wall, they're not on stickies posted around my house (a fine suggestion from Order from Chaos), and I don't reflect on them during my weekly review (see Seven Questions That Will Change Your Life for a useful list [1] of questions). I have a love/hate relationship with them: I'd love to have the list (I'm sure it's helpful), but it just doesn't work for me.

Last week (Small steps to big results) I suggested that completing one tiny high-value task a day can lead to steady progress on what's important, and provides built-in end-of-the-day satisfaction. But what's important? I'm convinced that modern "bottom-up" approaches like GTD are the best way to get our lives together. But they are just the start [2].

So here's an idea to discover your goals, bottom-up: Use your self-management system to let your goals emerge from the things you've decided to spend time on. Some examples of places to look:
  • Collection: The stuff entering your life says a lot about what you care about. For me, I get: many books (from readers as well as my wish list), book notes, blog ideas, many thoughts and ideas from blogs I read, as well as the personal stuff: bills, insurance, school notes, etc.
  • Projects and Actions: This is where the rubber meets the road, and tells you most about your priorities.
  • Delegation/Agendas: Who you spend time with is also telling. There's a saying: "You are who you spend time with," which as absolutely true. It also impacts your health and well-being [3]. (A recent revelation: I've started applying rigorously Koch's radical ideas on relationships. He really makes you think about them.)
  • Someday/Maybe: Listen to your dreams. In The 4-Hour Workweek Tim Ferriss says "'What are your goals' is a bad question. It's not a useful one. It's hard to answer." Instead it's better to ask "What would excite me?" I love it. A few of mine: chocolate cafe, bat house, backyard habitat.
  • Calendar & Tickler: Where have you scheduled time? This is big commitment, and worth looking at. (Your time maps [4] will tell you something, if you use them).
  • Reading/TV: What are you letting into your brain? Reading [5] is crucial for continued mental stimulation and development, and most TV just plain sucks.
  • Trash: This is your first line of not doing. Nuke the non-essentials.

Here are a few goals I discovered from these:
  • Establishing myself as a top personal productivity consultant. Subgoals include: establishing repute (writing this blog is an on-going project), a crash course in the field (I love this word: Autodidacticism).
  • Being a great parent. Subgoals: Staying involved in my daughter's school, reading, discussing issues with my wife, and spending a ton of time with her.
  • Spending lots of time with my family.
  • Financial health. Subgoals: Stay on top of bills, multiple streams of income (rentals), build a lucrative practice, save.
  • The essentials: Food, clothing, shelter, etc.
  • Environment & Nature. We need to stop dirtying our nest. Period.
  • Living simply. Subgoals: Reducing unnecessary stuff, working fewer hours, outsourcing [6].

But how do you use these? Simple: Cut down on those that don't align, increase those that do, and keep paying attention to what yours are. Mark Forster says in Do It Tomorrow: if you want to cut down on your workload, [goals are] where you have to focus. As I said last week, Liz Davenport makes this provocative statement: You can predict where you'll be in ten years just by looking at your to-do lists. If it's only taking care of business or survival items, in ten years, you'll be right where you are!

How about you? Do you know your goals? What are they? Do you actively track them? What changes have you made in your life as a result?


Reader Comments (4)

I did write down my goals and values, and usually use them weekly to see if what I am doing is still in line with them.

It never occurred to me to look at my goals the other way around to see if they are still in line with what I am actually doing.

Great post!

October 2, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJeroen Sangers

Hey Jeroen, thanks for the update, and the praise - much obliged.

October 2, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

My long term goals are just a basic list on my [ weekly planner | http://www.mallosworld.co.uk/organize-it/2007/07/16/understanding-my-weekly-planner/ ] at the moment. I want to build these things into my life more and make them more integral but I've never really found any advantage to it in the past. The problem as I see it atm is I've never really consciously planned long-term, I suppose I'm more of an here-and-now person (is that a personality trait or have I just made it up?).

Great article though. I'm collating information on goals, mission statements etc to really try and get to the heart of the issue and see what I can come up with.

October 6, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterSpiKe

Thanks for your comment, Spike.

I've never really consciously planned long-term, I suppose I'm more of an here-and-now person (is that a personality trait or have I just made it up?). I admit I know nothing about personality types, and their impact on productivity. Many books start with an assessment, either of needs or personality, then customize (somewhat) based on that. That's why I like the work I teach - it won't apply equally well to everyone (it's quite procedural, for example) but that means I have to reach the right folks.

Just for fun I looked up your "personality type," and came up with these (not sure I value them, BTW): [ SP Temperament - The "Creators" | http://www.mypersonality.info/personality-types/sp-temperament/ ], [ Salient Characteristics of Type B Personality | http://mindpub.com/art558.htm ] (scroll down).

October 6, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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