Setting goals, creating systems, a.k.a taking bites out of those pies in the sky

The last post became far more of a monster than I intended, so I promise I’ll do my best to keep this one leaner. Unfortunately this is a topic I’m pretty interested in and think is super important – I can get carried away!

On the last episode of “Better goal accomplishment with Rory” we talked about how big goals can be scary things that are often too far off in the distance to be relatable once things get hard, as well as being so daunting that in the darker moments of the grind they can be demotivational by way of that unfathomable distance. Motivation is not a reliable beast, and people tend to consider only the dream outcome of the goal rather than being cognizant of all the hard work they’re going to have to go through to get there. The death of most goals is real life, and if we’re being honest with ourselves it’s usually not about a lack of time.

So, how do we combat this scourge and make accomplishing our goals more likely? We craft systems we can trust, that will pretty much automatically lead to success.

With this in mind, I’ll break down how I turned my writing goals into a system for success, as it’s a relatively simple example.

I want to achieve the following this year:

When I first sat down to put my goals on paper recently, they looked like this:

This is an example of overreaching in goal-setting, and it’s bloody dangerous.

For me to think I can easily go from roughly four complete short stories in a year last year, to one a week in 2016, is insane. Two blog posts per week when one last year wasn’t a slam-dunk is not sensible. Two complete novels when I’ve never even written half a novel before is downright silly. The updated EE actually made it through unscathed, but I cut the pressure on myself to absolutely release another product.

You might think I’ve chickened out here, and in a sense you’d be right. I prefer to think what I’ve really done is leave myself room to overdeliver, while still setting a very challenging bar compared to last year. A prudent retreat rather than a cowardly rout. Writing is not my only interest, it should be noted. On top of this I am also:

For me to aim too high with the writing goals puts undue pressure on and makes it far more likely that I will flame out and stop writing altogether, or sacrifice other important goals for this one. I’ve no doubt you’re just as nuanced and have just as many different interests and commitments as I do. We have to set our goals in the contexts of our messy, busy lives and not in some fantasy world where we have unlimited time for every area we wish to improve.

In addition to that, I don’t recommend kicking off multiple big sets of goals at once – I started learning Spanish last October; I’ve been working for nearly five years in one of the jobs and ten months in the other; I’ve had a training habit of some description for the last ten years, and so on. That’s not the topic of this post necessarily, but it’s important you give each goal time to “bed down” in your life before setting other unrelated ones in place.

So the next step is to take your goals and break them down into more manageable chunks; less pie-in-the-sky and more bites of a delicious pie. You can make micro-goals if you want to, e.g.

These can be very useful, but I reckon the really crucial thing to reach is the smallest significant unit of work in terms of time. Usually I aim to work out what I need to do either every day or every week, with every day being better. As somebody wise once said (and please forgive my paraphrasing): “If it’s important, do it every day. Otherwise don’t do it at all.”

This doesn’t hold for everything – few would recommend hitting the gym every day – but usually you can pick something about the goal that you could do everyday. For a training habit it might be as small as five minutes of mobility combined with the week-level view of hard training at least 4 days per week or something like that.

Now, we’re building that system for automatic success that I talked about last time and in the introduction today. For my writing goals, I decided on 1,000 words per day, or one hour per day spent writing in case 1,000 words is hit too quickly.

I pitched this daily marker pretty high, high enough to give me a slight thrill of fear and anticipation, and to make for a sizeable end result that easily overshoots my goals (at least in terms of word count, and as long as the words are directed in the right place, of course). 1,000 words is not so small that it’s insignificant but it small enough that even on a bad day I can usually hit it in around an hour, even if it feels like pulling teeth. It’s also very specific. It’s hard to set a goal around more nebulous activities like the planning of a novel, but it’s easy to set upon a daily word count.

I chose 1,000 words also to be high enough that hitting it gives me a sense of satisfaction every single day, and builds a series of wins that build on each other and strongy discourage me from breaking the chain. It’s not so huge, however, that most days find me gasping and wheezing over the finish line, hating my life and hating writing. Most days I’ve found I usually blow past 1,000 words once I get going (even if often the start is very slow), and I’m happy to do so. It’s just more help that will lead to me overdelivering on my “sensible” goals.

While truly tiny daily goals can be useful – aiming to floss one tooth per day or in this case perhaps write 100 words – as you get slightly more advanced I think it’s better to challenge yourself a little. In order for the process to work and – in my opinion very importantly – to prove to yourself you want the goal badly enough, it’s worth pushing yourself just a bit beyond what’s comfortable on a daily or near-daily basis. It may take a little experimentation to settle on a goal that suits you.

Some samples for other goals:

As I said last time, you must be realistic about what your desired end goal will take on a regular, real-life basis, and then make those things part of your actual life in order to make your ultimate success automatic. If you cannot find a palatable daily workload for your end goal then it’s very much worth considering whether or not you actually really want the goal, or whether it’s just another shiny bauble you think might be nice to have.

I say this not to discourage you, but to point out that if this goal of yours turns out to be something you don’t really want then that’s probably a good thing. It gives you space to spend more of your time on the goals you really are demonstrably passionate about rather than the ones you just think you are.

On that subject, here’s a talk I saw recently in which Ben Horowitz (famous and very successful tech investor) talks about that old chestnut of following your passion and why it can be dangerous advice, among other topics.

Next time we’ll talk about making your system easier to implement, getting out of your own way to make success even more automagic!

Apologies, I resisted saying automagic all article but I had to sneak one in. Actually, I’m not even sorry.