My approach to planning is very process focused. I encourage you to make time to do the important work and to notice how your projects are moving forward. I do this because what I see happening when people set goals increases stress, leads to overwork, and doesn’t actually support their best work. Things like:
- negative self-talk
- skimping on self-care
- spending time doing things that feel like work but aren’t achieving the results you want
It’s not that goals aren’t important. You need to feel like there is a point to doing whatever you are doing. Setting a specific (product-based) goal not only counters this sense of pointlessness, but also helps you decide what to do in the time you’ve set aside to work on your project.
Most of the time, you don’t have enough information to estimate how much time it is going to take to reach the final goal, which means you need to set interim goals. Process based planning then helps you reach those short term goals, knowing that they will take you further along the road to the final goal.
A goal is concrete.
There is evidence that you have reached it. Figure out what the evidence is first. Then you’ll know when you get there. You can say “I’m done.” and move on to something else (including taking a break).
Use this question to set that short term goal:
What does success look like?
Focus on this project and whatever your current time frame is.
Be specific. Be reasonable. What concrete evidence will there be that you have reached this particular milestone/goal?
This is the difference between “cleaning up for company” in an unfocused way that feels like you can’t stop until they ring the bell (and then are stressed that you missed something) and deciding that you need to vacuum the rooms you will be in (not under the furniture), clean the bathroom they are most likely to use, and put a clean tablecloth on.
It can be hard to articulate the concrete ways that some of your projects have moved forward. Paying attention to shifts in how you feel about the project can alert you to the fact that there has been movement.
Whether you feel better or worse, celebrate the deeper knowledge you have of the project. If necessary, reevalute what the next milestone looks like and select actions that will get you there.
Goals are meaningful.
You’ve chosen priorities. You’ve decided to do specific things to move those priority projects forward.
Why is it meaningful to you to achieve this particular goal? Naomi Dunford describes this well:
It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it matters to you. It has to feel like real success, like something is happening that you can feel good about. And we’re talking active good, here – not “Well, I’m supposed to do this, so I guess I should.” Make it something that can leave you feeling better at the end.
Write down the answer to this question. The clearer you are about why you are doing this, the more motivated you will be to work towards the goal.
By the way, it’s okay if what’s meaningful is “when I finish this, I’ll be able to devote more time to [more exciting project]”.
There’s more on the power of Meaningfulness in your work and life, here.
The dangers of outcome goals by Rich Furman
Your word count means nothing to me by Tseen Khoo at The Research Whisperer
Edited March 14, 2016. Re-edited July 2023 including the addition of the Meaningfulness Spotlight.