Most people understand the need to set goals and higher standards, but how does that translate into practice? What does it mean to have a goal to “Lose 10 pounds,” or “Get promoted”? Drilling down to an actionable level of detail makes the difference between aspiration and achievement. One of the keys to actualizing goals is understanding the difference between goals and projects.
A Goal is Not a Project
When people talk about goals, they’re usually talking about aspired outcomes that aren’t under their immediate influence. Having a specific income target is an example of a goal. The way to manifest that goal is with projects, moving from the broad to the particular. “Launch Blue Widget Central” is what you’ve decided to be the vehicle, or project, that will achieve your income goal. Until you’ve got a project, your goal isn’t actionable; it’s just an aspiration.
The broad project, in almost every case, can’t move forward without it least one more project at a lower level of detail, such as “Create BlueWidgetCentral.com” — the actual website as opposed to the business. At that point you’re no longer concerned with your income goal. You’re focused on the project that will generate that income.
Of course, you still need to drill down further levels of detail. “Create BlueWidgetCentral.com” is specific enough if you intend to design and code it yourself; otherwise you’ll need a more granular project like, “Hire designer for BlueWidgetCentral.com”. If you choose the former option, you’ll need to determine the next physical action step to take, which might be, “Review WordPress themes designed for e-commerce”. If you choose the latter option, the next action might be, “Submit RFP to Rentacoder for designer”.
Once you have your projects clearly identified, and each one has at least one specific task that you can physically perform, your mind no longer wanders in a cloud of “all the stuff” you need to do. You’re now looking at a very finite set of action steps that can simply be done without spending additional time clarifying what needs to be done whenever you need to take action. You don’t even have to think about goals and projects until you’ve actually done the action steps.
Being able to think operationally from a goal down to a specific next action isn’t a natural skill. Neither are using multiplication tables or long division. Creating and working within institutions is inherently artificial — you’re building something, so there’s a limit to how far the seat-of-the-pants approach can take you.
The cliche “Work smarter, not harder” should be replaced with “Think harder, work smarter”. Having high standards of performance means nothing without the ability to clarify the specific work that needs to be done, and the work that doesn’t, which underscores the difference between being productive and being busy. Many of us are willing to work hard, which is an important faculty. Far fewer of us are willing to think hard — that is, to reverse engineer the projects and action steps necessary to get started. Most people freeze on taking action due to lack of clarity, not lack of initiative.
Identifying the Black Boxes
When people fail to take action due to lack of clarity, they often have much of the work the need to do figured out, but have left of at least one level of detail. If someone’s goal is to “Lose 10 pounds,” and the next action is to “Install calorie tracker on phone,” the actual project is missing from the equation, e.g. “Begin diet”. What identifying the project does is provide a reference point for next actions. Once you’ve installed the calorie tracker, you’re not necessarily any closer to losing weight, but “Begin diet” allows to you ask yourself, after you’ve checked off the initial task, if there’s anything else that need to be done in order to check “Being diet” off of your project list, such as, “Get calorie counts for my routine meals”.
The guiding principle is that if you have a goal without a project to move it forward, or a project without a task to move it forward, or a task without the project it moves forward, there’s a gap in the thinking process that can result in continual distraction. Instead of filling in these gaps on the front end, then spending the rest of your time just doing, you may find yourself preoccupied, worrying indefinitely about what to do next or why you need to do it. Do the hard thinking through of your projects and actions on the front end, and you’ll find that executing them flows with far less resistance.
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