Updated and expanded post from Try Reason!
Watching the Olympics, I became amazed at the skills these men and women possess. To achieve such phenomenal skills requires more than just setting big long-term goals – like winning a gold in the Olympics. It requires many, many years of hard work coupled with intelligent training to achieve many sub-goals, building and culminating in world-class abilities. Before they can do a triple loop, they must master a single loop. Before they can master the super G, they must master skiing on the bunny slopes. In previous posts, I wrote about setting 5 year goals here and here. As important as 5 year goals are, they are useless unless they can be translated into yearly, monthly, and weekly goals and ultimately – action.
How does one go about translating long-term goals into short-term goals? And how do daily practices help to achieve long-term goals? While it seems intuitive to just say, take your long-term goal, split it up into small parts and achieve those small parts in sequence until you achieve the long-term goals, this is a huge over-simplification. If there is one thing I’ve learned from large goals, it’s that its easy to fall behind on sub-goals. Once you fall behind, it’s nearly impossible to catch up.
In software development, there is a well-known book called the The Mythical Man-Month, written by a former IT manager at IBM, Fred Brooks. In this book, he explains why throwing more people at a project that’s behind schedule frequently back-fires and causing a project to get further behind schedule. While the reason for this failure is in part due increasingly difficult communication, the failure occurs at an individual level as well. This is not due to a lack of effort, will-power, or desire. But a simple limitation of human endurance. Beyond a certain point, more work fails to improve skills and may actually promote sloppy habits that hurt continued progress. Besides physical limitations (which varies by person), there are psychological limitations. Missed goals can lead to dejection. Overwhelming projects may lead to procrastination. Simplistic goals fail to gain interest and are neglected. It is a wonder we achieve anything!
Luckily, these issues can be overcome. As Dr. Edwin Locke has shown, the mere fact of setting a specific challenging goals improves performance. Personal productive writers David Allen and Stephen Covey note that projects should and can direct specific day-to-day tasks. They each lay out aspects of improving your personal productivity (although I would love to see an integration of their two approaches). In general long-term goals get turned into short-term goals by laying out a plan to action, detailing specific requirements to achieve at each sub-goal, and ensuring you push your self at each step. Time-lines are important, but not the final arbitrator of success. Success is achievement of the goal.
Tips I’ve learned from translating long-term goals into actionable items:
- Over-shoot the short-term goals. If you plan out the next 5 years into a series of short-term goals, do not just settle for staying on track. Set the short-term goal so that you’ll be ahead of schedule. There will inevitably be emergencies that crop up and take time away from your goals. The best way to mitigate those emergencies is to be ahead before they hit, so you’ll still be on track when the emergency is over.
- Review your long-term goals on a regular basis. This helps ensure integration between short-term goals and long-term goals. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment with a cool idea or new project. But if that project does not help the long-term goal, it necessarily takes time away from it, thereby hurting your chances at achieving it. Once a week or month, review your current projects in terms of your 5 year goals.
- Know your limits, but stretch them. It’s easy to over-plan and to under-plan. It’s not so easy to plan just the right level of work that pushes you to do your best. In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi describes how professionals at the top of their professional often discover a period of intense focus when all of their awareness melts into just the activity they are doing. This state of “flow” erupts when the professional is fully challenged with a specific task or goal that stretches their abilities. A surgeon, a tennis player, a concert pianist, a computer programmer – they all experience this same phenomena. Finding this sweet spot requires a bit of introspection, but once found, it can greatly enhance your productivity.
- Use external milestones to push you. While in school, these external milestones are rather obvious. They are much harder to find in the business world, but if you look carefully there are many projects outside yourself or your business that have completion dates. Aligning your goals with these external projects can help you to stay focused and on tract.
- Dedicate large blocks of uninterrupted time each week to focus on the big projects. In some jobs this is easier than others. But in order to hit the “flow” state mentioned above, working without interruption is critical. Don’t check your email. Let the phone go to voice mail. Stay off of Facebook. Do whatever it takes to get some work done.
- Be prepared for change, and its corollary, don’t plan too far ahead . While I have very clear 5 year goals, I have little idea what specific work I’ll be doing in 4 years. There are simply too many things that can change in the world for me to waste time now planning for what may become obsolete. Besides the typical innovative changes in your environment, your specific interests may change, you may get laid off from your current job unexpectedly, you may get married and start a family, you may have to start taking care of your parents, or you discover the opportunity of a lifetime. There is always something, so accept it and adjust.
- As funny as this may sound, stay healthy! Eating right, getting enough sleep, and working out are prerequisites to long-term health. When you get sick, its pretty difficult to accomplish your goals. So don’t do it 😉
I have personally followed these tips with great success in completing my PhD and now, in launching my academic career. I know that I have room for improvement in my own productive practices, but with continued focus and determination, I will see results. In fact, improving my productive practices is one of my 5 year goals. I’m looking for roughly a 20% improvement in my productivity within that time. Writing this blog post is part of the process because it forces me to think about and articulate what has worked and not worked for me in the past. It provides me with a foundation to improve. As I discover more, I plan on writing about it. Let me know if you find it useful.