Over the years, I’ve read about and tried countless goal attainment systems. I’m sure you’ve investigated or tried some of them too. Most of them go something like this. Create your lifetime goals, then break them down to long-term goals, then break those down to short-term goals, and then break those down into immediate action items. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? So organized and detailed. Problem is this doesn’t always work, at least not for me and many folks I’ve talked to about such systems.
As I’ve found with so many self improvement systems and advice, there are always underlying basic principles that support the system or advice. When it comes to goal attainment, I think it boils down to seven keywords: think, capture, review, organize, prioritize, act, repeat.
- Think. Many people don’t really think much about their lives. They meander along letting life sort of just happen. While I’m all for “living in the moment” (a common universal principle of happiness), we all need to give some brain time to determine who we are, what we want, how we can best serve, and so on. Without some serious thinking about ourselves and our lives, how can we possibly expect anything but random results.
- Capture. When you have an idea, get some useful information, or identify a personal action item (a “to do” task), capture it. Capture it immediately. It’s amazing how quickly an idea or thought can fleetingly disappear from our brains. How you capture it is up to you. A pad of paper and a pen, a cell phone or your computer are options. How you do it is entirely dependent on how you feel you can capture such information best at that moment. The important thing is to do it right away. I always have a small pad of paper with me and a pen as well as my cell phone. Due to my work, I’m in front of a laptop much of the day. I use one of these mechanisms to capture important information and ideas. Keep your capture mechanisms simple. The more complex, the less likely you’ll do it.
- Review. Take a look at all of the stuff you’ve captured and review it. Ponder it. Eliminate the stuff that’s not really important. Make notes. Add to it as you think of other things. Just spend some time with the information. There are three types of reviews I do. The first I only do occasionally, maybe weekly. That’s when I go through absolutely every capture source and organize it all. This is the mega review. I review everything pending on my paper pad, my cell phone and on my computer. Make sure to create a system that doesn’t require you to visit too many capture locations. For me it’s initially in one of three places: written on the pad, entered into my cell phone, or entered in a word processing document I use on my laptop as the initial capture location. Once I go through all these I delete, re-organize, store the information elsewhere, or possibly just let it stay right where it is for a while longer. It’s important to do such longer reviews periodically so you can be sure you’ve reviewed everything you have pending. The next type of review is the daily review. This is what I do at the start of my day to scope out what I might be doing that day. Next is the very quick review you do all day long whenever you have a few moments between tasks. Taken together they ensure you always have a full view of the information, tasks and ideas you need to be aware of at that point in your life.
- Organize. Now organize what you’ve reviewed. Did you write down a name and phone number you need? Put it in your electronic address book. Did you capture an idea for a new project? Add it to your existing list of pending projects. The goal is to take all of the information captured and distill it down to as few storage locations as possible in the most organized way you can think of. I have a single folder on my laptop drive where I keep all captured information organized in separate topic files. My address book and calendar reside on my laptop and my cell phone. Whatever I’ve written down on the pad I carry I transfer to one of those two places.
- Prioritize. Once you’ve got your information organized, prioritize a few of the most important items. These become the ones you focus on in the short-term. Short-term might be a few hours or the day. I wouldn’t ever plan ahead much more than that. I know, that’s blasphemy to the typical goal planning systems, but I find most of us become overwhelmed when we start stacking up lots of action items over a long time period. Focus on the few things you can do in the next few hours or today. You’ll be doing this entire process again over and over. So you’ll easily figure out what you’re doing tomorrow when that time comes.
- Act. Yes, this is the hard part in many ways. Just do it. If you find it hard to get started on something, perhaps you’ve identified too big of an action item. Next time break them down into smaller chunks and they’ll seem more doable.
- Repeat. This is a cyclical process. It never ends. Essentially, you should always be thinking, capturing, reviewing and so on.
Here’s a very simple example of how this might play out in real life. You wake up in the morning having thought of a great new way to do some aspect of your work (think). You immediately write the idea down on the pad of paper you’ve kept next to your bed and carry with you all day (capture). You get to work and as you scan your various capture mechanisms (review), you clean up the captured information and identify your new idea as important to try and implement quickly in your work (organize) at the same time you identify a few other things you need to do that day. You think about the few action items you’ve identified for the day and mentally order them in the order they need to be addressed (prioritize). Item number one is where you start your day (act). As your day progresses, you realize you’ve gotten the few things done you had identified and you go back to your captured information and start the process over (repeat).
OK, this is a really simplistic explanation. Don’t get caught up in that. Focus on the seven basic principles of goal attainment and adapt them to suit your needs. Personal systems only work if they’re relevant to you and if they sync up with your individual style of living. They should adapt to you, not the other way around.
Note: I am fully aware that the above post does run counter to some of the sentiments I expressed in my recent The Downside of Goal Focus post. What can I say. I’m a conundrum. 🙂