Get your ducks in line: goal setting for high impact

Lately I have been thinking not so much about the ways in which we set our goals, and our daily tasks, but the ways in which we can organise them to achieve the highest possible impact with the lowest possible effort. Goal setting is usually about changing things, about moving in a desired direction.

If you have set your goals already now is the time to look at them again. How long is your list? How many goals have you set? Are your goals organised in a particular way?

If you are anything like me, it is likely that you ended up with a long list of goals, in no specific order or priority. My lists of goals, as well as my daily tasks lists, used be almost as long as the river Nile; and just as slow to achieve.

In this post I am not going to bother you with the obvious technicalities like ‘keep your goals few and targeted’; too much has already been written about that. Instead, I am going to tell you about three ways to organise and approach your goals (formations).

Goal setting formation 1: scattered fan

Graphically, the formation looks like this.

In this case there the goals are discrete (each goals stands on its own) and we scatter our energy to achieve them. Because our time and energy are limited it is very likely that we won’t have enough to achieve any of the goals to a high standard. This formation and approach make you ‘work hard’, flutter from tasks to task and end up exhausted, stressed and frustrated.

Often in previous years, I’ll set goals to: write three academic papers, to write a non-academic book, to do consultancy to the value of…, etc. All SMART goals! Then I will have three papers on the go and they won’t get finished; well they will but it took so much energy of all kinds. Until last summer I switched to Formation 2.

Goal setting formation 2: focused fan

This one looks like this.

Here, the goal organisation is the same but the approach is very different. Energy is focused on one goals (task) at the time; once this has been achieved the focus shift to the next.

To continue with my example, my goals were still the same but I focused on one piece of writing at the time. As a result, since the beginning of September 2011, I have finished and submitted to journals three academic papers.

Goal setting formation 3: focused clusters

Visually this one looks like this.

In this case goal setting needs a lot of thinking so that the separate goals are clustered around a more fundamental goal that links them.

To get back to my example, writing academic papers, non-academic books and earning certain amount from ‘side hustle’ all depend on writing. So if ‘becoming a better and faster writer’ becomes the ‘mother goal’ focusing my energy to achieve this is likely to result in achieving the other goals as well: with less effort and in less time. This is where I want to be.

My observation is that most people are in Formation 1 when there is so much to be gained by moving to Formation 2 and, ultimately, Formation 3.

Which of these goal setting formations is the closest to the one you use?

19 thoughts on “Get your ducks in line: goal setting for high impact”

  1. Okay, you have definitely peaked my interest. In my primary profession, a great deal of my income also depends on writing. However, leveraging that into other profitable and intellectually-stimulating endeavors is a natural transition. Ultimately, that’s what this post is about IMO: leverage.

    1. @Roshawn: My research and experiment show that there are many other sides to goal setting (like prioritisation, for instance). But probably the most important one is leveraging them (or thinking of layers of goals). Still thinking about the wole thing.

  2. You are so right! When I remember to keep to version 2, I achieve much more and version 3 is even better. I do find that anything which enables me to focus and not be distracted is a help. For instance, I try to keep all the documentation and reference papers for each project separate, physically and only have on my desk what I am working on.

    I hope you note I said ‘try to’. My report card would say “Could do better”.

  3. I really like this! I can see that difference in productivity that #2 & #3 would bring. I try to do #2 for daily tasks but had not thought of structuring big goals in this way. Do you have a process that you go through to prioritize your goals?

    1. @Pam: I do have a process but it needs some work to become codified enough to be useful to others. In a nutshell: I dream where I want to be; trace back the actions and conditions to the present (so the question is ‘what conditions I need to create for this to occur?’); organise these causally (if I achieve this the following are highly likely to occur). I use mind maps to do this and to follow progress.

  4. I love the illustrations with this post! I’ve been in formation 1 for so long. I’ve been trying to move to formation 2 for awhile but I’ve been struggling. I think I just need to get realistic with myself and know that I can’t do it all!

    1. @Jenny: Ha, this is John. I sketched the formations by hand and I would rather not scan a copy. Were I to be brave enough to do it, you will all realise why I am deeply suspicious of the saying ;A picture’s worth a thousand words.’ I go with words but this one would have been really hard to explain. And Jenny, you ca’t do it all; none of us can. But setting our goals and tasks cleverly (being in formation 3) would allow us to achieve so much more.

  5. Great ideas for the goals. I take my goals and make them my screensaver with an all WHITE BACKGROUND WITH BIG COLORFUL LETTERS that way when I log on I say to myself ouch my eyes hurt. I better hurry up and achieve this goal so I can change my screensaver. 😛

    1. @Jai: This is a good one – are the colours bright and clashing? Ha, ha. I’ll try this one with formation 3; wow! (John already has his goals on his screen).

  6. I organize all my goals, tasks, and projects via the getting things done method. That system has been a life saver! I also use an app called Omnifocus

  7. Love the cluster idea, something similiar to the steps idea I used in the past, ie main goal and little steps to achieve on the way which cumulatively will achive main goal. And I think Jai’s screensaver idea is fantastic

    1. @TDQ Karen: Thanks for stopping by and saying hi. Well, it is not so much that you start with a big goal and chunck it down; it is more that you identify a more ‘basic’ goal. Need to think more about how this can be done (by others not by me only) and how to explain it better.

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