When we started SharpAlice we already knew that time was a scarce resource in the lives of many women. That is why we are developing our courses with an educational structure & support tools that fit into women’s busy multi-tasking lives. However, after several pilot launches with small sub-groups of professional women, we realized there is a different issue: Many of us are indeed too busy to take on a new professional development project. However, when we asked these women to analyze their to do lists against their goals, most of the women in our sub-groups realized their productivity wasn’t driven by their priorities and purpose – i.e. they were incredibly busy, but most of these actions were NOT the ones that would move them closer to their goals.
The more we thought about this issue and read vacuous emails and articles about “how to set goals and keep them”, the more we became convinced that we needed to try and write a blog post that would really address this issue in a realistic and actionable way.
So that is what this whole posts is about: We will outline an approach on how to regain control of your productivity by enabling you to crystallize your purpose and priorities and then work back from there to define what actions and tasks you should prioritize – and which ones to defer or delegate.
As Gary Keller points our in his great book “The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results”, “the people who achieve extra-ordinary results don’t achieve them by working more hours. They achieve them by getting more of the “right things” done in the hours they work.”
Similarly, Dorie Clark stresses in her book “Stand Out”, that the successful people she observed and interviewed for her book did nothing superhuman, “it was just focused hard work, that anyone, if they are willing to make the sacrifice, can emulate”.
One last comment before we start: When we say ‘sacrifice’, we do NOT mean that you need to be even busier, sleep less and burn the midnight oil. On the contrary, in this post we will explore with you how to gain absolute clarity about what you are aiming for and what actions are required to get there, and how this then also clarifies what things you are NOT going to do (and some of those things may indeed feel like sacrifices as you actually quite enjoy them. For example, you may sacrifice watching TV every night to create time to take an online course).
Step 1: Start with long-term, big goals – your ultimate “some day” goals
Many of us don’t (dare to) dream big. We aim for achievable goals. Why? Because many big professional goals or life goals seem overwhelming, because you cannot do them in one go. You lack the clarity and definition about what achieving that goal really involves.
To help you address that we are going to use David Allen’s methods of “outcome focusing” and “next action thinking”, as explained in his book “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity”. Through these methods we will connect your big future goals with the present by working backwards from these big goals to identify actions you can do today, tomorrow, etc. to move you closer towards those goal.s
So don’t refrain from dreaming big because you cannot immediately see how to get there. As Gary Keller says “the only actions that become springboards to succeeding big are those informed by big thinking to begin with. So don’t let small thinking cut your life down to size.” Think big, aim high, and then we will help you work out the actions to achieve that
Now, with that in mind, think about your ultimate goals. What are the professional goals you want to achieve some day? In doing so, it is really important to think far out. Think way beyond your next promotion. What is your ultimate goal? To get there you probably need some skills and experience that will take some time to acquire. So if you don’t start aiming for them early on, you will run out of time to take the necessary actions to acquire them. Professional development should not be planned on a just-in-time basis. You need to plan way ahead.
Step 2: Capture, review and where appropriate integrate your “old” goals
What other goals have you been chasing or did you intend to pursue in recent years? Do a mental sweep and write them all down on a list.
For example, in my case I have been meaning to learn how to code and have a Rosetta’s Stone course set sitting in my cupboard to teach me Chinese. I have also started a visual thinking course online and on my Kindle I already downloaded many of the 51 Harvard Classics as I aspired to read the whole series to improve my liberal arts education. Finally I have been toying with the idea of doing an executive MBA and also taking a psychology course.
It is important to scour our mental highway for all these languishing, someday goals and write them down on piece of paper. If we leave them hanging around in our head they continue to distract us. They will act like a drag on our attention and focus.
Once you have written them down on your list, review each of them carefully and ask yourself “How does this goal align with the “some day” goals I just outlined?”
For example, my goal of learning Chinese does not really make sense anymore given my renewed career purpose. Those visual thinking skills would be handy but they are definitely not critical to achieving my some day career goals, so I should redirect the money and time I am spending on that course to an action that is part of the critical path to my goals. And whilst I know I would enjoy the Harvard Classics series, it really would be a distraction right now and take me away from doing the things I need to do to work towards my someday goals. However the psychology course and the executive MBA do fit with my some day goals.
This process of capturing your old goals and then critically reviewing them against your “some day” goals should lead to renewed clarity about what goals you should continue to pursue and which ones are “out of date” or a distraction. To complete this step you really have to follow through on your decisions by actually stopping any actions related to those outdated goals.
In my case that meant going online and canceling that visual thinking course, deleting those Harvard Classics books from my device, and putting that Rosetta Stone course set on eBay.
We don’t want any of these old misaligned goals to continue to drag on our focus. We want to ensure that we are crystal clear about our purpose and priorities and also work out exactly what we will not do, in order to maintain that focus.
Step 3: Define what successfully achieving these goals REALLY looks like
Now that you have a clear sense of your “some day” goals, we need to go through the process of actually planning what actions you will need to take in order to achieve these goals.
This is where most people fail: They never take the time to sit down and truly think deeply about what sequence of actions they will need to undertake to achieve their goal. They fail to connect their vision of their future with the reality of their present.
To help us address this we refer to our two masters of productivity: Gary Keller, who wrote “The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results” and David Allen, who wrote “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity”.
First of all we need to define specifically what success looks like. This will give us our first cues as to how to get there.
For example, let’s assume your ultimate goal is to become an expert in your industry. Now envision what your professional life would look like if you were THE expert in your field: You would be the keynote speaker at the top conferences in your industry. You would publish books about your area of expertise and you would lecture at a top university.
David Allen refers to this practice as “Outcome Focusing”. He stresses that this is key to getting things done as he explains that
“you can’t really define the right action until you know the outcome you are after”.
So look back at the “some day” goals you outlined above and spend a few minutes on each to envision what your life would look like if you achieved that goal. Write it down. Every detail of it.
You likely will immediately start to feel even more excited about your “some day” goals because you have already made them more “real”. Your goals are no longer just a set of empty words. They now embody a real vision for your future.
Step 4: Connecting your future with your present by developing your day-to-day “next action” plan
In the course of truly envisioning what your life would look like if you achieved each of your goals, you probably started to have ideas about the kind of actions you need to undertake to eventually achieve your goals.
For example, to become an expert in your field, you now realize you need to start a blog to showcase and share your expertise, which then one day sets you up to publish a book. You need to start attending the key conferences in our industry so you can become connected to and informed by the current experts in your field. You probably should also start identifying who the experts are now and find ways to follow what they are doing – for example by following them on Twitter or LinkedIn, reading their books and attending their talks, webinars and lectures whenever you can.
The tricky part is that all of the above ideas are still what David Allen defines as a “project”, which is any desired result that requires more than one action. For example, it takes a lot of separate actions to start a blog. Similarly it takes several actions to become connected to and informed by the current experts in your field.
And this is where most people get unstuck as they fail to define the actions they can do now to move that project forward.
David Allen helps us address this by introducing us to “next action” thinking. This means that we ask ourselves for each of these projects “what is the next physical action I can undertake to move this project forward?”.
We ask and answer this question for each of the “project” ideas that would help us closer to our someday goals. We write each of these “next actions” down on a list. Those are the actions we now need to focus our time and effort on. Once we complete these actions we go back to our project list and ask ourselves “what is the next physical action I can undertake to move this project forward?”
If you repeat this process to inform your daily action planning and thereby your daily productivity, you will start achieving your goals, even those big ones that seemed so hard to achieve.
For example, to start a blog in order to some day be seen as an expert in your field, your first next action may be to find and analyze the blogs of current experts in your field: What do they write about? How often? What are the topics that gain most interest as measured by shares and likes and comments? What platforms do they use to reach the community of people who are interested in your industry?
Once you have completed that “next action”, your “next action” is to outline a plan for your blog: Define the topics for your first 20 blog posts. Assess how much time will you need to write and research each of these posts to help you decide how frequently you can publish a new blog post. Make a list of professional contacts who you could email with a link to your posts to help get them noticed when you first launch your blog. Choose your platform and setup an account
Once that is done, you are ready again for your “next action”. This time you are ready to start researching and writing your first blog post. Once it is finished you probably should ask a peer to review it for you and then you are ready to publish your first blog post. You have now achieved your goal of starting a blog.
I personally really like David Allen’s “next action” method and apply it religiously to plan how I achieve my goals, big and small. In doing so I actually blend in Gary Keller’s focusing question from his book “The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results”, which goes as follows:
What is the ONE thing I can do, such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?
I like using this question to help me define my “next action” as it forces me to really make sure I take the best next action – not just any possible action, but only the next action that if completed successfully, may drive results that make the next action easier.
Another important aspect of Gary Keller’s focusing question is that it focuses on actions you can take – not should or would: It makes me focus only on possible actions.
For example, it may be that one of your projects is to get an MBA in order to achieve one of your “some day” goals. However, your financial and family circumstances may make it impossible for you to pursue an actual full-time MBA. Gary Keller’s focusing question ensures you don’t accept that hurdle as an answer (excuse) and instead forces you to ask “what One Thing can I do to get an MBA, such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” Now your answer may be that you develop your own MBA curriculum by reading and studying the books of top business school professors on all the key MBA topics. Or you decide to investigate what online MBA course options there are for you.
Step 5: Make it happen – even if life throws up some hurdles
Truly envisioning what impact successfully achieving your goals will have on your life and then applying “next action” thinking to clarify and define the actions you need to undertake to get there, are the GAME-CHANGING tools that will help you go from ending a year saying “I wish I had” to “I am glad I did”. So really set aside some time to work through these two critical steps.
Once you have done that, you have made a major move to set yourself up for success. However, the trick will still be in actually undertaking these next actions consistently – one after another.
In the process of defining your “some day” goals you already cleared away the debris of old goals that might have otherwise acted as distractions (remember my Chinese course and my visual thinking course). You will have also decided on some things you will sacrifice (remember the Harvard Classics series that I won’t be reading).
However, many of you will still feel you have so many other things pulling on you. That may be true. But do those things really all matter equally? If you are really seriously committed to these “some day” goals you outlined, then you can make it work.
As Gary Keller points out, you can either choose to be the author of your life or the victim. Life happens to us all. You’ve the choice to use it as an excuse to NOT achieve your goals, or you can accept reality and find a way to still make it happen. That is why I want you to remember the word ‘can’ in Gary Keller’s focusing question. Don’t let your reality stop you from asking the focusing question for each of your some day goals: What ONE thing can I do, such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary? This question does not allow you to use your reality as an excuse. It forces you to find a way to make it work. Be creative. Make it Happen.
There are also a few other threats lurking around that you will need to counter proactively if you want to achieve your goals:
High achievement requires lots of energy.
- Plan carefully when you undertake your “next actions”. Don’t plan them for when you are most tired. For example if you are an early bird like me, then don’t schedule to do your next action on your professional development goal after work when you are tired. On the other hand, if you are a night owl like my partner, then that might work perfectly.
- Don’t mismanage your health. You need your energy, so don’t skip meals or exercise or skimp on sleep. To do your best work you need to be in the best shape of your life.
Don’t go it alone
- It is hard to focus on your priorities, if you’re surrounded by people who don’t support your goals. I would therefore recommend that you make sure to clearly communicate your goals to those closest to you. Explain your goals and what things you will not be doing to enable you to focus on doing the right things. Ask them to be supportive of your choices. For example, you may sacrifice watching Thursday night football with your family so you can take an online course or attend a weekly meet-up of your professional peers in town.
- Ask the people closest to you, either at work or at home, to hold you accountable for moving forward on your projects. For example, schedule a monthly coffee with a peer to review your progress over the last month and to discuss your next actions for each project.
Say NO often and fiercely protect your time and effort.
- Create a workspace that minimizes distraction. Close your email application whilst working, so you don’t get disturbed by notifications of new emails. Turn off your phone. Stack your workspace with some snacks and drinks so you don’t have to leave it and run the risk of getting side-tracked by conversations with colleagues or relatives in the kitchen.
- Really review each request for your time against your purpose and priorities. Your default should be “no” not “yes”. Don’t automatically accept each meeting request. Check what the agenda is and why you need to be there. Don’t automatically accept every task or responsibility that someone else asks you to take on. Review whether you really are the right person to do it or whether it should be delegated to someone else.
Make it a habit
- Spend 5 minutes each day to review your list of “next actions” that are related to the projects that will help you achieve your goals. Decide what actions you can tackle that day. Put it on your calendar to block out time to complete those tasks. And don’t allow people to interrupt you during those time blocks. Remember that these “next actions” as your PRIORITIES. Everything else is a distraction until you have completed that day’s “next actions”. Whatever they called, emailed or came to see you about can usually wait until you are done.
- Spend 1 hour each Sunday to review your list of projects that are related to your “some day” goals. Add new projects if you have good new ideas to help you achieve your “some day” goals. Review the “next actions” that you have completed and think about what the next best action is for each of them.
We hope this blog post helped you achieve a sense of relief, freedom and excitement about the year(s) ahead. Don’t be afraid to dream big. Just make sure to follow through with Outcome Focusing and Next Action Thinking.
If you can dream it, you can achieve it. Really! No excuses accepted.
Step 1: Start with long-term, big goals – your ultimate “some day” goals: Think about your ultimate goals. What are the professional goals you want to achieve some day? It is really important to think far out. Think way beyond your next promotion. What is your ultimate goal?
Step 2: Capture, review and where appropriate integrate your “old” goals: What other goals have you been chasing or intended to pursue in recent years? Do a mental sweep and write them all down on a list. Once you have written them down on your list, review each of them carefully and ask yourself “How does this goal align with the “some day” goals I just outlined?” This process of capturing your old goals and then critically reviewing them against your “some day” goals should lead to renewed clarity about what goals you should continue to pursue and which ones are “out of date” or a distraction. To complete this step you really have to follow through on your decisions by actually stopping any actions related to those outdated goals.
Step 3: Define what successfully achieving these goals REALLY looks like: Look back at the “some day” goals you outlined above and spend a few minutes on each to envision what your life would look like if you achieved that goal. Write it down. Every detail of it. You likely will immediately start to feel even more excited about your some day goals because you have already made them more “real”. Your goal is no longer just a set of empty words. They now embody a real vision for your future.
Step 4: Connecting your future with your present by developing your day-to-day “next action” plan: Ask yourselves for each of your projects “what is the next physical action I can undertake to move this project forward?” Write each of these “next actions” down on a list. Those are the actions you now need to focus your time and effort on. Once you complete these actions you go back to your project list and ask yourselves “what is the next physical action I can undertake to move this project forward?” If you repeat this process to inform your daily action planning and thereby your daily productivity, you will start achieving your goals even those big ones that seemed so hard to achieve.
Step 5: Make it happen – even if life throws up some hurdles
- Choose to be the author of your life, not the victim: Life happens to us all. You’ve the choice to use it as an excuse to NOT achieve your goals, or you can accept reality and find a way to still make it happen.
- High achievement requires lots of energy: Time your next actions for when you have the most energy and don’t skip meals or exercise or skimp on sleep. To do your best work you need to be in the best shape of your life.
- Don’t go it alone:Make sure to clearly communicate your goals to those closest to you. Explain your goals and what things you will not be doing to enable you to focus on doing the right things. Ask them to be supportive of your choices
- Say ‘no’ often and fiercely protect your time and effort: Create a workspace that minimizes distraction and really review each request for your time against your purpose and priorities. Your default should be “no” not “yes”.
- Make it a habit: Spend 5 minutes each day to review your list of “next actions” that are related to the projects that will help you achieve your goals. Spend 1 hour each Sunday to review your list of projects that are related to your “some day” goals.
Read more: The Success Quality All Great Leaders Share
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