When I was in school, I was the standard nerd looser: fat, never made it with the ladies, bad grades in sports and good grades in everything else. In my free time, I’d rather spend time playing videogames alone than with other people or doing any form of physical activities.
Fast-forward many years, and a few weeks ago I completed my first street race, successfully running 5 km in under 30 min:
What allowed me to do this is that completing a 5 km race was of one of my goals for this year, and I’ve developed a system to effectively review and achieve my goals.
This post is about this system.
Why goal setting is important
I’m slightly obsessed with goal setting because this forces me to focus time on things that are important. It’s very easy to spend time working on whatever seems urgent or even interesting right now, without getting long term value out of these activities.
As a practical example, I love studying programming, and I often fantasize about droping many of my projects and dedicating myself to studying open CS courses. However, being a world-renowmed programmer isn’t one of my goals, while being the best researcher I can be is. Studying programming in depth may help, but I have to balance this with other important skills, like keeping up with the literature, writing quality papers, studying theory; taking time out of these activities to dedicate myself only to programming, as interesting as it sounds, might be actually detrimental to my goals. Hence, I resist such urges and remind myself that I have more important things to do.
Music is another example of activity that was almost completely eliminated from my life as part of these exercises. Whenever I brainstorm my goals, “being a musician” never comes out. I learned the keyboard and the guitar when I was younger, but I can’t justify any time invested into it. Same thinking as with programming: it would certainly be fun re-learning to play the guitar, or even learning a new instrument, but this requires time to be extracted from more valuable activities. Having a solid lifelong relationship with my wife is top-priority, so I’d rather spend time on activies that help with that (such as cooking nice dinners, watching movies, traveling). I can also exercise my creativity by reading and writing — “being a writer” is definitely a goal of mine!
Routines to do reviews
My system for tracking goals comes from three main resources:
- The book Vida Organizada, by Thais Godinho (in Portuguese; an English translation of the title would be Organized Life). I was already familiar with David Allen’s GTD method, but this opened my mind to a top-down approach of setting up projects: first, think about what you to accomplish in life; then, break this vision into things you can accomplish this year, this month, this week, until you can define day-to-day projects that will ultimately make you achieve the broader goals
- Getting Results the Agile Way, a poorly-written book with a strong emphasis on simplifying task lists. David Allen advises against setting priorities for a day or week because they will inevitably change, but this book teached me to do it anyway in the simplest form: for any time frame, select 3 main goals, and work first on that.
- The work of Kourosh Dini in general, especially his emphasis on routines.
As I will describe, these goals are set, tracked and updated regularly, and instead of just wishing to do so I actually have calendar appointments. I have a special calendar in Google Calendar named Habits, and I have periodical all-day appointments that serve as reminders to what I would like to do in certain times of the year. This will become clearer in the next section.
Goals by horizons
The first time I seriously did the exercise of imagining myself when I’m 100 years old was after I read the Vida Organizada book, and it was the beginning of my goal-setting system. Thais is a GTD master trainer, and in the GTD system we have horizons of focus:
- Life principles, things that we want to cultivate through our entire life
- Vision, a scenario in which we see ourselves in the span of 5-10 years
- Goals, things we want to accomplish in the next 2-3 years
So the first step in setting goals is doing a giant brainstorming and writing down your principles, your vision and your goals. In your deathbed, what do you want to have accomplished, so that you will have lived a happy life? And to do that, how should you be in 5 years? And to do that, what must you do in the next two years?
I like mind maps for this kind of exercise, and I use MindMeister for creating mind maps. I like the free form of brainstorming these broader goals, and I agree with Thais that it’s an apt analogy that we can use mind maps to map our life. My broader goals are reviewed at my Annual Review, which is a routine I like to do by December 27-28th every year. I open this mind map, I check to see if I agree with these principles and vision, and I update my short-term goals. For instance, in 2016 I set up my two-year goals, and so in the end of 2017 I will track how these goals arere going and what should I change in my life to really accomplish them by the end of 2018.
The important thing to distinguish these broader goals from other levels is that are very free and “dream”-like. There is nothing SMART about them, and they are just things I want to do: defend my PhD thesis, get married, buy a house, start a family, become a published author.
Things become more specific when I define my annual goals — which brings me to the next section.
As part of my Annual Review, I sit down and think about long and short term goals. To think of goals in increments in two years gives me plenty of time to plan; however, as the year begins, we can break these goal into more manageable things. We all read things about how New Year’s Resolutions are bound to fail because they are too vague and are not followed by a specific plan; but I still like the ritual of thinking about year that is beginning.
That’s why I’ve adopted a simplification: I simply set 3 outcomes for the year, based on my two-year goals. For instance: when I did this exercise in 2016, I realized that in two years I want to complete my PhD; this is very broad thing that can’t be done in one year, but what can I do that will help with that? Well, I can aim for publishing at least four papers in journals or conferences this year (current status: one published, one accepted for a conference, one with my supervisors for corrections and another one being planned).
Because annual goals are much more simple, straight to the point, and actually accomplishable, I’ve being using Todoist for this sort of thing. I have a “project” called Outcomes for the year, in which I have 3 tasks represeting my desired outcomes. I have to confess: I felt an enourmous pleasure checking out the box for my task/goal of “Completing a 5 km race”.
In addition to the Annual Review, I like to track these outcomes (together with the broader goals) in a Season Review, which I do quarterly. While in the annual review I dream big, in the season review I mainly check on things and plan accordingly. I might even update my yearly outcomes. For instance, in my last seasonal review I noticed that I had an annual goal that was completely out of sync with my current life, and so I changed to something that I actually can do this year and that still contributes to my life vision.
And that is one key to this whole system: you cannot be afraid of changing goals and questioning your original plans. They are a map, not a strict algorithm. For instance, completing the race was not related to any life principles, but it was something I really wanted to do this year. Upon reflection, I realized that being fit and healthy is an important value to me, and thus my mind map was updated accordingly.
One last thing about annual goals: I think it’s important to include multiple areas of focus. I’m in a phase where I really need to focus on my career — I’m entering my last year as a PhD and I’m in the middle of an external stay in Denmark — so two of my goals are professional-related. But I included one very personal goal — namely, completing the race — to make sure I advance on other projects as well. If I already had a more stable job, I would possibly include other areas: family, home and personal projects etc.
This is an area where I still need to improve. Similar to my annual outcomes, I like to set monthly outcomes, but many times I’ve encountered a problem: a month is at the same time too long, so I feel I can do a lot of things (there are 25 working days!), and too short, so I’m always a little bit stressed when the month is ending and I haven’t done all I wanted. But anyways, here is my system.
Some day in the last week of a month, I sit down and plan the next month in my Monthly Review. I look at my calendar and my list of projects, to see what needs to be completed; being in the academic world the critical deadlines are papers to submit to conferences and presentations to deliver at various events, but I also need to advance on things what will reflect on the conclusion of my thesis in 2018. I brainstorm all outcomes, answering this question: “if the next month ends, what would make me feel like it was a good month?”.
Inspired by the previously mentioned Getting Results the Agile Way, I’m experimenting with Must, Should, Could priorization, but I don’t think it’s very effective. The important thing is that I have a list in Todoist called Outcomes for the month (see figure above) in which I list all this monthly goals, and because a month has that weird length I cannot reduced to 3 outcomes.
The monthly goals are reviewed weekly, during my Weekly Review. Based on my monthly goals, I set up my…
At this point, I find a week the perfect time frame to plan things. I already know what I can accomplish in a week, because I know my habits and I don’t have a crazy schedule with lots of appointments. The Weekly Review is a centerpiece of the GTD method and I will not go into its details in this post; my point here is that planning the next week is how my close my weekly review and consequently how I finish my work week. When I’m done with that, I feel ready to freshly start a new week.
Based on my monthly outcomes, I set up 3 goals for the next week; and every day, I work on projects that will contribute with these three goals. If the week goes extremely well and I accomplish these goals before Friday, I set up new ones. In addition, what seems important on Monday may have to give room to other things on Wednesday. The main point of this system is to avoid a situation where on a given day I have a laundry list of things to do, but I have no idea which are the most important. Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.
Also, because I may have multiple monthly goals, I may alternate between them in different weeks. For instance, if I have several professional outcomes to accomplish, some financial problems to solve and other personal projects, then on the first week I will choose three of them and try to advance the most I can do; on the following week, I will start attacking other outcomes. And naturally, if an outcome has a strict deadline (like submitting a paper), I will insert next actions with due dates in Todoist, and then even if it’s not one of my weekly outcomes I will deal with that on the required day.
For reasons of habit, my weekly goals are listed in an Evernote note, where I maintain a rough plan for the week, including a very basic meal plan and some miscellaneous notes.
So there you have it. Every year, every quarter, every month and every week I set goals for the next period. I am so serious about this that I have calendar events to remind myself to do these reviews at certain days:
- Every year, in my Annual Review, I think about my short- and long-term goals, and I set 3 outcomes for the year to come
- Every three months, when the season changes, I do my Season Review, where I check to see how my goals and yearly outcomes are going and if I need to change something
- Every month, I do my Monthly Review, where I decide my monthly outcomes that will lead to my annual goals
- Every week I do the Weekly Review, where I actually manage my day-to-day projects, focusing on three weekly goals that will contribute to the higher-levels goals. Ultimately, every day I focus on advancing on three projects, and because of all these reviews I can be sure that they are not a waste of time.
If you don’t believe me, take the advice from CGP Grey: reviewing goals is the key to a successful life.