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There are a lot of methodologies for doing more and doing things faster.

The problem is that you end up doing the wrong things faster.

At the other end of the scale you set many important goals, but too many, so you end up not getting any where.

Are there any formal methods for setting and balancing goals?

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6 Answers 6

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Michael Masterson (most recent book is The Pledge) has a tiered goal-setting strategy something like this (doing it from memory now):

  • Long-term (7-year) goals (only a few of these)
  • Annual goals that support the long-term goals
  • Monthly goals that support the annual goals
  • Weekly goals that support the monthly goals
  • Daily goals that support the weekly goals

It's top-down, so you make sure you're doing the right things rather than the wrong things, but you choose the most important ones, and work consistently toward those every day.

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I've seen the SMART criteria help in the definition of goals, which is orthogonal to lots of advice about setting goals.

SMART doesn't identify the level (e.g. GTDs "runway" vs. "50,000 ft" horizons of focus) or time-frame (e.g. weekly, 7-year) in which you should specify goals, but the criteria for evaluating whether a goal is well-formed. SMART goals are:

  • Specific - Have you clearly identified an unambiguous thing to accomplish? Look for cliches or vague language in your definition of the goal. A good way to test specificity is to see if you can come up with a next action.
  • Measurable - How will you know when the goal is reached? I think about this attribute as a test criteria to be passed.
  • Achievable - If it's not something that you believe you can actually accomplish then you're either going to subconsciously sabotage yourself or set yourself up for failure. Good goals can be a stretch, but you have to believe success is possible.
  • Relevant - Is this something worth doing. It is in service of a higher goal or principle? There are lots of specific, measurable and achievable things in life--lots of them aren't worth doing.
  • Time-phased - What is the deadline for completion of the goal. Deadlines are used as a baseline for evaluating achievability and serve as a motivational aid.

This can then be extended to SMARTER, as a reminder that goals serve little purpose if you don't regularly Evaluate and Re-evaluate your progress.

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Good pick! This can also be extended into SMARTER where E is evaluation and R is re-evaluation. See wiki article for more info and references: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SMART_criteria –  Dmitry Selitskiy Jun 28 '11 at 0:41
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+1 for Time-phased. A goal without a deadline is nothing more than a wish. –  Todd Williamson Jun 28 '11 at 22:25
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I'm not an expert, but this is a topic I am very interested in. Here are some of my suggestions. Take them with a rather large grain of salt.

  • When determining goals, think about how achieving the goal will improve your life. This is somewhat similar to the suggestion of envisioning your own funeral (but less morbid). If you want to achieve X in one year, how will your life be different/better next year. I think this can be useful for whittling down the list.
  • The SMART suggestion is a good one. However, I think its important to note that if you're stated goal doesn't seem to fit SMART don't assume its a bad goal but rather re-think and re-word the goal so that it is SMART. The point being that SMART is a way to prompt you to improve your goals, not to discourage you from setting them or weed them out.
  • This may seem obvious, but ask yourself if its something you truly want to accomplish. For example, if you say you want to be in better shape, ask yourself why. Is it because its what you really want because you want to hike the Appalachian trail, or because you feel guilty about being unattractive? I feel like setting goals that you have a positive motivation for is much more productive.
  • I'm currently using the 5-year, 1-year, and 3-month approach. Its top-down, but I'm not interested in setting goals per se at a very low level of detail. I also feel like keeping your goals and tasks tied together in some way is probably a good thing for practical reasons. For example, I'm currently using an online gtd app with each goal being a project, my milestones being notes within the project, and tasks filled out for the stuff that needs to get done. It may not be the intended use of the app and gtd, but oh well.

I hope something in there helps...

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Stephen Covey in his Seven habits book has an interesting method whereby you imagine yourself sitting at your own funeral. Think about what you would like your family members, work colleagues, members of the community to say about you.

Use this to help determine which goals are truly important to you.

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The book "Your best year yet" by Jinny S. Ditzler uses 10 questions to help you create goals for the next year.

It is clearly influenced by the seven habits and can be a good way to get started.

 1. What did I accomplish?

 2. What were my biggest disappointments?

 3. What did I learn?

 4. How do I limit myself, and how can I stop?

 5. What are my personal values?

 6. What roles do I play in my life?

 7. Which role is my major focus for the next year?

 8. What are my goals for each role?

 9. What are my Top Ten Goals for the next year?

 10. How can I make sure I achieve my Top Ten Goals?

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One simple, semi-formal method is to lay out your tasks, projects and things to do in a 4 quadrant matrix, a priority matrix. The top quadrants are for critical (i.e. important) stuff, whereas the left quadrants are for immediate (urgent) things. Thinking through where each item belongs is invaluable in deciding what to do next, while keeping long term goals in mind. You should treat each quadrant like this:

  1. Critical and immediate: Do right now, yourself. Stuff in this quadrant should be the exception, not the norm.
  2. Critical but not immediate: Block time to work on these items at the peak hours of the day, without interruptions and with good disposition. These are the things that make or break your career and your personal life.
  3. Not critical, but immediate: Stuff here needs to be done right now, but you can delegate it. Do you have an assistant that can help? Can it be outsourced or automated? At the very least, can you do this in between meetings or when you know you won't be productive anyway?
  4. Not critical and not immediate: You can use this quadrant as your inbox, a place to write things down and forget about them for the time being. It buys you peace of mind to know that you have a place where all your chores, tasks and ideas are captured, no matter how minute. Periodically, you can review them and decide if they need to be promoted to another quadrant, or if you want to just delete/archive them for good.

This method offers a good compromise between structured paradigms like GTD and extremely simple, but not so effective tools like traditional to do lists.

I should end with the disclaimer that I'm a developer of Priority Matrix, a tool for iOS, Mac and Windows, that implements this method.

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