One of the deadliest mistakes in a young person’s career is the absence of goals. Goals give you something to work towards, something to measure your success against, and something to give you structure. Setting goals is a brilliant catalyst for action.
For example, let’s take two cases. In the first case, you get up on a Saturday morning and you make a to-do list – your goals for the day. Your list may look something like “clean my room, do the laundry, read three chapters of Zero to One, go grocery shopping.”
In the second case, you get up on a Saturday morning and you don’t make a to-do list. You may be aware that your room is dirty, or that you’re low on food in the fridge, but you don’t consciously think about needing to do them. You may be vaguely aware that your time would be well-spent if you did some reading, but you don’t have any particular objective.
In the first scenario (example A), you’re much more likely to be productive and make tangible progress towards your goals.
Once you set goals, it’s entirely within your power to execute on them. You want to be a professional writer? You can make that happen. Do you want to start a marketing agency? A drop-shipping business? Become top in a fast-growing startup in the sales department? All of these things are attainable. But you need to put in the work to make them happen. There are three key components this requires:
- A vision
- A plan
Most people’s goals remain as goals and never become achievements because they’re not executing in one (or more) of these three areas. They either lack focus in what they want, or they don’t have a plan to execute, or they lack the discipline to actually put in the work.
A small note: don’t be terrified by the word “goals.” It’s synonymous neither with “commitment” nor “trapped.” Your goals don’t limit you. By setting goals, you aren’t building a cage around yourself and hemming yourself in.
Step 1: A Vision
You must always begin by clearly defining what you want.
- Clearly Identify What the Goal Is. One of the biggest killers of achievement is ambiguity. I hear young people make ambiguous statements all the time — “I want to be a marketer,” or “I want to be a writer.” These are good first steps, but they aren’t enough.
- Be Very Specific. Let’s say you’re a young person with a writing dream. Great. What specifically does that mean? Are there benchmarks you can measure success against — perhaps the work of other writers you admire, or the publication standards of a magazine you respect? What specific types of content do you want to create?
- Again, don’t feel hemmed in by these specifications. It’s okay to change them later. Your focus will evolve as you move through the process – that’s normal.
- For example: you may start out with the goal of becoming a well-known author on Medium, only to find as you gain more writing experience that you’re fascinated by copywriting. Because you already have lots of writing practice under your belt, making the transition to copywriting is easy, and you only discovered you liked copywriting in the first place because you were exposed to it by researching one of your Medium articles.
Step 2: A Plan
Once you’ve clearly defined what you want, you need to make a plan for making it happen. The more tangible you can make this part, the better.
- Make a Timeline. Nearly as deadly as not having a goal at all is having a goal that doesn’t have a specific target date. “I want to be a marketer . . . someday.” There’s zero incentive to move towards that goal in any specific time frame, and this makes procrastination incredibly easy. “I’ll do it tomorrow. That’s not failing to achieve my goal.”
- Go back to the goal you’ve set and add at the end a target date. “I want to be x by x time.” Now your goal is finite, and now you’ve added another dimension to your measure of success — the measure of time.
- Break Your Timeline into Segments. This is especially important for bigger goals. Breaking your plan into bite-sized chunks is important, because realistically, you can only focus on one piece at a time.
- Make a Schedule. Google Calendar is great for this (and it’s a tool I’d recommend every young person familiarize themselves with. Knowing how to use Google Calendar is imperative for scheduling professional meetings, and it’s immensely valuable for organizing your own time).
- Block off time on your schedule each day to work. Google Calendar has a great feature that allows you to set reminder notifications to tell you when events and time blocks are coming up. Use it.
- Don’t Overplan. Adhere to all of the above steps, but don’t get lost in the process. This is an easy place to get stuck in an endless feedback loop of planning and re-planning – i.e., procrastination. Don’t. Try setting a time limit while you make your plan, and force yourself to move on when you hit it. You can always make changes later. Right now, you need to launch very quickly from planning to action.
Step 3: Discipline
Even if you’ve successfully made it through steps one and two, you’re far from being home free. This last step is where the work actually happens, and it’s also where it’s easiest to get bogged down and lose the game.
Discipline is hard. It requires showing up again, and again, and again – relentlessly hammering away at your goals until you form them in the shape you desire. And as Steven Pressfield discusses in The War of Art, resistance – the force standing in the way of you doing the things you want to do – is strong. Even the laws of physics can be applied – do you remember learning about inertia in high school? A body at rest stays at rest.
To attain your goals – or, if you want to sound heroic, to battle the laws of physics – you must practice discipline.
- Adhere to Your Schedule. Making your schedule is not enough. You must stick to it. Make breaking your commitments a non-negotiable in your mind – it is not an option, ever. If you have 2-5 blocked off on your calendar every day to practice your writing, then from 2-5 you entertain no other possibilities but to write.
- Make Yourself Publicly Accountable. This is a good trick to force yourself into action. Tell people what you’re working on. The higher the external stakes, the harder it is for you to cop out. Far more than we hate failing in front of ourselves, we hate failing in front of others.
- Find an Accountability Partner. This one is huge (and it’s one of my favorites). See the above, about failing in front of others. You can always tell yourself “I’ll do it tomorrow” – your own self completely understands why you’d much rather go finish binge watching the last season of Westworld and save your work for later. It’s much harder to make those same excuses to someone else. You don’t want to come up short when someone else is watching, and you don’t want to let them down.
- Make the above-mentioned schedule and send it to your accountability partner.
Bonus Step 4: Maintain Your Focus
I.e. refer to steps 1-3 regularly.
It’s easy when you’re in the middle of the process to lose focus. Make sure you’re regularly checking back on your vision, and make sure you’re touching base with (and tweaking, if necessary) your schedule. Keep all of these things where they’re easy to reference, and refer to them often.