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Photo By: Thomas Grams
In The Strangest Secret1, Earl Nightingale draws upon the similarity of the un-directed human mind and a crew-less vessel, both flotsam in life and destined to eventually end up “derelict” with no destination of any significance. If you haven’t watch the aforementioned video then give it a listen (it’s more-so a recording), you might find it encouraging or at the very least, interesting.
Now to piggy-back off of the previously released blog posts series that I published based on my general physical fitness regimen; I find that any sense of success or lack of success that I’ve had in this area is in direct relationship with the directed-ness of my actions and the presence of clearly defined goals. Honestly, if it wasn’t for the presence of a strict workout plan or order to remove the guess-work when I entered the gym; I probably wouldn’t have stuck with going to the gym for over ten years now.
You probably know people like this and maybe you’ve experienced this yourself.
You walk into the gym,
“What should I work out today? Chest? What exercises should I do? Bench Press? I guess I’ll do some sets of I dunno, 8…no. 5 reps?”
Now your mental energy is split between making it through your workout and making up your workout as you’re having to make a new creative decision every step of the way. Ignoring the exception of fitness gurus who prefer this listen to your body and make it up as you go approach, you’ll notice most experienced lifters recommend having a clear directed order to your time spent in the gym. Otherwise, you’ll soon find yourself frustrated by the lack of progress and eventually you’ll quit altogether.
Unsurprisingly, I think this metaphor translates to other aspects of your life as well. Simply said, it is ideal to have a clear directed order of events to your day. Not to belittle the magical moments of spontaneity or to impress upon you some robotic and emotionless routine. I understand that some major breakthroughs in progress do tend to take place in moments of free-form abstract thought; however I find that the most common case of un-directed order results in constant thought/task-switching, overwhelming anxiousness, and the eventual resignation in defeat followed by the surrender to meaningless consumption habits before the existential dread takes over (and stranger still, you feel exhausted mentally and physically despite having nothing to show for it).
This isn’t anything new. The entire enterprise of checklists is built upon the concept of providing at least some sort of order to your daily actions. Books such as The ONE Thing2 preach about the importance of organizing your day around time blocks or allocated blocks of time where you strictly focus on a specific task. The popular Getting Things Done3 method involves implementing a system to always supply you with tasks to direct your focus and action toward completing; setting aside a time each week to reflect upon your goals and organize your days accordingly. These methods, also including the Pomodoro Technique4 work on the smaller level of encouraging focus on specific tasks (given a specified time limit) that comprise the order and structure that directs your actions for that specific day.
Now returning to my physical fitness example described above, I’ll speak about a trap that I commonly fell into. I had a routine. I knew exactly what I was to accomplish from an exercises/sets/reps combination once I had entered the gym and I knew which day meant which workout. And I followed accordingly. Months, years even would pass and ultimately nothing would change. Sometimes I would switch up the routine and then continue.
For starters, what exactly was I hoping to accomplish? If I didn’t know then I had no right to complain. Yet, despite this, I wasn’t happy with my lack of progress. Progress entails some sort of goal. A terminating point, a end to my means.
I want to be stronger.
I want to look better physically.
Those are at least a start. They’re incredibly vague but perhaps they spark some sort of motivation.
I want to have a 405lb squat.
I want to be 220lbs and 10% bodyfat.
That’s definitely much better and much more specific but it’s missing a detail.
I want to have a 405lb squat by [insert date]
I want to be 220lbs and 10% bodyfat by [insert date].
Realistic expectations aside, adding a specific time frame to your specific goal provides a clear constraint that removes the trap of finding yourself on an endless treadmill working toward a goal that is continuously moving away from you.
This carries over to other aspects of your life. No wonder vague notions of “I want to be wealthy.” result in continuous disappointment.
These are the two attributes of a GREAT Question as described in the book, The ONE Thing. This is also what it means to have a clearly defined goal as is often repeated in personal development literature about goal setting. Having a clearly defined goal allows you to envision the results much better and thus conjure up the willpower in moments of limited energy or motivation.
Also, a clearly defined goal gives a definite and clear terminating point to direct the creation of your road map toward, the road map that determines the tasks and order of tasks that I covered previously. It also gives you an objective point when you may have to change this road map due to any/all obstacles that you encounter along your progression to the goal. The Getting Things Done system focuses on these long-term goals as projects and encourages you to define the end goal of the project and also the individual task steps to approach and complete this end goal at the outset of each new project. Similarly, The ONE Thing encourages you to break down the project or long-term goal into a series of progressive steps or tasks, starting from the end result and continuing to the very first and smallest step (this exercise is called goal-setting).
So far, I have discussed the simple concept of organizing and directing your actions toward specific long term goals. However, humans are multi-faceted beings whose enterprise may cover many different areas with each area sharing multiple long term goals that may or may not compete with each other over the limited resources of that person’s time and focus. Zig Ziglar popularized this concept in his Wheel of Life5, a rough guideline for dividing your goals between seven different areas of your life to achieve a balanced ideal of success.
These areas include:
Some people attempt to mesh all the categories into an overall Life Mission Statement that they continuously revisit and sometimes revise to give a general guidance to their goal setting efforts.
Sometimes it seems like a lot of these techniques are almost tyrannical and oppressive to the spirit in application, attempting to boil down your life and actions to a cold, calculated, emotionless automaton. I think that there is some credibility to this criticism. There definitely is a balancing act between that extreme and a directionless, nihilistic existence. Life also has a way of making folly with long-term goals and plans so adaptability is a requirement. Despite these realities, I believe that intentional and directed actions based upon a path illuminated with a clear and precise vision offer the best chances of living a satisfying life.
Is there a perfect framework for goal setting and management?
Probably not. Though, I’ve attempted to mesh together a few popular techniques and systems that you can further explore through the links below. Additionally, there are many tools available to help you manage this aspect of your life. Personally I recommend Evernote for general note taking and ToDoist for project and task management.
 - The ONE Thing Book Notes
 - Getting Things Done
 - Pomodoro Technique
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