When I write down my goals, I get this rush of excitement for what the new year will bring. And then it hits me like a wave.
Overwhelm. Fear that they’re pretty big goals, and I’ve got a long way to go to make them happen.
Everyone who’s ever read a productivity book knows the solution: Set as many goals as you’d like, but only focus on one at a time.
Sounds simple. On paper it makes sense. But no one talks about the elephant in the room:
How the hell do you expect to make an impact when you’re ONLY focusing on ONE thing? It seems unrealistic. There’s so much to do that single tasking can appear to be a pipe dream people get to once they “make it”.
While we know the best got where they are by single tasking, this nagging thought will derail us.
So let’s dive in and handle it once and for all.
After reading my guide to Ultimate Productivity for Online Entrepreneurs, a reader emailed me and asked:
On the one hand, anyone who’s good at getting things done and I asked how they do it, the answer is always – just one thing at a time. And it’s clear why.
On the other hand, say, you have two big goals: 1) Creating your business 2) Working on personal life.
Perhaps focusing on one thing at a time would accelerate your progress, i.e. you would complete it faster. At the same time, both take significant time to accomplish hence life is one-sided for a while if you focus on just one thing.
So when it comes to big goals in different areas of life, wouldn’t it help to have two at once?
The short answer, Varvara, is that focusing on one thing at a time doesn’t mean you ONLY make progress on one thing.
Achieving a goal means more than crossing a finish line. It means you installed a method for consistently achieving that goal over time.
While there are methods you can use to best phrase your goals, there are many articles out there that cover S.M.A.R.T. goals. We’ll instead cover executing on them.
And that starts by first getting over what my friend Margo likes to call “Hustle Guilt”.
Hustle Guilt: “Everyone else is getting so much more work done, I can’t just focus on ONE thing”
Facebook feeds are the worst for motivation.
It’s amazing for keeping up with your friends.
But when you see your friends bragging about the latest product they released…
Or the amazing podcast they produced…
Or that they crossed a revenue goal and are currently on their way to Acapulco to celebrate…
It seems like everyone is accomplishing SO much more than we are. And even if we’re working our hardest now, we start to feel guilty that we’re not doing enough.
Which makes it tempting to think that focusing on one goal at a time just won’t cut it.
We’ll dive into how to resolve this in a bit. But let’s talk about the second half of the guilt — the fear we’ll be too one-dimensional.
Unbalanced Guilt: “Focusing on just one goal will make me a single workaholic”
Then there’s the concern that by focusing on a career-related goal that you’re ignoring your relationships. Or by taking up a new hobby that you’re stealing time away from working on your career.
But when we say we’re focusing on our most important goal, we aren’t ignoring other things.
Sure, by focusing on one thing, you’re NOT focusing on another thing. But you’re not spending every waking hour on that thing.
You don’t go to the gym and think: “I don’t want to do squats… then my legs will get stronger before my arms do.” You’d never get started working out, fearing you’d get stronger in any one area.
Instead, you may focus on having one day focusing on legs, then the next session work on your chest as your legs rest.
It’s the same with your goals.
You Achieve Goals by Putting Systems in Place, not Just Crossing a Finish Line
Imagine Bob, who set a New Year’s Resolution that he’s going to work hard and lose 20 pounds.
Bob does everything he can to lose that fat. He starts a serious diet and sticks to it. His friends invite him out for drinks, but he declines, opting to go to the gym instead.
Then one morning, he steps onto the scale and feels a rush up his spine — he’s lost 25 pounds!
But then the next month, he’s on to the next goal. Exercise is no longer his main focus. He’s dedicated his willpower elsewhere.
As things get stressful at work, he skips a gym session. He’s stopped cooking, and starts ordering in more. He didn’t take the time to make these habits solid in his mind. He forced himself to do these things back when exercise was his sole focus.
Before he knows it, he’s gained the weight back.
Was he successful at achieving his goal? No. He may have crossed a finish line, but his goal wasn’t achieved.
This is because goals aren’t end results alone. Achieving a goal is about putting systems or routines in place that makes this goal your new NORM.
We’ve all been through a version of this story at some point, where we’ve mistaken the end result for the goal.
- We clean our living room and declutter with a few bursts of work… only to find ourselves gathering more crap.
- We get better at staying in touch with friends… then we find ourselves back to our old habits.
- We set budgets we stick to for a few weeks… then we start slipping and overspend on drinks and dining out for the 2nd month in a row.
So each goal should not only entail a set end goal, but a consistent system or routine that maintains that goal.
- For a few months, you focus on increasing traffic to your site.
- As those guest posts bring in that traffic, you start working on spending more time with your friends.
- You schedule regular “Game Nights” and start hosting your friends to make this goal a new norm in your life.
I have three points of advice to help you make each goal set you up to succeed at your next one.
Each Goal Creates Waves You Ride to Achieve the Next One
As we’ve covered, a goal is about achieving a new norm we want in our life. We do this by installing SYSTEMS and HABITS to maintain that new way of living.
At first, we have to “muscle” the results before we can systematize them. We need to do some heavy lifting to dig our canals before we can make the water run where we want it to automatically.
Let’s go through two examples of setting goals and creating systems to make them a regular part of your life.
GOAL: To double the size of your mailing list.
When I started building my list, I had to do some hard work before I could systematize anything:
- I would write new fresh content *I* would want to read and share.
- I began writing guest posts and other content to get people to discover my philosophy.
- I spent regular time in online communities and writing short articles to help others with their problems. I still do this.
- As I gained subscribers, I scheduled calls and met up with readers to better understand their dreams & their struggles.
Now don’t get me wrong — I’m Captain System. I love automating as much as I can. But when you’re starting to build your canals, you have to do a lot of manual work to begin. You have to do work that doesn’t scale.
But over time, those guest posts start creating a stream of traffic. And my guides start helping more people enough that they want to learn more. And then I can start focusing on my next big challenge.
Let’s do one more example.
GOAL: To travel to Singapore this year.
I choose this example because it will highlight what we’ve been going over. Take a moment and think of a place you’d like to visit. Do you REALLY want to travel so you can say you went to that place? Unlikely.
You’re more likely to hope that trip will mean something more. You may like exposures to new culture, good food, or new activities. You may find these things on one trip to Singapore, but it’s unlikely to sate your need for travel for long.
It pays, then, to look at your deeper reason for why you’re traveling. For me, I don’t like city gazing… but I LOVE doing activities wherever I go.
- Surfing in Oahu, Hawaii
- Zip lining in Nosara, Costa Rica
- Kitesurfing in St. Kitts & Nevis
So I created a checklist of sites I use to make researching these adventures easier. Over time, I outsourced much of this research to Fancy Hands to reduce my work for future travel planning.
Each Goal has a Ripple Effect: It’s Impossible to Create Just One Thing
It’s a law of nature. No matter how hard you try, every action has an equal yet opposite reaction.
It’s IMPOSSIBLE to create just one thing.
Last year, I pushed myself to improve my persuasive writing skills. I read about copywriting and storytelling. I took courses on screenplays and sketch writing. And I found these skills shared one characteristic in common: empathy.
To write great copy, you must improve your listening skills. You need to be able to hear not only what’s being said, but what’s NOT being said. You show you care by digging deeper into what they’re saying. And so they share more. Then you connect with them through personal stories, successes, and failures.
As my writing got better, I found my relationships got closer. My dating life started becoming far more satisfying as I was learning more about my dates.
In this case, I focused on persuasive writing – and with it, my relationships grew.
Give Up Rigidity: Set Quarterly Goals Instead
Last year, I gave up on annual goals. They’ve never worked for me. Instead, I opted to focus on a quarterly system – 90-day goals.
First, I envision what I want in health, relationships, skills, career, personal development, and fun. I find this framework helps me keep my goals aimed at a central beacon.
But then I’ll set concrete goals, one at a time, for the next 3 months. I find anything longer than 3 months is easy to put off. I always think that I have plenty of time to complete the task… until I find myself at the end of the year looking at my goals and saying, “Oh damn, guess I have a month to accomplish this!!!”
But another reason I like 90 Day Goals is that it makes you flexible. You never have to worry that 2018 will be “The Year I Killed My Social Life” — your next goal is only 90 days from now.
Most times, you’ll find that most goals won’t even take the full quarter to complete.
I found that one of my friends wanted the same thing I did – to stay in touch with our friends more often.
As a result, we started planning dinner parties to stay connected with them.
Along with these goals, I created a few systems to ensure I’m always keeping up with my friends:
- Syncing the Facebook Event calendar to my Google Calendar for easy review of upcoming events I can attend.
- I read a few books, like The Four Hour Chef, to learn how to host better dinner parties.
- Setting 5 minutes in the evening to send a thoughtful text to someone I care about.
All this took a few weeks to put into place, in a way that keeps connection with my friends top-of-mind and a new norm for me.
- There’s always this pressure that “one thing at a time” isn’t enough. But when done right, we set ourselves up for future wins.
- Build Systems and Habits to make goals the new norm in your life. This creates waves you can ride into your future goals.
- Don’t stress that focusing on one goal will make you stale in other areas. Your systems should maintain those other areas, and you’ll naturally improve your whole life as you achieve it.
- Set your goals in 90 day increments, so you can focus on something else in a few weeks.