A Guide to Setting Goals & Maximizing Productivity

 

I've been a goal-setter for as long as I can remember...but I haven't always been the best at setting goals or practices that make the most sense.

After years of of trying different productivity hacks and experimenting with various apps, I've found that—at the end of the day—simplicity is key.

You don't necessarily need the fanciest apps or the most detailed plans to achieve your goals. You will need to practice basic goal-setting principles, track your progress, and most importantly, figure out what works best for you.

If you've set ambitious goals for yourself but struggle to achieve them, here's a list of tips to help you stick to your goals, maximize productivity, and achieve personal success:

 

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1. Write everything down.

 
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First, write down all your big goals on paper and make sure to get everything out of your head. Then, think about why you want to achieve the goals that stand out to you the most. For example:

  • "I want to start a business so that I can set my own hours and spend more time with the kids."
  • "I want to set aside X amount of dollars every month so that I can finally go on a backpacking trip to Europe with my childhood friends (who I rarely get to see)."
  • "I want to sign up for Toastmasters so that I can overcome my fear of public speaking and perform well at work."

In recent years, studies have shown that writing down your goals increases your chances of achieving them. But you'd be surprised how many people I've met who don't engage in this simple habit ✏️.

Even if you only do it once a year, jot down the reason behind each of your goals and determine whether they're worth the time and effort you'll need to put in. If your reason is strong enough (which only you will know), the goal—although scary—will probably be worth your while. 

 
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As a general rule of thumb, each goal should be a stepping stone to where you really want to be (i.e. big-picture goals and dreams). After you've determined the reasons for your goals, prioritize them based on which goals matter most to you and push you out of your comfort zone.

KEEP IN MIND: When setting goals, make sure you're not in an emotional headspace 💌. You'll be less likely to set unrealistic goals—and therefore unrealistic expectations. Entrepreneur Sean Kim talks more about this in the "New Years Resolutions" episode of his podcast The Sean Kim Show. Give it a listen when you get a chance!

Again, write down your goals. It may only be one tiny step to your goal-setting process, but it's essentially a declaration of what you plan to achieve. And whether or not you realize it, your brain starts to pick up on opportunities that will help you get to where you want to be.

Personally, I write down my goals so that they're constantly on my mind. As the proverb goes, "The palest ink is better than the best memory."

 
 

2. Be selective about your goals.

Eliminate the goals that neither excite you nor align with your vision🗑. Of course, some goals aren't always optional, such as meeting your dissertation deadline or finding a temporary job that pays the bills as you grow your business on the side. But of the goals that are 'optional,' select a few that you actually want to achieve, as well as the ones that will have the greatest desired impact.

TIP: Aim for a balance of different types of goals (e.g. careerspiritual, financial, health, etc.)

Perhaps you're a freelance designer whose goal is to book more clients in a specific niche that you're passionate about. Or perhaps your goal is to shift your business model so that you don't have to spend as much time working with clients one-on-one.

The more (reasonably) selective you become with your goals, the less time and energy you'll waste on soul-sucking tasks that slow you down.

Here's the goal-setting structure that works best for me...

  1. I do a brain dump of all my biggest goals for the year and write down the reasons why I want to achieve each goal. Really honing in on the "why."
  2. I pick out about 3-5 goals from the list and make that my focus for the upcoming quarter. Each goal needs to be a combination of exciting, scary, and challenging.
  3. I figure out how I'm going to achieve each goal by breaking them down into monthly goals. (As for weekly and daily goals? I cross those bridges when I come to them...)

*TL;DR: I set yearly - monthly - weekly goals.

 
 

I will say, focusing on a few goals at a time can be difficult for the multi-passionate person 💡. As someone with so many interests and passions, I'm often prone to shiny object syndrome and analysis paralysis, which to me is the leading cause of counter-productivity.

That's why I like to tell myself that I have time to achieve all my goals—just not enough time to pursue all of them at once. When my attention is divided across too many goals, I end up half-assing my endeavors and/or not accomplishing anything. Which naturally brings me to my next point...

    3. Break down your goals (but only to an extent).

    With 3-5 big-picture goals selected for the quarter, I break down each goal into smaller more manageable steps. I prefer setting quarterly goals and focusing on the next quarter only when I have to. Using a printable calendar (which is included in my goal-setting workbook), I assign these smaller goals or steps to each month of the current quarter. For example:

     
     (Obviously, you want to get more specific than this example, but...you get my point.)

    (Obviously, you want to get more specific than this example, but...you get my point.)

     

    From there, I'll set weekly goals just once a week—spreading them across the days. With my weekly goals, I try not to go too crazy. Personally, more than three goals per day leads to overwhelm, which is why I avoid breaking down my weekly goals into too many steps.

    As leadership mentor Michael Hyatt once said, "Excessive overplanning is often a fancy way to procrastinate."

    Sometimes, you have to step away from the planner and take more action. Otherwise, you'll never make progress with your goal. (I learned this the hard way.)

    TIP: Do at least one thing each day that brings you closer to your larger goal(s). And if there's a step that you can take today, just take it.

    4. Stop multi-tasking.

    You will make so much more progress by focusing on a few high-yield tasks per day and moving onto the next set of tasks the following day. Learn to distinguish between "urgent" and "important" tasks.

    With the exception of your daily chores (e.g. doing laundry, cooking dinner, etc.) eliminate everything else on your to-do list. Cut out the noise! Squeeze in secondary tasks only if you have time remaining. (And remember: you don't always have to be doing something. It's okay to relax.) 

    5. Treat S.M.A.R.T.(E.R.) goals as a guideline—not the be-all-end-all.

     
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    When I first heard about S.M.A.R.T. goals and S.M.A.R.T.E.R. goals (as recommended by Michael Hyatt), I remember being so mindblown by the handy goal-setting mnemonic. In fact, I got so excited about it (yes, productivity hacks excite me) that I followed it religiously and made sure all of my goals from that point on met the S.M.A.R.T.E.R. criteria📒:

    • Specific
    • Measurable
    • Actionable
    • Risky
    • Time-keyed
    • Exciting
    • Relevant
    • Specific
    • Measurable
    • Achievable
    • Realistic
    • Time-bound

     

     

    That is, until I decided to follow it more loosely...partly because I got lazy and partly because my goals didn't always meet every S.M.A.R.T. criteria.

    From this productivity burnout, I learned that the goal-setting process should be something to look forward to rather than something to stress out about.

    I found it easier to treat S.M.A.R.T.(E.R.) criteria as a guideline for my goals and not necessarily the ultimate standard. After all, the point of S.M.A.R.T.(E.R.) criteria is to help you achieve your goals; not to to be the goal itself.

    6. Stay focused on your own goals.

     
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    Keep your head down and focus on your own goals. Simple as that.

    If you're anything like me, you end up comparing yourself to other people when you spend too much time on social media. Log out of your apps, make them less accessible, and/or try your best to save social media for a specific part of the day ⏰.

    If you consume too much of other people's content (e.g. blog posts, Youtube videos, etc.) you might find yourself feeling unjustifiably inadequate—convinced that you haven't accomplished anything and tempted to do what other people are doing to be so-called "successful."

    Spending an unhealthy amount of time reading about the accomplishments of others can cloud your vision and distract you from what you really want for yourself. So don't do it. Learn from others as much as you can, but focus on your goals and your journey only.

    TIP: Part of setting realistic goals means going at your own pace, not somebody else's ⛹️‍♀️.

    7. Set systems and rituals.

     
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    This is a key ingredient to my personal productivity.

    You know how I mention setting weekly, monthly, and yearly goals? Well, that's a big part of the ritual that I follow to maximize my productivity. By having some form of structure, I'm able to stick to my goals, review them as often as possible, and develop a sense of discipline. 

    Sure, I can set all the goals I want and jot them down in all my notebooks. But without having any systems in place, I honestly don't think I'd get anything done.

    Yearly/monthly/weekly goals give me structure, as well as setting up systems and rituals for recurring tasks.

    For instance, here are some of my recurring weekly tasks:

    • Journaling once a week on Sundays to reflect on the week gone by 📓
    • Weekly goal-setting on Sunday nights before the new week begins (approx. 15-20 min)
    • Observing the Sabbath every Sunday and treating it as a full day of rest - I do absolutely no "work" work and rarely check my email
    • Connecting with other entrepreneurs at least once a week online

    And here are some of my recurring monthly tasks:

    • Bookkeeping at the end of every month 💻
      • I've found there's no need to do this every single week.
    • Backing up my computer once a month
    • Using a PM tool like Trello to plan out the next month's content
    • Evaluating my monthly goals and assessing what I've accomplished
    • Batching social media posts once a month
      • Use Planoly to schedule your posts ahead of time and plan out your Instagram feed visually!
      • Use Boardbooster to schedule pins and campaigns on Pinterest.
      • Use Buffer to schedule a month's worth of tweets ahead of time!

    (The point of designating specific days for recurring tasks is to 1) simplify my life and 2) create habits!)

     
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    Stick to a routine that works for you and tweak your systems here and there. Don't be afraid to change up your routine if it feels constricting or no longer serves you.

    Use old-school planners and/or phone apps that send you push notifications to help you stay on top of your habits, goals, tasks, etc.

    Here are some of my favorite time-saving apps and tools :

    • Asana - a handy project management tool for managing client projects, content calendars, and other important business-related tasks.
    • Trello - another PM tool for keeping track of digital projects and assigning tasks to team members.
    • Dubsado - a user-friendly CRM that allows me to create and save templates for client contracts, emails, invoices, task lists, and so much more. Using Dubsado has streamlined my web design process immensely and reduced the time I spend going back-and-forth with my design clients 📞.
    • SelfControl - a MacOS app that, when activated, blocks your access to distracting websites and decreases procrastination.
    • Streak - a useful CRM add-on for Gmail! After installing Streak, I've been able to keep all of my client emails, sales, and leads, in one place 🖥.
    • TheSkimm - a subscription-only newsletter that delivers a quick and entertaining news digest to your inbox every morning. I love TheSkimm because I get an instant recap of what's going on in the world without having to check a bunch of other news outlets ✉️. 
    • 2018 Ink + Volt Planner - a yearly/monthly/weekly planner (not free) that I recommend because of its productivity-boosting templates and nifty features (e.g. two page markers, journaling prompts for inspiration, and 30-day challenge sections).
     
     

    8. Make goal-setting a habit.

     
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    Don't wait until the New Year to start setting goals 🎉. I used to look forward to the New Year so that I could set new goals and start off with the proverbial 'clean slate.' And yes, while I do set new goals every new year, I'm no longer as excited about it as I used to be—not because I'm a cynical person (I hope), but because I'm constantly setting goals and tweaking my own productivity systems.

    When you make intentional goal-setting a habit, you're constantly working towards your goals. You don't need to hit the "reset" button once the New Year rolls around. You simply pick up right where you left off.

    TIP: If self-discipline is not one of your strong suits, set up "activation triggers" to ensure that you act on your goals. Here's an example of an activation trigger: "Set up an automatic deposit to my savings account, so I follow through on my goal to save a certain amount of money." Check out Michael Hyatt's article to see more examples.

    9. Be flexible.

    Remember, it's okay if you don't accomplish all your goals right away; you can't rush success anyway. It's okay if some of your goals are no longer appealing to you; your goals will change as your priorities shift.

    What's important is that you commit to your goals as best as you can and give yourself room to pivot—should those goals no longer serve you or align with your values.

    10. Don't just check off your goals.

    Acknowledge your accomplishments and celebrate them when you can!🍾🥂After all, what's the point of working so hard if you don't make time to enjoy the fruits of your labor? If you're going to be hard on yourself for not achieving your goals, then at least congratulate yourself for accomplishing them (this is as much for me as it is for whoever's reading).

    Keep a list of accomplishments in journal, on your white board, or wherever you can easily access it. Remember the goals you've achieved and appreciate the progress you've made. You deserve the celebration.

     

     

    Thoughts

    Productivity, like success, can mean different things for different people. To me, productivity doesn't always mean checking off my goals and working hard for hours on end. It simply means that I'm focusing only on what matters most (to me) and the tasks that help me get where I want to be.

    How about you? What is your definition of productivity? What do you do to stay on track? Comment below!

    Takeaways

    • Serious about committing to your goals? Set up systems! Don't just set goals and stop there. Make sure you're streamlining your processes and consistently keeping track of your progress.
    • Be flexible. Don't feel obligated to a goal or a system if it's not serving you anymore. Give your goals some breathing room and make the goal-setting process enjoyable.
    • Goal-setting is not a one-size-fits-all process. What works for me might not necessarily work for you. And what works for you might not necessarily work for me.
    • Lastly, if there's one main takeaway from all of the information I provided, just remember this: simplicity is key.