Just came across this thread on Hacker News talking about long-term goals. Since I struggled with this myself, I decided to share my thoughts and what worked for me.
How NOT to get things done
It took me 3 years to set up a savings account. Actually, 2 years to setup the account, 1 year to setup automated savings.
Why? Because I didn’t have a way to align my day-to-day todos with my bigger goals or milestones.
This was one of my most inefficient goals ever, because I only actually moved forward with it at the end of a year, when I reviewed the past year and planned goals for the next one. When I would look back at the previous 12 months, I’d feel so guilty that I had done nothing about this goal for the entire year, that I’d immediately do something, anything, just to move it forward.
After the first year of doing nothing about the automated savings goal, I thought, “damn, one year passed and nothing is done. At least I’ll make a list of which banks offer savings accounts and their conditions” — took me 30 minutes to research. At the end I had a neat table comparing a few different accounts by interest rate, number of savings subaccounts it supports, links to online reviews, etc.
When I reviewed my second year — “damn it, still no progress. I will at least choose an account now”. I had the list from one year ago with all the criteria I wanted, but I had still not chosen anything yet. So updated it, reviewed it, and a few minutes later I decided on an account. Half an hour later I had the application form downloaded as a PDF, filled out, ready to be signed and printed. A few days later I sent the paperwork over. A week later my account was there.
Third year review — again no progress for the entire year. The account was there, but nothing was being saved. Again, guilt-ridden, I did took the next, final step — I setup automatic monthly transfers from my main checking account. DONE!
Looking back, I realized two things:
1. This was kind of pathetic.
2. There was no reason this should take so long. None. The task was not rocket science. The only reason it took me so long was because I managed this goal very poorly. I really, really need a better system to get things done.
After experimenting with a lot of different approaches, I started seeing some progress.
Fast-forward to a few years later. My goal was to move to a different city 600 km (400 miles) away.
I was completely done within a few months.
Here is the system I used to get this done. It’s so simple, it’s almost an exaggeration to call it a system.
How to stay on track with month-long or year-long goals
First, take an empty sheet of paper. Not a napkin, not a text file on your desktop.
Then, break down your goal in individual steps. The steps should be small and clear enough that you can do them in one sitting, but big enough that they are actually meaningful. For instance “decide which bike I want to buy” is probably not a good step. It is too vague. Instead, you may want to break that down into something as small and manageable as, for instance, “list top 5 criteria my new bike must meet”.
Once you have the steps, list them in the order in which they have to be done. Make it a numbered list, so you can clearly see step 1, step 2, etc.
The next step is the most important — have this sheet of paper in front of you at all times, or at least somewhere where you see it often throughout the day. I got the best results when I had the sheet of paper on my desk, right next to my laptop and right next to any other todo list for the day.
Now tackle the steps one by one. When you’re done with one step, cross it off the list with a pen. No need to rush or cram several in one day, it’s enough if every now and then one item gets crossed off the list.
If any step has a deadline, then write it down in the list.
That’s it. Simple, but powerful.
One thing I noticed is that my mind would automatically steer me towards the next point on the list. When I’d have some downtime, or when I’d take a break, I would often find myself pre-planning one of the next things on that list.
Another thing I noticed was that it was hard to NOT make progress with the list. Even if I’d be completely busy with something else for a few days in a row, I would somehow still find the time to get one of those items on the list done, without actually planning to do so.
It’s as if having the list there in front of me was pulling me into a “get it done” mode.
I challenge you to try this for your next goal and tell me how it worked for you.
Let me know in the comments below.