Unified Theory of Goal-Setting

I’ve spent most of my adult life studying personal development, and a big part of personal development is goal setting and task management.

It’s the end of the year, and everyone is talking about setting your goals for next year and what your “New Years Resolutions” are. Others talk about why New Year resolutions are dumb or why people give up on their goals after a couple of months.

Today, I had an epiphany. I discovered a concept that ties together every single goal-setting framework and task management system that I’ve come across. An idea that I can’t recall anyone ever mentioning.

Every single goal setting and task management system is just a way to filter and prioritize the endless number of things you could be doing and decide on a single thing to do right now.

The differences between systems mostly come down to how broad/specific your level of abstraction is and what criteria you’re using for prioritization.

For instance, I’m was describing a series of filters when I talked about having a Goal Funnel. Start with your life areas, then within each area, identify emotional objectives, etc.

When you read about the Eisenhower Matrix, it’s just a way to classify your tasks so you can filter and prioritize them.

The core of Getting Things Done is to capture everything in a trusted system. Then go through your inbox and decide if each item is actionable or not (filter), if it’s a project or a task (level of abstraction), and determine the next action (level of abstraction).

You need different levels of abstractions because if you just had a list of the 10,000 tasks you want to do this year, you wouldn’t be able to choose.

For instance, it’s easier to say: This month, I’m going to prioritize my health. I want to lose 2 lbs a week. I need to get my diet figured out before I start working out. I think I’ll try the Keto diet. I need to buy a book about the Keto diet. Search on Amazon for a book about the Keto diet and order it.

Each level filtered down the possible tasks you could do. In addition, you will have other goals with their own stack. So, during a particular week, when you want to improve your health, finish two projects at work, and pick up your kid from school every day, you can prioritize your daily tasks based on the broader scopes.

If you’ve failed in the past with goal-setting, there was a gap in the refinement process. For example, you knew you wanted to lose 20 lbs, but you never broke it down to specific actions. Or, you never reviewed if the activities you were doing were helping you achieve your goals. For example, “I don’t get it, I stuck to my diet of eating 15 sticks of butter a day all year, but I gained weight!” Instead, you should have identified that habit as one to filter out.

If you are too busy and feel like you don’t have enough time during the day to get everything done, you have to look at everything you’re doing and identify what broader goals they support. For example, you may find that you can stop doing things because they don’t help your dreams or find an easier way to achieve the same goal while doing less work.

I can’t believe I’ve taken so long to realize this.


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Written by Andrew Shell, a Senior Web Engineer/People Lead from Madison, WI.