A 7-Step Process to Achieving Your Goals

It's the first work week of 2012, and from what I see on Twitter, lots of folks are jumping into the New Year with a resolution or two. Whether those resolutions are online ("check Facebook no more than three times a day") or offline ("exercise every day"), the challenge lies in translating resolution to reality. For the past few years, I've had an annual ritual that helps me make good on my goals for each year or quarter. Using Excel, I evaluate all my current activities and whittle out everything that doesn't advance my key goals. Here's how you can use this process to achieve your goals for this year:

  1. Write down your top goal or goals for the year (or quarter). Choose no more than three, and be very clear if there is one you are most committed to achieving. Write these at the top of your spreadsheet in a large font so they keep jumping out at you.
  2. Dump all your current and upcoming tasks or projects into the spreadsheet. Put everything in one column, with one task or project per row. The goal is to get everything that you're working on, or even considering working on, written down in one place. You're going to end up with a very asymmetric list: one row might be "Annual report on sustainability" and the next might be "Fill out Nov 2011 expense report." This is the most challenging part of the process, so don't rush it: you'll know you've got most of what's in your head onto the list once you've gone 24 hours without adding to it.
  3. Freak out. This is a very important part of the process. Seriously. Look at the list of everything you've been trying to work on concurrently, or meaning to work on, and see how infeasible that list really is. Then look at the one or two or three things you really really really want to accomplish, and let yourself soak in the truth: you are not going to get your most valued goals accomplished when you are trying to do this many things.
  4. Sort your list into related chunks. If your tasks are in Column A, the easiest thing to do is to go through Column B, making a note about which area each task relates to ("Finance", "Smith Account", "Marketing") and then sort your spreadsheet on Column B.
  5. Review your list of tasks, and categorize their importance and urgency. I use color coding to distinguish between tasks that are important for me to do personally: the most important tasks or projects are those that advance my top goal(s) for the year or quarter. Anything that is urgent and absolutely has to happen (even if it's not goal-aligned) gets another color. Then I look for tasks that can be delegated — done by someone else on my team, or which I might hire someone to take on. (I create a separate delegation column, and note who I think those tasks can be delegated to as I prioritize them.)
  6. Cull your deprecated tasks. Schedule meetings or calls with each person you're going to ask to take on a set of tasks or projects, and talk them through what you're hoping they will take on. (These don't have to be subordinates — they can be colleagues who are better positioned to do the job.) More crucially, eliminate all the tasks that you aren't going to take on at all. In some cases this may mean sitting down with a supervisor, client or colleague, explaining why you don't think a particular project can move ahead, or why it needs to move ahead without you. In other cases, it means taking a hard look in the mirror and committing to yourself: committing to not pursuing projects that distract you from your critical goal(s) for the year.
  7. Review your committed tasks and cull again. You should now have a smaller list of tasks and projects that you plan to execute on: the items that are goal-aligned, the items that are urgent and can't be delegated, and the items that are in some way regenerative for you. Take a hard look at this list: can you actually accomplish it? How much of your time will be spent on work that advances your top goals? If you still have more on your plate than you can do, or if your gut tells you that you should be spending more time on work that is goal-aligned, you need to do some more culling — delegating additional work or admitting it just can't get done. Yes, it's painful, but it's better to admit it and deliberately shelve it than to have your real priorities crowded out. And remember: you're not booking yourself to 100% — because life (and clients or bosses) is going to hand you another 50%, no matter what you've got in your priority list for this year.
Now that you've got a feasible game plan that will allow you to work towards your key goal(s) for this year, your resolutions should feel like a firm commitment rather than a vague aspiration. The spreadsheet you've created will be your touchstone and conscience for the year: return to it every time you feel tempted to take on more, or if you find yourself struggling to make time for the goals you set for 2012. You may need to do the same process every quarter (or even every month) so that you continually triage your accumulating workload and stay focused on what matters. It's hard work to live up to your resolutions. Get serious about making time for that work, and 2012 can be the year you achieve your most dearly held goals.

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