There's a certain portion of people I work with who struggle with setting goals. The truth is, we're not all wired for this. The common outcome though, whether you are a natural goal-setter or not, is that once we get them set, we realize this...was actually the easy part.
Sticking to them, keeping them in focus, staying committed, is where the heavy lifting actually begins. Building a MOAT around my goals (you can read Parts 1 and 2 here) is my solution. Isn't there is something incredibly savoury about doing the thing we set out to do?
I want you to be able to savour that form of success more than any other - the internal satisfaction of saying it, and doing it.
Nothing fuels our momentum quite like that sense of accomplishment. Building a MOAT around my goals has become a powerful practice in my own life, and it looks like this:
M: Manage Expectations
O: Own Your Calendar
A: Accept Small Disasters
T: Tell Everyone
Are you ready for the O?
Own Your Calendar is a practice I started about a year ago, and it has literally transformed my productivity, my ability to deliver on my commitments and my sense of satisfaction about my work. This part of the MOAT is about deciding in advance of each work week what you want your week to look like.
Why? Because despite my best efforts, I have yet to figure out how to fit a 10lb bag of potatoes into a 1lb sack. In other words, my to-do list is always WAY bigger than the available space in my calendar. Some weeks that list represents 3 weeks of work...assuming nothing else comes up along the way! I guarantee yours is the same. In fact, if you're a high performer, yours might be even worse. In my experience, people who think big about their work and their impact, often have a to-do list that far outstretches what they could possibly accomplish....
The other advice you've tried, if you're anything like me, is to prioritize your tasks (A, B, C - etc.), and then each time you have some white space in your calendar, you jump to your list and try to tackle a couple of A's. If that works for you, by all means, carry on! It never worked for me. I'd get to the gap, look at the A and think..."That might be most important, but I only have 1/2 an hour right now." Or, I'd have trouble choosing between spending my time on the urgent thing due in 48 hrs, compared to the dream-fulfilling thing that might take 6 months, but will get done...never...if I don't force the issue. When faced with these choices in the moment? I wouldn't actually decide.
Most of the time, I would lose the 30 minutes. That scenario running multiple times a week would sink my productivity.
So, I started a different approach. Honestly? It came out of a need to survive. I was teaching 2 college courses, taking a course that had me travelling one week out of every month (with significant homework in between), carrying a client load of 40hrs/week and still trying to be some kind of human being to my husband and kids (side note: I've never been very good at saying no, and as a result, I find myself in this kind of situation every once in awhile). Frustrated, defeated, concerned about the tradeoffs I was unintentionally making, I needed a new approach. This is what emerged. Today, these three steps take me about an hour, once a week.
I recommend the last hour of your work week, whatever that looks like for you.
Step 1: Capture Everything
If you've not discovered David Allen's Getting Things Done, I highly recommend you add it to your reading list right now. Take a moment, I'll wait.
Here, Allen talks about the need to capture everything...meaning everything from oil changes to dentist appointments to booking a journal entry. He invites us to develop system for capturing to-do's in the very moment we think of them. Once we capture things somewhere other than in our brains, we often feel a significant burden lifted. Although I'm admittedly not a die-hard at following of Allen's methodology, this is essentially what you'll find me doing at 4:00 on a Friday. I always start with a list. It usually is sorted by client for me, but otherwise not in any particular order or priority, and it often stems from looking at what happened in my previous week, along with what I know is going to be necessary in the next two weeks.
This is my brain dump - the traditional to-do list. In the past that's where I would have stopped.
Step 2: Chunk it Out
In my state of defeat and frustration, getting things onto the list was not enough to resolve my situation. There was no way to guarantee that putting things on the list would get them off the list, because the 10lb bag of potatoes was still not going to fit in my 1lb sac. So I blocked off my calendar. I looked at all the white spaces in my calendar and decided in advance how I most wanted to use it, in this order:
a) The non-negotiables.
I slot them in around the meetings I've already accepted, blocking off whatever amount of time I think they are going to need.
b) The high priority, but non-urgent things
These are the dream-fulfilling projects, the what-iffing, the strategizing or researching. I must be intentional about these blocks of time because no-one is going to put them in my calendar for me. These dreams are depending on me - I'm all they've got.
c) Get-Aheads or Nice-to-Haves
The course I'm not teaching until January might get a little planning time next week, even though it's only November. That's because I have some time available, all the non-negotiables and dream-fulfilling projects have been looked after, and I like planning. If I don't do it for long enough, it will eventually slide into the non-negotiables category, but it's not there yet.
A couple of pieces of advice, as you start chunking. First, leave literal white space for breaks. Sometimes I'm tempted to block these as lunch, for example, but there's something about having the intended white space in my life look like actual white space in my calendar. It's a subtle psychological thing. When I block it off, it feels like a task, and I'd rather it felt like an indulgence, a gift.
Second, and maybe this goes without saying, but try to align the tasks you're slotting in with when you do your best work. Slot in your deep work (a concept of Cal Newport's from his book by the same name) for a time when your brain is at it's best. Plan your surface work when you are likely to be tired. It's not always possible, but if I can do it, I will.
By the end of this exercise, my calendar is full.
The only literal white space is the blocks of time I've left for my own mental and physical breaks. At this point, I've successfully declared my intentions for my week.
I've pre-allocated my time to the things that are most important. I've done it, not in a moment of panic or crisis, but in a calm, deliberate fashion...
Now, into the work week!
Step 3: Manage the Trade-Offs
For all your good intentions, you already know...right...that the week will not play out in the calm deliberate fashion you planned! (And by the way, wouldn't life be incredibly boring if it did?! We need a little chaos in our lives if we're going to grow.) BUT, Because you pre-planned your week, you've set yourself up for a series of "either-or" decisions, which are much easier to evaluate than "either-or-or-or-or" decisions. It is in the midst of the chaos, the disruptions, the requests, the interruptions, that the chunking really shines.
Here's what happens from the first time to today:
First: I can see the tradeoffs! It is a fact of life that every time we say yes to one thing, we are also saying no to another. Before I started chunking, I had a general sense that if I said yes, something on my to-do list wasn't going to get done...but I didn't know exactly what would drop. Now, when something comes up, I look at my calendar and I can see exactly what I would be saying no to. Now I'm evaluating a very specific trade-off, and it helps me immediately understand the implications of saying yes. This is a much simpler decision-tree to navigate.
Second: When unexpected white space occurs, I don't waste much time thinking about what to do with it. If a meeting ends early (yes, it can happen), if someone doesn't show up, or if something gets cancelled, I jump into one of the blocks that is already set out on my calendar. I don't have to re-think what's most important, because I already did the thinking work on Friday.
I made the plan then, now all I have to do is work the plan.
Remember when I said to do this in the last hour of your work week? There's one other important benefit I started to experience. I had better weekends. Whenever a subtle panic creeps into my playtime, I can respond with an internal "that's okay, there's a place for that on Monday." Then it's back to the present.
Give it a try for 3 weeks and let me know if it makes a difference in your productivity and specifically, in your ability to stick to your goals?
Keep advocating for your most important goals. Keep advocating for your most important non-renewable resource - your time. Own Your Calendar, knowing that it won't go exactly as you planned. Perfect execution is not the point.
The point is to make your tradeoffs visible and intentional as you work your week.