On Vision, Goals, and Actions
It has been a bit longer than usual for me to post an article. My time in Ecuador came to an end and now I am back in the United States helping with a family move. Next, I am headed to China.
In this article I want to address a series of three (3) insightful questions posed by a student, Jessica Kayembe, in my course on using SMART Goals to achieve more success.
-1- How do you align your goals to your vision? Sometimes I usually go ahead and write a bunch of goals to achieve, however you mentioned that our goals should be aligned with our vision, hence my question. On this note, does it mean that before any goal setting, a vision must be in place?
I hate to say a vision “must” be in place, but I do think without a vision it is almost impossible to take action. Generally speaking, goals are middlemen between a vision and actions, i.e. vision -> goals -> actions.
The sport of golf can be used as a good analogy.
My big vision is standing on the 18th green at the Masters having just sunk my last shot. The crowd goes wild. Not only did I win the tournament, I just broke the course record!
The above paragraph is a vision, a mental picture of some end state or outcome that I want to achieve. It doesn’t matter necessarily how far fetched the vision, rather the extent to which I can see clearly what it is I a want to obtain.
To make my vision a reality, I could just take action. Remember, goals are the middleman. I don’t really need to set any formal goals. I could just grab my clubs and head to the first tee box. But, does that give me the best chance of success? If I want to improve my chances, I set goals. I look at the course and develop a strategy for each hole. I create an action plan, not only for the course, but to help me prepare leading up to the tournament. Based on the action plan I can establish a specific, but challenging goal to score five (5) under par. If the course has a lot of sand traps, I set additional goals, for instance, a goal that focuses on striking golf balls from hazards.
Now imagine it is the first day of the tournament and a thick fog rolls over the course. Imagine you have not set any goals. You are standing on a tee box, but can’t see more than ten feet. You lack vision. While you may know that your immediate goal is to drive your ball toward the flag and get the ball in the cup in as few strokes as possible, it will be much more difficult than on a clear day. Without vision, you can still set a goal, you can still take action, but imagine how much more difficult it will be to achieve. Clarity of vision helps.
Aligning my goals to my vision.
Remember that in the SMART format, I use ‘R’ as relevant. You can think of relevant as the component of SMART that checks to ensure your goals are in alignment.
In my big vision there is a roaring crowd as I sink my final shot to win the Masters. I have a three-months to get ready. I set my goal to shoot 5 under par each round of the tournament. My goal is specific and time bound. In support of this larger goal, I create sub-goals or milestones. With each goal or action, I can ask myself if it will help me, if it will support me, and if it is relevant to turning my vision into reality. If the answer is yes, then it is aligned, it is relevant to my vision. If the answer is no, then it is not in alignment.
For example, which of these goals and/or actions are aligned and which are not?
Within one week (time bound);
-a- Land 300 balls within 5 feet of the flag from 150 yards.
-b- Memorize 20 new words in Spanish.
-c- Sink 500 putts from 10 feet.
-d- Play 2 practice rounds.
-e- Call Nike to see if they will sponsor me in the tournament.
Clearly, memorizing 20 new words in Spanish is not relevant to achieving my vision of winning the Masters. If I have another vision I am working toward, it still might make it on my to-do-list for the week, but it is not relevant or aligned with my vision to win the Masters.
Call Nike? I think the degree to which that action is relevant or aligned with my vision of winning the Masters can be debated, but I would argue it would be much less relevant than the other goals/actions related to actually practicing golf. This is why in the course in the lecture on ‘Relevant’ I discuss the value/effort matrix. While asking the question on whether an individual action or goal is or is not relevant can be useful, when you have a number of goals it can also help if you try to prioritize which ones are most relevant.
When using the matrix, remember that any goal that challenges you will hopefully require a decent degree of effort. Therefore, it is a process of evaluating the relative effort between available goals or actions and the corresponding value in moving you closer to your vision. It is not about evaluation of any one goal or action, independent of the others.
I hope the above answers, (1) if you must have a vision before setting a goal and, (2) how you help to ensure your goals are aligned with your vision.
2. Sometimes I just brainstormed a bunch of to-do list based on what I want to achieve during the day, I would like to know the difference between a to-do list and a goal and how can I have my mind set onto differentiating them. Because I am sure there is a difference between them.
Yes, there is a difference between a formal, structured goal and a to-do-list. It can be confusing at times. A structured goal is a specific outcome that can be measured and is time bound, such as to score 5 below par within 3 months. This is not the same as a generic task to play a round of golf with Bob.
A task is written down without taking the time to consider the degree to which it is specific, measurable, relevant, or time bound. While by chance a task might meet some of the criteria of the SMART format, this happenstance does not then make it a formal goal. Playing golf with Bob is just on your to-do-list and is not a formal goal you are trying to achieve.
How I organize my to-do-list.
While it is semantics, I call my to-do-list my “Action Items”. This makes it clear to me that the list is focused on my actions, specifically the very next actions I need to take. What next actions do I typically have on my list? Those actions that are either aligned with my goals, or actions related to routine logistics or other commitments, e.g. “Get a haircut”, or “Buy Jessica a gift”.
Periodically I review my action items using the 80/20 rule. Ideally, I want no more than 20% of my items to be routine logistics or other commitments and 80% to align with my goals. If I find my list way out of balance, it lets me know I am losing focus, that I am allowing myself to become distracted and making too many commitments that are not goal oriented.
As for brainstorming my to-do-list, I have a routine that I have been following for several years that I call, “Planning Sunday”. Having used this routine for so long, it now only takes around 30 minutes, no longer than an hour. Planning Sunday involves reviewing my action items from the previous week and updating my progress on my goals, enjoying any successes and celebrating my failures.
As part of this process, I establish my action items for the upcoming week. After I have my action items listed for my formal goals, then I conduct a mini brain dump. I think of any items I may have forgotten, I list items related to routine logistics and then I write down any thoughts until my mind is clear. The brain dump includes writing down any notes or ideas that I don’t want to forget, regardless of how relevant.
My final step is to go back over my action items for the week and ask myself if I have fallen victim to the planning fallacy. Basically, I ask myself if I can accomplish the action items I have listed? When I feel positive about my list, I’m ready to take on the week. When Monday comes, I focus on the list and checking off each action item. During the week I am typically not focused on my vision or goals, rather I am primarily focused on execution of individual items.
For me personally, I do not believe brainstorming each day to determine what I want to achieve that day would work for me. It is too short a cycle. For some, daily planning may serve them well, while others may find reorganizing their mind once a month more helpful. For me, once a week using planning Sundays seems to work out best.
The end product is a to-do-list that looks something like the above. I use Microsoft OneNote, but there are plenty of comparable programs. I also include a place for me to take notes throughout the week.
Note that “Learn Spanish” or “Fitness” are just headings that serve as reminders of the current goal. To go to my goals written using SMART, OneNote allows me to insert links to other pages. Clicking on “Learn Spanish” takes me to a full description of the goal where I can log my progress or make adjustments.
3. Now based on the course, one has to be specific when setting goals, yet a vision must be the driving force behind the setting of goals. Could you please elaborate on that and if that sentence of mine is correct based on the course you gave.
Hopefully the response to the first question also helps to answer this final question. I don’t want to say a vision “must” be the driving force, but it certainly does help. The more clear and precise a vision, the easier I think you will find it to establish specific goals. It is much more difficult to fly blind.
Remember, a goal is a middleman between vision and actions. The course is about using SMART as a model to help provide structure, to help bridge the gap between what you can envision and the actions you will need to take to get there. It is not that you can’t envision yourself standing at the top of a mountain and then just start hiking, but if you want to give yourself a higher chance of success, a higher chance of actually reaching the top, then it is a good idea to establish some goals in support of your vision.
Remember: Vision -> goals -> actions
Let me know your thoughts. How do you organize your to-do-list?
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Richard Feenstra is an educational psychologist, with a focus on judgment and decision making. He writes about the psychology behind problem solving, innovation, motivation and productivity.
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