If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there?
When I was 15, I got my first job working at a golf course on the maintenance crew. We got to work at 6am, done at 2:30. My title at the time was “Grunt,” (official) because that’s the sound the work would cause you to make. After two years of grunt work, I was promoted to Mower — in particular mowing fairways. This was a big deal, I needed to mow straight lines that every patron could see, and if I screwed up, everyone would know. It shapes much of the user impression of the course.
After my first few days in the new role, my supervisor pulled me aside. The lines were not straight. It looked more like sound waves or a condensed heart-beat pattern. Instead of reprimanding or coming down on me, he asked me a question: “Where are you looking?”
This question caught me off-guard. Of course my eyes were down, looking at the mower blades to make sure I was on the line. I wanted to be able to react to everything in short time. He looked at me and said, “Look 30 feet ahead, see what happens.”
Don’t let the short-term get in the way of the long-term
We all have an urgency bias. We want to do the work that’s right in front of us. We want to be able to react in real time to real time needs. With so much information and so many responsibilities (emails, texts, social media, work challenges, family needs, etc.) we tend to do what’s right in front of us and lose sight of where we want to go. We get trapped in the rat race and before we know it, we feel overwhelmed and are spinning our wheels. If we have the fortitude to step out of the day-to-day and take a look at our life, it’s often hard to see how we got sucked in.
The challenge with our urgency bias is that we spend all of our energy focusing on the immediate and lose sight of the long-term. We’re keeping our eyes fixated on the mower blades hoping that if we react quickly enough the lines will be straight. They won’t. We can’t react quickly enough. And the truth is, keeping our eyes down only perpetuates the immediate challenges and urgency we face.
To move through this, it’s important to understand the difference between speed and velocity. It’s saying no to the non-essential. It’s putting our priorities first, knowing that the long-term is the filter in which we should determine short-term action. Does this matter right now? Is it helping me achieve the long-term goal?
Do less, accomplish more.
By limiting priorities, we can actually accomplish more. I work with many entrepreneurial leaders and the difficulty most face when they are launching their businesses is that they are trying to be all things to all people all the time. It’s impossible to accomplish anything when you have no container to operate in. You say yes to everything and work more and more. It eventually becomes a paradox of choice. Too many choices, too many responsibilities, and it leads to indecision and little forward movement. It turns into chaos. This isn’t limited to entrepreneurs, it’s all of us. We all try to be the best we can be, but our ability to be our best depends on where our eyes are looking.
The key to accomplishing more is to pick a target and put your energy there. Stop trying to be all things to all people, and start being a great thing to a few people.
As Peter Block says: “If we can’t say no, our yes means nothing.”
Put the Rocks in First
In his book, First Things First, Steven Covey shared an adage about putting rocks in a jar that speaks directly to the mentality of putting the important things first.
Picture a glass cylinder. Next to the cylinder are rocks, gravel, sand, and water. Rocks represent what’s most important to you, gravel represents your day-to-day responsibilities, sand represents the daily interruptions you experience, and water is everything else that happens in a day. The cylinder represents all the time you have in a day. If you put anything but the rocks in first, there will be no room for the rocks. The water, sand, and gravel will fill the cylinder and the rocks will be left to the side. If you put the rocks first, there is still room for the gravel, the sand, and the water.
What are your main priorities? What matters to you? Where do you want to go with your life? What are the goals that you have? The answers to these questions are your rocks.
If you want to change your life, you have to set a direction.
Before change can happen, you need to determine which change you’d like to make. You might stumble on something, but you’re far more likely to find something if your eyes are looking 30 feet ahead. Looking ahead requires us to name where we want to go, to put a label on it, not just fly by the seat of our pants and see what happens.
This requires setting goals. Here’s a piece on why goals matter. It’s a great list, and ultimately the fundamental benefit of goals is that they point us in a direction, providing a lens in which we see our work and what we are doing. It narrows our focus from the infinite possibilities to a target we can achieve. It’s proactive, not reactive. It gives us a filter in which we can determine what’s a “no” and what’s a “yes.”
But goals can be scary. How do you know it’s the right goal? Are you willing to commit to this particular goal and give it your all? Do I even know what I want?
Here’s a few mental hurdles to get over:
1) Writing down a goal doesn’t mean it will (or has to) happen. Goals change over time and it should be an ongoing process. It’s not about having the perfect goal, it’s about having a goal that works right now. Pick something and go with it.
2) Writing down a goal doesn’t make it hurt more if you don’t reach it. If you didn’t write it down, were you going to reach it anyways?
3) Sharing a goal with a trusted circle isn’t humiliating. In fact, it can be liberating. It not only adds accountability, but it puts some energy behind the goal, helps clarify the goal as you invite others into it, and strengthens your conviction.
What does a good goal entail?
There’s a very succinct and effective way to sketch your goals. One of the foremost authorities on goals, Zig Ziglar, offered a method that breaks goals into seven categories (Check out his method here and his worksheet here.)
The categories Zig offers invite specificity, concreteness, and a plan:
- Identify the goal: Write it down and describe it in detail. Create a specific target.
- List the benefits: Ask the question — what’s in it for me? What benefits will I gain if I accomplish this goal?
- List the obstacles: What will keep me from achieving my goal?
- List the knowledge and skills required: What do I need to know, and/or what do I need to be able to do to achieve this goal?
- Identify the people and groups to work with: Who can help me achieve this goal? Few goals are achieved in isolation.
- Develop a plan of action: What are the tangible action steps I can take towards achieving this goal?
- Set a deadline: Without a deadline, the we lose energy to the goal. The urgency goes away. What is a reasonable date in which to accomplish this goal?
Write down your goal with these other components and you have a clear picture of where you’re going.
Like all useful goals, the goals that are worth your time and effort are important to you, they’re specific and they have a specific time frame associated with them. If the goals don’t make you a little uncomfortable, it’s probably not important enough to you.
Here’s a few pitfalls in goal setting:
- We pick goals that don’t have an end. I want to be a better person! How do you know when you’re done? If it doesn’t have an end, it’s not really a goal.
- As Seth Godin has pointed out, our initial approach is to pick goals that are vague, grandiose, or trivial. This is a way to make goals feel safe. It keeps us from stepping in to what we’re capable of doing.
- We fall off track. This happens when we approach goals without inviting others in to the process. We have nothing holding us accountable other than our own will power. For some, that may be fine, for most, not-so-much.
- The end date is too far away. We fail to see the day-to-day actions we can take. We lose sight of it. If we set the end too far away, we’ll inevitably start saying “I’ll get to it later.” The urgency bias is too strong, and the desire to accomplish the immediate means we’ll never get started.
- We only do one draft. Have you ever gotten feedback on a goal? It’s incredibly helpful. It brings clarity and provides insights that can reshape your goal into something that is clear, measurable, and timely.
As you craft your goals, utilize this checklist to review your goals. Are you seeing any of these in what you wrote? Ask people you trust to give feedback and hold you accountable.
Here’s to looking 30 feet ahead.