How to Break Down Your Goals into Sprints

This book excerpt from The Bullet Journal Method is a step-by-step guide to getting focus on big goals that might otherwise feel overwhelming.

Ryder Carroll
Nov 26, 2018 · 8 min read

When I was very young, all I wanted to do in life was to be a stop- motion animator. I grew up endlessly rewatching movies inspired by the Arabian Nights and Greek myths, featuring fantastic creatures designed by Ray Harryhausen. That, I told myself, was what I wanted to do, no question, no doubt . . . until I did it.

I eventually shot a short stop-motion piece with a friend. It turned out reasonably well for a movie with the whopping budget of frozen pizza and some clay. I learned a lot working on that project, but most importantly I learned that pursuing this career would leave me one fry short of a Happy Meal. Sure, the realization was a bit heartbreaking, but it was also a relief. It freed me to explore other things. Now I never look back and wonder what might have been.

Not all things we’re into are meant to be our occupation. That in itself is a valuable lesson to learn, especially when you’re young. It’s important to figure out what role the things that interest you play in your life. Not every hobby or curiosity is a calling, but some are. We figure that out by safely trying them on for size for a short period of time before making a major commitment. Note that I tried out stop-motion animation in a small way, on a short-term project, before committing myself to a major goal like applying to an animation program at a film school.

Breaking down long-term goals into smaller, self-contained goals can turn what seems like a marathon into a series of Sprints. Sprints cover the same ground, just in shorter, more manageable intervals. This technique is a slightly adapted variation of a similar approach deployed in agile software development, but it can be powerful for tackling any type of goal. Even more modest-size goals can usually be broken down into smaller goals that can fit into the most impatient person’s life (I fit that description).

(All illustrations by the author.)

Breaking down goals into Sprints mitigates the risks of being overwhelmed and fatigued. If you’re no good in the kitchen but you’re determined to change that, don’t start by serving soufflés to six of your fancy foodie friends. Even if it all works out, the pressure may make the experience so unpleasant that you’ll risk spoiling your curiosity for cooking altogether. Feelings of hardship can quickly eclipse those of curiosity or satisfaction. Start with a smaller, simpler dish, and see how you feel when it’s done.

How are Sprints different from just dividing a goal into phases? Unlike phases, which are not ends in themselves, Sprints are independent, self-contained projects—thus the outcome is, let’s hope, a source of satisfaction, information, and motivation to keep going (or, as happened with my stop-motion animation project, a helpful cue to let this particular goal go).

One author and entrepreneur, for example, was curious about podcasting. It was something he knew little about. Rather than dedicating himself to becoming a podcaster, he set out to do six episodes with his friend Kevin Rose. That experiment turned into The Tim Ferriss Show, the number one business podcast on iTunes, with over 200 episodes and over 100 million downloads. It goes to show that we shouldn’t underestimate the potential impact of small, focused projects. The first version of bulletjournal.com was also the result of a Sprint.

How to Set Up a Sprint

To set up Sprints, structure them around specific subset goals or skills needed for a longer-term goal. To return to the cooking analogy, here’s how that might look:

Sprint requirements:

  1. Have no major barriers to entry (nothing preventing you from starting). For example, to learn knife skills, you don’t have to purchase an entire expensive set of chef’s knives. You just need a basic kitchen utility knife that you may already own or can buy with minimal investment.
  2. Consist of very clearly defined, actionable Tasks. Your knife skills might be broken down into holding a knife properly, sharpening, peeling, slicing, dicing, cubing, mincing, and so on.
  3. Have a fixed, relatively short time frame for completion (should take less than a month to complete, ideally a week or two). Just making a salad several days a week and mastering a simple vegetable soup recipe would get your knife skills up to speed pretty quickly.

Following these three rules will keep your Sprints focused, action- able, and manageable. When structured correctly, it should be hard to come up with a valid excuse to postpone a Sprint. If you think a Sprint will take longer than a month, just split it into smaller Sprints.

The point is to safely indulge your curiosity and try things on for size, without wasting time.

Brain Storm

Before we can break down our goal, we have to wrap our head around it. Now that you’ve picked your goal and created a Collection for it in your Bullet Journal, use the first spread to brainstorm the what and the why. Dig in and explore. Write down whatever comes to mind. This process gets your gears turning. Suppose your “Learn to Cook” goal brainstorming page looks like this:

When you’re done brainstorming, you should have a better idea of your goal’s requirements: its scope, its milestones, and why it’s important to you.

Now break it up into Sprints. Each Sprint can be laid out in another Subcollection (see page 102 in The Bullet Journal Method) in your Bullet Journal. Next, you’ll break each sprint down even further into its component Tasks.

Once you’ve listed out your Tasks, start figuring out how much time each Sprint would take. If you’ve ever had the privilege of working with a contractor, the same adage applies here: Take the time estimate and triple it. Progress is more important than speed. If something gets done more quickly than anticipated, great! There’s nothing wrong with getting some things dne faster than expected (as long as you’re not focusing in speed.) What we want to avoid is falling behind. That tips our pleasure/pain scale toward the pain side and makes it harder for us to stick with the process. If you have the time, use it to your advantage. If you don’t, reduce the scope of your Sprint.

Once you have your Sprints planned, block them out on the calendar of your choice. Lock in a dedicated time to work through your tasks. Now you know when the project begins, how long it will take, when to work on it, and when it ends.

The longer a goal takes to accomplish, the more it taxes your motivation. When motivation runs dry, goals tend to crumble. Sprint projects will help you reduce the load so you can enjoy the satisfaction of seeing regular progress. How you feel about a project is vital to its success, especially for personal endeavors, where you may not have a team or a boss to help you stay on task. Progress provides momentum. Momentum helps you cultivate your patience.

A writer living in Sweden, Olov Wimark believes one reason he fell into depression is that it felt like his task list never got shorter. He was using an app that erased a task whenever he checked it off his list. His breakthrough came when his computer crashed and he started using an old typewriter. “I found that I wasn’t all that hard on myself for a typo. Since I couldn’t edit out what was already written, I had to live with what I wrote or rewrite the entire page. Words started to really flow out of me. And lo and behold, when evening came, there was a stack of work that had been done sitting in a pile next to the typewriter. I started feeling good about my accomplishments again.” Similarly, he says, “the Bullet Journal is very tangible. Progress is apparent and reviews happen continuously, every time you open it to make a new notation.” He filled an old reservoir pen with blue-gray ink and went to town. “Everything left open in my old system got transferred, planned, processed, or simply ignored.”

Dividing larger goals into sprints also acts as damage control. Perhaps one Sprint doesn’t work out. You realize that it’s not for you, or you come across information or a situation that throws a wrench into the gears. If you planned your Sprint well, shutting it down won’t derail you from related Sprints. At worst, you may have to shuffle around your schedule a bit.

Successful or not, Sprints provide you with room for reflection. In addition to Daily Reflection (page 134 in The Bullet Journal Method)—which you can apply to your projects, not just your Daily Log—you have an opportunity after each Sprint to pause and reflect on the experience thus far. For example:

  1. What am I learning about my strengths, my weaknesses?
  2. What’s working, and what isn’t?
  3. What could I do a bit better next time?
  4. What value was added to my life?

Perhaps you discover that you need to refine your master goal, given what you learned along the way. That’s great! Suppose you realize that you just want to cook Italian food, or that you only want to cook for large groups of people, or that you’re much more interested in growing food than cooking it. Whatever the case may be, these realizations will help you dial in your goal, allowing you to allocate your time and energy more effectively. Course correction just means you’ve uncovered something even more meaningful, and that’s the point. Just reapply the lessons you learn from the last Sprint to the next Sprint. This self-perpetuating cycle allows you to continually grow as you close in on what matters.

Read the entire book, The Bullet Journal Method, on Amazon or from BulletJournal.com.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Ryder Carroll

Written by

Creator of the Bullet Journal®. NYT Best-selling author and digital product designer, living in Brooklyn, NY.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.