Process Goals, Because To-Do Lists Are Broken

Fact: goals increase performance.

Setting a goal forces you to specify what exactly it is that you want to achieve and approaching your activities with the end in mind yields multiple advantages. Here are two of the most important ones:

· Studies show that goals increase motivation. If you, for example, bought a new bike and would like to be able to make hundred-kilometer trips before the end of the month, setting this as a goal is going to make you want to, literally, go the extra mile. Hell, having a goal is going to make you go into the cold in the first place.

· Studies show that goals increase effectiveness. For example, research indicates that college students who set goals achieve better academic results than those who don’t.

Supplementing any activity with a goal puts you one step ahead while at the same time increasing your enjoyment of it.

Goals are like bacon: whatever you add them to, it’s going to make it better.

But, just like these delicious strips of bacon should be treated with skill, you can also go wrong with goals.

Especially daily goals are a dangerous tool, which I bet you’re misapplying right now.


Goals can span different timelines. There are, to name some, life missions, five-year plans, yearly resolutions, monthly objectives, weekly aims and daily targets.

In my experience, a combination of long- and short-term goals instigates the largest boosts in motivation and performance. Without a bigger dream that truly inspires you, you’re probably not going to skip Saturday night out to rescue Sunday morning productivity, whereas reliable everyday progression requires deadlines on a smaller scale.

Armed with this philosophy, it has been my practice to formulate daily targets in order to ensure progress towards my bigger aspirations.

Recently, however, I stopped doing this.

Lists of daily tasks might be the single most used productivity instrument in the history of mankind, but I believe they carry great risk.

A pyrrhic victory

So what exactly is wrong with setting out to achieve daily objectives? You probably have at least one personal anecdote of a legendary Thursday afternoon on which your daily to-do list enabled you to power through that afternoon dip and after the momentum was on your side you ended up doing more work than all of the days before and — what’s more — you didn’t even need stimulants to achieve this! Go goals!

Indeed, there are reasons to think that lists of daily goals enable you to get more done than you would have without them.

The problem is that this is a pyrrhic victory: it’s an increase in productivity for which you’re paying a price you shouldn’t want to be paying.

Let me explain.

Taking care of versus making sure that

Let’s differentiate between two different types of goals.

On the one side, there’s ‘making-sure-that goals’. You have to, for instance, make sure that you send out all these cold e-mails before the end of the afternoon. For such goals, there is scarcely a difference between doing it and doing it well — quality is hardly a factor of importance.

On the other side, there’s ‘taking-care-of goals’. For such goals, making sure that something gets done is only part of the job, because the quality with which it gets done matters greatly. In these cases, there is a relevant difference between doing it and doing it well.

Lists with daily tasks make you forget this difference. That negatively affects the quality of your work. Hence, they’re a tricky business.

Doing versus doing well

An example. In The Netherlands, due to privatization, the job description of health care personnel no longer mentions a duty to take care of patients. Rather, their work has changed to completing a checklist of tasks — to make sure that the patient gets washed and fed (for example), all within set time limits.

The idea that taking care of people is reducible to completing a sum of tasks turned out to be wrong (how surprising). Due to the tight schedule, patients no longer received the personal attention inherent to being taken care off. Caretakers, on the other hand, were no longer able to interact with their patients in a meaningful way. Even though all the tasks might have been completed, something was lost.

Dissecting such taking-care-of goals into smaller making-sure-that goals, makes the level of the service or product irrelevant. If the only thing that matters is that you did something, how you did is no longer important.

On paper, productivity soared. In reality, everything got worse.

This is a general problem: a lot of goals resist reformulation into smaller tasks which can be inserted into a fixed timetable.

Efficiency kills class

You might think that caring for people is rather specific example and that what applies there doesn’t apply to other activities.

It does.

As writer Robert Greene notes in Mastery:

“The greatest impediment to creativity is your impatience, the almost inevitable desire to hurry up the process.”

Some other situations.

Was the level of your reviews of those offers really adequate, the day you accomplished your daily goal of finishing fifteen of them?

Did you really give those junior coworkers the personal feedback they needed, that day when you scheduled ten performance evaluation conversations?

Were your designs really of the quality you strive for, the day you managed to make five of them, as you had planned?

Why quality and quantity aren’t of equal importance

It’s natural to think that quantity and quality should be balanced. Money needs to be brought in, and just producing one painting a year ain’t gonna do that. The optimal relation between quality and quantity is somewhere in the middle.

I believe that’s wrong.

As long as it doesn’t lead to apathetiic perfectionism or self-deceiving excuses (more on fake alibies shortly) about your lack of output, quality is much more important than quantity.

The reason: quality determines your ranking.

Conduct three top-notch performances a year, and people take you to be world-class. Increase your productivity from three to ten mediocre performances and people will still think you’re mediocre. The level of your work determines which class you’re in, unrelated to frequency.

Trading quality for quantity leads to relegation. Trading quantity for quality leads to promotion. The trade-off is not equal.

Less is more.

Maintaining productivity without daily targets

The problem with daily targets is that they cause an impatient check-off mindset, which in turn causes you to lose track of the quality of your work.

What now? How do I remain productive without committing myself to deadlines specifying in what time period I finish which tasks?

The answer: process goals.

Process goals are not about what you get done, but about what you do. You reach your process goals by behaving in a certain way, not by reaching some bar of quantified outputs — your behavior is the performance. It’s about how you spend your time instead of what exactly you produce during that time.

Last week, there was a morning on which I only managed to read ten pages. Not because I was lazy, but because I was making lots of notes and the text required extensive incorporation into my dissertation research. It was one of the best (you could say “most productive”) study sessions I’ve ever had, but a daily target for the numbers of pages that I had to read that morning would have prevented it from happening.

When using process goals take care to avoid using them as an alibi. You did not, for example, do four hours of deep work if one quarter of that time — or one tenth, for that matter — was spent e-mailing (or worse, Facebooking). If your goal is to do four hours of writing, merely having opened Word does not mean you’ve accomplished it. Don’t convince yourself otherwise by citing your process goals.

To prevent this, you need to honestly evaluate how you really spend your time. You need to do some time-tracking.

Why you should start time-tracking

If quality is the most important factor in your work, process goals are a better tool than daily targets. It’s time to replace these lists of tasks with commitments about your behavior and start time-tracking.

There are many reasons for making this switch:

· As best-selling author Darren Hardy shows in The Compound Effect, on the long term, the consistency of good habits is going to get you further ahead than stretching yourself every day to complete some kind of list: putting in your daily high-quality hours is a more sustainable high-performance technique than is finishing your daily line-up of to-do items.

· As writer Eduardo Briceño explains in his TEDTalk, daily deadlines unhelpfully encourage safe behavior: when there’s a target on the line you will use the same skills — those you’ve already mastered — over and over again to ensure your output is high enough. Daily goals stop you from going into the learning zone every now and then. Hence, you will stop growing.

· In his book Obliquity, the economist John Kay convincingly argues that complex goals are best achieved by focusing on the quality of your work (taking-care-of goals), whereas a focus on quantity (making-sure-that goals) hampers long-term progression.

· Process goals allow you to experience more meaning during your work. Think about it: two performance-evaluation conversations with important behavioral feedback make your day a lot better than completing ten superficial talks.

· Process goals are a lot more fun: your life will be a lot better if it contains family dinners during which you’ll be happy with your workday behavior, as opposed to evening meals during which you can’t stop thinking about checking off that final item from your daily list. (‘Maybe I can squeeze in an hour of work when the kids are sleeping’, you think to yourself while you mindlessly listen to your daughter’s story about what happened today at school.)

When to use which kind of goal

Goals are beneficial, but using the wrong kind of goals can have detrimental effects. So ask yourself: what kind of goal am I setting out to achieve today?

If it is a taking-care-of goal, you’re going to need process goals. Your aim should be to produce high quality work during the hours you put in.

If it is a making-sure-that goal, you can pull out those traditional to do lists. Your focus should be on output maximalization.

In doubt? Take the process approach (if your self-discipline can handle that). Process goals deliver higher quality and quality beats quantity.

There’s more to that

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