Good goal statements are already actionable.1 They’re specific enough to focus on things that you can actually accomplish, even if those things themselves contribute to something bigger.

For instance, you can’t do “being in shape.” But you can “bike 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week.” And over time, that practice can lead to “being in shape.”

But even when it comes to accomplishing an actionable goal, the goal itself is almost never directly done.

This might seem odd, but it derives from the essential nature of goals as projects.

Goals and Actions

Maybe not all projects are goals. But pretty well all goals are, by definition, projects. That is, they are results that require more than one action to complete.2

So, accomplishing even an actionable goal is never the direct result of simply taking the action that the goal describes. What this means is that “you can’t do a project … [y]ou can only do an action related to it.”3

The project, or goal, itself is too large and complex for you to accomplish in a single action. That’s true even if the project itself is actionable, meaning that it has a well-defined action in view.

To say this, though, isn’t simply to make a nice semantic distinction. It has an important function in making your goals doable even when they’re realistically risky or big, hairy, and audacious.4

Next Actions

What you can only ever do is a “next action.”5 This next action should always be small enough to be something you can easily do and large enough to move you toward completing a larger goal or project.6

So, for instance, accomplishing a goal to successfully complete your textual criticism seminar becomes a series of next actions like:

  • Obtain the syllabus.
  • Read the syllabus.
  • Obtain all the required resources.
  • Put all assignment due dates in my task manager (or on your calendar or both).
  • Etc.

These are the things that then you can make the time to do and that will move you forward to your ultimate goal of successfully completing the seminar.

Conclusion

As you have a larger and more complex goal (or set of goals),

  • The more helpful you’ll find it to be clear about the very next action(s) you need to take to accomplish that goal. Without that next action, the goal just sits there, staring you in the face as an impenetrable block. But also,
  • The less you need to be able to identify all of the next actions you’ll need to do to complete it. As you work on that goal, circumstances might require you to change how you go about it anyway.

The main thing to have in front of you is the very next action you need to take to accomplish a given goal.

Once you’ve finished that, the very next action after it should pretty readily present itself until, one small step at a time, you arrive at your destination.


  1. Header image provided by Annie Spratt

  2. I’ve adapted this definition from David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin, 2015), 41. 

  3. Allen, Getting Things Done, 21. 

  4. For more on this terminology, see Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, 3rd ed. (New York: Harper Business, 1994), 91–114. 

  5. On the concept of “next actions,” see especially Allen, Getting Things Done, 253–65. 

  6. On the smallness of next actions, see especially Michael S. Hyatt, Your Best Year Ever: A Five-Step Plan for Achieving Your Most Important Goals (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018); Michael S. Hyatt, Free to Focus: A Total Productivity System to Achieve More by Doing Less (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2019). 

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