How to Make Your Goals Even More Actionable

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

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

But when it comes to accomplishing even an actionable goal, you can almost never directly do a goal itself. This might seem odd, but it derives from how goals naturally have larger scopes and, therefore, constitute projects rather than one-off actions.

Goals and Actions

Not all projects are goals. But all goals are, by definition, projects. That is, achieving a goal is a result that requires more than one action to complete.2

You might think that something you’ve identified as a major goal for the year is small enough to complete in a single action. But if that’s so, it’s really only a one-off task. Either strike it from your goals list. Or go back and think more about how you might increase the challenge that your developing goal involves.

Because goals worthy of the name are projects, though, you can’t ever directly accomplish that goal by taking the action it describes. You can’t do a goal itself because a goal is a project. And “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 it in one fell swoop. That’s true even if the goal itself is actionable, meaning that it has in view a well-defined objective.

To say this, though, isn’t simply to voice a semantic quibble. This observation serves an important function in helping you make your challenging goals doable, even when they’re “big,” “hairy,” and “audacious.”4

Why Next Actions Are Important

The only thing you can ever do is a “next action.”5 And next actions can only ever move a project toward completion. Or if you’re taking the very last action in a series, that one action will be the step that actually brings your goal to completion.

Because next actions can only ever partially complete a goal, it’s most helpful if they are

  • always small enough to be something you can easily do and
  • significant enough to move you noticeably toward completing your larger goal.6

For instance, accomplishing a goal to successfully complete a textual criticism seminar becomes a series of next actions like

  • Obtain the syllabus.
  • Read the syllabus.
  • Obtain the required resources.
  • Put all reading and assignment due dates in my task manager (or onto my calendar or both).

And so your list will go on. You can’t do a whole class all at once. If you try, you’re likely to end up overwhelmed by the size of the task. And that can be paralyzing.

Instead, you can plan to take measurable, concrete steps toward your goal. And as you do so, you’ll find yourself fully able to do the next thing toward that goal. And ultimately, you’ll find you’ve finished it—whether that’s successfully

  • completing a seminar,
  • writing a dissertation, or
  • rounding out any other project that rises to the level of being a goal.

Which Next Actions Aren’t Important

As you have a larger and more complex goal or set of goals, the more you’ll find it helpful to be clear about the very next action(s) you need to take to accomplish a given goal. Without that next action, your goal will just sit there, staring you in the face like an impenetrable block of intimidation.

If your next action is ever unclear, your next action naturally becomes simply identifying what the next action toward completing your goal should be.7

But notice that all you really need is the very next action to take toward a goal. You don’t need to try to plan in advance all the details of what your seminar’s research project will require.

If you try, your planned series of next actions will probably end up off target by a good portion. As a result, you’ll have sunk valuable time into planning out actions that become irrelevant to the goal you’re really trying to achieve.

Instead, as you have a larger and more complex goal or set of goals, the less you need to be able to identify all of the next actions you’ll need to do to complete a given goal.

Sure, if you think of a step you feel you want to be sure you don’t forget down the road, log that step as a possible, future next action toward your goal. But as you do so, realize also that there’s no use planning 16 steps ahead when all that matters right now is the very next step you need to take. As you take these steps, your strategy for achieving your goal will naturally unfold in front of you.


As you’re considering what it will take to accomplish your goals for this year, the main thing to keep in front of you is the very next action you need to take toward each goal. Once you’ve finished that, you should clearly see the very next action after it. And 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. (affiliate disclosure; 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. (affiliate disclosure; New York: Harper Business, 1994), 91–114. 

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

  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 (affiliate disclosure; Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018); Michael S. Hyatt, Free to Focus: A Total Productivity System to Achieve More by Doing Less (affiliate disclosure; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2019). 

  7. Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (affiliate disclosure; New York: Crown Business, 2014), 220–21. 

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2 responses to “How to Make Your Goals Even More Actionable”

  1. Jakob Berger Avatar
    Jakob Berger

    Thank you, Dr. Stark, for the adaptation of David Allen to goal setting. Brilliant. The necessity of a goal being actionable also reminds me of a quip by Dave Ramsey: “a goal without a plan is just a wish.”

    1. J. David Stark Avatar

      Yep. That’s another great adaptation, Jakob. Thanks so much!

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