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, 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.
Goals and Actions
Maybe 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
So, accomplishing even an actionable goal is never the direct result of simply taking the action that the goal describes. So, you can’t do a goal 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 in a single action. That’s true even if the goal itself is actionable, meaning that it has a well-defined action in view.
The only thing you can 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 the required resources.
- Put all assignment due dates in my task manager (or onto my calendar or both).
These are the things that then you can make time to do and that will move you forward to your ultimate goal of successfully completing the seminar.
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 a given goal. Without that next action, the goal just sits there, staring you in the face like 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 a given goal. As you work on any goal, circumstances might require you to change how you go about it anyway.
The main thing to keep 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 readily present itself until, one small step at a time, you arrive at your destination.
I’ve adapted this definition from David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin, 2015), 41. ↩
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. ↩
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). ↩