Good goal statements 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
So, accomplishing even an actionable goal is never the direct result of simply taking the action that the goal 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 action.
To say this, though, isn’t simply to voice a semantic quibble. This observation serves an important function in how you make your goals doable, even when they’re challenging or “big,” “hairy,” and “audacious.”4
The only thing you can ever do is a “next action.”5 A 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 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 could go on. 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 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, the goal just sits there, staring you in the face like an impenetrable block of intimidation. 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. There’s no use planning 16 steps ahead when all that matters right now is the first and second step. And as you take those, you might well realize that something needs to change in how you previously conceived of the 16-step plan.
So, 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, you should clearly see the very next action after it until, one small step at a time, you arrive at your destination. And if that next action’s ever unclear, your next action becomes to identify what the next action toward completing your goal should be.7
Header image provided by Annie Spratt. ↩
I’ve adapted this definition from David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin, 2015), 41. ↩
Allen, Getting Things Done, 21. ↩
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 concept of “next actions,” see especially Allen, Getting Things Done, 253–65. ↩
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). ↩
Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 220–21. ↩
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.”
Yep. That’s another great adaptation, Jakob. Thanks so much!