You need to know where you want your time and attention to go.1 If you don’t, they will go somewhere, but it’s less likely to be to a destination that you really think is best. So, it’s important to identify where you want to be at the end of the year, which will help you structure your days toward that end.
But you can all too easily lose important projects and goals amid the frenetic pace of day-to-day life. So, in addition to identifying where you want to go, it’s also important to identify why you want to go there.
With anything that’s challenging enough to become a goal, clear reasons for it will help you keep a hold of your aim when circumstances press and tempt you to downgrade it to simply an aspiration for “someday.”2
This temptation can be especially strong when you get to the point of being mid-way along toward a goal. At that point, the initial enthusiasm for the project has probably declined. But the finish line still looks quite far off.
Identifying why you’re pursuing a goal can help you
- answer your own questions about why you’re continuing to pursue it,
- focus on achieving your goal amid possible distractions, and
- take the very next action that’s doable enough not to be overwhelming.
1. Answer Your Own Questions
Maybe you’re in the middle of the large, multi-year project of “doing a PhD.” Or maybe you’re working on something shorter like an individual article or essay, or longer like a multi-volume project.
Whatever it is, your goal’s scope may well mean that, at some point, the steam of your initial enthusiasm for the project will wane. When it does, you might still find yourself too far from the finish line to get much motivation from how close it is.
The Temptation to Change Directions
At such points, it can be especially tempting to change directions. Sometimes, such a change can be warranted. But you definitely shouldn’t change simply because that’s easier.
It’s always easier to take only one step in any variety of directions from where you are than it is to run 26.2 miles in one direction. But one step in any given easiest direction won’t ever add up to a finished marathon.
Often, the temptation to change directions comes from two factors:
- an increase of pressure in other, often more urgent, areas that don’t align with a given goal and
- a decrease in the apparent, relative importance of that goal itself.
You’re always faced with the question “What should I do now?” Answering this question by changing directions away from your goal for reasons like these effectively substitutes the alternative question “What will make me feel less overwhelmed in this moment?”
Getting away from the overwhelm is the most prominent consideration. And in the moment, it’s all too easy to allow this prominence to obscure the (perhaps better) reasons for pressing ahead toward your goal.3
An Aid for Memory
Given these dynamics, it can be immensely helpful to have a mechanism for both
- putting increased pressure into context and
- increasing the prominence of your reasons for the goals you’ve chosen.4
Doing so counteracts the pressure that otherwise accrues toward changing directions. And such a mechanism is readily available in the simple tool of a list.5
This list doesn’t need to be lengthy or fancy. But it should be written down, and it should clearly state the most compelling reasons for a given goal that you’ve set yourself. You might find it most useful to make this list in the same place as you’ve written out your goals.
Once you have the list, your all-too-malleable memory of your reasons for your goals isn’t the only place those reasons exist. Your list can remember for you why you found your project so important in the first place.
Then, if you find yourself thinking about throwing in the towel on this project, your list can easily remind you of all the reasons you’re forgetting or implicitly devaluing for why you really do want to see your project through.
2. Focus on Achieving Your Goal
Alternatively, you might have plenty of motivation for the goal you’re pursuing. You just have plenty of motivation for other things too. Whatever’s new and “shiny”—either physically or cognitively—might distract you from where your attention really needs to be.
At some point, your larger goal probably won’t provide the immediate dopamine rush of tackling something that seems more enticing. But allowing your focus to drift simply for the satisfaction of either starting or completing something else won’t produce the sustained results you’re after.6
Confronting yourself with why your goal is important clarifies exactly what the cost will be if you let yourself get pulled away onto something else. You’ll be trading progress on your important goal that you adopted for definite reasons for what?
Being able to review why your more demanding goal is worth a lack of immediate dopamine can help you resist the urge to digress. Reminding yourself of your reasons for your goal can help you see why this trade isn’t one you actually want to make.7
3. Take the Next Non-overwhelming Next Action
According to G. K. Chesterton,
if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.8
That’s not because it wouldn’t be nice if it were done better. Nor is it because we shouldn’t strive to do things well. It’s because having it done in any degree is better than leaving it undone.
Similarly, if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing piecemeal. So, if you’re grinding to a halt because your goal seems too big, knowing why you’re committed to seeing it through can help motivate you to find the next step that will set you moving again.
That step can—and sometimes should—be very small. Its size isn’t the point. It just has to be a step in the right direction, and once you take it, it will be that much easier to take the next one after it.
Goals can be daunting. They can also be draining. But you have them because you’ve intentionally decided they’re worth doing. So, wherever you’ve written down your goals for the year, it’s a good practice also to write your main motivations for those goals.
At some point, you might
- question why you’re pursuing one or more of these aims,
- be tempted to dilute your focus into other areas, or
- feel paralyzed by how much remains to be done.
When any of that happens, review the clear reasons you’ve identified for why your goal is worthwhile in the first place. Doing so can provide a helpful prompt for memory that all too easily forgets the bigger picture when the merely urgent comes knocking. And reminding yourself of that bigger picture can help you stay on track and see your goals through to the end.
On the importance of clear motivations, see Michael S. Hyatt, Your Best Year Ever: A Five-Step Plan for Achieving Your Most Important Goals (affiliate disclosure; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018), 151–66. ↩
See Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (affiliate disclosure; New York: Portfolio Penguin, 2019); Cal Newport, A World without Email: Find Focus and Transform the Way You Work Forever (affiliate disclosure; New York: Portfolio Penguin, 2021). ↩
For more on avoiding distractions, see also Michael S. Hyatt, Free to Focus: A Total Productivity System to Achieve More by Doing Less (affiliate disclosure; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019), 205–21. ↩
G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1910), 320. ↩