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Become Productive by Linking Your Tasks to Your Biggest Goals

Align your actions around your larger goals to make life better.

By
Stever Robbins,
February 19, 2008
Episode #017

Today's topic is using the big picture to keep on track. The quick and dirty tip: when something isn't working, stop, step back, and ask, "Why is this important?" Find the real goal you're after and ask how else you can achieve it.


Do your time-saving gadgets work? Mine don't. Take e-mail. It would change my life! It has. My #1 priority today was writing my podcast. It was also my #1 priority yesterday. And the day before. But here in my inbox--a great question from an entrepreneurial high-school student. Love that! I spent an hour on my answer. Oh look! Another question, this one's also from a budding entrepreneur... Six hours later, I've spent all day with e-mail, feeling productive, without the inconvenience of actually being productive. And I never even got back to the deposed Nigerian Prince who wants to send me one billion dollars. Darn!

The problem is simple: I'm human and humans do this funny thing: we make a goal, we choose a path to the goal, then we forget the goal. But we keep to the path long after it stops making sense. My time-saving gadget doesn't save time, but hey, I bought it so I have to keep using it, even if doesn't actually save time.

Solving the Solution

Say we have the goal, "Help our teenager, Jules, become a responsible adult." We decide cleaning the bedroom is a good start. If you don't have a teenager, think about your sweetie who leaves dirty glasses on the table by the couch. We say, "Jules, please clean your room." Nothing. Then, "Jules, I want that room clean." "Uh, huh. I'll do it later." Later: nothing. Then we try haranguing, bribery, blackmail, and finally, begging. And have you noticed? It's not working. And the more it doesn't work, the more we do it. We're upset.

But why? Why get upset? Jules isn't cleaning the bedroom, but that wasn't our goal. Our goal was helping Jules become an adult. Somehow, we convinced ourselves that a clean room has something to do with that. Then we forgot the real goal. And look, some adults have messy rooms. Maybe Jules is being a responsible adult. Thinking for oneself sounds pretty adult, and that seems to be what's happening. "OK," you cry. "I don't want Jules to become a responsible adult. I just want a clean room!" 
 

That's a nice goal. And your solution was to have Jules clean it. You asked, harangued, bribed, blackmailed, and begged, and none of that worked. You attached to the how--asked Jules--and lost the original goal–-a clean room.

Let's review. You want a clean room. Jules isn't doing it. Even when you've made life a living hell. So abandon that plan and try something else. You could clean it. No one is stopping you. Or you and Jules could agree how to work overtime and together hire a housekeeper. But if you stay attached to the how of asking Jules, you get caught up in blame. You yell, scream and demonstrate that adults throw temper tantrums when they don't get their way. That'll teach Jules to be a grown up. Return to your goal--a clean room--and find another way. Even picking up yourself. It will take half the time and a tenth the mental energy.

Getting mad at Jules is "solving the solution." That's when your chosen solution is more work than the original problem. If you're bogged down in something, stop! Step back. Ask, "Why is this important? What's the larger goal?" Then ask how you could reach it and do that.

Meeting Goals

Consider meetings. I just love meetings. ... No, I don't. I hate meetings. Let's find another way. Consider the weekly status meeting. Why is that important? We share information; we sync up on outstanding issues. Why is it important to sync up? Er, that way team members help each other when they get stuck? OK. Does the weekly status meeting really reach that goal? Or is there a better way? Maybe team members could just ask each other for help when they get stuck.
 

In business, asking "Why?" will lead you back to the company strategy. Or it should. "We're cloning fluorescent bunny rabbits. Why is that important?" "Because our strategic goal as a business is to dominate the cold-weather, outerwear market." Ah. Yes. Well, then. Perhaps we could use orange spray paint and paisley, and just skip the whole bunny abuse thing?[[AdMiddle]

Take a look at your to-do list, your scheduled meetings, and, of course, the things you'll do every day like read e-mail, go for a run, exercise, whatever. For each thing on the list, ask yourself, "Why am I doing this?" Connect it to your larger goal. And then ask, "Can I find an easier, faster, cheaper, funner way to reach that same goal?" You might be surprised that very often, the answer is "Yes."

Web Bonus

By the way, as research for this episode, I asked a room full of parents if any parent has ever gotten a teenager to clean their room by asking, yelling, or threatening. The consensus was, "No." The strategy that worked was when a ten-year-old sister bet a fourteen-year-old brother that he couldn't hang up his clothes every day for a month. Not only did I, er, he, keep his room clean for the month, but I/he hangs his clothes up to this very day.

This is Stever Robbins. If you have a question about how to work less and do more, e-mail getitdone@quickanddirtytips.com or leave voicemail at 866-WRK-LESS.

 

Work less, do more, and have a great life!

Young Businessman image courtesy of Shutterstock

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