Your level of motivation is very important in determining how hard you work and what type of learning you do. Sadly, strong motivation cannot be purchased nor can it be built in an instant. Instead, motivation is something that you need to grow on a daily basis. One powerful way to cultivate your motivation is to develop and revise goals you have for your future. In this post, I help you explore your current goal-setting habits. I also discuss some steps of a larger framework for organizing different types of goals you might have as you craft a vision for your future. This is the first in a series of posts to encourage you to harness the power of your motivation by creating and refining your goals.
Earning a college degree is a huge undertaking. This journey usually lasts at least four years, likely costs tens of thousands of dollars to complete, and requires thousands of hours of dedicated study. If you’re doing it right, this process is guaranteed to be filled with continual struggle. When the going gets tough, you may begin to doubt yourself or wonder if all the work is worth the effort. At times like these, you can leverage your goals as a source of energy to push through and stay focused. But learning to write and revise meaningful goals takes practice.
One first step in learning to write down your goals is to assess your current habits. In the link below, I provide you a self assessment to highlight some of the practices you currently use to capture your goals.
I encourage you to click on this link and spend 10 – 15 minutes responding to the questions within.
Seriously. Do that now before we go on.
How did that go? Were you able to answer yes to questions 1 – 12? If so, congratulations on having highly effective goal-setting habits. If not, don’t worry! We’re going to work as a team to build your goal-setting skills, step-by-step, day-by-day.
One of my favorite techniques for capturing my goals is to think about the Horizons of Focus model that I adapted from David Allen’s great book entitled Getting Things Done. If you are interested in developing effective study systems and have not yet read that book, I recommend it.
The basic principle of the Horizons of Focus model is to organize your work and goals based on your desired time-scale for achievement. The diagram below highlights 6 different horizons (or time scales) that you can use to capture and organize various goals that you have. In the rest of this post, we’ll analyze the lowest three levels this hierarchy.
HORIZON 0: Calendar events and action items
These to-do items are concrete actions that you need to take within the next 7 days of your life. Sometimes you might schedule events on your calendar that are further than 7 days into the future. No worries: schedule away! The important feature of to-do items in this category is that they are one-off tasks: as soon as you finish, you move on.
Examples of to-do items that you might think about as happening on the ground level include going to classes, paying bills, picking up groceries, responding to texts, filling out paperwork, completing chores, or making phone calls. In a follow-up post, I discuss effective capture systems to track these to-do items so that nothing falls through the cracks.
Horizon 1: active Projects
Active projects are commitments that require a number of calendar events or action items to complete, usually in sequential form. These undertakings might span anywhere from a week to one year of work.
One useful way to test if a given commitment is an active project or a task from Horizon 0 is to ask yourself: can I finish this task in a single work session? If the answer to that question is yes, then the task likely belongs in Horizon 0. On the other hand, if you need more than one session of work to finish a task, then it is likely an active project.
For example, I would categorize the process of taking an exam as an active project since this milestone requires a sequence of work done over many days. First you need to figure out what is going to be on the exam, maybe by going to class or reading guidelines given to you by your instructor. Then, you need to come up with a study plan to learn the material covered on the exam. Next, you need to implement your study plan and get feedback on your work. After you’ve executed your study plan, you sit for the exam. Finally, you get your exam result. Hopefully you plan in time to do exam corrections and reflect on your progress. This process requires a sequence of action items that play out over many weeks, making it an active project.
In a later post, we’ll talk more about the differences between active projects, sub-projects, calendar events, to-do items, and a concept called intermediate packets. For now, the important thing is to recognize that we can use the concept of projects to break down larger goals into a sequence of action items that all align towards the same outcome.
Horizon 2: Areas of focus
An area of focus is a large set of interests you have or a role you want to fulfill in your life. These are not to-do items you need to finish or projects you need to complete. Instead, think of these as the criteria you use to help make decisions about what you want to accomplish in the next few years of your life. The point of an area of focus is to help you assess the larger responsibilities you’re willing to take on.
For example, earning a college degree is an area of focus. I would say that the process of finishing all your courses is too large to be considered an active project since it spans so many years and requires many, many projects. However, the fact that your trying to complete your degree likely helps focus your mind on the type of activities you do on a daily basis. From that standpoint, I would classify the degree itself as an area of focus in your life.
In a future post, we will finish our categorization of the next three levels in the Horizons of Focus model. Then, we’ll explore how you can use this model to write your goals and generate a compelling vision for your academic and professional life.
One interesting note: I like to think about areas of focus as lasting anywhere between 1 year and 5 years of my life. I call these short-term goals. I remember having a conversation with a student who heard me say this and responded: “You think 5 years is a short-term goal. You’re crazy.”
If I remember correctly, the guy who said this was around 20 years old at that time of our conversation. From his perspective as a 20 year-old, he was right to say that it is crazy to call a 5-year goal short term. Indeed, something that takes him 5 years to complete represents 25% of his life (since 5/20 = 0.25).
However this terminology relates to a larger habit that I like to use when thinking about my goals. Specifically, I like to run through the following thought experiment: Suppose that it is the end of my life and I am on my death bed. How old will I be? Who will be in the room with me? After I pass, my loved ones will need to determine some words to put on my head stone. Suppose that I only allow them three words. What will those words be? How are those words related to what I do now on a day-to-day basis?
When I run through that thought experiment for myself, I imagine I’ll die at 90-years old. In the world of my imagination, I try to think about all the experiences I had in my life and categorize them into three buckets which represent the three words I have on my head stone. For me, those are: Health, Family, and Students. From that perspective, spending 5 years on a set of projects (an area of focus) represents a small fraction of my larger life (5/90 = 0.055 or about 6% of my life).
The idea of labeling my areas of focus as short-term goals is to remind myself to keep an eye on my end game and stay focused on what means the most to me. We’ll explore more about how you can figure out your most cherished values and use those to guide your goal setting as we explore Horizons 3 – 5 in later posts.
To end this post, I’ll share some examples of areas of focus that I’ve had since I was 18 years old. I highlight some notable areas from my academic and professional life and leave off areas of focus that I’ve had in my personal life.
Mid-Level Goal 1: Earn my education and find my dream job
Areas of Focus:
1. Sept. 2003 – June 2007: B.S. in Mathematics at UC Santa Barbara.
2. August 2007 – August 2008: JET Program and learn Japanese
3. Sept 2008 – Sept 2009: Math Prelim Exams for PhD Program at UC Davis
4. Sept 2009 – May 2011: Qualifying Exams for PhD Program at UC Davis
5. May 2011 – August 2013: PhD Thesis for PhD Program at UC Davis
6. Sept 2008 – August 2012: Determine what I want to do with my career
7. Sept 2012 – August 2013: Earn a full-time teaching position at Foothill
Mid-Level Goal 2: Refine my vision for creating a career that I love
Areas of Focus:
1. Sept 2013 – March 2014: Phase 1 for Tenure at Foothill College
2. April 2014 – March 2015: Phase 2 for Tenure at Foothill College
3. April 2015 – March 2017: Phase 3 for Tenure at Foothill College
4. Sept 2013 – June 2018: Build systems to create curriculum
5. June 2018 – Present: Create platforms for authorship
I am currently still working on Mid-Level Goal 2 and have a bunch of areas of focus that I finished within the last 3 years or which I am still working on. I’ll talk more about those in future posts. For now, the point is to give you some idea of the hierarchy between the first few levels in our Horizons of Focus Model and how those played out in my own education. Hopefully this inspires you to think a little differently about organizing your goals as you learn to write them down and track your progress.