Connecting Big Projects and Goals to Today

Quite a few people emailed me about my recent post where I encouraged people to live for today by actually achieving enough that you go to sleep happy about the productive day you’ve had. The part that seemed to generate the most interest is the translation of enormous projects into individual tasks that can be accomplished as part of a checklist.

The best way to explain how I do this is to just pull some examples from my own life.

I use the web service Remember the Milk to manage all of the projects and goals I’m currently trying to reach in my life. All told, there are about fifteen or so going on at once.

At the end of each and every day (at least, days when I’m not traveling or something like that – and even on those days, I do that to a certain extent), I’ll go to that list of projects and goals. For each and every one, I’ll simply ask myself what I could do tomorrow to move forward in some way on that goal.

One of my goals, for example, is to finish up this high fantasy novel I’ve been working on for a long while. When I look at that goal, I usually just add the item “Write 500 words on the novel” to my checklist for tomorrow.

Another goal, one that’s much more of a long-term goal, is to raise intellectually curious children. When I look at that goal, I’ll add something to my list like “Have one intellectually challenging conversation with each child” to my checklist.

Some things I add to the list take devoted time that I need to set aside. Other things, like having a daily goal of walking a number of steps, is at least partially accomplished simply by living my life in a healthy fashion.

This works really well for me. Getting through that daily checklist feels like a real accomplishment – and I feel really good about moving forward on so many projects and goals in my life. I usually feel like a day has gone well if I manage to get through that list.

Of course, I don’t always accomplish everything on my checklist. If that happens, I don’t panic. I just make a note of it somewhere – I actually just keep a separate list of to-do tasks that I didn’t manage to finish. At the end of the week, I’ll sit down and look at that list of unfinished steps and ask myself why I failed to achieve those steps. This will sometimes help me to remake goals that aren’t going well for some reason.

So, how can you achieve this same thing?

The first thing you need to do is to set down some specific goals and projects for yourself. What do you want to accomplish in the next six months? The next year? The next five years, or ten years? Make a list of those goals. It can be as ambitious or unambitious as you wish.

I’d also suggest that, for each of those goals, you spend some time researching and thinking about what you’d actually need to go through to achieve that goal. Try to understand how that goal or project breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces.

Once you’ve got those goals and projects and you’ve assessed some sort of plan for achieving them, end every day by making a to-do list for tomorrow. Assess each of those items and identify a single action you can take to move you forward in some way toward that goal. Add it to a checklist for tomorrow. Make an effort to keep those single actions very clear and quite small. Ideally they should be things you can do that will fill in little time gaps during the day with only a few things that require you to put aside time for them. Then, at the start of the day, grab that checklist and take it with you. Make it your goal to get through that checklist.

You will feel a very nice sense of achievement if you do. Even better, if you keep doing this as part of a routine, you will make forward progress on every big goal and project in your life. You’ll achieve lots of things that you’d simply put out of mind because they seemed “too big.”

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