If you are looking for a time management solution, it’s very likely that you are an “ideas” person. Goal-setting ideas likely pop into your head while you are going about your day. In the shower, on your walk, while doing morning pages, or simply “out of nowhere.” And this is before we even get to the goals, ideas, tasks, and to-dos that come rolling out of meetings, conversations, and emails!

There are so many things you could do!

But how do you pick which ones to do, when, and how?  

Using Goal-Setting Theory to Achieve Your Goals

There are two key insights that help you begin to make sense of all your great ideas and take action.

  1. First, you need to know: What kind of idea is this?
  2. Second, depending on the kind of idea, you must ask: How can I best move this idea forward?

As the ideas come flowing in, you will notice that they vary quite a lot.

Some of the ideas you have will be quite small, on the level of: “Ask Matt for help on budget.” Some may be larger, like, “Write a bestselling book.”

As is probably obvious – these are not the same “kind” of ideas.

In the language of the Great Work Journals, ideas can be categorized into 5 different levels.

Five Levels of Ideas for Smart Goal-Setting

  • A catalyzing vision you hope to achieve “someday.”
  • An accessible aspiration you plan to achieve in the next year or two (or three).
  • A 90-day goal, towards which you are actively striving.
  • A weekly task that you will do, appropriately, this week.
  • A to-do you’ve got on your list for today.
Goal setting Planner

Returning to our example, you can see that “asking Matt for help” is something you might put on a daily to-do list.

Pro tip! Note that this isn’t receiving Matt’s help, it’s just writing the email to ask for it. Later that week you might have a calendar invite for “meet with Matt to discuss budgets.”

When your time is aligned, both of these to-dos (asking for and receiving help) will go all the way up. For example:

  • The to-do of “asking for Matt’s help” may very well be tied to a weekly task of creating a budget draft.
  • That budget draft task is tied to a 90-day goal of figuring how to work from a budget
  • This makes sense because you are hell-bent on making a profit in your business this year (accessible aspiration)
  • Why? Because secretly, someday you want a 7-figure (that’s a MILLION) company. (Vision!)
Goal setting example

What to do today, to achieve your long-term goals

Consider our other example: “Write a bestselling book.”

What kind of idea is this?

Well, first of all, that depends on your comfort and experience with writing.

If you already HAVE a bestselling book, this might be a 90-day goal or an accessible aspiration.

However, if you are just getting started with a regular writing practice, the bestselling book is more likely a catalyzing vision.

  • When translated into an accessible aspiration for this year, you might decide to write an e-book that you self-publish to Amazon.
  • In the next 90 days, perhaps, you are figuring out how to blog semi-regularly.
  • This week, therefore, you might try to write a single blog.
  • And today? It might make sense to make an outline for a single, 800-word blog.
Goal setting example for long term goal

Knowing the level of your ideas is helpful because:

  1. You’ll stop shaming yourself for not meeting a 2-year aspiration in 90 days.
  2. You’ll realize that even if your idea will take two years, there’s something you can do about today.

See that? It’s both soothing and energizing!

That’s the Great Work way.

How to set goals and achieve them

Now that you see how varied your ideas are, it begs the question: How do I take action on these different ideas? Well, ideas at different levels are moved forward in entirely different ways.

Vision: A vastly misunderstood part of goal-setting

Vision is a critical and vastly misunderstood part of goal setting. A vision is meant to excite you; to bring up emotion, to get your blood moving, and to activate and exercise the part of you that dreams.

When working with a vision, you want to go all in and visualize it in all its manifest glory. “Someday, I want to write the first self-published New York Times Bestselling book on the Theory Of Everything. I will be blown away by 5-star reviews on Amazon. Like this one: “This book changed my life by making me aware of my place in the Universe”. And I will one day enjoy accepting a lifetime achievement award for “Changing the Face of Everything.”

Ahh, that feels AMAZING, doesn’t it?

And yet, for exactly this reason, it’s very overwhelming to work directly against a vision. We NEED those intervening steps from the triangle to make progress without feeling overwhelmed.

All of this is to say, you should absolutely take the time to create a vision that sets your soul on fire. But then you MUST translate it into the lower levels of the triangle to make progress.

Want more guidance on creating a vision? Join the great work community and enjoy the Deeper meaning and purpose mini-course

How to think about long-term goals

These are things that feel accessible, doable, and actionable…but far away. Usually, I think of these as ideas for the next 1-3 years. I know that they will take multiple 90-day goals and a lot of figuring out. They are usually tied to a piece of my long-term vision, and are exciting while still feeling doable.

Pro tip! We work on excavating accessible aspirations in the “Good Life” section of the Great Work Journals.

The accessible aspiration is moved forward in two ways:

  • First, when you are ready, you translate it into 90-day goals. This leads to weekly tasks and daily to-dos, which ultimately lead to success. More about this down below.
  • Second, before you are ready to move something to a 90-day goal, an accessible aspiration will still be on your mind. That’s OK! Give yourself a place to capture information about your aspiration along the way.

If you are fascinated by the idea of hiking the Appalachian trail someday, you might come across packing lists, “10 Best Spots on the Appalachian Trail”, links, and book recommendations.

It’s helpful to capture all those thoughts in a dedicated notebook, or in an idea capturing app like any one of these. I personally use Apple Notes for this.

Click here to learn more about the productivity tools I use.

The key here is that until you make your aspiration a 90-day goal, don’t worry about doing anything with these ideas or acting on any of the research.

Just be curious and capture ideas as they arise.

How to set goals for the next 90 days

One of the best ways to use an aspiration is to let it spark a 90-day goal. Returning to the idea of the Appalachian trail: if you have been stockpiling ideas for a while, and you are getting more and more excited, it might be time to get into it!

What could you do in 90 days that would get you closer to hiking the Appalachian Trail?

  • Maybe it’s time to plan your first overnight hiking trip to a trail near your house.
  • Maybe you can re-join your local day-hiking club and get back into the habit of doing short hikes once a week.
  • Or perhaps this inspires you to get into better shape, so you begin a couch-to-5k program.

All of these would be great 90-day Sanity Goals (a goal that helps you feel resourced, excited and able to dig deep on your stretch goal)!

Goal setting theory example

It takes practice to choose the best 90-day goals

90-day goals are at the heart of the Great Work Journals, and so I’m here to tell you: choosing a good 90-day goal is a skill that takes time.

Inevitably, as you get started setting 90-day goals, you will choose some goals that are wayyyy too big (I’ll write and publish my book!), and goals that are wayyyy too small for 90 days (I’ll call the doctor and schedule an appointment).

That’s FINE.

You will get started on the big ones, and blow through the little ones, and eventually hit on the perfect, Goldilocks-sized goal. When you assume that you’ll get it wrong, it wont surprise you and you can simply adjust your expectations and get back to it.

Smart goal-setting for 90-day goals

Very often, people set goals like “Get better at yoga”. While I don’t deny that they do, in fact, want to get better at yoga…how would they know that they have achieved that goal? It’s easy to feel endlessly behind the 8-ball, when a goal is open ended.

Smart Goal setting quote

Instead, we want to be working towards something concrete like “Figure out how to go to yoga 3x a week”. The great thing about a goal like this: If you go 3x a week, you’ve figured it out!

Alternatively, if you want to focus on skill-building instead of time spent, you could do: “Figure out how to do a headstand”.

If you do a headstand, you’ve figured it out!

The key here is that you need to KNOW when you’ve accomplished your goal so you can celebrate…and push yourself to make it across the finish line (without overwhelm!) when the end of the 90 days approaches.

Pro tip! This may remind you of SMART goals, or goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. The Great Work Journals ensures that your goals are SMART, without the analysis paralysis that tends to come along with trying to set a SMART goal.

Weekly tasks: Time to get busy

Once something is officially on the radar (i.e., one of your 90-day goals), you will move it forward almost every week. Each week, you will review your 90-day goals and ask “How can I get a little closer to my goal this week?”, and then set a task that is a true, concrete, substantive step forward.

Weekly tasks are often things that could take a few days, but are also things you’re pretty sure you can figure out. In our example about budgeting, our task for the week is to make a draft.      

Goal setting example

Under normal circumstances, this is all the work people do to prepare to take on on their weekly tasks: “I’m going to make a budget this week”, they say, and then they either:

  1. Experience Goalnesia (that phenomenon where you set a goal, get excited about it, and then immediately forget about it) and wake up in three weeks to the fact that they still don’t have a budget. Then the shame rolls in, costing them two more weeks without a budget while they occupy their time beating themselves up.

2. Buy a month-long ticket for the struggle bus because they DON’T KNOW HOW to make a budget, but they didn’t stop and notice that they don’t know how…and so they struggle.

But we aren’t going to let that happen!

We start out the week KNOWING that creating a draft budget is something we don’t know how to do.

How? Well, the magic happens when you set up your weekly tasks. First you set the task, then you assume that something is going to get in your way (because it’s always true). Then you plan around it.

Goal setting planner

Things to do today to move accomplish your goal

This is where the rubber meets the road! : Now that we know what we want to do this week, it’s time to actually do it!

The exact same structure governs your daily to-dos.

  • What can I do to get a little closer today?
  • What will get in my way?
  • How will I get around it?

In our example of making a budget, it’s time to send that email to Matt asking for help.

What’s likely to get in your way? Maybe you feel like a dumbass asking for help on something (in your opinion) you should already know.

Kindness Reminder – you can’t know what you don’t know until you learn it. Stop trying to be a perfect superhero all the time!

How do you get around it? Well, Matt’s a nice guy. Just tell him!

goal setting planner

In the example of writing a book, today we are outlining a blog. Time to dig in!

But wait, you have NO TIME for this. I guess it’s time to figure that out.

Why it is important to set goals

In our example of hiking the Appalachian trail, it’s time to ask Marie where they went last year.

“But, but! I haven’t spoken to Marie in 6 months! Isn’t she going to be annoyed that I burst into her text messages with no pre-amble?” Ok, add some preamble! Acknowledge that you haven’t spoken, ask for some time to catch up…and then ask her for the details you need.

goal setting activities

Here’s the interesting thing about using the Great Work Journals: it reveals both how complicated things are, and how over-complicated we can make things.

Sending a text might come with some baggage, and that’s OK!

Pretending that there isn’t any baggage, on the other hand, is a recipe for goalnesia, procrastination, and defensive failure.

The moral: It’s complicated and that’s fine.

However, that doesn’t have to mean you establish a 6-week habit of texting before you can ask for a simple detail about an overnight hike they did last year! The Great Work Journals gives you space to consider what’s in the way, and then pushes you to find a quick way around it.

This is the habit you need to conquer your daily to-do list!

Aligned Time is Efficient Time

These two habits: seeing your ideas clearly as a specific kind of idea, and then knowing how best to move each kind of idea forward, is the key to using your time efficiently. Now you can start taking daily, weekly, and 90-day steps towards your long-term goal.

About the author

Dr. Amanda Crowell is a cognitive psychologist and business coach who helps accidental entrepreneurs get more clients and have a bigger impact. She is the author of Great Work, the host of the Unleashing Your Great Work podcast, and the creator of the Great Work Journals. Amanda's TEDx talk has received almost two million views and has been featured on TED's Ideas blog and Ted Shorts. Her ideas have also been featured on NPR, Al Jazeera, The Wall Street Journal, Quartz, and Thrive Global.