If you’re reading this post, you probably have a daily to-do system. And at least once or twice in your career, you’ve likely experienced the high that hits on rare afternoons when you get through it all. Everything on the list is checked off. The inbox is empty. It’s a great feeling.
Unfortunately, it’s usually fleeting. Within minutes, inbox zero is gone and to-dos are piling up again.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could celebrate that sense of accomplishment for more than a millisecond? And not just once in awhile, but every week?
You can. The key is understanding the difference between task-based reminder lists and measurable, actionable goals.
Daily To-Dos vs. Daily Actionable Goals
In its true form, a to-do list should be exactly what the name implies: a list of action items that need to get done, each one taking no more than an hour or two at most. If you’re on a call with Judy and promise to email her a TPS report by the end of the day, a reminder is added to the to-do list.
Goals, on the other hand, are defined by Merriam-Webster as “something you are trying to achieve.” With goal lists, you’re no longer just emailing Judy a TPS report. You’re setting an objective to wow her with your creative cover sheet and three killer testing procedure specs.
Where a lot of people go wrong is mixing the two together. To-do lists can easily become an overwhelming catalog of everything that needs to get done, instead of a culled list of the action items that will help you stay on track and reach more fulfilling achievements.
So how do you do it?
Step 1: Set Your Overarching Goals
To-dos answer a simple question: “What are you planning to do today?”
Actionable goals, on the other hand, are your motivation. They represent what you ultimately want to achieve and the results you’ll use to measure (and celebrate!) success.
What do you want to accomplish within the next quarter? What are the primary objectives, and what key results will you use to measure them? When you stop to answer these questions, your lists are transformed from simple sets of task-based reminders into productivity-boosting daily goals—each one driven by a master list of milestones. This is how your daily to-do list is transformed from a dumping ground of everything you have to get done into a key driver of success.
Tip: As you define the “what” and “when” of your longer-term objectives in this first crucial step, set a realistic timeframe for measuring success. Give yourself—or your team—deadlines you can comfortably live with.
Step 2: Break Out Your “Mini-Goals” for Project-Based Lists
With objectives clearly defined and key results set, you’re ready to break down your overarching goals into subsets of smaller projects that will get you closer to achieving your goals. For example: If your objective is to generate 100 new leads, one of your project-based goals might include creating an extraordinary content marketing strategy.
From here, you can further break down your subset into more granular, actionable goals: Complete a thorough competitive analysis to reveal missed opportunities, identify three unique concepts and so on. By breaking down each overarching goal into a flow of individual actions, you redefine simple tasks as quantifiable, achievable goals.
The beauty of this approach is that instead of long lists of daily to-dos, you end up with digestible, project-based lists of actionable goals. Simply start each day by taking a few minutes to pull up your outline, pick up where you left off and be honest with yourself about what you can realistically prioritize and get done in the coming day.
Step 3: Collaborate
This is the step that most people miss. When your daily goals are made visible to colleagues—through daily standups, for instance, or by setting OKRs—outstanding tasks won’t leave you in a state of paralysis. When you get stuck, you’ll have an engaged team to call upon for the solutions you need to get back on track. (Their positive feedback as you accomplish milestones can be a powerful motivator, too.)
Of course, you will still need to be somewhat flexible: You may have a creative idea in the middle of your project that alters your overall actionable goals, and items that seem really important Monday morning may not be as pressing by Thursday afternoon. When you have a master plan, each minor adjustments will take you entire staircases closer to reaching wildly fulfilling goals.
So get ready to celebrate.