Introduction: When You Don’t Know What You “Should” Be Doing
In my previous post “How to Achieve Your Goals: Four Steps to a Personal Epiphany” I discussed in detail how to research, break down, and create an action plan to do any of those things that you know you “should” be doing but that you haven’t been able to get traction on. In many situations, this is enough—most people have a long list of things they’d like to do but haven’t.
But what if you don’t have a list? Or what if you worry that the list isn’t good enough? It would be a shame to make a ton of progress against your goals and then come to realize that they weren’t really what you wanted after all. Or would it?
This guide aims to address the big question: what should I be doing? Even if you’re starting with a totally blank page, I’m here to help you get clarity about the things that matter to you.
Framing the Problem
Deciding the best way to live is a core question of philosophy, and you can devote your entire life to the search. Here at “It Can Be Easily Done” we believe there is value in making things easier—ease leads to action leads to momentum leads to consistency leads to success.
The first way we can make the problem easier is to create a framework with criteria against which to evaluate how things are going as they unfold. Since what you “should” be doing is unknown, think of your search as an experiment, and any good experiment evaluates its hypotheses. After all, you have the rest of your life to refine these ideas.
To keep things simple, our framework is going to focus on two ideas:
- Value – emphasizes goals with outcomes you find personally important
- Impact – emphasizes goals with high expected values
The second way to make the problem easier is to document and visualize the ideas you are considering. Since the search for meaning unfolds over time it’s easy to forget, easy to backtrack, and easy to get stuck in your own mental echos. Do yourself a favor and get it down on paper (or into a computer) so that you don’t lose your hard earned musings.
This Is Totally a Value Judgement…
Everything is relative. We like to think of ourselves as logical, objective truth-seekers (well, at least I do), but in reality we perceive much of our happiness relative to external conditions. Even putting happiness aside, our successes are usually not absolute. They exist in the world relative to our expectations.
As such, clarifying your values is a critical first step to figuring out what you “should” be doing. Here I’m using the word “value” in the sense of “one’s judgment of what’s important in life.” For example, you might value having a lot of free time or having a lot of money. Those two values may conflict, but then again, with the right approach they may be compatible. By externalizing the outcomes you seek, you can figure out what goals will get you there.
Let’s begin with a few easy approaches to get to a first draft set of values.
Be Positive, Concrete, and Don’t Censor Yourself
Thinking about big ideas far into the future can be difficult. As such, you should suspend your disbelief for a bit. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get blocked. We’re aiming for comprehensive coverage of the outcomes that you want in your life, in the best case. The outcomes don’t have have to be “happy” per se, but they should be defined as something you are pursuing rather than something you are avoiding.
For example, let’s say that you wish that you could work less. First, reframe the desire as something you are pursuing rather than avoiding—you wish you had more free time. Now, think concretely and expansively about what this free time would look like in the best case scenario. Laying on the beach in Bali? Spending time with your family? Finally finishing that afghan you’ve been meaning to crochet? Be vivid.
Whatever it is, write it down without criticizing. There will be plenty of time to pare it down in subsequent steps.
Now, that you’re in the mindset of thinking big, let’s guide your exploration. Constraints help you to move fast and not get stuck. The danger here is that you’ll miss something important. Your attention is limited so it’s helpful to have some guidance about where to spend it. To that end, I’ve pulled some helpful prompts from around the web to get you thinking about what you value in life.
Here they are ordered from fastest to most thorough:
One approach that boils down the considerations to their essence comes courtesy Michael Hyatt, but has appeared in a variety of places (because it’s powerful): visualize what you want people to say about you at your funeral. This works for a few reasons. First, it makes the context tangible… people are much better at thinking about real situations than abstract ones. Having a story makes your musings concrete. Second, it leverages humanity’s social nature. Often, what others say about you hits harder than what you think to yourself.
Life Coach Spotter has a nice guide to finding your purpose in life using a few different exercises. The first focuses on happiness, strengths, and service. Basically, do a journaling session to recall what situations in the past made you happy, to identify your talents, and to look outward at the problems around you that you could tackle. Most of the other exercises focus on using mindfulness and journaling to get past self-censorship and limiting beliefs.
Nightingale suggests 5 core areas: health and energy, good relationships, meaningful work, financial independence, and spirituality/inner peace. They recommend envisioning an ideal outcome in each area, assuming you were free of all constraints and limiting beliefs.
On the far end of the spectrum, Alex Vermeer’s 8760 hours guide to yearly planning has a dozen life areas to consider, which I find to be a lot. I recommend taking a look to get an idea of the broad swath areas that can make a difference in your life, but don’t get hung up on exploring them all in great detail. Just having these ideas activate your brain will help you when using the other prompts.
Your Actions for Today
- Commit to yourself to be positive, concrete, and for today to write down anything that comes to mind.
- Choose one of the prompts above that most resonates with you. Spend around an hour brainstorming with the prompt. Messy is fine, but be sure to write down your thoughts.
- Revisit what you’ve brainstormed tomorrow and perhaps a week from now. Allow your subconscious to work on the problem and revise as you see fit.
How Do You Know What You Value Is Valuable?
I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer. – Jim Carrey
Okay. Now you have a list of values that feel important to you. How do you know that goals that pursue these values will make any difference in your life? What if you put a bunch of effort into the wrong thing? No one wants to be the person who dreams of becoming an actor, then moves to LA and ends up hating it. This is especially insidious because success doesn’t necessarily correlate to fulfillment—you might hate being a celebrity in LA as much (or more than) becoming a waiter.
This dilemma motivates our second concept: “impact.” Here, I define impact as the expected value that comes from pursuing a goal in service of one of your values.
So what does that mean exactly?
Psychologically, people have a lot of difficulty reasoning about the future, especially the distant future, a phenomenon known as temporal myopia. Even in the present, we can be strangers to ourselves. Predicting how we’ll feel about our choices in the future is nearly impossible.
I suggest going around this problem… just because we can’t be sure about our future selves doesn’t mean that we can’t pursue values that are more likely to make a difference. And there are near-term indicators of impact that are much easier to think about than far off outcomes. As you start to narrow down which values to pursue right now, here are some important considerations to keep in mind.
Is It In a High-Leverage Area?
This question won’t ensure that you end up where you want to be, but it’s extremely helpful because it eliminates a whole class of pursuits that are not worthwhile. If the thing that you are considering has the potential for a lot of upside, then it may be worth pursuing even if it is challenging or not sure to make you happy. Alternatively, if something in the best case scenario is not that valuable, it may not be worthwhile even if it is very easy to do.
Here I want to make an explicit relationship to expected value. When you are thinking about whether an area is high leverage, think about both the magnitude and the likelihood of the outcome. People are generally pretty good at reasoning about magnitude and pretty bad at reasoning about probability. They’re both important, however, so don’t shortchange the latter.
Can You Measure It?
This question sounds like a buzz kill, especially when thinking about lifelong dreams, but stick with me here. Our biggest risk in setting the right goals is that we don’t really know what we’ll be like in the future. The best way to mitigate that risk is to be willing and able to adjust as we learn more and more. Measurement provides the feedback that allows us to make those adjustments.
For example, perhaps you value reducing suffering in the world. That may seem quite subjective, but the effective altruism movement has done a lot of work to put it on a rigorous footing. This kind of measurement approach allows effective altruists to regularly update their approaches to things like volunteering and charitable giving to make sure that they are, ahem, effective.
Of course, you don’t need to (and probably shouldn’t) go that deep unless you enjoy that sort of thing. If folks can quantify suffering, you should be able to write down a measurement or two that you’ll revisit on your journey. It doesn’t even have to be that quantitative; a simple 1 to 5 scale of how you’re feeling about this particular value is better than nothing.
Consider the Journey
When working through your goals and values it’s also important to consider the entire path to an outcome rather than just how great things will be when you get there. First, for very long-term goals, you may spend significantly more time in pursuit than you do at the endpoint. Second, because reasoning about the near future is easier than the far future, you can do it better and more accurately.
Do some research into other people who have pursued this goal. What did their path look like? How long did it take? How do you feel about the first year’s worth of work they did? For example, if you are thinking about spending 6 years on a PhD, how do you feel after reading a memoir from someone who just finished one?
This isn’t meant to discourage you from pursuing something difficult, like starting your own business, but it should help you to imagine what your life will be like on this particular journey. Your reaction should color which values you choose to pursue right now.
Does It Compound?
This last one is a personal favorite of mine and seems to form the center of the constellation of all my interests. Does it compound?
Some activities trade time for very little in return. For an obsessive like me, fantasy sports had this quality. I could spend an almost unlimited amount of time researching players and getting to understand all the nuances of what makes a winning team, but winning reset every year. Worse, the skills I was learning really didn’t transfer to anything else. Lots of time in with a cap on results is not a recipe for success. I eventually stopped playing.
Compare this to something like investing. When you start out, you might make very little money, but each dollar you make stays with you and makes it easier to make the next dollar. Done properly, the math works in your favor and you’ll see exponentially growing results. These sorts of activities are worth pursuing.
Investing is not the only example. Compare working for a paycheck and trading time for money to starting a business whose value compounds over time. Or even farther afield, consider the huge rewards of investing deeply in a relationship.
Anything that compounds is worth a deeper look.
Of course, each of the heuristics I’ve provided are just that, heuristics. Apply them as a guide to get a feel for what values could have the biggest impact on your life, then move forward. We’ll continue to adjust as we do.
Your Actions for Today
- Prioritize your values based on how important they feel to you.
- Prioritize the impact of pursuing each value considering near term impact indicators above.
Let’s Set Some Goals
We’re moving forward, and I’m pleased to say that the most difficult parts of this process are now behind us. You have a framework of your values current and you’ve ranked them with your best estimate of impact in your life. All that’s left is to start making progress towards your most impactful values.
Goals Consistent with Values
Once you have values, goals are actually pretty easy to define: they are the concrete steps that you will take in order to maximize the outcomes consistent with your values. Think of your values as a filter: all your potential goals go in, but only the ones that have clear ties to your values come out the other end.
When you decide to pursue a new goal, ask yourself:
- Which value does this align with?
- How much would achieving my goal increase the expected value of my value’s outcomes? Don’t forget about probability.
- Will this goal conflict with other values? Will it take away from pursuing more impactful values?
Alternatively, work backwards from your most impactful values towards your goals:
- What is the first step I could take toward my most impactful value?
- Are there prerequisites or things I need to learn to make progress?
- How have other people approached this value?
Keep your values in mind and what the goals “should” be doing will pop into stark relief.
Making It Easy
It’s great to spend some time thinking about the big picture, but here at “It Can Be Easily Done” we’re all about action. And the best way to be able to act is to make it easy to act.
To that end, here are a few ways to make your initial goal choosing painless:
- Get specific. It’s much easier to make progress against a SMART goal. The acronym can stand for a lot of things, but it’s all meant to make sure you know when you’ve achieved the goal. Don’t feel like you’re on a treadmill.
- Feasibility matters. This also comes from some flavors of SMART. As much as possible, you want to pick impactful goals, but you should to keep your energy and well-being in mind as you do so. When you’re starting out momentum is critical—there’s no shame in starting easy and turning it up as you succeed.
- Cut down the timeframe. This is a great hack to consider given our temporal myopia. You already put a lot of effort into long term thinking. Give yourself a break by making your first goal near-term.
Alright. Time to go do it.
Your Actions for Today
- Create a near-term goal in service of your most impactful value
- If you need help crafting and sticking to the goal, check out my guide on how to achieve your goals.
- Do it!
Congratulations, you made it. Thinking about the future is tough, but now you have a starting point: your values/impact framework. Don’t be afraid to change as you learn more about yourself.
In fact, this post will be changing as I learn more and more about how to do the “right” thing. If you have any suggestions or just want to chat about how this approach worked for you, reach out. We’re on this journey together.