How to Achieve Your Goals: Four Steps to a Personal Epiphany
“I already know what I need to do. I just need to buckle down and do it.” – Me last year
“I already know what I need to do. I just need to buckle down and do it.” – Me today
“I already know what I need to do. I just need to buckle down and do it.” – Me next year?
Why Haven’t I Done It Already?
Does the above sound familiar? We’re all intelligent people and we get a lot of good advice. We might even act on some of it. Yet, despite knowing “what to do” we still get fat. We still get lost surfing Facebook. We still watch our slow descent into a pile of bad habits that we didn’t have 5 years ago. And we risk looking back on our lives at 70 and saying “I wish I had done it differently.”
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Has something like this ever happened to you? You make a New Year’s resolution to go to the gym three times a week. Things go okay in January—you make it there about a dozen times. February is tougher. One “can I sleep just 10 minutes longer?” and you’ve missed a session. By March you haven’t been to the gym in two weeks and you kind of forget about it.
But then something unrelated happens… you move to a new place. You find a spot that’s 10 minutes further from work. Bummer. But as you start your commute you notice you go right past the gym. “Hmm… maybe I should drop by; I’m already here.” Next thing you know, you’re at the gym 5 days a week.
It turns out it wasn’t that hard. Or was it? Why would making an unrelated change make achieving your goals so much easier? Is it just random? And what happens to next year’s resolution? Maybe you should just move again…
We all want to be masters of our own destiny, but there are millions of things that can go wrong. We often “know what to do” but it’s still hard to start and even harder to stay on track. Today I’m going to show you a framework with tactics and templates to turn your most difficult goals into accomplishments. We don’t have time for generalities—let’s make our dreams actionable.
Otherwise, read on to take the first step.
Framework: The Four Steps
I adapted this framework from a surprising source: early stage startups. If you think that startup strategy couldn’t possibly apply to you, think again.
I’ve been in the tech industry for over a decade. In that time I’ve learned that startup companies face many of the same kinds of challenges that we do personally. The founder starts with a vision about which problem to solve. There is huge uncertainty about how to solve it. There’s even uncertainty about whether it’s the right problem to solve! Maybe no one cares so it’s back to the drawing board. There’s never enough time to do everything: the chaos makes it impossible to focus. Many fail. Even the best startups look back and see that their path to success looks more like a maze.
Like the founder, “you know what to do” from the start but uncertainty about the how (and even the what) hold you back. Time management, energy management, and life’s surprises throw you off balance. There’s no guarantee of success, so why bother?
While every startup (and person) is different, it turns out that there are repeatable frameworks to cut through the uncertainty and increase your odds of success. In his book “The Four Steps to the Epiphany: Successful Strategies for Products that Win,” serial entrepreneur and cofounder of E.piphany, Steve Blank created an approach for startups to test, refine, and execute their goals. Popularized further by IMVU co-founder and venture capitalist Eric Reis in his book “The Lean Startup,” the Customer Development methodology has wide application to any challenging goal.
With some judicious tweaks, we’re ready to make your startup of one into a big success.
Customer Development is a four step process to validate a business model:
- Customer Discovery – identify a plausible problem to solve
- Customer Validation – make sure the problem you’re solving is real
- Customer Creation – execute the plan; solve the problem
- Company Building – figure out how to adjust for scale
While Blank’s approach is all about customers and companies, our approach is all about you:
- Goal Discovery – get crisp about “what you know you need to do”
- Approach Validation – make the time and space to succeed
- Goal Execution – get specific so you can execute the plan piece by piece
- Assessment – evaluate and adjust to make sure you stay on track
Enough theory. Let’s talk action.
1. Discover Your Goal
At the start of this guide, I said “you know what you need to do.” I lied. You have an intention, but if you knew exactly what you needed to do, I bet you’d already be doing it. Instead, you don’t know where to start. Everyone’s situation is different, but most sticking points share the same core problems. Let’s get totally clear about what you are trying to accomplish and get you unstuck.
Problem #1: I Have a Vague Goal
Pick a clear goal. It will help. The funny thing is that it doesn’t have to be an awesome, perfect goal. As long as you can put into words what you are trying to accomplish, it gets much easier. Write it down; don’t just let it bounce around in your mind. This will force you to get more specific. If you can describe the goal in such a way that you can visualize the outcome and why it will matter to you, even better! Research indicates that visualization can help with motivation and performance. If you can see where you’re going in your mind’s eye, you have a head start on success.
A vague goal: I want to be healthy.
A better goal: I want to lose 15 pounds in the next 3 months.
An awesome goal: I want to lose 15 pounds in the next 3 months so that I look good in front of my friends at my 15 year high school reunion.
Of course, it’s possible that you have your goal, but you don’t think it’s good enough. This problem is common with perfectionists. Maybe you’re worried that it’s too hard. Too easy? What if you fail? What if you succeed? There is a lot of deep psychology that can sabotage you before you get started. I’ll address these in later posts, but for now, I’m going to ask you to trust me. Your goal is good enough for now.
If your goal is clear: that is, if you wrote down a specific end state, you’re done with this step. Congratulations.
Problem #2: I Don’t Have a Playbook
Now you know what you want to do. It can still be hard to dive in. Even if you are ready to go, taking some upfront time to use a sound approach can save you a lot of effort later. The title of this site is “It Can Be Easily Done,” and that’s because it’s true. If you use the right approach, even the most difficult tasks become much easier. Even though your situation is in some ways unique, there are many other people who have faced something similar. Some failed. Learn from them. Some succeeded. Learn from them, too. Take the time to build a short playbook about how to succeed at your goal. An hour upfront can often save you 5 to 10 hours on the backend.
How you go about putting together your playbook will vary depending on your goal, but all good playbooks have a common format. Take an hour and fill in as much of the following as you can:
- What is your goal? You can take this from the first exercise.
- What are the top websites about this topic? Google the topic and write them down.
- What are the top books about this topic? Check out Amazon.
- Are there any how to guides that seem to apply to your situation?
- Do you know people who know a lot about this topic? Write down their names.
- What are the top 5 themes that came up in your research?
- What are the top 5 pitfalls that came up?
Based on this research, you can decide how much deeper you need to go. You have a list of sources and an overview of how approach this problem. Nice job: you’re already way ahead of most people.
Now that you’ve done your research, be careful! Much like with the vague idea, there is a shadow side to preparation. Some people turn research into a procrastination tool. Getting ready saves you time down the road, but only if you actually implement the advice! The best way to avoid this trap is to gut check your playbook after your first hour of research. Do you feel like you have a handle on the first few steps towards your goal? If so, move on. If not, set a reasonable deadline to move from research to action. If you hit the deadline and you still don’t feel ready, don’t just keep researching. Stop. Head back to the first part of this section and break your goal down into easier subgoals. You’ll get back to the bigger one later. There’s no better way than to start taking action.
Problem #3: But My Thing Doesn’t Have a Playbook…
“But I don’t want to lose 15 pounds. I want to write a novel. Where’s the playbook for that?”
It’s true. Not every goal is mechanical and deterministic. Some goals, especially in art and business, rely on external dependencies. The market. The muse. They can be hard to plan and quantify because the outcomes are uncertain. Don’t panic. Your situation isn’t unique and it isn’t hopeless. You just picked a tough goal! Take heart—in the end, goals like these can be some of the most rewarding.
For a non-deterministic goal like writing a novel or starting a business, write your playbook to focus on the process, not the outcome. You can’t control the outcome, but you can ensure that you’re putting in the right effort consistently. Use the playbook outline above, and as you are doing your research look for ways that successful people work and how they stay on track.
For example, with creative work like the novel, many great writers agree that writing consistently every day and not censoring one’s self is the path to success. Check out Steven Pressfield’s “The War of Art” or Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” for a deeper treatment. For now, just know that your playbook should focus on ways to keep your butt in the seat and writing.
It’s similar with business; a huge part of success is showing up. We’ll have plenty of time to learn and adjust in subsequent steps. Just get your playbook together and a few good ideas in your head. Then, it’s time to move on.
Your Actions for Today
- Take a half hour and write down a goal. Really, write it down. Be specific and concrete, not perfect. After a half hour is up, stop. This is good enough for now.
- Take an hour and fill in your playbook.
2. Make Space to Succeed
Now you really know what you need to do, and you have some good leads on how to do it. The next step is, shockingly, making sure you actually do it. Making progress on a side project can be very difficult, and the last thing you want is to look back a month from now and wonder where all the time went. We going to preempt this problem with an escalating series of time blocks, commitment devices, and contingency plans. The first step is to just make sure you have time.
How much time do you need to commit to your goal? The exact amount varies depending on difficulty, timeline, and your existing commitments. Based on your research from step 1, how much time do you want to commit to spending? An hour a week learning Spanish? Three sessions at the gym? 5 minutes per day writing in a journal?
Now ask yourself two questions:
- Does it seem realistic that this amount of effort will get me to my goal in a reasonable amount of time?
- How hard will it be to block off this amount of time in my day?
The answer to (1) will allow you to calibrate the difficulty of your goal. My advice is to err on the side of doing the goal too slowly when you’re starting out. You can always ramp up the difficulty later once you have some wins under your belt.
The answer to (2) will give you an idea of how much you’re going to need to rely on commitment devices, discussed in the next section.
For now, realize being consistent and meeting small goals frequently is going to get you further than trying to plan out your timeline in excruciating detail. Add your time commitment to your playbook; it’s time to make sure you make the time.
My Two Favorite Things Are Commitment and Changing Myself
How do you feel about your answer to question 2?
Awesome? If so, skip this section. You can dive right in and begin working on your goal. Just be sure to bookmark this section… you can always come back later if you start to falter.
Not so awesome? This is very common. There’s a big difference between a plan and a success. Kudos for recognizing this fact and realizing that achieving your goals will require hard work. Here, we’re going to take another cue from the startup world and take an iterative approach to making sure you put in the time and effort to succeed. Enter the world of escalating commitment devices.
According to economist and author of Freakonomics, Stephen Levitt, a commitment device is “a means with which to lock yourself into a course of action that you might not otherwise choose but that produces a desired result.” In plain English, a commitment device allows you to force yourself to do something important later by making a decision about it now. This is great because your motivation and willpower are strong right now but they probably won’t be when you wake up tomorrow. Even less so after work a week from now.
We’re going to start with some easy, relatively painless commitment devices to help keep you on track. If the going gets tough, you can ramp up the intensity until you are comfortably back on track.
Easy Commitment Devices
My favorite easy commitment device is to keep the commitment in your face. Write it down somewhere where you will see it every day. Set a reminder on your phone or send yourself a recurring email that tells you that you need to put in your time. It could even be as simple as blocking off time on a calendar to do the work, as long as you already have a bulletproof routine to look at your calendar every day and do what it says. If you see it enough, you won’t forget it.
Another painless approach is to couple the commitment with a reward. After you go to the gym, stop by the coffee shop and get your favorite drink. Only listen to your favorite audiobook while you’re jogging. If you work on your novel for at least an hour each weekday, take a weekend trip. The important thing here is coming up with the reward ahead of time and following through consistently to build a habit.
A final approach is to make the commitment extremely easy. If you want to eat breakfast every morning, make it the night before when you’re more alert. Move the guitar right next to your couch to boost your songwriting. Split up time spent planning your novel from time spent writing it so that each day you can work from an outline rather than stare at a blank page. The possibilities are endless, so take some time to think through how to make it easy.
Tougher Commitment Devices
If the above ideas aren’t working for you, it’s time to kick up the pain level. Psychological research consistently demonstrates that people are more than twice as averse to pain as they are partial to pleasure. As such, some of the most effective commitment devices are the reverse of the “easy” ones discussed above.
Instead of rewarding yourself for doing the commitment, you can penalize yourself for failing to do it. An extreme example of this is Antabuse, a drug that alcoholics take that makes them sick when they drink alcohol. Painful, but effective. You don’t have to go that far, but be sure to structure the punishment so that it actually happens if you fail to do your commitment. A great way to do this is to tell other people what you are going to do. Then, you get the double whammy of someone holding you accountable and social pressure to protect your reputation.
Even if there isn’t an explicit punishment, bringing someone else into the commitment can be extremely helpful. Suppose that you have trouble getting up in the morning to work on your business. If you schedule an early morning gym session with a partner, you’ll look like a jerk if you don’t show up. When you do show up you get in a session and get a few extra hours of free time in the morning to work on your business after the gym. These enabling commitments can be quite powerful.
Finally, as much as people hate to lose things, they hate losing money even more. If you can structure your commitment to cost you money if you don’t do it, you’ll be much more likely to succeed. Continuing our previous example, if your gym partner is an expensive personal trainer you might be even more likely to get up in morning! For a more direct approach to penalizing yourself financially, check out Beeminder, a service that tracks your goals and charges you when you fail to make progress!
Overcoming Murphy’s Law
By now you’ve scheduled some time and set up a few commitment devices to make sure that you don’t procrastinate. That’s great, but don’t forget Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” Let’s take some time to figure out what might go wrong and try to get out in front of it.
The output of this step will be different for everyone, but the general process is the same. First, think about your previous attempts to achieve this goal, if any. What tripped you up? Did you start out excited, then see your time commitment go down as your enthusiasm waned? Were you doing great, then you slipped up once and everything fell apart? Was it just hard to get started each day? Did you constantly get distracted? Write down as many pitfalls as you can remember.
Next, take a look at the resources you identified previously. Do they call out any potential problems that you haven’t thought of yet? Write them down, especially if you could see yourself falling victim. If you have the time, you can also poll friends and family who have either succeeded or failed at your goal. What tripped them up? How did they overcome it?
Now that you have a good list of potential problems, you can brainstorm potential solutions. For example, if you are trying to learn a language and you know that you’ll do a lot at the start, then fizzle out you can consider using Beeminder. If you are concerned about getting distracted, identify a secluded place to do the work or use a time management system like Pomodoro. If you’re afraid you’re going to fall off the wagon, find an accountability partner to check up with you and agree to a drastic punishment if you get off track. Add all these contingency plans to your playbook.
The possibilities are endless. The important thing is that your playbook prepares you to succeed well before you run into problems. Better to spend the time now when your enthusiasm is high than to hit a wall when you’re having a bad day. If you run into a challenge, just look at your playbook. You’ll often be happy to find the answer right there waiting for you.
Your Actions for Today
- Take 15 minutes to look at your playbook and figure out how much time you need to dedicate to this goal per day or week. Add it to the playbook.
- Depending on how hard you think it will be to put in the time for this goal, add a corresponding commitment device.
- Take 30 minutes to brainstorm potential problems and mitigations.
3. Do The Right Thing
Ok. You spent time upfront clarifying your goal and ensuring that you have an approach that is likely to succeed. All that’s left is… doing it. As Cal Newport says about success: “At some point, even [famous productivity guru] David Allen himself still has to convince himself to do hard things when he doesn’t want to. Effort must be expended. This cannot be avoided.” This is true: you will not succeed if you don’t put in the work. Let’s talk now about how to break your task down and make it happen.
From Playbook to Plan
By now you have a playbook that’s a high-level template for how to achieve your goal. Again cribbing from our startup approach, we’re not going to turn that playbook into a detailed plan for the next year. There’s too much that can change. And more importantly, it would take way too long to do. Your goal right now is to get just enough clarity to start acting. Let’s just figure out today.
Based the time commitment in your playbook, decide how much time you can dedicate to your goal today. Now, fill that time with the first small steps towards success. Be really specific about what you intend to do. Often, the first steps will be to collect the items that you need to be successful. Maybe you need to buy some jogging shoes. Maybe you need to find a French tutor. Write down your intentions. If any of them seem too hard to do in the time allotted, break them down more: instead of finding the French tutor, commit to looking up the websites for 5 French tutors on Yelp. You can contact them tomorrow.
But what if you don’t have a good place to write down your intentions? A notebook, email, or text file will do just fine. If you want an excellent structured solution for tracking daily intentions check out Complice.
Back to business. You wrote down your intentions for the day…
Now do them. Seriously. Stop reading and put in the time. This guide will be here when you get back.
You can do it!
Telescoping the Plan
You’ve planned out your daily commitment and you did some (hopefully all!) the tasks on your list. Congratulations, you’ve taken the first step to achieving your goals. That wasn’t that hard, right? Even more, you now have a better idea of what it’s going to take each day to be successful. Let’s harness this momentum!
Now that you’ve successfully planned one day, try to apply this level of detail to tomorrow. How about the next day? Challenge yourself to see how far you can get working out specific intentions for each day that you’ll work on your goal. I’ve found that planning about a week out is realistic. Don’t fret if you start to run out of ideas or if dependencies come up and make the backend of the week fuzzy. You’ll revisit your intentions every day. The important part of this process is to get specific about what you want to do and to block out time to do it. You can iterate your way into total correctness… as long as you are headed in the right direction you’re doing it right.
See how this week goes… do the work and adjust your plan.
Now that you have a week under your belt, let’s telescope even more. The planning process can become tedious if you have to put a lot of effort into it every day. Planning can distract from doing! To save yourself some cycles, start to plan subsequent weeks to follow the patterns that have been working for you so far. Can you get a lot done on Monday but the weekend is an unstructured mess? Try to schedule more time for Monday. Do you want to work on your novel consistently, but Wednesdays are always distracting because of an early morning appointment? Consider adjusting your schedule.
Each person’s ideal schedule will be different, but an effective plan looks similar week to week. Find a routine that works for you, then fill it with the right intentions. Once you have the framework in place, planning becomes much more mechanical and easy.
As you get more successful and sophisticated, you can start to telescope the plan out even further. Depending on the goal, planning a whole month or even a whole quarter is doable. Just know that your longer-term plans will be more vague and flexible. They will change. The plan itself is not the important part: the valuable part is the process of making and adjusting the plan.
At least once a month, take some time to check in and make sure you’re still aligned with your goal from step one. This feedback loop takes us to our final step…
Your Actions for Today
- Write down your granular, specific intentions for the day. Do them.
- Rough out your granular, specific intentions for each day this week. Try to get as far as you can, but don’t feel the need to be perfect.
- Use the patterns you’re seeing this week to roughly plan out your month.
- If you’re feeling like a baller, roughly plan out week by week for a whole quarter.
- DON’T FORGET TO ACTUALLY DO THE WORK EACH DAY.
4. Assess and Adjust
Now you’re a few weeks in… a few things could be happening:
- You’ve been planning a lot. But you’ve been doing even more. It feels good. Be careful: you don’t want to fall into the trap of being efficient rather than effective.
- You have a plan. But you keep missing deadlines. You’re losing momentum. It feels bad. Be careful: you’re headed towards failure.
Either way, you have to be careful! Things can go astray at any time, and Murphy says they will if you let them. This is why it’s critical to take the time to evaluate your progress against your plan and playbook and make smart adjustments.
It can be hard to face the person in the mirror, but I guarantee you: your ability to be honest with yourself and ruthlessly adjust your approach will be the number 1 driver of your success. Hugely successful author and angel investor Tim Ferriss once said, “a person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.” You might as well start by having those uncomfortable conversations with yourself!
Adjustments If It’s Working
If things are going well (that is, if you are putting in the time and seeing results), your adjustments should focus on aligning with and updating your goal. You’re being efficient, but ask yourself if you’re being effective. If you keep up this pace of the same sorts of activity, will you reach your goal on time? Will you ever reach it at all? If the answer is no, you need to change your actions or your goals.
For example, I have a 1,033 day Duolingo streak. I’m obviously very good at efficiently making time to learn Spanish every single day. But… I’ve tapped out the effectiveness of hearing the same accent do the same translation exercises. This streak is actually counterproductive to my becoming fluent. Unless I want to change my goal to be “have the world’s longest Duolingo streak,” I need to repurpose the time spent there on activities that are appropriate to my skill level. In my case that means listening to real world content in Spanish and participating in language exchanges.
Your specifics may vary, but the benefits of looking at your progress weekly and monthly will not. Update your playbook and move forward confidently!
Adjustments If It’s Not Working
So it’s been a slog. You’re having trouble putting in the time. It’s not fun anymore. What to do? Focus on adjusting and escalating your commitment devices. If all else fails, consider changing your goal or quitting altogether. Any decision is valid as long as you make it intentionally.
Revisit your playbook for ideas about how to bust out of slumps. If you brainstormed the problem previously, make sure that you’re taking the corrective actions you identified upfront. If this is a new problem, write it down and take some time to research ways to work through it.
Consider slowing down your pace so that the tasks feel more achievable. I recommend doing less each day rather than doing work fewer days. Consistency is key. Break down your tasks into the tiniest possible actions that move you forward. For example, if you can’t floss your teeth regularly, commit to flossing just one tooth. You may find that doing something small gives you momentum to do something big. Build on your successes slowly until you feel back on track.
If you’re really stuck… reach out. I’d like to hear from you, and maybe I can help.
Finally, don’t be afraid to reconsider your goals. If the thing you thought you wanted turned out to be a bad idea, there is no shame in quitting strategically. Take it as an opportunity to work on something else you’ve always wanted to do and you’re off to the races again!
Wait A Minute, I Actually Achieved My Goal!
Nice job. If you’ve achieved your goal, you have two options:
- Declare victory and move on to something completely different.
- Identify the next logical step from this goal and start working on it.
At their core, these two options are really the same. Congratulate yourself. Celebrate. If you’re feeling it, let me know how you did. I’m always excited to hear about the ways that people are achieving their dreams.
Then, take the time to go back to step 1 and get really clear about the next thing you want to do. Each loop through this process will build your success, confidence, and skill. They sky’s the limit here: pick some really tough and rewarding goals. Maybe work on multiple goals at once. Take a break. It’s up to you what you really want to do. When you’re ready to get at it, you know how.
Your Actions for Today (and Each Day!)
- Each week revisit your progress and make sure you’re putting in the right amount of time and effort.
- Each month revisit your goals and make sure that they line up with your actions. Will taking these actions at this pace get you to your goal on time? If not, adjust the actions or the goal accordingly.
- If you find yourself getting off track, add commitment devices or escalate the ones that you already have. Slow down and break down until you regain momentum.
- If you find that you’ve achieved your goal, celebrate. Then, head back to step 1. There’s always something to work on!
The Four Steps Applied
At the start of this guide, I promised you tactics and templates, and I hope I delivered. Because people tend to understand the concrete better than the abstract, I’m going to close this guide with two examples of the applied framework. The first example, losing 15 lbs is challenging, but fairly mechanical. The second, recording a music album, is a non-deterministic goal. Together, they should give you an idea of how the framework can be applied in a variety of situations.
Examples: Lose 15 Pounds & Write and Record an Album
We often know “what” to do, but bog down on how to do it. By using a framework, we can greatly improve your chance of success. By taking an iterative approach: discovering your goal, validating your approach, executing your goal, and assessing regularly you can take any big, scary goal and break it down into a manageable set of tasks. That way, you might find out you know how to do what you need to do.
Your Actions for This Post
- Think about what goal you want to tackle. Use this guide—or better yet my step-by-step worksheet and examples (this too) to make it happen.
- If you found this guide helpful, please share it with a friend who could use it. That’s how we all get better.
- Let me know how it’s going or other places where you could use support. I’m listening.