A goal is an intention you set to achieve a particular outcome. Here, in summary, is my approach to goals.

Goals on different timescales need different standards of doability, different degrees of certainty, and different depths of passion.

Long-range goals can be as pie-in-the-sky as you want, as long as you don’t believe they are literally impossible.

If you don’t know the exact steps to achieve a long-range goal, you need to be wildly passionate about it — willing to do it or die trying. This degree of passion is needed for the vaguest, most difficult goals because you really have no idea how hard they will be to achieve.

If you already know the exact steps to achieve a long-range goal, e.g., you can follow an existing plan or be mentored by someone, then you need to be sufficiently passionate about the goal to gladly devote the required portion of your life to achieving it. If the goal is on the shorter side (a month or two), this takes only deep personal interest. If it is on the longer side (seven years to get a PhD), it takes deep passion.

Long-range goals are most easily achieved by reconceiving them as a series of shorter-term “key results.” Key results are a special kind of short-term goal that can be accomplished in less than two weeks of full-time work. Key results need to be doable by you in the allotted time, but they also need to result in some kind of observable progress on the long-range end toward which they are a means. In this way, the passion for the long-range goal motivates the short-term activity. If you do not see the value connection between a key result and your long-range goal, you will have trouble motivating the day-to-day work.

Ultimately, key results are broken down into tasks. A task is a single step that takes less than two hours to complete. Because tasks are short, they can be downright unpleasant to do. But a task should not be painful, as this will kill your motivation for the long-range goal. In addition, a task needs to bring you to some kind of ending point that provides observable progress toward your key result. This is necessary so that when you complete the task, you have a true sense of accomplishment and therefore feel satisfaction and/or pride from your work.

If you had only one goal, the discussion might end here. But we all have multiple goals. Thus, there is an omnipresent need to prioritize specific tasks.

Many motivational problems are eliminated by setting goals on every time scale correctly. If you are passionate about your long-range goals, that motivation will flow into the key results and then into day-to-day tasks. You will (mostly) want to do the most important work.

However, sometimes you will not be motivated to do a particular task or you will feel conflict between tasks related to different long-range goals. In these cases, you need to manage your motivation. Some people think this means using “willpower” to “just do it.” Others think it means waiting “to do it” until you are “in the mood.” Neither of these approaches is practical in the long term, since one leads to burnout and the other leads to avoiding unpleasant tasks.

More importantly, both approaches sabotage your value hierarchy instead of strengthening it. They undermine your integrity.

If you want an integrated set of values that motivate you to achieve ambitious goals, you can neither deny nor ignore the emotions that underlie a conflict. Those emotions are alerts to your values. There may be some mistakes in the evaluations that give rise to them, but you need to identify and honor the values, one way or another.

That’s why I teach a value-honoring approach to managing motivation such that you are willing to do important but unpleasant tasks. The method has three parts:

a) You develop individualized systems and daily habits that make key routine activities easy and inevitable for you. Over time, they also become pleasant.

b) You use introspective skills to cope in the moment with unexpected resistance, disappointment, and conflict. As you get good at this, you can eliminate much unpleasantness from most tasks.

c) When you lack desire or confidence to take a specific action, you learn how to activate a generalized self-confidence rather than applying pressure. This learnable skill allows you to draw on your own deep values for motivation, strengthen your chosen values, and get real-world information that in turn helps to clarify your values, goals, and purpose.

Yes, this is complex. But it can be summed up in one sentence: If you want to achieve long-range goals, integrate your goals on every time scale into a consistent hierarchy, guided by your deepest values.

Setting goals is extremely important for success. But it’s not a silver bullet. Different people need different skills to follow through on their goals. And they are all learnable skills.

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