Most people know that it’s helpful to break down very complex, long-term projects into smaller steps. This is crucial for achieving your goals. But I’d like to explain an important difference between identifying the “next step” as opposed to identifying the “next goal.”
First, let’s talk about steps. If you were trying to organize a 30-person meeting, you might have many small steps:
- make list of attendees
- get contact info for attendees
- draft agenda
- draft announcement
- send announcement
- collect RSVP’s
By focusing on one step at a time, you could accomplish the project easily.
When you break a project into steps, you need to make the steps small, and do them in the right order. The right order matters: you can’t get contact info for attendees before you make the list of attendees. And you can’t send the announcement until you’ve done both of those.
Small steps matter, too. Often we try to do two steps at once — to draft the agenda and draft the announcement in one step. When the task is simple, that may not be a problem. But if it becomes confusing, you need to break it into two separate steps, each of which is easy.
In short, “break the problem into steps” is well-understood problem-solving advice. You want to be able to focus on the next step, and have it be clear and doable.
However, simply breaking a problem into little steps doesn’t give you enough leverage on a complex, long-term project. For example, suppose you have a goal to start a new business. There are thousands of steps involved. You can keep identifying little doable steps, indefinitely, without ever selling anything. But if you’re not selling anything you do not create a business, no matter how busy your steps make you.
In such a case, you need to know the next goal, not just the next step. The next goal is a scaled-down version of your vision. It is a goal that you can see your way to — not so far away that it seems like it will take forever. And it is a true goal, in the sense that you will have accomplished something tangible and beneficial once you’ve reached it.
There are many ways to scale down a long-term, visionary goal to one that can be accomplished relatively soon. In the case of starting a business, you can make a prototype and try to sell it. If the product is cupcakes, you could start by selling them at a farmer’s market. If the product is a new gadget, you could create an advertisement on the web and take preorders. Scaling down a business means: proof of sale. Sell a version of the product to someone.
If your complex project is a book, your scaled down version might be an outline or a synopsis. If your complex project is a play, it might be a readthrough around the table, or a walkthrough on stage with scripts and basic blocking. All of the creative professions have developed ways to iterate from a rough version to a final version, in order make a complex vision come into reality. You can use them as your model when you find your “next goal” on a complex project.
P.S. I teach a general method for this in the Thinking Lab. I call it “Planned Evolution.”
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