Goals vs. To-Do Lists

I start every year by writing two lists of goals: one for my work and one for the rest of my life. I am a list maker, so it isn’t surprising that I like goals lists. But my goals lists are a special type of list. They are not the same as to-do lists. As I wrote at Chronicle Vitae recently, I like to have a strategy for achieving my long term aims. Both yearly goals lists and to-do lists play a role in that strategy, but they play very different roles.

When I write my goals, I’m committing to aiming for them, but not necessarily to hitting them. I’m identifying my priorities over a lengthy period of time (a year, broken into quarters for my work goals), and committing to try my best to meet them. The strategy and plans I develop are how I try to meet my goals. To-do lists are something I produce as I work towards my plans. When I write a to-do list, I am writing what I plan to do in a much shorter period of time (a day or a weekend) and I hold myself accountable for getting those things done. I know what to put on my daily to-do list because I have already done the work of making a plan for how to achieve the goals on my goals list for the current quarter.

One of my to-do lists

The items on my goals list usually represent projects, or at least milestones in a project. For instance, this year’s goals list includes delivering two online seminars. When the time comes to work on those goals (they are currently scheduled for Q2 and Q3), more detailed items will appear on my daily to-do list, such as “create slides for seminar X” and “practice seminar X.” Knowing what “X” should be and when to schedule the seminar is the work I do when I develop plans for a quarter’s goals.

There is also a difference in what I do when I look back at my list and see things left unaccomplished. When I don’t manage to accomplish everything on a to-do list, I move the item to the next to-do list. For instance, I have “complete 1099 forms” on my to-do list for today (I need to send the forms to each author who received more than $10 in royalties from my publishing company in 2016). The forms aren’t due until January 31, so they aren’t in my top three priorities for today. I’ll probably get to them, but if I don’t, I’ll just move them to Friday’s to-do list. (I will be onsite at a client tomorrow.) I won’t spend any time thinking about why I didn’t get this task done, as long as I got plenty of other items on my list completed.

When I miss a goal, on the other hand, I like to stop and ask myself why. Sometimes, the answer is simply time. Like many people, I can be overambitious in what I think I can accomplish in a year. Sometimes, though, there is a more interesting answer. For instance, I didn’t meet one of my marketing goals last year, and that has more to do with my discomfort with self-promotion than with the amount of time I had available to work on it. My distaste for self-promotion is not a new discovery for me. However, sometimes the answer to why I missed a goal is really surprising, and I learn something useful about what I really want to accomplish versus what I say I want to accomplish.

Although both my goals lists and my to-do lists are lists of items I want to complete, they are at opposite ends of my planning process. I’ve written before about the middle part of that process. It can seem like I spend a lot of time on developing plans and writing lists. But I’ve learned that this time is an investment that pays amazing dividends. However, that dividend only comes because of the care I take in the very first step. Without a solid list of goals, I could end up developing and executing on plans that don’t accomplish the things that really matter tome. The to-do list at the end of the process is equally important, because it is how I take my many plans and competing priorities and organize my days.

Different people have different processes for figuring out what to do and when to do it. If you find you’re floundering, though, ask yourself if you’ve paid enough attention to the beginning of the process, or if you’ve skipped to the details at the end. A great to-do list won’t save you if you don’t know what your goals are.

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