Transform your productivity with the method you already know but aren't applying effectively.

Max Girkins

10 minute read

a year ago

The importance of setting goals

Everyone has a picture of how they’d like their life to pan out. Too often though people will say “I want to start my own business”, “I want to learn how to code” or “I’m going to travel the world” without having any concrete plan in place to reach those goals. It’s like picking a point on a map you want to visit and setting off without having looked at any of the terrains between you and your destination. To reach your target you need to pick a route, even if it’s only rough so that your effort of walking/cycling etc isn’t wasted going in the wrong direction because you failed to see that there’s a massive river between you and your destination and the bridge across it is miles off to your left.

The question is then, how do you effectively set goals and what system do you employ to help you achieve those goals? The first part of the question has been answered many times before and is well covered in productivity circles. Set SMART goals. The second part is perhaps more tricky as everyone likes to work differently. I’d suggest that any system designed to work with SMART principles is ideal and you can definitely level up your productivity using SMART goals even if you just use paper and a pen.

What are SMART goals?

SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. Let’s break those down:

Specific: These goals are well-defined and unambiguous. A good example would be: “Bake a loaf of sourdough using the recipe from BBC good food” as opposed to “Learn how to bake”. The former gives an easy action plan whereas the latter leaves you with so much cognitive work to do before you even know where to start.

Measurable: Set goals with numbers attached. Don’t say “I’m going to improve my site’s SEO”, instead say “Write 3 1500+ word blog posts targetting my site’s top 3 keywords”. The first one it’s hard to know when you can tick off the task from your list, the second is actionable and finite.

Achievable: It’s important to set goals that you can achieve otherwise you’ll become demoralised and end up giving up. Don’t set goals that are too easy or you’ll never reach your full potential, but don’t set goals that are completely infeasible either. Don’t try and learn to code in 1 night (Despite what a bunch of youtube videos may tell you), instead set the goal of building a specific small project using code over the next week. In my experience I find setting a goal that I think is slightly beyond my capabilities is where I thrive the most. It forces me to learn new things and the sense of achievement when I do end up hitting that goal is phenomenal.

Relevant: Make sure that your goals align with your values and ideals. If you’re setting small goals to achieve larger goals then make sure that the small goals will move you in the right direction when you achieve them. There’s no point in working on tasks that don’t align with your overall goals in some way, you’re just wasting precious time. That’s not to say you should only work on things that are perfectly aligned with your goals as often working on something tangentially related has the benefit of showing you a new way to achieve your main goal from a different angle. An example of this would be a lumberjack taking some time to sharpen their axe, in the short term you’re not going to be cutting down any trees but once it’s done your tree-cutting ability will be far greater and the lost time will soon be made up for. They may even spot a chainsaw in the shed (a different angle to more efficiently achieve the overall goal).

Time-bound: Ensuring that you set a time period to complete a task/goal is important to give you the best chance at completing said goal. Setting deadlines and estimating how long a task will take is a good way to make sure you’re not overburdening yourself. A huge benefit of having deadlines is that you can ignore those that are far away and focus on those that are more pressing. This frees up brain power to concentrate on what’s in front of you right now. If you have estimated task completion times you can also get cracking on tasks when you have a spare moment as you know you’ll be able to complete them in that time instead of being cut off mid-flow.

How to plan and organise SMART goals

So you’re on board with SMART goals, how do you implement them? This is where I differ in opinion from most articles I’ve seen. It’s ok if not every goal is SMART as long as their subtasks are SMART. I think people get too wound up in their systems and how they should do something to the point that they never actually start anything. I’m saying that you should have SMART goals but you shouldn’t focus too much time and energy on making every goal perfectly SMART, give yourself some flexibility. Often just getting started on something you will find you know how to do it already. SMART goals are important for the bigger things that you can’t keep the entirety of in your head at one time. You’ll also find that the more you utilise SMART goals the more natural it will feel until you don’t really have to think about it anymore.

To plan your SMART goals effectively it is important to have visibility over the tasks that you will complete to achieve your goal. A good way of planning your goals is to take your biggest goal and then break that down into subgoals that will help you achieve the main goal. You should then keep breaking down those subgoals in a SMART way until you have lots of small tasks that can each be completed in under an hour. By doing this you’re setting yourself up for success as you won’t put off a task because it will take a day or a week to complete, you can simply break that task into smaller chunks, make a start and then suddenly you’re making progress towards your bigger goal.

Breaking tasks down like this can be done on paper but it gets really messy very quickly with nested bullet points especially if you need to edit a task or suddenly realise a task needs more breaking down. Paper also has the habit of getting lost. In the past I have found some success using a simple plain text file. This allows infinite nesting, editing, and is unlikely to get lost if you keep it saved to the cloud somewhere. It’s a good solution but doesn’t have the best user experience when it comes to rearranging tasks and it can also be overwhelming to see an enormous text file with every task you have on it, furthermore, plain text in this nested structure is hard to scan and find what you need to work on each day.

I ended up researching a load of task management tools designed for SMART goals and found that none of them behaved quite the way I wanted and very few were even able to work in a nested structure as described. In the end I decided to build my own, Tatask, I’ll explain why I think it’s the best SMART goals tool out there below.

Why Tatask

I built Tatask from the ground up with nested SMART goals in mind so that I could be as productive as possible. I’ll explain why it is designed in the way it is to fit SMART principles. If you haven’t seen it already, Tatask is a nested task management app that works very similarly to the filesystem on your phone/computer. Tasks are organised inside each other so you can break them down into nested subtasks and everything wrapped in a simple, user-friendly, interface so that the organisation of your tasks takes as little time as possible and you can start working on your tasks!

Specific: The very nature of nested tasks sets itself up for specificity. Even if your top-level goals aren’t specific, once you’ve broken it down into a few layers of subtasks the lowest layer will necessarily be more specific than the top. This is hugely powerful for helping you to set goals in a way that leads you to achieve them.

Measurable: This is somewhat up to you to ensure yourself but Tatask does have some very satisfying animations when you tick off a task so you’ll want to set tasks that will have a defined endpoint for you to check them off.

Achievable: No tool can tell you what is achievable for you, you know yourself best. Having said that if you lean into the SMART Tatask way of organising your goals then you might surprise yourself with how much you can achieve when your effort is all aligned in the right direction.

Relevant: Nesting really helps here as you can easily see whether subgoals are relevant to the parent goal. If a task doesn’t contribute to the completion of its parent in some way then it’s probably not relevant and you should scrap it or find a way to make it relevant to one of your goals.

Time-bound: Making tasks time bound is something Tatask is great at. It’s easy to set due dates in most task management apps and of course, Tatask can do that! The more useful part of Time-bounding is when you set tasks that can be completed in a short time frame ie. those tasks that are the smallest subtask which might take only 20 minutes. If you can time-bound subtasks to fit in your attention span then you never have to think about coming back to a piece of work and forgetting what you were doing. You can enforce this really easily in Tatask if you just make sure to break up tasks until they can be done in less than an hour/30 minutes.

The role of regular review

Going back to the journey analogy from earlier it is important to regularly take a moment and take stock of where you are currently. Firstly because you may suddenly be able to see new routes forward from your current vantage point that were invisible before and secondly because it’s important to celebrate how far you’ve come so far.

If you are taking a break and a new way of achieving your goals becomes apparent given the lessons you have learned since starting then naturally you should reassess how you are going to continue the journey to complete your goal. It might be possible to continue along how you started but it also might be far more efficient to go in a new direction knowing what you know now. After all, what’s the point of wasting time and energy when there’s a better way to achieve your goal? Review the new terrain in front of you and using this new information you can update your plan for proceeding in the future.

Celebrating how far you have come already is important too. Too often I see people who are incredibly focused on their goals, and achieve many things but never take a moment to look up from the treadmill at how far they have come. Life to them is just a never-ending series of tasks without any sense of accomplishment. Make sure you look up at what you have done, appreciate it fully and only then continue along the journey. You’ll feel a greater sense of motivation to achieve more down the line and you’ll feel a deeper sense of satisfaction in your life.

Thanks for reading! If you got this far and agreed with at least some of what I wrote then please do give Tatask a try. I want to empower everyone to be as productive as they can be as I think that it can lead to a very fulfilling way of life.