As you train yourself to be a strong-willed, independent individual, it’s crucial that you set the right goals to work towards. If you’re going to cultivate a singular, unwavering focus on achievement, it helps if you’re working on something that suits you.

Part 1: Choosing The Right Goals For Yourself

The process begins with a simple question:

What do you actually want out of life?

(If you can answer this with any degree of confidence, you’re ahead of most.)

Think about it for a minute – don’t be in a rush to answer. Once you have a rough idea formulated in your head, write it down. Say it out loud. Does it still sound right to you?

First, make sure that what you want is actually your own thinking. It’s easy for outside influences and opinions to drown out your inner thoughts. There are all sorts of “socially acceptable” goals ingrained in us from a young age – e.g. “graduate from a top university” or “get a high-paying job at a stable company.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with these pursuits – as long as you have had the final say. You are unique – neither your parents, nor your friends (or even your spouse) can speak for you here. Your needs and desires are unique to you – listen to yourself.

It is also important to ask yourself why you want to achieve/obtain whatever it is you claim to want. Many state that their life goal is simply to be powerful (or famous). Start digging deeper into your motivations. If your goal is just to be “rich” – can you explain why? Perhaps you want to own rare and exquisite things. Why, again? Is it because you have an appreciation for the finer things (and would like to be surrounded by good design and craftsmanship), or is it because you want to signal to your friends that you are a success?  Maybe you feel that the riches would allow you to be free (of financial obligations, and of the need to work for a living). If that’s the case, perhaps what you really want is to live a life with less stress, without having to worry about outstanding debts and obligations. Again, there is no wrong answer here – it’s all about asking, “why do I want this?” repeatedly, until you arrive at the ultimate goal.

Post it notes with goals

Writing post-it notes is the easy part!

Finally, the goal must be attainable. In other words, it must not be so unrealistic that it comes with a built-in excuse for why you wouldn’t be able to achieve it. It must be something you can start working towards right now – not at some distant moment in the future, when you will “finally be prepared.” For example: if you have never built a website before, don’t go out and set a goal of replacing your full-time income in 6 months via a web application. One step at a time. The goal must be actionable – there must be a series of practical steps that can be taken in order to achieve it. Bottom line: you have to be able to imagine yourself attaining that goal. Visualization is a powerful motivating force – you will discover that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you act like the kind of person that has already achieved your stated goal, you will find that it’s much easier to actually become that person.

Still out of ideas about what to set your sights on? Consider the following:

  • Is there something you have been putting off for a long time? Perhaps you’d like to lose weight, build muscle, or finally get around to switching careers. It could be anything at all – if it has been troubling you, maybe it’s time to face it head on. This is all about going after your greatest weaknesses (or personal sources of insecurity). For many, this would be a good starting point.
  • Is there something you’re already good at, but haven’t been doing/practicing in a while? This is the opposite of the previous point – the idea is to build on your existing strengths and make the most of your natural talents. We all have something that we’re good at – think about what you would do better than 95% of your friends/peers. If it’s writing, your goal could be to write a short story or novella. If it’s photography, you could put together a portfolio of your best images. If it’s a physical activity or a sport, you could aim to start training again on a regular basis. Building on strengths works great, as you are far more likely to enjoy the process – and there’s a chance you could truly become exceptional.

A word of warning: it will take time and dedication, no matter the activity. Remember to keep it actionable: if you are set on writing a novel, aim to write a certain number of words per day – and stick to it!

If you’re not sure what your strengths are, taking a few personality tests/quizzes may actually be useful. I suggest starting with the Big Five personality test. For a career-focused assessment, I recommend the RIASEC quiz. Both of these are free and quickly done online.

While there is still much debate about the validity of such tests (the Big Five has the most scientific support), the idea is to start the process of discovery. In fact, the test questions may even more useful than your results. As you’re taking these quizzes, you may even catch yourself “lying” – picking the answer that you feel is most “appropriate” for someone like you, instead of admitting that you may, in reality, be very different. As an example, you may discover that you are not as charitable as you thought. That you’re not as social. That you desire the attention from others, and take it every chance you get. It works best if you’re honest. Remember: no one is perfect, we are all only human.

In a nutshell, it’s all about identifying your greatest strengths and weaknesses – and setting actionable, measurable goals to work on something you deem important.

Think long and hard about what you want. Be honest with yourself about why you should work to get it. Time is limited.

Calendar notebook with goal entries

Find a goal tracking system that works for you

Part 2: Staying Focused On Your Goals

So you’ve decided what you want – how do you actually stay focused while setting out to achieve it?

Here’s the thing: this topic has already been explored to death, and there is no shortage of productivity resources/blogs/tools/etc out there. There’s a good chance you have heard of all the tips below. This article is as much a reminder to myself as it is a summary for others. It’s simply what works.

1.) You have to prioritize.

While it’s great to have many ideals and potential paths to go down, you can only really focus on one thing at a time. Multitasking doesn’t work for creative tasks – I have yet to come across anyone who is able to do real creative work (e.g. drawing, writing) while chatting on the phone.

Not to worry. Turns out, the best way to get many things done (and be highly productive) is to focus on one thing at a time, and see that thing through to completion. Then start the next project. And so on.

Begin by taking your goals and whittling them down to just 3 – these are going to be your 3 projects/targets to focus on. You must also prioritize projects among those 3 – one has to be most important (or time sensitive) than the other two.

If you’re absolutely determined to work on more than one thing on a regular basis, split them up: one can be a short-term goal (e.g. to complete today), one is a medium term goal (to complete this month), and one is long term (to complete this year). The short-term goal should ideally change often, as you will primarily focus on that one – after all, it’s something that should be actionable and achievable.

The most effective strategy is to just have one overall goal (the long term one), while setting short and medium term sub-goals that will help you achieve it.

2.) Commit to your goals by writing them down (and sharing them with others).

Now that you have decided on (up to three) goals to work on, write them down! While you can use software, nothing beats pen and paper. Write down your goals and hang them up where you will be constantly reminded of them.

After you commit your goals to paper, share them with a friend. Many (including myself) find that the goal becomes more “real” once you tell someone else about it – it’s akin to going “public” with a piece of personal information. By sharing your goals with others, you are forcing yourself to be more accountable – you wouldn’t want to “disappoint” your friends, would you?

3.) Make it a habit by setting aside time every day to work on your goals.

It is important to make your project a daily practice – even if you can only spare 15 minutes per day to start. Successful creators have routines.

Don’t be frustrated if you have a day job – many programmers and writers hack away at it after (or before) work. In fact, having a day job may add a welcome constraint – if you have only an hour or two to work on something, you are less likely to muck around and actually start doing whatever it is you need to do.

Work on it daily. Make it a habit.

Two paths diverging in the woods

Choose wisely, but always choose your own path (not someone else’s)

4.) Modify Your Environment

Find (or create) a distraction free environment that will allow you to succeed. (caveat: if one of your goals is to create something)

If you don’t take control of your environment, it’s very easy to get distracted. In the past, this was easily solved just by being alone in a quiet room (your home office, or a library). Today, there is the added noise from connected/mobile devices. Some check their social media and email accounts hundreds of times a day – this all but guarantees that they will not be able to focus long enough to create anything novel.

  • Physical environment: find a quiet space where you can work by yourself, with no distractions or noises (e.g. from television, street noise, etc.) If it helps, get a pair of headphones and put on classical music to help you concentrate. For some, this might require a bigger life change. If you’re still living with your parents, move out. If you’re living with roommates that end up just distracting you and dragging you down, move out and get your own place (it will be more expensive, but the peace and quiet you get will make it all worth it).
  • Digital environment:  try going on an information diet. Stop reading (or watching) the news, and unsubscribe from blogs unless they directly help you achieve what you want. If there’s something truly serious happening, others will tell you about it anyway. Uninstall computer games, and delete all unessential apps on your phone. My strategy is to leave my phone at home, and to only check email/calls twice a day (at most).

Note: negative people (non-believers) are not good either – usually they are an annoyance and will drag you down. Stop hanging out with them. While objective criticism can be helpful, all-out negativity and incessant nay saying is rarely productive. There is no time for negativity if you want to achieve your goals. In the end, you may derive great pleasure from doing what others said would be impossible.

5.) Get into the mindset of creating.

If you want to achieve something, you must rewire your thinking to that of a creator (not a consumer). 1% of people create content for the other 99% to consume/purchase/view. Start thinking like someone who’s always creating.

This is not easy, especially if you are used to a routine of nonstop entertainment (e.g. watching TV, surfing the web, browsing products in a mall, playing computer games). You have to hack your brain to think differently – don’t give up, as these changes won’t happen overnight. Some ideas to get you started:

  • If you watch a lot of TV, see if you can sit down and create something related to your favorite show. It could be a timeline of how the plot has progressed, or a diagram of how major characters are inter-connected. If you’re really ambitious, you could try writing the plot outline for the next episode before it airs. What you produce is almost irrelevant – the idea is to start thinking like a show creator, instead of a viewer.
  • If you are always shopping for stuff online, try this: get a piece of paper and make a list of everything you have ever bought (go as far back as you can remember). Next to each item, write the price you paid (if you can remember) and whether the item was worth it in the end (yes/no). While this is an interesting exercise in of itself, it could spark an idea to create something of your own – perhaps a blog post of your top 10 favorite purchases of all time, or a summary of products you recommend. Find a way to get yourself creating more, and buying new stuff less.

If you make progress here, the results will be very satisfying. Creation is power. This post explores the concept in greater detail.

6.) Just start (write that first sentence!)

This is how I go about writing these posts. I force myself to start and write the first sentence. It doesn’t matter if it sounds silly or lame – anything is better than nothing. Then, I just write whatever comes to my mind. Organization, structure, and spell-check all come later. The idea is to start, and build momentum from that.

Once begun, the job’s half done. Do the smallest possible thing to get started. If you’re writing, just write the first sentence (or start writing the outline of the final book/whatever). If you’re going to become better at tennis, go hit some balls – it doesn’t matter with who, or where. Get into the habit of doing whatever it is you want to get better at.

Do the smallest possible thing. Don’t fall into the trap of “analysis paralysis” – there will always be time to make it “perfect” later. if you’re at all serious, you’ll stop reading here and do it now!

Good luck!