In order to prioritize according to something other than by how urgent a task is, we need goals to put our tasks in relation to, since goals help us determine how important a task is. But to really benefit from our goals when we prioritize, they need to comply with certain criteria. Perhaps you have heard someone (or me) refer to SMART goals — meaning that they are Specific, Measurable, Attractive (or Acceptable), realistic and Time-bound.
This is a well-established concept, which is alright since it is practical adhering to a standard when setting goals. However, the question is how much use we have of the acronym if we do not dig deeper into what these qualities really represent? If you ask me, the word ”specific” for one is actually paradoxically rather unclear.
What do you mean, ”specific”?
While writing my book on prioritization, I went through a lot of the literature regarding setting goals when trying to find a clearer definition and explanation of what ”being specific” really means. Someone writes that the goal should be ”concrete” and someone else that it needs to be ”clear”. But to be honest, these are just synonyms for specific, not explanations, and thus they were not very helpful.
The number of to-do-tasks is what makes the distinction
Another writer takes a step in the right direction by stating that ”it needs to be explicitly clear what we mean” when we formulate the goal, but it was not until I read the words of Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at UCLA, that I found a hands-on definition we can really use.
He says that unspecific goals are unclear in terms of what we can do to reach them; meaning it is more difficult to think of what tasks that would contribute to us attaining the goal. Specific goals however, are more clear since we immediately know what we can and need to do to reach them.
The more concrete to-do-tasks we can think of that will bring us closer to reaching a goal, the more specific the goal is to us (our knack for thinking of specific tasks to do when working towards a goal may vary, but since it is our goal and no one else’s, that is perfectly alright).
If you want to check if the goals you have set are specific enough, do the following:
- Take out your list of goals, or write them down so that you have them in front of you.
- For each of the goals, take a few minutes and write down as many to-do-tasks you can think of that would contribute to your attainment of the goal. If you run dry after a while, move on to the next objective.
- How did it go?
- If it was easy to think of contributing tasks, the goal is probably specific enough for you, since when you are prioritizing amongst all the tasks you have to do, the challenge is to determine which tasks that contribute to reaching the goal and thereby are important — regardless how urgent they are.
- If it was difficult to think of tasks that would bring you closer to the finishing line, you could probably be more specific when defining the goal or goals, otherwise it will be hard to determine what you have to do right now when prioritizing since you are not sure what separates the important from the only urgent tasks — seen in relation to your goals.
Not just by urgency
If you make sure that your goals are specific enough by doing this simple check, they will be of much greater use to you when you set your priorities throughout stressful days. You will find it easier to determine what to do next from all the tasks on your list (as well as tasks that continuously arrives via email and through your office door) judging by what is most important. Instead of just doing what is urgent, you will be able to say ”yes” and ”no” to doing tasks with a clear conscience, and have more time for what matters most.
How do you check?
Do you have some other way of ensuring that your goals are specific enough? If you do, feel free to tell me.
There's more where this came from
If you want more tips on how to create good structure at work, there are many ways to get that from me - in podcasts, videos, books, talks and other formats.