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30 Nov

How you know that your goal is specific enough

Datum: 2023-11-30 09:00
A person stands in a grassy field looking at multiple ladders rising into a cloudy sky over a faint cityscape.

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).

Do this

If you want to check if the goals you have set are spe­cif­ic enough, do the following:

  1. Take out your list of goals, or write them down so that you have them in front of you.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

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