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  • Should You Keep Or Drop Your Goal? Here’s How To Know If A Goal Is Worth Pursuing

Drop Project in OmniFocus

Have you ever stared at a task on your to-do list and thought to yourself, “Is this really what I should be spending my time on?”

I went through this recently. I am a big believer in ongoing education and development, so I always have at least one course or tutorial on the go.

I had set a goal to complete a “full-stack developer” course that I had purchased on a Black Friday sale. I was enthusiastic about it, but there were a few problems:

  • I haven’t done software development as a job since 2002.
  • Sometimes I do some coding here at AE, but it’s not (currently) using any of the technologies that were in the course.
  • It was an extremely long course, and I started getting disillusioned around the 21% mark.
  • I realized fairly quickly that the instructor and course materials weren’t great.

On the flip side…

  • I didn’t spend a ton of money on the course, but I did spend some. It would be a shame to “lose” it. (My college Management Accounting teachers would have a heart attack if they heard me say that.)
  • I am an insane completionist, and I have trouble stopping things once I start.
  • You never know, I might learn something that can improve how we do things at AE.
  • Nerd Alert I do find the topic quite interesting, and it was a subject I wanted to learn more about.

As an outsider looking in, it might seem obvious what I should do, but we humans are often horrible at this type of self-reflection, and we often don’t give this type of thought to our goals once we make them.

At the best of times, it can be hard to know what to prioritize. You may be feeling like you can’t get everything done in the time that you have — a lot of us do — so any time we spend on things that we shouldn’t compound the problem.

Perhaps you’ve been in a similar situation. You’ve chosen (or been given) a goal, and you’re not sure if you are wasting your time or not. We understand, and we’ve helped hundreds of people in your situation.

So if you’re thinking of pursuing a goal, but you’re not sure if it is right for you, or if you’re partway through the year and have doubts if it is worth completing a goal, or if you always set goals and then flame out after a while, this article is for you. We’ll be sharing a framework you can use to figure out if a goal is still worth pursuing.

It’s Not Only About Dropping A Goal

So far, we’ve been talking about dropping a goal you’re not sure of, but that won’t always be the case. By doing some proactive evaluation, you’ll have one of two outcomes:

  1. Yes, Let’s Go! You’ve looked at the goal, and even if you have some doubts, you’ve found that it is worth pursuing after all. That’s great! Now you know you should make sure you have the time to focus on it. We have lots of resources in our Productivity Academy community to help.
  2. Drop It Like It’s Hot The goal seemed like a good idea at the time, but now — not so much. That’s OK! Now you have time to focus on other, more impactful things. Dropping a goal isn’t a failure; it’s a long-term win.

How Do You Figure Out if a Goal Is Worth Sticking With?

With all that said, let’s take a look at how you can decide if your goal is something you should continue working towards

1. Reflect: Do you have a strong WHY?

Think about the goal you’re evaluating. Why did you want to do it in the first place?

Most of us skip spending time on this, which is a big mistake, but it’s a mistake you can undo now.

If you are honest about your “Why,” that will significantly inform your next steps. If you can’t come up with a good reason to do it, that’s a big red flag. There’s a very high chance that you should drop, or significantly change, the goal.

We talk about this more in our article Goal Setting and Goal Getting: Having a Why.

There are two useful exercises you can use to drill down on your “Why”:

  1. The Five Whys exercise. Often, the real reason we want to do something is not the first thing to come to mind. The Five Whys exercise is like peeling an onion. You ask “Why” five times, and go deeper and deeper until you get to the core reason. You can see an example of the Five Whys exercise here.
  2. Thinking Time. Use specially set aside thinking time to ask yourself questions, dig into ideas, and get into the right mindset and mental framework. We talked about this in our Thinking Time podcast episode, and we have a course about it in The Productivity Academy.

By reviewing your goal against your true why you’ll a) have an idea whether you should proceed or not, and b) will be more likely to stick with it through to completion. Whenever things get bumpy, your why can keep you going.

Using my course as an example, here’s how things came out:

  • ❌ The fact that I spent money on the course is not a good reason to keep going — sunk cost fallacy.
  • ❌ Completing something for the sake of completing it makes no sense.
  • ✅ Spending time learning something is better than watching Netflix or scrolling TikTok.
  • ✅ Skills I pick up may enable us to do more cool things at AE or might help me in my later career.
  • ✅ Learning something I enjoy but is not-directly-work-related is good for my brain and makes me happy.

So far, I’d say we are edging on continuing with the goal, so we shall see what happens. I won’t drop it yet.

2. Evaluate your current situation

Whenever I’ve run into trouble with a goal, it is usually because the goal sounded great, and maybe the whys even checked out, but there was no realistic chance that the goal could have succeeded. If I were honest with myself or proactive, I would have realized this.

Look ahead. What are your:

  • Work commitments. Do you have big projects coming up that might impact your ability to achieve this goal?
  • Family commitments. Do you have to take the kids to activities, help them with homework, care for elderly parents, or have limited family time?
  • Energy constraints. Are you wiped out after work or during the day? Do you have energetic time where you could truly focus on this goal?
  • Financial constraints. Can you afford to achieve this goal, or would spending money on it cause you other problems?
  • Economic factors. Is there anything going on (like, say, a recession or global pandemic) that might interfere with achieving your goal?

If you think through your time, energy, and resources available, you should have a clearer idea of whether you can and should continue.

There’ll usually be one of three outcomes:

  1. 🙅‍♀️Not going to happen: The situation just isn’t going to allow this goal to be successful. Better to pull the plug now.
  2. 🕺 Looks good: You have the time, energy, and attention resources to be successful with this goal. Carry on.
  3. 🧗‍♀️ There’s a gap: There’s a gap between what you want to do and what you can do, but it should be possible to close that gap. What are you willing to sacrifice to achieve the goal?

Evaluating my course goal:

  • ✅ I can plug away at the course a little every day (or every few days). Even on days that I’m tired, doing a programming tutorial is not exactly working in a coal mine. If it is a priority for me, I can do it.

3. Break the goal down

Often when our goals are “big,” they just seem unmanageable, and it is hard to start and keep progressing.

Usually, when that happens, it is a sign that the goal needs to be broken down or re-written.

We talk about this as one of our 5 Simple Steps to Setting Goals and Achieving Them — do you know how to achieve what you want to achieve?

You may have created a goal at the start of the year or quarter, but didn’t adequately break down how you’re going to do it.

Breaking a goal down into smaller, more manageable pieces will help you determine your next actions.

An important question about breaking down a goal: What if you don’t know everything you need to do to achieve your goal?

There’s a misconception that to break down a goal, you need to be able to completely break it down. If you can do that, that’s great! But sometimes it is not possible. Sometimes we don’t have the knowledge or clarity yet to know everything.

That is entirely normal. Even if you don’t know everything you need to do, there’s a good chance that you at least know the first two or three things. Start with that, and then you can continue when you get there.

Looking at my course goal:

  • ⚠️ Breaking down my development course, I realized that the problem wasn’t the Why or the Situation. The problem was that the specific course itself just wasn’t good. If I could shift the goal to have a similar outcome, but with better materials and a smaller time commitment, I could still keep the goal.

4. Start executing

Making a goal is easy. Consistently executing on your goal and making progress? Not so easy.

The best way to beat the odds is to create daily rituals and systems to take you there.

Here are some resources to help:

If you want to kick-start your goal execution, check out our Productivity Academy where we have monthly Master Class Calls. They’re all about turning knowledge into action and are laser-focused on execution and implementation.

You don’t need more productivity knowledge — you need productivity action!

Next steps

Here are the next steps we recommend to figure out whether one of your goals is worth pursuing:

  • Pick one goal and come up with your WHY. Use the Five Whys exercise if necessary.
  • Look at your time, energy, financial, and attention circumstances – what could get in the way of you completing this goal?

If you’re wondering — the outcome of my goal is I dropped the course I purchased and found another one. It is much better, and now I’m enjoying working towards my goal instead of dreading it. Similar goal, but more likely to succeed 👍.

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Brooks Duncan

I love taking technical topics and translating them so that they make sense to non-nerds. I'm a Chartered Professional Accountant and have been a software developer and have run software support in very small startups and extremely large public corporations. I strive to be relentlessly helpful in everything that I do. I live in Vancouver, Canada and insert extra u's in many of my words.

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