Boring goals are the guaranteed way to quit and fail. If you want to do anything worth doing, it has to matter to you. That means it’s probably going to take more than a year to do it. Goals that take longer than a year need more planning and more check-in sessions. Think about how you can sustain your interest into a second year, expecting that it will be different than the first year.
Three years seems to be the best timeline for the biggest goals. Almost anything can be done within a three-year span, except college, and if you assume that freshman year is for being undeclared, then you’re back to three years. Not every goal is worth spending three years of your life on, though. If you want to preserve your energy and attention for only the best goals, then you have to write in permission to break up with goals that aren’t working for you. You cannot allow a goal to continue to distract you once you realize that you aren’t into it anymore.
This is why an annual review is so important. You have to take the time to pause and reassess. You have to be willing to mercilessly throw some of your old projects overboard and sail on without them and let them sink to the bottom of the sea.
Never let the time you’ve invested in something force you into a lifetime commitment to it. Life is for learning and discovering new things. You can always go back. (Though sometimes the effort of applying again and starting again is so complicated that it’s better to push through to the end. Building momentum is hard, so sustain it as long as you can).
One year, I decided that it was time to learn to read technical diagrams. I had been knitting for a million years and I realized that all I could make were scarves and potholders. Boring! I realized that if I could learn new stitches from a book, I could make anything. I didn’t know any more accomplished knitters who could demonstrate more stitches in person. I was right about the skill of reading technical diagrams, and I eventually used that skill to learn to put together furniture and to use backpacking equipment. In the shorter term, I upgraded my knitting and made hats, mittens, slippers, socks, and poseable children’s toys. I quit knitting, though, several years later. I gave away all my yarn and all my patterns and all my equipment.
There was no way I could turn knitting into anything else. The only way I could sustain my interest in knitting would have been to make some kind of award-winning art project or something else I couldn’t imagine. I didn’t care enough to find out. I quit quite easily, knowing the twenty hours a week I had been knitting away would be better used doing something else.
Nobody ever came for me when I quit knitting, demanding answers. Nobody cared. Nobody cared at all. It turns out that you don’t need permission to quit things, any more than you need permission to initiate new projects. That’s important.
A three-year goal should be big enough that it transforms you. It should make your world bigger in some way. It should demand spiritual progress, in the sense that you have to rise up to it. The person you are when you start, the person you are after the first year, will not be big enough, experienced enough, smart enough, or skilled enough to carry you through to the third year. If you already know you can do it, then you already know you’re playing it too safe.
Why three years and not five? Isn’t there a thing called a Five-Year Plan? Ahem. Well, yes. The thing is, though, that by the fifth year, if you chose well and you worked hard, you will have changed your event horizon. You’ll have learned new skills and met new people, and everything about your options will be far beyond what you could have pictured when you started. Also, you’ll have learned so many things that you didn’t know, that your picture of that ultimate fifth-year goal will be far more accurate.
As an example, when I started public speaking, my purpose was just to get over my paralyzing terror of public speaking. I didn’t have any real plans for it. A few months in, people kept saying how funny I was. (Am I??) They started encouraging me to try stand-up comedy. Much to my shock, I was able to perform in public under the hot lights, and I didn’t feel nervous at all. In the second year, the topic of a podcast came up. In the third year, still on plan, I started to understand that I had a knack for leadership and that people relaxed when I took charge. Wherever this is going, it seems to be somewhere good. Why quit? What happens when I double down? What would this look like after another year, or two or three?
There are tricks behind choosing a goal of grand enough scale that is also rational and practical enough that you believe in it. First, don’t run it by anyone you know. The closer people are to you, the more they will freak out and immediately try to talk you out of it. They’ll do this by telling you that your goal is stupid, that you aren’t good at that kind of thing, and that you’re being selfish. These are amazingly clear and bright signals that you’re onto something.
They probably don’t know what they’re talking about, which is proof that you don’t need to listen to them. If they do by chance have credentials in the area of your chosen goal, then you can also ignore them because they will probably be motivated by jealousy of their turf. Do not let other people define you. It is irresponsible.
Thinking about your larger-scale goals should compel you and scare you a little. You won’t be able to quit thinking about them even if you try. These are signs.
Your larger-scale goals should snap your tinier goals into perspective with almost instant clarity. You need somewhere to write, and you transform part of a room into a workspace and it only takes two hours. You need a workshop, and you’ve gutted the garage over the weekend, and you walk out there on Monday after work and sit down and get started. You know you need to train, so you sign up for classes and you’ve made arrangements for your domestic responsibilities over a single lunch break. You can do the basics. You know how to sign up for things and pay for things and make a schedule; you’ve done it for television and now you’ll do it in service of your dream instead.
Never ask “how,” ask “when.” Which month, which day, which hour of the day will you be doing your thing? When do you do this in the time dimension?
In the first year, you experiment and realize that this thing could be a bigger part of your life. It’s real to you.
In the second year, you understand that this thing is worthy of your focus. It interests you more than most of the other minor things in your life, and you double down.
In the third year, you can see a specific outcome, something with a deadline. You clear the decks and put all your resources toward finishing this thing, no matter what. You tell people over and over again, “I wish I could, I’m doing THIS right now. I’ll be free again in [July?].”
What are a bunch of things you can do within a three-year time horizon?
Some examples would be:
Getting a graduate degree
Building a house
Going to the culinary institute
Becoming fluent in another language
Training from zero to run a marathon
Becoming a competitive bodybuilder
Writing and publishing a book
Getting a black belt in a martial art
Becoming a Distinguished Toastmaster
Launching a career in a new profession
Training a service animal
Recording an album
Some of these can be done faster, and some realistically take most people longer than three years. It depends more on how focused you are, whether you begin with a workable plan, whether you are coachable and receptive to criticism, and how many hours a day you can work. Certainly, though, you’ll have a good idea by the second year whether you’re into your project enough to take it farther. You’ll understand how putting more time and effort into it would be more interesting and get you further.
Double down on your second-year goal, because if it’s worth doing for a second year then it’s worth more of your time. Put your heart into it and let it take over your life.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
This website uses marketing and tracking technologies. Opting out of this will opt you out of all cookies, except for those needed to run the website. Note that some products may not work as well without tracking cookies.Opt Out of Cookies