To perform at your best, focus on goals not tasks

Main illustration: Hallie Bateman

I am a big believer in setting goals.

Throughout my career I’ve learned that when I set myself goals and stick to them, my performance really improves. I’ve also seen this in others that I’ve worked with, time after time. I think there are two main reasons:

  1. Goals force me to focus. Modern life is full of distractions, which kill productivity and impact, and goals are my way of avoiding distraction. When I inevitably get dragged into email or Slack, or start working on things reactively as they come up, having my goals in front of me brings me back to a place of focus and ruthless priority. It empowers me to say no to the many random things that come up. This hugely increases my impact because it means I’m working on the most important things.
  2. It forces competition – me against myself. I’m a very competitive person, and without someone to compete against within my own job, and when my version of winning is played out over months and years, goals over a shorter timeframe allow me to compete against myself.

The level of impact you can have with hitting your goals is obviously dependent on setting good goals. I have a process with our directors where we each set weekly goals, and we also have a process across the product org where each individual contributor sets weekly goals. A common mistake we all make is that we slip into writing tasks instead of goals. This is bad.

“Goals are progress-oriented, not event-oriented. Because of this, goals tend to have much higher impact over time for people”

So what’s the difference? For me, there is one main thing: Goals are strategic and aspirational, whereas tasks are tactical and will likely happen anyway. Goals are progress-oriented, not event-oriented. Because of this, goals tend to have much higher impact over time for people. I have more tasks than I know what to do with, but addressing all these tasks would simply result in me being very busy, but having very low impact.

How to improve your goals

Here are three examples of bad weekly goals, and alternatives:

  • Goal: Present the new approval process at the All Hands.
    The All Hands is happening, and presenting at it might lead to little value to attendees. This is a task. A good goal gets at the longer term benefit of presenting. A better version might be: ‘Ensure everyone in the team understands the new approval process by the end of the week’. This is aspirational and extends beyond the task of presenting at the all hands.
  • Goal: Work with Julie on next steps for new onboarding design.
    What does it look like to hit this goal? Have a meeting, goal hit. This goal isn’t progress oriented. It doesn’t push everyone involved to focus on progress. A much better version would be something like: ‘Next steps for new onboarding design approved by both Design and PM Directors’. The approval is aspirational. It’s going to require focus to make that happen.
  • Goal: Interview for the open PM position.
    Running an interview is a task. It’s in your calendar. Someone is showing up. It’s going to happen. A better goal might be ‘Fill the PM position by end of the week or have a concrete plan for how we’ll source more leads’. Now we’re aspirational. We’re more long term. We’ll need to get creative to come up with ways to hit the goal.

Obsess about understanding the distinction between goals and tasks. Once you do, the critical thing to know is that goals won’t get hit unless you set aside dedicated, focused time to work on them. Without dedicated time, you’ll fill your day doing task after task. You won’t make fast progress. You simply won’t be a high impact individual at your company.

This is why, despite having a large team to manage and more meeting requests than you can imagine, I block out every morning of every day – almost half my available time – to work on my goals. I win – and Intercom wins – if I set goals not tasks, and hit them week after week after week.

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