Achieve More With Goal Sequencing


In the world of marketing and communications, there’s a niche service we offer clients called "communication mapping" or "sequence mapping." Briefly defined, this service helps clients visually bridge the gap between their business objectives and their strategy. Mapping outlines the path and answers the question, “How do we get there?” It reduces complex marketing and messaging plans into individual, digestible tasks and tactics — sometimes to a painfully granular level. Organizations love it. Companies can see the A-Z paths that support their business plans, identify cause/effect relationships early on, and streamline process before those processes even begin. Brilliant, right?

Why don’t we apply the same strategy to our own lives and, more specifically, to our own goal-setting? When it’s time to lose weight, go back to school, or switch careers, why do we set a singular monolithic goal and let it lay there steaming in the hot sun of our inaction? I think it’s because we’ve always been taught that a goal is a singular thing instead of a set of sequenced processes. And since we don’t know that our goal is just a distant Z in a whole A-Z process, we have no way to navigate our journey. We sputter and stall.

Do you have a lingering list of goals that nips at your heels every birthday or on the eve of every new year? Here’s how to give yourself a fighting chance at achieving a few by breaking each goal down into a series of sequential and simple tasks. (See also: Trading in New Year's Resolutions for Life Goals)

Realize There Are No Single Goals

Major goals in our lives actually consist of many incremental sub-goals that need to be achieved before we reach the primary one. An empty-nester who wants to go back to school for a master’s degree needs to first organize her finances, take any necessary exams, brush up on her computer skills, narrow her school choices, and start the application process. And each one of those sub-goals can be divided further (studying for the SAT, taking an intermediate level computer class, visiting campuses, and exploring different graduate programs, etc). Understanding and defining all the sub-goals that feed into our primary goal is the key to success.

Map It Out

Mapping begins by working backwards from our primary goal and understanding the cause-effect relationships between sub-goals. If I want to change jobs, I first need to identify my ideal position. Then, working backwards, I can see any qualification challenges I might face, determine what classes to take or organizations to join, amend my resume, network with the right people, and choose where to apply. The sequence of each action should create a clear pathway to your primary goal. Map every step out visually to reinforce the process and keep you on-track.

Don’t Dawdle

Mapping a goal might create 10 or 15 sub-goals or steps that need to be completed first. It’s easy to lose focus and motivation by giving yourself too much time for each step. As you create your visual map, ascribe a reasonable time frame for each sub-goal and stick to it. Again, start with your main goal and work backwards — when do you want to achieve it? What time frame do you need to stick to for each step in order make that timing work?

Reassess and Reroute When Needed

Paths and processes are never as smooth or as direct as we expect in the beginning. Periodically review and reassess sub-goals based on new insights or information, always making sure that your new route still leads you where you want to go.

Don’t Think Big-Picture

Contrary to popular opinion, staying focused on your primary goal is distracting and debilitating. As you work through your sub-goals, pretend each is your singular and final goal. By giving each task your undivided attention and laser-like focus, you’ll achieve more and achieve it faster.

Reward Yourself and Move On

Don’t be afraid to celebrate success. Working through even the smallest sub-goal supports your bigger plan and is cause for reward. Take a moment to pat yourself on the back, review your progress, update your map, and get back to work.

In the end, even the biggest fire-breathing dragon of a goal can be slayed by dissection. Breaking down huge goals and seemingly insurmountable objectives into manageable tasks is the secret to success. The only difference between action and inaction, between achievers and non-achievers lies in the ability to reduce goals to a series of relatively simple steps. When we approach goals strategically and sequentially, taking the first step is no big deal — it’s tiny.

What big goals have you tackled through planning and process? How did breaking down your goals into small bits help?

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Guest's picture

we need to keep things in mind that small or sub goals are quite time consuming and we can not bear that cost. our eyes should not be distracted from the main goals just by giving the importance to sub-goals.

Guest's picture

This is exactly how I think when it comes to running long distances. I've done more than a few 5k's before and have never attempted, until this past summer, to do a 10k. I was pretty intimidated at first and had pre-race jitters the day of, the only reason I made it to the finish line was because I kept telling myself to take the next step and get to the next block. I broke down the larger goal of running over six miles into one block increments. Any goal in life, including financial ones, can be accomplished with goal sequencing!

Guest's picture

Great goal setting advice.

For setting and getting goals, using sequence mapping, you may want to check out a goal setting app called GoalsOnTrack, a very nicely built web app designed for tracking goals and todo lists, and supports time tracking too. It's clear, focused, easy to navigate.

Guest's picture

I really like this post. The reason so many people fall short of reaching there goals is because they make the mistake of making on lofty one, instead of small achievable ones. I think if more people understood the concept you explain in this article, there would be a lot more happy and satisfied people around. Very helpful!

Guest's picture

I think you'd like Cal Newport's new book, So Good They Can't Ignore you. He speaks to your point in one chapter, only he refers to it as thinking big and acting small, until you have the career capital to make big moves without falling on your face.

Guest's picture

Great article. I find it's critical to define when the sub-goals are met before undertaking them; you usually don't need to do every step perfectly to meet your larger objectives. If you don't know when you're done, then you might obsess over a particular step and forget the forest for the trees.

Or maybe that's just me. Suggestion not meant for chemists. :)

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