One of my favorite paradoxes about envisioning goals relates to their time-dependent nature. I’ve read many times (and experienced myself) our human tendency to overestimate our short-term capabilities and underestimate our long-term potential. Let’s take an example we can all relate to in some capacity: writing papers.
Despite my frequent blogging now, this was not one of my favorite collegiate activities–after all, I was an engineer. And to my great disappointment, the department didn’t have a lot of sympathy. And because of that I compiled tens of pages of technical writing every so often for labs and other organizations. I often envisioned finishing the paper in a dedicated 10-hour work block with reasonably frequent breaks. Yet as the hours ticked by, I found myself ebbing between spurts of inspirations and impassible frustration. Despite throwing in the towel after day 1, I would string together a few more of these work blocks and eventually complete the paper a few days later. I had overestimated my ability. In all honesty, I probably only worked 10 total hours on that assignment, yet creating the space for those hours of effective work required a handful of sessions. Starting a few days ahead of time is probably my brain’s subconscious adjustment to the fact that I wouldn’t finish it after the first go-around.
Now, let’s examine my long-term writing ability. If you asked me how many reports I could complete in one year, I would undoubtedly shoot low. We have a natural tendency to underestimate our skills when faced with more long-term, open-ended objectives. In the engineering world, we frame this time-based advantage by identifying tasks as recurring and non-recurring tasks.
Advantages of Non-recurring Tasks
Each assignment contains its fair share of recurring tasks, or things that must be completed each time you start a new report. Typing the physical words, researching nuances within each experiment, waiting for an interviewee to return your request, or generating new tables and graphs are all examples of recurring tasks. The methodologies for creating these elements can be improved upon or streamlined, but they can’t simply be completed once and used again and again.
On the other hand, recurring tasks help streamline production of the final paper: developing a standard format, crafting a specific writing routine, discovering process shortcuts, sharing information between reports, determining your most productive writing space and time, etc. These elements generally happen once and are then leveraged to save time in the future. They can also be refined over time to further benefit the process.
A larger goal can also be posited in a different manner. Instead of asking how many papers I could write in a given time period, what if I was asked to write a single paper that was 10 times longer than the first? For similar reasons as to those listed above, I would overestimate the time required. It’s not as simple as taking my three day, single paper experience, and multiplying it by 10. Perhaps this is where the corporate phrase “under promise and over-deliver” was born. I might tell you 30 days, but many non-recurring tasks will help pave the way for completing my goal sooner.
I detail this example as it’s beneficial to be aware of our natural tendencies and attempt to correct for them. In doing so, we can apply this knowledge to our personal pursuits. One great place to do so is in the personal process of goal setting.
For some, the simple joy of crossing items off a list evokes euphoric joy. For others, incentivizing their pursuits with financial perks or delicious treats works equally as well. Developing a more essential life–one true to our values–requires thoughtful planning and crafting a motivation system that works. While I use tools such as Google Tasks to maintain my “grocery-list” type to-dos, I also developed a broader goal and value planning system for long-term achievements.
The 3-1-4 Methodology
With the thought of short- and long-term goals in mind, I crafted the 3-1-4 method in which I list my intentions for the next 3 months, 1 year, and 4 four years. I revise my 3-1-4 plan quarterly and review it every couple weeks to make sure that I’m working towards the goal I listed.
Here are some examples from my July review:
- Trip plan for Philippines
- Open credit card for travel hacking
- Maintain less than $2k spending per month
- Sell car and lots of shit before leaving apartment
- Develop conversational fluency in Spanish (go to South America!)
- Evaluate living in AirBnBs as future lifestyle
- Grow photography business to profitability
- Live by FuckYesOrNo principles
- Pursue social entrepreneurship and urban/transit design
- Work a job you love; money comes second
I tend to view my three months goals as an advanced to-do list. Trip planning, reducing my possessions, or picking a new direction for my credit card journey are not mindless tasks by any stretch. However, they do require a sense of urgency and must be finished in the next three months. After a few iterations, I found three-month chunks served me well while working full-time and balancing my weekly/monthly obligations.
My year objectives start to blend goals and values. These are the next order of magnitude in lifestyle design: reconsidering what a “home” is or developing a business idea. Some can be checked off and moved on from, while others take the shape of on-going advancements. One year is easy to measure and is scaled four times longer than my previous list.
The last category strictly embodies long-term values. How do I want to live my life? Do my aforementioned goals roll-up to the greater picture? It could be three or five years, but I kept with the 4x theme. Reflecting on life principles and crafting meaningful work will take years, but takes shape through many short term goals. Designing an essential life beckons us to make space for and subsequently reflect on these values.
In reviewing my 3-1-4 plan each quarter, I reflect on non-recurring advantages and laying groundwork for more advanced achievements. Furthermore, it keeps my three month goals more achievable while helping stretch my annual goals. What can I feasibly accomplish in one year? How about four? I set my sights high and continue rolling up bite-sized three month goals to move in that chosen direction.
While this method is one system that keeps me accountable, I know it won’t work for everyone. Regardless of your format, I see the means more important than the ends. While my goals transform over time, the most crucial element to this process is simply keeping your values and goals in sync. It’s about spending time every so often being more conscious of where you are and where you want to go. Time can certainly slip away if we let it, but having the foresight to plan ahead will make a world of a difference.