January 6

How to Accomplish Goals


Drakensberg, South Africa

Like most people, I use the new year as a time to reflect on the past year and make goals for the upcoming one.

Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own. – Bruce Lee

Proper Goal Setting

My best example of improper goal setting is a personal one. As I was nearing completion of my Master’s Thesis coursework I made the goal: “walk in the graduation ceremony.” However, completing this goal didn’t mean I had technically graduated because I hadn’t turned in or defended my thesis. No drama though, all my experiments were done and I just had some analysis and writing to do. I’ll be done by the end of the Summer, I thought.

The problem was I hadn’t set up my goals properly.

Once I walked in the ceremony my momentum slowed to a crawl because in my mind I had accomplished my goal, so I mentally checked out school-mode. What could have been accomplished in three to five months dragged out to almost two years. Two years!

It was a tough lesson but I learned how important it is to make sure goals are:

  1. Specific – “I want to get in shape” becomes “I will complete a marathon by the end of the year.” 
  2. Challenging but attainable – “I will complete a marathon by the end of the year” becomes “I will run a marathon under 4 hours by the end of the year.” 
  3. Continuous – “I will run a marathon under 4 hours by the end of the year” becomes “I will run a marathon every year for the next 5 years and better my time each year.”

Had I set up proper goals in the beginning I could have easily turned 1.5 years of inefficient, unmotivated work into five months of work.

Set up a System

Q: What’s the best way to eat an elephant?

A: One bite at a time.

Once you have a specific, challenging and continuous goal you need to work backwards and break it into smaller manageable bits so the goal isn’t as daunting. After you have broken the goal down into smaller milestones, commit yourself to a system where you minimize nothing days.

A nothing day is when you don’t make any progress towards any of your goals. When you’re just starting out, you don’t have to work for eight hours straight on a goal, just do something. Anything.

This is really the only system one needs.

Stay Motivated

Now, the hardest part. Staying motivated.

Your Three Selves

There are three important people you need to be aware of: your past, present and future self. When you’re feeling unmotivated, think of your future self and do it for them. Future you is going to be stoked you did something today.

As you begin eliminating more and more nothing days think about the past self  who took action to make sure you were closer to your goal and give ’em a mental pat on the back. Always be thankful to your past self for thinking of you in the future. If it wasn’t for their drive, you wouldn’t be where you are today.

Your present self is the most important. This is you, in this moment, living your life. This is where you need to focus the majority of your attention. It’s easy to get caught up in the big picture of how happy you will be when you reach your goal. But guess what, after you accomplish your goal, there’s going to be another one right behind it to take its place. Something else you want to do or something else you want to accomplish, so enjoy the journey while you are in it.

I find enjoying the present can be hard with so many distractions. If I find I’m not enjoying myself, saying “this is what I’m doing” out loud has a way of bringing me back to the present and making my mood more positive.

Track Your Progress/Accomplishments

When I’m unmotivated a great pick-me-up is looking back at my progress and accomplishments. I keep a daily journal where I will write at least three daily highlights and daily to-do lists. It’s a nice reflection of what I’ve accomplished and keeps my momentum going.

Another tool I just recently started using is Trello, which is an online based organization tool. I have one board and within it I have five lists: Daily, Today, This Week, This Month and Done.

The daily list holds tasks needing to get done everyday like: walking my dog, flossing, and writing in my journal. I use the Labels function to color code each task. Green means done and red means not done yet.

The today list holds my to-do’s for the current day, the week list holds my to-do’s for the specific week and I hope you can figure out what the month list has. Once I complete a task I drag it to the done list where I can visually see all the tasks I’ve completed.

At the start of each day I’ll look over my board and fill out my daily list using my weekly and monthly lists as a guide and then mentally map out my day. It’s a nice way to stay motivated and I enjoy having everything in one place.

Stay Focused

Never give up what you want most for what you want right now.

Instant gratification. There are numerous marketing campaigns and products aimed at this mentality because it works–it’s a driving factor in people’s lives. We naturally move towards things we can get quickly rather than waiting. It’s hard to say no to something we want right in front of us, even if it’s counterproductive to our greatest desire.

This seems to conflict with the previous section where I state your present self is your most important. However, if you’ve properly set and internalized your goals you’ll find the internal conflict starts to disappear because what you want right now starts to align itself with what you want most.

When I find I’m constantly struggling between what I want most and what I want right now it’s because I haven’t been honest with myself when I set my goals. For example, we’ll go back to my thesis situation. Initially, finishing my thesis was what I thought I wanted most. Almost two years of spinning my wheels determined this wasn’t what I truly wanted and it was causing a massive internal struggle.

What I truly wanted was to travel and see the world. Finishing my thesis was standing in the way (just quitting was not an option). Once I made this mental switch (December 2011), my present self aligned with what I wanted most and on April 5, 2012 I successfully defended my thesis. Five months later I left on a 12-month trip around the world.

Once I have the proper goals/motivation there are a few tactics I use to help me stay efficient if I have brute grunt work to do:

The Pomodoro Technique

  • Work for 25 minutes, break for 5
  • Work for 25 minutes, break for 5
  • Work for 25 minutes, break for 5
  • Work for 25 minutes, break for 25

Repeat as necessary


Music is a great way to occupy your subconscious while you focus on a task. The key is to pick something where you can lose track of time. I find listening to one album on repeat doesn’t work as well because I can recognize when the album starts over and therefore mentally keep track of how long I’ve been working.  There were two tactics I used:

Pick one song and put it on repeat

This is good when you have a time consuming and mundane task. While working on a particular arduous thesis task I added about 700 views to Adele’s Someone Like You YouTube count over the course of two weeks. Let the judgement flow through you. 

Listen to songs with no words or words you can’t understand

When there’s no words or words in a different language your mind doesn’t get caught up on them and allows you to get into a trance like state while you work. My favorite Pandora station for this is World Soothing Study Music Station.


Make time every day to do something active.

Further Reading

Being more accountable for what I set my mind to has been a specific aspect of growth I’ve been focusing on for the past few years. Here are some resources I’ve found valuable if it’s a subject you want to read more about:

The 4-Hour Workweek – Tim Ferriss

The War of Art – Steven Pressfield

Smart Talk – Lou Tice


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  • DAVE. This is perfect for my state of mind right now. It’s so relevant to my 2014 year. I got 4-hour work week as an Xmas gift so I’ll need to jump into that ASAP. Thanks for writing this. Also, Adele?? really? Let the judgement flow : )

    Also also, the SLO life with all your friends wasn’t totally miserable right?? We love you! And we really missed you this past weekend. Did a bay area trip make the goals list?

  • This is fantastic and speaks to me right now! Right now yes right now! In the present but also about my past and how to better my future. Thanks for the reminder on how to be awesome. As always!

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