Focus On This Podcast

55. That’s Not a Goal—It’s a Project



You know that goal you set is important, but you always dread working on it. When you finally stop procrastinating, you never seem to be able to make the kind of progress you want to and walk away feeling drained. It’s so frustrating to feel unable to achieve work you know matters.

You’ve accidentally turned a project into a goal. We’ve done it, too. And today, we’ll give you four telltale signs that your goal is actually a project in disguise. You’ll finally remove projects from your goal list and open up room for SMARTER goals that actually move the needle on your business.

Then, we’ll welcome a Full Focus user to talk through questions about the differences between projects and goals and how to press beyond everyday work towards growth.

In this episode, you’ll discover—

  • Questions to ask yourself to determine if you are working on a goal or a project.
  • How to avoid dependency on external motivation with your goals.
  • The difference between things you should do versus things you get to do.
  • How some efforts promote maintenance and others are for growth—and what that means.
  • What to do with goals that are assigned to you that will make them more exciting.

Related Episodes

Episode Transcript

Verbs: Welcome to another episode of Focus on This, the most productive podcast on the Internet, so you can banish distractions, get the right stuff done, and finally start loving Mondays, with your hosts Courtney Baker and Blake Stratton.

Blake: Courtney, what is happening?

Courtney: You know, it is another Monday, and it’s good to be here. I’m especially excited to be tackling the topic for today, because it’s one we get asked a lot.

Blake: I think every training I do with teams, when we teach the Full Focus System to organizations… This comes up all the time. I think it’s because people experience some, let’s call it, goal dread. If you’ve experienced this, dear listener, my friend, maybe you can relate. It’s when you dread working on the goals you’ve set.

You’ve set the goals, and even when you look at the page, if you use the planner… You look at it, and you’re like, “Oh, gosh.” That is goal dread. We experience it because our goals actually aren’t goals, at least what we would call true goals. They’re actually projects masquerading as goals. The question that comes up then is, “Well, how do I know what the difference is between a goal and a project?”

Courtney: Blake, when we were talking about this episode, I was reminded… This was really early on in our podcasting days. We had a call, and she asked us about a goal she had, and it was to paint the trim on the outside of her house.

Blake: Oh, I remember that.

Courtney: Do you remember this one? I was like, “Oh, I’m going to get her, because this is going to be a project. This isn’t a goal.” Come to find out it actually was a goal, but it smelled more like a project. I think this is a real struggle people have with determining… We all have a lot of things we’re trying to accomplish, and how do we figure out which bucket things land in?

Blake: This is important. It may seem like just a subtlety, but it’s actually important, because your goals are driving where you’re spending your time, your resources. You ought to know, especially if you have a project as a goal… You may be pointing the finger at yourself, feeling like, “Oh, I can’t do goals” or “I can never stay focused.”

Actually, you’ve just misunderstood that what you’ve set for yourself is just a series of dreadful projects. Now, projects are necessary, of course, but what we want to tackle specifically in this episode is just understanding what the difference is. If you remember, Courtney, back in the 90s, Jeff Foxworthy had this bit, “You might be a redneck if…” You know what I’m saying?

Courtney: Yeah. That is a name I have not heard in a long time, but I do recall.

Blake: And you liked it that way. I’m glad I could bring that back. Well, this episode… “You might be a project if…” We have four telltale signs that your goal is actually just a project in disguise.

Courtney: Okay. So, the first one… I can’t even do it. Just the image of Jeff Foxworthy is so strong in my mind that even to say the line, I’m having to work myself for it. It might be a project if…it’s not exciting. This is part of our SMARTER framework. It’s something that I think makes the SMARTER framework really strong. It really sets it apart.

Your goal needs to be exciting. It needs to be that thing you have internal motivation for. It has to come from you. This is the thing that’s going to take extra energy. Like you said, it’s going to take your resources, and if it is not exciting, it’s just not going to happen. You’re going to have to depend on external motivations, and that, honestly, is just not going to get you nearly as far as when you have that internal “want to” with a goal.

Blake: Right. The SMARTER framework is what we use to design our goals, and the E, like you mentioned, stands for exciting. The reason we say it has to be exciting is that’s just what the research suggests. In Michael’s book Your Best Year Ever, he goes into all of these different studies they’ve done about “How do the highest achievers function? What’s true about their goals?” That’s where we came up with this framework.

Shocker. If you dread doing your goal, you will achieve less. Your chance of failure is much more likely. Whereas if you enjoy or if you’re excited about achieving your goal, your likelihood of success is significantly higher.

So, the second sign that it might be a project. It might be a project if…it’s about maintenance, not growth. Here’s a great example. I got this question in one of my last corporate trainings. They said, “A lot of what we do as an organization is just keeping the wheels of business turning.” That does take time. So, is my goal to do these different things, like, to make sure our accounting looks like this or to increase our sales by 5 percent this year, or whatever that is?

This is the key. If it’s about maintenance, if it’s just about keeping things moving in business or in your personal life, that’s not a goal. If I set a spiritual goal, and I always go to church every Sunday, let’s say, for instance, I wouldn’t want to set a goal “Go to church every Sunday,” because it’s really just about maintaining what’s already there.

Now, I still have to put it in my calendar. I don’t schedule things on top of that on Sunday. Right? So it is still a thing, but it’s not about growth. It won’t require more money, more emotional resources or physical resources. It won’t require extra time. Your goal is going to require more from you. That’s what makes it uncomfortable, but that’s also where growth happens: in the discomfort zone.

Courtney: I love that. There are so many examples of things that end up falling into that maintenance… And you kind of know. I think intuitively you’re like, “Oh, this really isn’t a stretch. It’s just like I have to check it off the list.” Then you’re like, “Oh, yep. That’s just a project.”

Okay. The third one is it might be a project if…it’s a should, not a get-to. Where this comes up a lot is with financial goals. For me, this is where I hear a lot of people say, “Oh, yeah. This year I’ve set a financial goal,” and as they talk about it, it really sounds like, “I should be saving money, so I’ve made it a goal.” It’s not like, “We have this financial goal because we’re planning this really great trip” or “We have this financial goal because we’re working to stabilize our cash flow so we get to X, Y, Z.”

You can kind of tell in just the way people frame it up for you whether or not this feels like a should versus a get-to. Again, this is all internal motivation that only you know, but I think being very careful of what’s speaking into your goals… Are you letting cultural things kind of set those for you or are they things that you get to do?

Blake: For me, household stuff falls into that. You mentioned painting the trim. My laundry room has kind of doubled as a storage area, and it was just out of control. I was like, “Oh, gosh. I really ought to do that. I really need to organize that, fix that,” whatever. The truth is that doesn’t rise to the level of a goal. I wouldn’t say, “Ooh, I get to clean up my laundry room.”

When there’s a should (we’ll mention this maybe later on in the episode as a bonus)… For me, I made use of being in quarantine. I literally took a full day, and I was like, “All right. Dadgum it! I’m going to clean out this thing.” I just got in the zone and wiped it out as fast as I could. If with your goal you’re like, “I just want to get this over with as fast as I can,” that’s a should, and that’s a project.

Courtney: I feel like probably everybody out there listening is wondering, “What about goals that you feel like you should do because your boss has passed those down to you?”

Blake: I mean, that’s the fourth… I didn’t know if you were leading into that.

Courtney: Yes. That was absolutely setting you up for that transition, friend. Okay.

Blake: No, that’s a great question. That’s actually the fourth sign that it might be a project. It might be a project if…it was assigned, not invented. This is a huge one, especially because a lot of you listening are working full-time jobs. The majority of your life, literally, is spent working for somebody else who is handing you assignments, handing you “goals.”

Now, I want to talk about this a little bit. You ought to not just accept whatever is assigned to you and say, “Well, that’s my goal.” The reason is, again, if it’s assigned to you, there’s inherently less power in fulfilling an assignment than creating or inventing and directing, “This is where I’m headed, and this is where I want to go.” That’s a more powerful stance. Your goals need to be coming from that place of power.

Before you object, I want to explain myself a little bit. I’m assigned tasks, and I’m assigned goals. The truth is sometimes those goals are given to me… Either, first, they’re kind of in a maintenance sort of project for me. Like, “Okay, what do I need to be doing every day to hit a sales goal?” for instance. Other times, what I do when something is assigned to me is I say, “Okay, how could this work in the SMARTER framework for me?”

I’ve actually gotten, for instance, a sales goal where I said, “You know what? That’s not exciting, but I want to reword that, and I want to own it. I want to reinvent it so that if I accomplish this goal, I’m going to blow what was assigned to me out of the water, but this is really exciting to me, so I actually want to reach for this.” This could go for the third sign as well, a should versus a get-to. If something is assigned to you, it either needs to remain in the project level or you could choose to reinvent, but the point is you have to come at goals from a position of power.

Courtney: I think what you’re really saying with this is you can’t just leave something assigned as is, because most likely your mindset toward it is going to be not good. If you can’t change your mindset and how you approach it, it just needs to be a project. But if you can work the SMARTER framework magic and kind of change your… What you described right there is you changed your mindset toward that activity, and you turned it into a goal. I think that’s a really powerful tip for everybody.

Blake: All right. So, a quick review. Your goals may secretly be projects in disguise if…they’re not exciting, they’re actually about maintenance and not growth, they’re shoulds and not get-tos, or they’re assignments. They were assigned to you, and they’re not something you’ve invented or created. What, Nick? What is your question, sir?

Nick: Oh, okay. My question is…What if somebody is using a project as a goal? Where is the potential problem there? If someone is actually turning their projects into goals, what are they missing out on? What’s the opportunity cost? What’s happening?

Blake: I have a thought. Courtney, do you have a thought?

Nick: I originally wasn’t supposed to be on the show for this. I was asking for clarification, so, however you want to structure it.

Blake: No, this is a good question. Let’s keep it in the show. I think what happens is there are kind of two sides of the same symptom that you experience. The one symptom is procrastination or sometimes outright failure, discouragement, or a general sense of complacency, a sense of “I feel detached from my own life. I’m using the planner, but it doesn’t feel like it’s… Maybe I’m getting stuff done, but it doesn’t really feel invigorating like they made it sound it would be for me. It feels like I don’t even enjoy my life and my life is just a robotic machine.”

The other side of that is the missed opportunity of life design. There’s a thrill to setting a goal that’s exciting, setting a goal you’ve invented that’s growing you, that’s in your discomfort zone, that’s not just about doing business as usual, something that you’re excited you get to do. There’s self-discovery in there. There’s the good kind of pain you get when you’re working out, and there is enjoyment you’re missing out on.

To me, that’s what really stands out, Nick, is a sense of disconnection or lack of progress or sometimes that can lead to even lower self-esteem, and then the flip side is you’re missing out on a really exciting part of life. You never really get to discover what you’re made of, I guess, when you keep setting projects as goals.

Courtney: That is a good word, my friend.

Blake: I’ll preach.

All right. We’re welcomed now by Bert Berla. He’s joining us via video. This is about as close as it gets in the COVID era. Bert, how are you today?

Bert: I’m doing all right. Just hanging out here in the garage. I just listened to the episode yesterday about creating a Full Focus workspace, so I decided to build a bike rack out of some PVC pipes to get my kids’ bikes off the floor, and I’m really excited about how much less emotionally draining it’s going to be to walk into my garage.

Courtney: That is awesome. We love to hear… For everybody listening, if y’all make a change like that or you do something different because of the podcast, we would love to hear about it, if you’re in the Full Focus community or if you want to leave a review. I mean, Blake says…

Blake: Only if it’s five stars, though.

Courtney: Yep. I knew you were going to say that. We love hearing about that, legitimately. It really fuels us up. Well, Bert, we heard you had a question for us.

Bert: Yeah. The question came up recently. It has been a crazy year, as some of you might know, so I was about two months behind on writing down my third quarter goals a couple of weeks ago. I finally got over the hump to do it, and I was having a lot of trouble differentiating between things that were projects and things that were goals.

I think that makes it really hard to limit the number of goals, because it seems like there should be a ton of things I accomplish during a span of three months. I want to write them all down, but then some of them get really small and some of them are going to take way longer, and I don’t know where to draw the line. I don’t really know what the difference is, and it’s confusing.

Courtney: Well, out of the gate, your assessment of there are a lot of things that have to be accomplished is totally true. In the course of a quarter, you have to get a lot of things done. It’s just, how do you know when something that needs to get done needs to get elevated to goal status? Right? That’s really the question. How do you define that?

Blake: Bert, you’ll have the chance to relisten to a full explanation here, but really quickly, I can restate it for you and those listening. There are four signs the goal you wrote down is actually just a project, and those four signs are: it’s not exciting, it’s about maintenance not growth, it’s a should not a get-to, and it was assigned to you; it wasn’t invented by you.

He’s nodding his head. See, this is the advantage of having a video caller versus… I wonder how many audio callers were on the other end just shaking their head, going, “Okay.” Bert, let me ask you this. What are things in your world right now that feel really important, but you’re not sure if they’re a goal or a project? Or maybe even the question behind the question is “I’m not sure why it matters to make that distinction.” Does that make sense?

Bert: Maybe some of this is actually specific to the type of work I do. I was thinking about that with some of the things you said. I’m an R&D scientist. I don’t really do anything that’s maintenance. Everything I go in to accomplish is doing something we’ve never done before, and if we’ve ever done it before, it’s not my job. So some of that gets a little tricky, I think, but maybe, to a certain extent, it’s about things that are process-oriented versus outcome-oriented, if that makes sense.

Basically, what I do is I engineer bacteria to make a thing. One of my big goals is to make more of that thing. That’s sort of the overarching aim of what I do. There are steps I go through in a sort of iterative fashion to try to get that to happen. Some of the goals I started to write down are like, “Go through this iterative cycle 30 times.” So, design a new intervention, build it, and test it, and see if I’ve made progress. On the one hand, that has been assigned to me, but also, the particular ways I go about it are totally up to me to determine. That’s my job.

Courtney: It’s interesting. Your situation is really interesting, and your job sounds very interesting. I’m sure Blake and I do that kind of stuff on the side.

Blake: Oh yeah. A lot of that stuff.

Courtney: Like, no big deal.

Blake: I’ve got some bacteria right here, actually, on my desk.

Bert: You do. You don’t know it, but you do.

Courtney: So true. But even though the work you’re doing may be groundbreaking in itself, I still think you have to ask yourself, “Is what I’m doing just business as usual?” Is it maintenance in a way that, “Yeah, that’s what I have to do because that’s my job. I have to do those 30…” I don’t even know what you said. Thirty trials?

Bert: Yeah, sure.

Courtney: You know, to get the outcome, because that’s my job. But is doing that 30 times going to take your extra focus? Is it going to propel the growth of what you’re trying to accomplish? That’s what goals do for us. They give us that extra push, and they have to be SMARTER goals. For everybody listening, first, this is a very common problem.

If you find yourself thinking, “Oh, gosh. I wonder if I have a goal that’s actually a project,” you probably do. Between this and people not writing SMARTER goals, those are the two most common things I hear. So, I guess that’s my question for you. Is that really just maintenance, what you described, or is that really growth for you?

Bert: I guess it could propel our projects forward, but in a sense, it’s just maintenance because that’s always what we’re doing. So, maybe I’ve sort of got this backward in that a lot of the things that seem to me to be kind of boring and busywork would actually be process improvement things, where next quarter, instead of 30 times, I might be able to do the process 50 times, or I might be able to more readily hand part of it off to a technician so they could do a lot more things and I could write a grant, or something like that, whereas now I don’t have the bandwidth to work on something like that.

Blake: I think what Courtney is getting at is there’s a flip side to that coin. So, it might be a project if it’s about maintenance, not growth. The other side of that coin is a goal inherently is going to require extra resources, either your time, your energy, your focus, your emotional state, your finances, whatever. It’s going to take more to do it. You’ll literally have to become better either as a team, if it’s a team goal, or as an individual if it’s a personal goal.

You’ll have to become better than you are right now if you have any chance of accomplishing it, because a goal is about who you become or about who your team is becoming as much as it is about the particular outcome. There’s a theme in some things you’ve been sharing about process and stuff. Maybe there are some work-related goals, and there are a bunch of projects, like, “Yeah, we’ve got to do this. We’ve got to do this.”

It’s up to you to translate that and make it something that is exciting, that is going to force you, almost… The goal is really a tool that’s designed to hack your way into becoming a better version of yourself or reaching your full potential, however you want to word it. I’ve had that before, where it’s like, “Hey, here are our goals for the sales team for this quarter.” So, what I did is I created a habit goal that was (I’ve heard this as a terminology) a keystone habit, if you will.

If I install this habit, all of these projects get easier and go better and I become better and more valuable to my company, and that’s exciting for a lot of reasons. I invent that. I decide what that’s going to be. I have ownership over that. So, that could be something for you, Bert, where you go, “Well, what do I have control over from a habit standpoint that if I were to install this, everything else I’m responsible for would become easier or unnecessary or would break me through to the next level of achievement?”

Bert: Yeah. That’s interesting, the way you put that, because the habit goal you’re talking about could have been something really mundane. Like, it might not have been exciting to do on its own, but it sounds like what you’re describing there is that you’ve attached it to a larger meaning that is really exciting. Maybe it’s like, “Remember to tie my shoes every morning.” Well, okay, that’s not that exciting, but not falling on my face on the way to work…

Blake: If that’s something you’re dealing with, Bert, I have a lot of questions, but you’re right. Not bleeding from the mouth every morning would be exciting if that’s your daily experience. But you’re right. I think that is something about habit goals, not to go off on a tangent here. We break down goals into one of two camps: achievement goals, these one-time accomplishments, or habit goals.

Achievement goals are almost always… Just reading them is very exciting, because it’s like, “Oh gosh! We’re going to do this. We’re going to run this marathon. We’re going to make this much money. We’re going to finish this big project.” An achievement goal is a target. It’s a direction. The habit goal is almost a process toward a direction. So it’s inherently, in and of itself, oftentimes not exciting.

If you’re going to write down a habit goal, you have to make sure to spend time on the motivations. In other words, paint the picture of what it looks like when this goal is installed. You may even write that as, “Hey, I’m going to do X, Y, and Z at the start of every workday” or “I’m going to do this many [fill in the blank] every week for the next 90 days so that…” You may have to fill in the blanks of what that outcome is.

Whenever I’m writing down habit goals, I like to think about Tom Brady, because he’s the king of habits. He’s obsessed with the boring, the machinery of greatness. What’s exciting is winning Super Bowls. What he does is watch film all day on Saturday. That’s a habit he has gotten into from the start of his career. So anyway, to your point, it may not be exciting in and of itself. The way you write it has to inspire some excitement, though, so you may need to include the outcome.

Bert: Thinking about my list of goals for the quarter, a lot of them are very outcome-focused, and I guess they’re tilted toward achievement goals. I don’t know how many of those would actually… Okay. I could do that, and then I don’t know that anything would be that different after. Okay, achievement unlocked, but am I in any better position to do the next thing? Not really.

Courtney: Another thing you might consider asking yourself is “Are these goals going to happen regardless of me making it a goal or not?” So, kind of what you described with your example of “Okay, I have to do these 30 trials,” or whatever. If the answer is “That’s going to happen regardless of whether or not I make this a goal,” that’s a key red flag that it’s not a goal. It’s not needing anything extra from you. You’re just going to get it done because that’s your job. It’s a project, and you’re going to get it done because you’re great at your job. Right, Bert? I mean, if you can make bacteria…

Blake: Yeah. As long as you can get those shoes tied in the morning, you’re set for the day.

Courtney: So, that might be another good question to ask yourself when you read through your list of goals.

Blake: That’s a great point, Courtney. I think that’s spot on. I like to think of the planner or setting goals not about getting it right but about… Your goals are doing the job for you. Think of them as your employee. They should be getting something done for you. For me, my goal’s job is to get me focused, energized, and prioritized in the direction I want my life to go so that I stay on course toward reaching my full potential. A SMARTER goal is just a tool to help you do that. If I’m already on that way, it’s not going to do anything for me. So, that’s a great point, Courtney.

Bert: One of the sort of related struggles (I’m on my third planner now) is tying longer-term goals into the shorter-term goals and into the daily tasks. Making that work is, I think, tricky to figure out or at least takes practice. One of the problems that I’ve run into is that I’ve had too many projects on my list, so it’s easy to fill, then, the Weekly Big 3 and the Daily Big 3 with things that don’t actually contribute to anything that should be called a goal. So the needle doesn’t move on anything. Like, I keep doing my job, but that’s not the point. So, by editing down… Maybe it’s just one goal a quarter so I can make sure it’s really something that is going to be transformative to not just what I do but how I work.

Courtney: Yeah, absolutely. Your goals should be like… When you think about it, there should be a little bit of “Mmm…” You know, a little bit of discomfort, a little check in the gut, because you’re going to need something extra to get there.

Blake: Yeah, limitation. That’s why that’s so important. People say, “Oh, limiting to three goals. Can’t you do more?” Actually, if your goal is really a goal as we define it, you’ll be hard-pressed, as a working person, to have the bandwidth for more, and that’s why the research suggests that if you have more than three, you’re likely to accomplish none.

I mentioned… I don’t know if it was in this episode. Maybe it was a previous one, Bert, but especially nowadays, in this bizarre pandemic time, a lot of things are shifting, changing. The way we’re working is changing. I’ve intentionally scaled back on my goals. I think I just had two this quarter. I don’t think I’ll have more than two next quarter, just because of that same reason.

Doing business as usual has gotten disrupted, so that means projects are increasing, and if projects are too many to keep things in maintenance mode, I just don’t have the bandwidth to pursue multiple goals all at once. You may find, at least where you’re at right now, that that’s the case. You may have a goal of “Hey, I want to have the bandwidth for more goals, so what could I do that would allow me to work faster, allow me to have more time, more energy?”

That’s where you start looking at other life domains, Bert, to think about, “Hey, I wish I could be doing more stuff, but I’m so tired, and my work takes forever.” Well, that’s a recipe for a potential goal next quarter. Maybe it’s a workflow goal, where you’re saving some more time, getting some more mental or physical energy back.

Courtney: Well, hopefully that has been helpful, Bert. You’ll have to keep us posted on how you edit your goals if you do at all. Thanks for your question, and thanks for being on the podcast with us.

Bert: Yeah, sure. Thank you, guys.

Courtney: Blake, that was a great call with Bert. I think this is a question a lot of people have. Sometimes I forget that many planner users have never gone through our course Best Year Ever, and it really is a great tool. If you feel like you’ve struggled with this, that it’s kind of an ongoing question for you, like, “I’m not really sure my goals are right or that they’re SMARTER” or “I’m really confused on a project versus a goal,” Best Year Ever is incredible. Our whole staff goes through Best Year Ever every year. I don’t know if you feel the same way, Blake, but it has been huge in helping me utilize the Full Focus Planner to the next level.

Blake: Yeah. I think it’s great even if you’ve used the planner for years. I use it, like you said, every year with our team. This last year, I actually did it a second time. My wife and I did it together. It’s great because it forces you to slow down. Sometimes we can set a goal, and we don’t realize how powerful it is to think through what actually should be a goal and how we set ourselves up for success.

So often, we fall short of a goal not because there’s something wrong with us or our level of discipline or whatever. A lot of times, those issues are not the case. It’s actually just a lack of clarity, and that course, as you mentioned, and the SMARTER framework brings that clarity. That’s why Michael is famous for saying, “A goal well conceived is a goal half achieved,” because half the battle is just getting it right from a clarity standpoint on the front end. So, I absolutely would recommend that as a supplemental course for you.

Courtney: If you found this episode helpful… Actually, if you find that you struggle with this, send our team a message in the Full Focus community. We would love to know how we can help you. Maybe there’s a goal you want to share, and the community is a great place to get feedback on those. You can find the community on Facebook. Just search for “Full Focus Planner” and you will find the group. Thanks for joining us today.

Blake: They say this is a productive podcast. I would say the Facebook group is the most productive Facebook group on the Internet, arguably. So, if you enjoyed it, jump in there or share about it on social media, #focusonthispodcast. That helps us out, and it helps your friends out. You know your friends need help. You’re the one who has it figured out. They need help, so share about it on social media. We’ll see you next week on Monday morning for another episode. Until then…

Courtney & Blake: Stay focused.