August 21, 2020

How to Prioritise Your Goals

Most people have more than one goal or dream that they want to achieve at any one time. They may be at different levels of difficulty or (personal) importance, and may even have an order to them. For example, if your two goals are to fly commercial airplanes for a living and get your pilot’s licence, it’s (hopefully!) clear which goal you need to achieve first.

Understandably, we all want to achieve our big life goals as soon as possible, but a small amount of planning focused on how and when we tackle each goal makes us far more likely to actually succeed. From (extensive!) experience, trying to finish all your goals at the same time is probably too much, and staggering them over a time period will increase your chances of success. It’s better to achieve one or two goals consistently over a number of months and then move on to the next two, rather than trying to finish all four goals at the same time - you may succeed, but it’s far more likely you’ll be less successful in all of them.

Examining the difficulty of a goal is also really important. If one goal is going to take up a huge amount of time, then maybe it’s better to focus just on that one for now. Or maybe you’ll decide that it’s better breaking it down further into more achievable chunks. What you decide depends on the goal and your personal preference.

Identifying your Current Level

This is best illustrated with an example - let’s look at marathon running. A great goal for many people is to run a marathon, but if we’ve never run before, running a 42km race in a few months is quite a jump and, in my opinion, extremely difficult.

I’m not a long-distance runner (a did a 10 mile race once and that was enough for me) but before we decide whether to break down the goal or leave it as it is, let’s look at what training for a marathon involves. A quick search online showed that there are many marathon training plans available. Here’s a sample one with specific plans for beginners, intermediate and advanced.

However, the first week for beginners involves running 20 miles, increasing to 40 miles a week as you get closer to the marathon itself! I’m not criticising the plan (I’m sure it’s excellent if you’re at that level), but I think the definition of ‘beginner’ here is someone who runs regularly but has never done a marathon. I think it’s unrealistic for someone who’s never run at any consistent level to do 20 miles in their first week of training and an average of 30 miles a week for 4 months.

Breaking Down the Goal?

So what should we do? How do we make a more sustainable and achievable goal that moves us towards running a marathon, but still feels like progress?

In this instance, I did some more online searching for running plans, focused on smaller distances. Here’s another ‘beginner’ running plan that looks like a much better option for someone who’s running for the first time. It’s more achievable, sustainable, and is part of the path to running a marathon. If you want to run 42km, you need to be able to run 5km first!

Once I’ve run 5km, I’ll make a goal to run 10km, then a half marathon until I get up to marathon level.

This doesn’t mean that I’ll never achieve my goal of running run a marathon. I’m just breaking it down into smaller chunks that are more immediately achievable one after another. One bite at a time!

How to Break Down Your Goals

From the marathon example above, we’ve decided to break it down into smaller goals. One way of doing this is asking the following questions:

  • Effort - How hard is this for me personally?
  • Time - How much time will this take up? How much time have I available?
  • Priority - How important is this goal for me compared to other tasks/goals in my life?
  • Stages - Can I break the goal down into smaller pieces?

Using our marathon example:

  • Effort - Very hard to run a marathon (the first guy who did it died!) - I’ve never run more than 2k.
  • Time - Large amount of time for training/recovery.
  • Priority - Personal choice
  • Stages - I can break this down into smaller distances and build up to the goal of a marathon in the future. Finishing 5k/10k runs are still great achievements!

So now I may have more goals, staggered in time and far more achievable, in my opinion.

  • Goal 1 - run 5km in 2 months
  • Goal 2 - run 10km in 4 months
  • Goal 3 - run a half marathon in 6 months
  • Goal 4 - run a half marathon in 12 months

If you take this approach to your goals, it’s a good way to increase your chances of success. It may be slower than you want it to be, but consistency and sustainability, not speed, are the key ingredients to long-term change.