How to Prioritize Progress (Even During a Pandemic)

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Written by Pete Sena,
• 6 min read

Note: I drafted this post pre-pandemic. At the time, I was wondering how a non-New-Year’s-related post on setting goals would go over. While it’s my opinion that always setting your sights on both professional and personal evolution is a good idea, I also know that most of us work so hard maintaining the day-to-day. Prioritizing progress can seem like a stretch.

The coronavirus has changed, perhaps permanently, what we do and how we do it. But one thing remains the same: we humans are resilient. In the darkest hours, we sing from balconies and challenge ourselves to find the light and reason to go on. Goals, no matter how small, help us move forward. So read on to learn how to find the soul of a goal and prioritize progress.

You might be familiar with the cognitive bias known as “The Law of the Instrument,” which states that if your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. In other words, we tend to use the tools we’ve got to solve our problems, even if there’s a better way.

There’s another name for this concept: Maslow’s Hammer (or gavel). It’s no coincidence that Abraham Maslow, the psychologist who created the hierarchy of needs — which ratchets up from basic physiological needs to love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization — was the O.G. articulator of this rule.

I like to use a hammer and a nail in an analogy I often use to explain why we typically set goals that don’t work. Bear with me, because there’s a dash of Maslow’s insights in there, too.

Let’s say your goal is to hang a picture. Most people will assume all they need to hang that picture is a hammer and a nail. If that’s all you’re focused on — gathering and applying tools — then you’re missing the bigger (ahem) picture.

Consider what your real motivation or goal is. It’s not about merely popping a painting or photo up on the wall; it’s about putting in just the right place a memory or piece of art that inspires you. Maybe it’s a picture of you and your family on a life-changing vacation. Perhaps it’s a painting that you saved for years to purchase. Whatever it is about that picture, it’s personal, and it has meaning. It satisfies higher needs like intimacy, connection, or status. And after a long day at work, you want to catch sight of that image so you can instantly feel that you’re home.

The celebration moment is the thing to reach for first and then work backward. You may realize you don’t need a hammer or a nail at all — you might just prop the picture up on your mantle, or decide to hire someone to turn that little image into an entire mural.

By visualizing what you want in the future, you can get clear on your actual goal. And then it’s just about embracing the reality that the path forward doesn’t necessarily look the way you might have imagined.

Dream forward, work backward

The biggest challenge with goals is that we tend to set them in ways that are either too big or too small and, generally speaking, lack details as to how to get there. The trick is to visualize the future — not just how it looks but also how it feels — and then reverse engineer the steps you need to take to achieve that goal.

This, by the way, is not a linear process. Goal setting tends to feel like it operates in two dimensions: I start here, and I want to get there. So I plod along obvious and clear points to make this journey.

Perhaps good in theory, but not particularly useful or empowering in practice. Coming from a design thinking perspective, you can ideate multiple ways to achieve your goals. Let’s say you aspire to give a TED Talk. This entails a lot of things, for example, becoming a subject matter expert, acing public speaking, and developing a theatrical presentation style. In every one of those aspects are multiple incremental steps that put progress over perfection. That would include things like joining a club or group in your subject niche, volunteering to lead meetings, taking a public speaking class, training with a speaking coach, and so on.

Now your visualization is more dynamic and three-dimensional. There is still a starting point and an end state, but the path takes a more creative and curiosity-fueled tack to help you spring forward.

Find the soul of your goal

The other things that most overlook when setting goals are the human aspects — the story behind the desire and the emotional drivers of motivation. Take, for example, a goal many of us have: to find more success in business. I asked a designer on my team to articulate what that meant to her, and she told me that boiled down to networking more.

The question then became: Why? Why do you want to network more for yourself? Why does your networking matter for our company?

By getting curious about what you think you want to achieve, you can excavate what I call the soul of the goal.

In this case, networking as a goal was thinking too small. As the designer and I further discussed her motivations and began to visualize what the result looked like, it was a much bigger deal. It involved her standing up in front of a large crowd of artists and receiving an award for her work. The moment was inspiring and emotional. It was about connecting with others, helping solve design problems, and building community. Within the context of our business, it made her a go-to resource for cultivating and developing relationships with practitioners we could collaborate with, like photographers, illustrators, graphic designers, and trademark lawyers.

When I asked the designer which goal she was more excited about now — networking or becoming a leader in the local art scene — there was no contest.

In this case, networking was just a means to that end. The soul of the goal was all about becoming a leader who helps develop and establish a sense of community among local artists. This would support her ambition to thrive, both personally and professionally.

Once you’ve broken down the stumbling blocks in goal setting, you can still use your favorite tools like objectives and key results (OKRs) or S.M.A.R.T. goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely) to get granular. The difference is you’ll be hammering away at the right objectives. By aiming high enough and ensuring you’re keeping the human-centric factors in the mix, you’ll nail your goals.

Feeling stuck? Juggling priorities? I’m here to help. Check out The Progress Project, which is a free tool to help you navigate your ideas and determine the best place to get started with making real progress.