What do you want to achieve in life? How do you spend your finite time? What is an hour of your time worth? Are your days spent focused on your priorities or someone else’s?
These are some of the most important questions to consider if you want to lead a purposeful, rewarding life, but few of us take the time to give them critical thought. Many of us find there’s simply not enough time in the day to reach towards our goals.
If you believe you’re too busy each day to accomplish something big—be it starting a business, writing a book, or learning a new skill—then you’re correct. There’s not enough time in one day to accomplish something big. Big goals take more time.
The problem is that too often people get overwhelmed by the enormity of a task and never begin. They overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the impact of making small improvements on a daily basis. Big success doesn’t require a massive effort within a short period of time. It requires a clear objective and daily, incremental action.
Important but Not Necessarily Urgent
There is always something urgent to distract from things that are important but not necessarily urgent. This is especially true when it comes to the modern pace of life. Meetings. Phone calls. Meal prep. Family activities. Work obligations. Working out. The list goes on. An unceasing flood of demands keeps everyone hopping.
The rational thing to do is put a long-term plan in place that moves you slowly and steadily toward a goal, like finishing a first draft of a book. But of course, no one is purely rational—certainly not me. We’re all affected by cognitive biases that lead to suboptimal decision-making.
While we all prefer big rewards over smaller ones, most of us have an even stronger preference for present rewards over future ones—even when the future ones are much bigger.
This concept, or cognitive bias, is called “hyperbolic discounting.” In short, the further away a reward is in the future, the smaller the immediate motivation to achieve it.
For example, instead of leveraging the immense power of compound interest, many people prioritize short-term spending over long-term investing. Across all aspects of life and work, it’s difficult to make the time to invest in the important but not urgent work that’s necessary to realize long-term rewards.
To escape the status quo, and move forward on your priorities, it’s necessary to set a clear goal and reduce the goal to everyday action.
Goals and Everyday Actions
Goal-setting is a critical first step to achievement, but it’s not enough. A goal without action is merely a dream. Goals determine your direction, but action determines your progress.
To make goal-setting more effective, here are some principles to keep in mind:
Make it specific. To be useful, a goal must be specific. “I want to write a book” is too loose. “I will write 500 words per day until my first draft is done” is better.
Don’t have too many. If you have one clear goal, your direction is clear. Your actions can all be directed toward achieving a single outcome. Have too many goals and you may find yourself going in circles (or never get started in the first place).
Understand its component parts. A big goal in the future is really a series of smaller, interim goals.
By keeping these principles in mind, you will achieve far more, over the long-term, than you thought possible through a process called deconstructive goal-setting.
Deconstructive goal-setting, like all goal-setting exercises, involves envisioning a big, ambitious objective. But it doesn’t stop there. It forces you to work backward from your goal to determine and define all the steps necessary to get there.
Let’s say you’re 40 years old and by the time you’re 45 you want to have a thriving online business in the health and wellness space. You have five years to achieve your goal.
Through a process of deconstructive goal-setting, you’d first take the time to understand what it takes to start and operate a business. That includes things like 1) determining a target market, 2) building a network within that market, 3) establishing yourself as an expert and thought leader within that space, and 4) consistently getting yourself and your ideas in front of influencers and potential customers.
With that understanding in mind, it’s all about deconstructing these objectives into specific action steps within the constraints of the allotted time.
You have five years to work with. To be on track for your five-year goal, you need to make a certain amount of progress this year.
This means you need to be taking action this month, this week and, yes, this very day.
Put the Work in Now
See how this works? You’re capable of achieving big results way out in the future. But actually doing so is contingent on taking action every day. Don’t merely plan and hold loosely formed beliefs about what the future holds in your head. Put the work in now to make it happen. Here’s how:
Define your goal. Think clearly about what you want. Write it down. This will allow you to understand what it takes. Don’t fixate on the result (e.g., running a profitable business or writing a best-selling book). Focus on the underlying skills, qualities, and attributes that will allow you to achieve the result. There are lots of sacrifices and trade-offs you’ll have to make to achieve what you want, so it’s important to understand them from the start.
Deconstruct your goal into everyday action. Work backward to understand the component parts of your big goal and set a series of smaller goals that will keep you working on a linear path within the time you have available. You should deconstruct your big goal to the point where you have a clear understanding of the appropriate action you should be taking today to be on the right path.
Block time. You’re going to have all kinds of externalities, from urgent work demands to personal issues, attempting to derail you from making progress on your goals. Your calendar, which is likely filled with other people’s priorities, will be one of your biggest impediments. But it can be your best friend.
If you have the courage and discipline to schedule an appointment with yourself every day, you’ll create the space and time to stay on track.
Invest in Yourself or No One Else Will
Charlie Munger is a self-made billionaire and Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway business partner. He’s also a lawyer. Early in his legal career, as he was busy doing client work and billing hours, he came to the important realization that he was his own most important client. For Munger, this meant he needed to recalibrate his thinking and start finding time to focus on himself and not just his paying clients.
Munger concluded that to get ahead and stay ahead, he needed to “sell” himself one hour of his time each day.
In her 2008 biography of Buffett, “The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life,” Alice Schroeder recounts Buffett’s early impressions of Munger:
Charlie, as a very young lawyer, was probably getting $20 an hour. He thought to himself, ‘Who’s my most valuable client?’ And he decided it was himself. So he decided to sell himself an hour each day. He did it early in the morning, working on these construction projects and real estate deals. Everybody should do this, be the client, and then work for other people, too, and sell yourself an hour a day.
Selflessness—to a point—is a worthy quality. But if you’re not careful, devotion to helping other people achieve their dreams will prevent you from realizing your own. Again, what is your time worth? What do you want out of life? Progress doesn’t happen by accident. It only results from prioritization and carving out time to take positive forward action toward clearly defined objectives.
Set a big ambitious goal, then “sell” yourself an hour each day to work toward achieving it. You’ll find that you’re capable of more than you ever thought possible.
Jay Harrington is an author, lawyer-turned-entrepreneur, and runs a northern Michigan-inspired lifestyle brand called Life and Whim. He lives with his wife and three young girls in a small town and writes about living a purposeful, outdoor-oriented life.