Too Busy to Think About Goals

This article originally appeared on Microlearning, our bite-sized online solution for leaders and individual contributors.

The 178th email of the day just hit your inbox. Goals? Your only goal is to make it through the day!

Everyone has hectic days, but if you’ve fallen into a regular habit of reacting instead of planning, over time your work life could lead to a bunch of dead ends instead of a meaningful career path. You owe it to yourself to put some thought into setting and meeting goals.

What could be going on?

  • You don’t see the value of goal-setting.
  • Your goals aren’t actually yours — they have been dictated to you, and mean little to you.
  • You are genuinely overworked, or work somewhere that is always in “crisis mode.”
  • You tend to set goals, but then forget about them.
  • Your goals are too large or vague to work into your daily life.

Ways to handle it:

1. Ask yourself: Are you really too busy?

Is time really the issue? Or is being “too busy” a convenient excuse to put off thinking about bigger goals? In many ways, goal-setting is more challenging than running around putting out fires. It takes a willingness to delve deep into your motivations and reflect on where you’re headed. It’s also typically worth doing; thousands of successful people swear by it.

Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” In other words, your attitude will likely determine the outcome when it comes to goals or anything else you attempt. Shifting from a negative to a positive mindset could give you the internal spark you need to prioritize goal-setting.

2. Distinguish between what’s important and what’s urgent.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of mistaking urgency for importance. Do you know which is which in terms of the work you perform? If not, experienced manager James Burgess advises that you set aside an hour to analyze your priorities. (If you’re so far behind that you can’t spare an hour, put in extra time on the weekend — it will be worth it!) Next, list everything you’re working on and rank each item on both urgency (when it needs to be done) and importance (how much it matters to you, your manager, your company).

Now that you have everything down on paper in front of you, allocate a few minutes at the start of each day to choose some of the important things that you will make time for that day, even if those things are less urgent. Take another five minutes at the end of the day to review how you did and assess your progress.

3. Pick goals that truly matter to you.

What do you love about your job? What makes you angry? What would you like to change? Proactively zero in on goals that get your blood pumping, rather than either passively accepting the goals that others identify for you or half-heartedly selecting goals that you think will please others. It’s a lot easier to find time to work on goals if your goals work for you.

4. Break your goals down into smaller, more doable tasks.

Let’s say you have a goal of becoming a director in your department. Sounds great. But it’s not exactly something you’re going to be able to fit in over lunch one day.

You could, however, take steps toward that goal over many lunches. Think through everything that would need to happen in order for you to become a director. Perhaps you need to improve your conflict resolution skills, learn more about the other teams in the department, and do a bang-up job on the next product release to get your manager’s attention. You could sign up for a four-week noontime class on budgeting, start roleplaying conflict situations with your mentor every Wednesday when you meet for coffee, and work through lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays to devote extra time to the product release. If you follow a plan like that, you probably won’t be wondering in a year why you didn’t find time to work on your skills … and why you didn’t get the promotion!

5. Schedule time to work on your goals.

Setting a goal is only half the battle. You have to follow through. Give goal-setting its due on your calendar. Block off recurring chunks of time that are specifically for setting, reviewing, assessing and recalibrating your goals. Even 15 minutes a week can make a difference, especially if you schedule those minutes for the same day and time every week. This will not only integrate goal-setting into your workdays, but also make attending to your goals a habit.

6. Talk to your manager about your goals.

If you’ve been too busy to work toward longer-term goals, it’s time to have an honest conversation with your manager.

“Keith, things have been so busy here I haven’t had time to take any steps toward my goal of becoming a better presenter. Would you be willing to talk through some ideas for how I might work this into my daily schedule?”

If you’ve already set goals together, but rarely discuss them (many people only talk about goals once a year, such as during performance reviews, which can be disastrous), that’s something else you can change. Take ownership of your goals by covering them in your regular 1-on-1s. That way, you’ll never be in danger of letting goals slide, or failing to communicate if you need to adjust or change your goals — which is bound to happen from time to time. Bonus: Your manager will probably be impressed by your initiative and organizational skills!