Drew Butler

Don't just set goals, instead take action

May 31, 2017

I’m a prolific goal setter. I create them with such zeal and determination. I dream into the future and imagine what it should be.

Here’s the rest of that truth, though. I plot and I plan and then ultimately go chasing after the next shiny thing.

The real story is that goals don’t really work for me. Maybe they don’t really work for anyone. At least not by themselves. Goals are sort of abstract to do list set far into the future. One that has by itself has no real plan and no real method of success tied to it.

Start my own business? No doubt.

Pay off all of my debt? Let’s do that tomorrow.

Plus, I would like to spend more time with my family.

The truth is, that just saying I would like to do these things does not make them accomplishable. Setting those things out for the universe does not make them materialize. What makes them occur in reality is strategy and hard work.

What makes them occur in reality is strategy and hard work.

In other words, action.

When I was your age

When I was first looking to break into web development I was in a pretty terrible place in my life. For years, I had been scraping by as a computer technician, cleaning viruses off of people’s PCs and trying to explain to parents the dangers of downloading things on the internet.

I was miserable. I absolutely hated explaining this thing that felt so obvious to me and was so repetitive. Every day was the absolutely same set of problems solved in nearly the same way.

In my own time, I had been programming. I was learning web development, but didn’t have a complete education, and didn’t really understand how to do it full-time.

Sure I had a ton of toy projects, but my real goal was to transition from doing repetitive work for near minimum wage to doing something that was more creative, paid better, and was overall more fulfilling. At the time, though, this felt completely impossible.

I didn’t have a college degree, I didn’t live in a digital hub, nor did I have any real experience to back me up.

What could I do? The answer as it turned out was to get the lowest paying web development job I could find and let that experience take me forward. And that’s what I did.

I searched around and found a small web shop that wanted to pay the kind of rates that we would pay to contractors overseas today and said, “I’ll take it!”

I did this because while it didn’t get me to my complete end goal, it got me closer. And over the course of the next 10-years, I went from near intern to having worked at several high profile companies and being the CTO of a small startup in New York City.

That wasn’t where I intended to go when I started, but that was where I landed.

Action is the real goal

The one thing that I can say for sure from my own journey, is that I got to where I wanted to go, not because I followed a plan the whole way, but because I knew the direction I wanted to go and I took action.

Recently I’ve been reading a fantastic book by Gary Keller called, “The ONE Thing.” As the title implies, the core concept of this book is that by nature we tend to focus on a full list of things we need to accomplish. That by checking things off the list that we will magically reach our goals.

What the book asks us to do instead is to ask the question, “what’s the ONE thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

This is such a simple, yet powerful concept. It challenges how we look at our long-term goals and how we seek to accomplish them by telling us, to just focus on ONE thing.

Perhaps instead of focusing on goals, we should be focusing on that ONE powerful action we can take right now. The one thing that will define the rest. That way we turn goals into simply the byproduct of action.

This simple turn of how we frame things has some powerful implications. It tells us that we need to be focused on what we can do today. Not what we want in the future.

Are having goals really a problem though?

The truth is, that having goals is a good thing. They provide useful guideposts. They tell us which direction to aim, however, by definition they don’t tell us much about which road we should take to get there. Instead, they distract us and teach us to focus too much on the unknowable future.

Yes, it is important to set goals. It is even important to set them well. To intentionally follow a framework such as S.M.A.R.T. goals to make sure that we’re defining them well. However, once this is done, it is important to take the next step and define how to get there.

What action can you take to reach your goal

Most people, myself included, tend to approach defining actions from the wrong direction. They will stand where they are now, in the present, and look toward the goal and say, “I will do this today.” They will repeat this over and over again and marvel at how their goal never seems to come closer and sometimes even gets further away.

The reason for this is really simple. You may know which direction to go, but you may not know how to get there yet. If you’re going to drive from New York City to San Francisco, California, do you just get in the car and drive west? Sure you could do this, but you’ll probably have some trouble getting there because you don’t know which roads turn where.

Luckily, these days we have software that makes navigation like this easy, but it wasn’t so long ago that the answer to this question was to pull out a map. Look at the start and the destination and draw backward from where you want to go, to where you’re leaving from.

You do this because you know where you are right now, so it is easier to trace back to there,then it is to trace to a place you’ve never been.

Let’s do a quick thought exercise

Let’s start with the goal “I want to start a business.”

First, we need to better define this goal, as technically I can just open a business checking account and I’ve legally started a business.

Instead, following the S.M.A.R.T. paradigm for goal setting, I’m going to rephrase this as:

“By December 31st of 2018, I want to have started a business that pays me at least $10k per month, has done so for at least 6 months, and have transitioned from being an employee to an owner as a result.”

Already this goal simultaneous feels far better defined and somewhat scarier due to the immensity of what needs to occur to make that happen. Both of these are good things, because they’re both real, and you should be a little scared by something this big.

Visualization and the art of right to left thinking

The next thing to do is to better understand this goal. What will life look like when you’ve reached this goal? What do you do in the morning when you wake up? Do you have more or less time? Are you energized to go to work on your business? Do you work from an office? From a coffee shop? From home? Do you work with clients? Are you working on a computer?

These are all important questions because they ground you in that future moment so you can stand there instead. The more details of that life that you can visualize, the better you can draw yourself there, stand in your future shoes, and look back on this moment and imagine, “how did I get here?”

Once you’ve placed yourself firmly in that future, “what needs to occur just before this, for this to happen?”

This question is key because it acknowledges not only the cause and effect that will result in it but begins to ground you in the actions needed to get there. Likely a long series of actions, all that lead a trail right back to where you’re standing right now.

For this, you need to disconnect yourself from the doubt of “but I don’t have that yet” or “I can’t do that right now,” because that is sort of the point. You’re identifying what you need to do to be able to do those things. So every time you hear that voice tell you those things, simply ask, “what would I need to be able to make that happen?” and you now have the preceding step.

After which, you will have a map. A series of guideposts to mark your way to your destination. A series of smaller steps to take that are more attainable and less overwhelming.

This brings us back to the ONE Thing.

Once you know where you’re going and have an approximate map, you should be back to standing in the present moment. From this moment, it is your job to cut down on the noise and take action. You will likely have a thousand things on your mind. A thousand potential actions, but your only goal right now should be to get to the next point on your map.

Every day, the one question you should ask comes back to, “what’s the ONE thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” Ask this when you’re looking at your long list of things to do and focus on your next point on the map you’ve drawn.

The answer won’t always be easy, but the reality is, that most of the things on your list are probably not as important.

Is the first post on your list to have one client? Then why are you reading a book about marketing? Get out there and sell yourself on a site like Upwork until you get that first client. Use the experience from that to tell you what you need to learn. Your book is just a distraction.

Once you get to this first milestone, you’ll be able to see more easily how to get to the next one. The cycle will repeat on and on. There will always be distractions, but there will always be ONE thing that you can do right now that will move you forward.

Focus on that.

The goal is not the destination

Remember, the goal is not what you’re really looking for. It is the actions you take that will define where you’re going. Be open to the fact that your destination may change along the way. That as you repeat this exercise, your destination may change many times. This is not only okay, but it is also a good thing.

I write all of this, not to state my own expertise on action-taking in general, but instead to distill what I’ve learned in the past in my drive to become a web developer.

I do this because I am not repeating this journey and relearning these lessons as I go forward. That goal from the thought exercise, that one is mine. It is one of my destinations and from it, I have set a series of nearer term destinations to aim at along the way.

Maybe it will change along the way, that is okay because the destination doesn’t matter.

Your destination doesn’t matter.

Your actions do.

What is the ONE thing you can do today, such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

Drew Butler

Written by Drew Butler who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY building useful things. You should follow him on Twitter