Alignment: The key to achieving your goals

The late computer science professor (and author of the truly excellent ‘Last Lecture‘) hit the nail on the head when he said that the way to achieve your goals is to chip away at them a little bit every single day.

And as we get into the new year, I suspect that you – like me – have a shiny, brand new list of goals ready to go. But in the hustle and bustle of doing all the things we need to do in a given 24-hour period, it’s all too easy to let our longer-term aspirations slide.

There is, however, a surefire way of making sure that we do indeed spend our days working towards the achievement of our longer-term aims. And it’s called alignment.

I’ll start off by being honest and saying that this really isn’t rocket science. In fact, it’s unbelievably simple. But it’s something that we hardly ever think to do. At least if I, and everyone I’ve spoken to about this, am anything to go by.

The idea of alignment is to make sure that there is a clear link between your longer term goals and the tasks that you undertake on a day to day basis.

The five levels of alignment

As you can see in the figure below, I’ve suggested five levels to this hierarchy of activities. They start with your purpose, which is what you want your life to be about. If you’ve not given any thought to this yet, I’d suggest that you get a cup of tea and give it a ponder. You may also need a biscuit.

Next comes your vision. If you can look beyond the new-age management speak, vision is about where you want to be in, say, three to five years time. And it should be entirely, absolutely, 100% consistent with your core purpose. So if your purpose is to be the best science fiction author the world has ever seen, your vision could be to have three successful novels under your belt and a horde of screaming fans.

Goals

Next, we break the vision down into specific goals. These are things we want to achieve in the next twelve to eighteen months or so. And they should (you know what’s coming here) be aligned completely with the achievement of our vision. So for our budding science fiction author, suitable goals might be to complete and publish a first novel, to go on a book tour and to get 50,000 ‘likes’ on Facebook.

It is worth bearing in mind at this point that you may also have specific responsibilities by virtue of your job, your position in your organisation or other aspects of your life. You clearly shouldn’t shirk these responsibilities, so you may wish to create a goal associated with them. Or you can just call them ‘responsibilities’ and treat them like you would a goal.

To achieve our goals, we’re going to need to work on specific projects. And this is where things start to get real, because we actually have to do things, rather than just think about where we want to be. You could equally think of projects simply as ‘activities’, though I prefer the term project because it implies a certain level of planning and the idea of working towards a goal. Which, of course, is what we’re interested in here. Each and every project that you are working on should help you to achieve one of your goals.

The rubber really hits the road, however, when we break down each of our projects into specific tasks. Because these are the things that actually end up on your ‘to-do’ list. They are the things that you find yourself doing from the time you get up in the morning to the time you go to bed at night. So in keeping the whole alignment idea, each project should be broken down into tangible tasks, and every single task you work on should be linked to one of your projects.

Getting to alignment

There are various ways to approach the alignment of your everyday projects and tasks to your longer-term goals, vision and purpose.

I’d suggest adopting a kind of hybrid top-down/bottom-up approach. Start by thinking about your overall purpose, then break this down into a three- to five-year vision. When you’re happy with that, identify what you need to achieve in the next year or so to get you on track to achieving your vision. And then double-check to make sure that each of your goals is aligned with your vision and that your vision is aligned with your purpose.

Next comes the bottom-up bit. Think about what you’re working on at the moment and list all of the different tasks that you are undertaking or need to undertake in the near future. Then group these tasks into relevant thematic areas. These are your projects. Link all of your tasks to the relevant project. Then link your projects to the goal that they are helping you to achieve. (Or to the relevant responsibilities, if you’ve included them.)

We now get to the slightly tricky part.

Firstly, look over your tasks and see if there are any that are not associated with a particular project. For example, there’s one in red in the figure above. Why are you doing this task? What is it designed to achieve? Does it help you to achieve your goals? If there is a good reason for you undertaking this task, that’s great. Add it to a project or create a new project for it. If you can’t think of a reason why you’re doing this task, ditch it.

The same goes for your projects. Are they all associated with specific goals or responsibilities? For example, in the figure above there’s a project shaded orange which, although it includes several tasks, is not associated with a particular goal. Why are you working on this project? If this prompts you to remember a goal or responsibility you’d forgotten to include, add it now and link it to the project. If you can’t think why you’re working on this project, I’d suggest you give serious consideration as to whether you continue to work on it.

Finally, looking this time from left to right, are all of your goals linked to projects and tasks. And are these projects and tasks sufficient to allow you to achieve these goals. If not, you’re not currently doing enough to make these goals happen. Think about what else you need to do to and create some suitable projects and tasks to help you get there.

Achieving your goals

We’re left now with a set of projects and tasks that are fully aligned with your purpose, vision and goals. Each goal has projects and tasks associated with it. And each project and task is associated with a particular goal.

This tells us two important things.

Firstly, you are doing what you need to do to achieve your goals, to bring your vision to reality and to achieve your purpose in life.

And second, everything you are doing is helping you to achieve your goals, to bring your vision to reality and to achieve your purpose in life.

It’ll still take time. And it’ll still take effort. But when you get up in the morning, you’ll at least have the satisfaction of knowing that, in everything you do, you’re bringing the achievement of your goals one step closer.

Keep chipping away, friends.

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